The Voyeur’s Motel — Gay Talese

The real lesson of The Voyeur’s Motel is not how depraved most people are, but rather how boring they are. In the story, Gerald Foos gets his start as a teenage voyeur by watching his aunt Katheryn “for five or six years,” and while she spent much time nude most of that time was spent “at her dressing table arranging her collection of porcelain miniature dolls from Germany, or her valuable collection of thimbles.” Who knew there even was or is such thing as a “valuable collection of thimbles?”

voyeursmotelMost of the people Foos observes over decades in his hotel are little more interesting; the epigraph to The Voyeur’s Motel could be that famous quote from Walden, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Except that most of the individuals and couples Foos observes seem not to know enough to even feel desperation. Instead, to the extent they have or show feelings, they seem to be consumed with petty bickering and bullshit. The number who are luminously full seem small.

Consider the preceding two paragraphs in light of complaints about smart phones and laptops and the Internet relentlessly distracting us, or Internet dating making us flightier or more demanding of partners or more likely to break up. Maybe smartphone distraction is a big improvement on what on preceded it, on arranging porcelain miniature dolls or thimbles. In 1980 Talese goes into the attic and spies on people staying in the hotel:

As I looked through the slats, I saw mostly unhappy people watching television, complaining about minor physical ailments to one another, making unhappy references to the jobs they had, and constant complaints about money and the lack of it, the usual stuff that people say every day to one another, if they’re married or otherwise in cohabitation, but is never reported upon or thought about much beyond the one-on-one relationship. To me, without the Voyeur’s charged anticipation of erotic activity, it was tedium without end, the kind acted out in a motel room by normal couples every day of the year, for eternity.

The things that people consider to be pleasures are also sometimes odd, as Foos says:

My observations indicate that the majority of vacationers spend their time in misery. They fight about money; where to visit; where to eat; where to stay; all their aggressions are somehow immeasurably increased, and this is the time they discover they are not properly matched [. . .] Vacations produce all the anxieties within mankind to come forward during this time, and to perpetuate the worst of emotions.

That’s been my experience, and I wonder if people do them anyway to say they’ve done them, or imagine the best parts of them. Maybe many of us would be better off if, as Rebecca Shuman suggests, more people took her advice in “Alone, Together: To avoid travel stress and major arguments, more couples should vacation together but fly alone.”

Is it real? Hard to say. Talese notes:

Indeed, over the decades since we met, in 1980, I had noticed various inconsistencies in his story: for instance, the first entries in his Voyeur’s Journal are dated 1966,m but the deed of sale for the Manor House, which I obtained recently from the Arapahoe County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, shows that he purchased the place in 1969. And there are other dates in his notes and journals that don’t quite scan.

“Don’t quite scan” may be an understatement. On June 30, Talese actually “disavowed” The Voyeur’s Motel:

Talese overlooked a key fact in his book: Foos sold the motel, located in Aurora, Colo., in 1980 and didn’t reacquire it until eight years later, according to local property records. His absence from the motel raises doubt about some of the things Foos told Talese he saw.

Still: Talese did see the hotel. He later walked back his disavowal. I’m a great believer in the power of fiction and the power of people to make shit up, but even by that standard making up the shit that Foos writes seems unlikely. I guess it to be more real than not real. It seems likely that no one will know.

Given the volume of material, The Voyeur’s Motel is oddly short. This long New Yorker article gives you much of the content and flavor. Still, do not listen to the negative reviews so far, which have mostly been uselessly negative and/or focused on the perceived ethics of the book; almost all of those articles about mostly about the author’s need to perform signaling and status functions, rather than the book itself.

As with Thy Neighbor’s Wife, people expecting nonstop prurience will be disappointed. In some ways the book can productively be read in conjunction with The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, since Goffman’s book is about the social, public self and Talese’s book is about the private, supposedly unobserved and sexual self. To me and, I suspect, many readers and writers of novels the latter is more interesting and less likely to be foreseen.

The Voyeur’s Motel comes back over and over again to the need to reliever torpor. The first quotes are from the start of the book; around the midpoint we get this:

Ordinary life is boring, [Foos] concluded, not for the first time; no wonder that is always a big market for make believe: staged dramas, films, works of fiction, and also the legalized mayhem inherent in sports…

That most people do not try harder to alleviate boredom is an unsolved problem—perhaps most people don’t perceive boredom as Foos does, or they feel powerless, or both. Foos’ second wife is not immune. After retirement, she “devoted much of her free time to alphabetizing his millions of sports cards.” The sports cards are Foos’ thimbles.

Gay Talese’s “The Voyeur’s Motel”

Gay Talese’s “The Voyeur’s Motel” is one of the most bizarre, compelling, shocking, vile, disgusting, and fascinating stories I’ve ever read. It’s somewhat but not ridiculously explicit (it was published in The New Yorker and consists solely of text), and, about 80% of the way through, the article takes an unexpected twist that deepens the moral questions that haunt the entire thing.

It starts this way:

I know a married man and father of two who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur. With the assistance of his wife, he cut rectangular holes measuring six by fourteen inches in the ceilings of more than a dozen rooms. Then he covered the openings with louvred aluminum screens that looked like ventilation grilles but were actually observation vents that allowed him, while he knelt in the attic, to see his guests in the rooms below. He watched them for decades, while keeping an exhaustive written record of what he saw and heard. Never once, during all those years, was he caught.

“WTF?” you may be thinking. That at least was what I was thinking and, even after finishing, still am thinking. “The Voyeur’s Motel” is so unusual that I’m not saving it for a usual links post. An eponymous book will be published in July; I pre-ordered, though doing so has a slightly complicit, slimy feel. Talese feels complicit and by extension so should we, the readers. Is moral contagion a thing? Usually I’d argue no.

Talese also wrote Thy Neighbor’s Wife.

Thy Neighbor's Wife — Gay Talese

To read the new edition of Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife as someone who grew up in the era of American Pie and its considerably less tame Internet cousins is to step backwards into a time that, for many people, still exists. To judge from the nattering both on- and off-line, the debate goes, despite the sense of inevitability that Thy Neighbor’s Wife imparts; perhaps, as Jamais Cascio quotes William Gibson as saying in The Atlantic article “Get Smart,” “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

But it’s not at all clear that the vision implied by Talese will ever arrive for most people, or even that Thy Neighbor’s Wife is the “Timeless Classic” promised by the cover. The book is more an essay collection than book and feels the same malady as Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem: age. To me, the mores of the 1950s seem quaint, Bill O’Reilly’s silliness and faux outrage notwithstanding, and erotic hypocrisy in the media and culture at large is both well-known and documented, as it long has been. That brings one to the obvious point: what purpose does Thy Neighbor’s Wife still serve in an age of Bonk and The Book of Vice?

One can see predecessors to Thy Neighbor’s Wife in books ranging ranging from Madame Bovary upwards; in John Barth’s The Floating Opera and The End of the Road, adulterous triangles form with consequences that are serious chiefly because of the seriousness of their participants. The “other man” in The Floating Opera says that “Being intelligent people, they were able to talk about the matter frankly, and they tried hard to articulate their sentiments, and decide how they really felt about it.” The issue had already burbled toward popular consciousness when Barth’s novel was published in 1956. Many of Bellow’s novels spoke with bracing linguistic and intellectual clarity to issues around sexuality. Given that, one should try to read Thy Neighbor’s Wife not just as a chronicle of a time that now seems ancient, but as a guide to what undergirds social relations beyond the particulars of what is forbidden and why.

Social change and perspective

The most arresting sections of Thy Neighbor’s Wife deal with larger social changes rather than the strictly sexual—for example, the sense of anomie and rootlessness that seem reflected by sexuality rather than the cause of it. For example, Talese says that “The emphasis on youth made many Americans in their thirties feel older, particularly those junior executives who, having identified with corporations and having associated wisdom with seniority, now felt suddenly uncertain and outmoded in this age of new personalities and vacillating values.” That could have emerged from a Paul Graham essay on startups or a thousand banal pop sociology books of the last several decades. Still, it is effective in reminding one of pattern of change being played out across lives.

Likewise, Talese says that “Southern California’s characteristic disregard of traditional values, its relatively rootless society, its mobility and lack of continuity […] were accepted easily by [Diane Webber’s family].” Replace “Southern California” with “Silicon Valley,” and the comparison still holds, as does the idea that the larger problem might have been the continuing undermining of seniority and “traditional values,” which seems to have begun in the Enlightenment continues at this moment, as argued by Louis Dupre in The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture. From Dupre’s vantage, the larger social changes that emphasize youth, sexuality, fluid movement, and independence have been ongoing for centuries, making Talese’s wave a small part of a larger social tide.

Diane played a still smaller role, with her place in Thy Neighbor’s Wife springs from her role as a nude model in the 1950s—a role that, later, she would come to downplay, as if the earlier Webber was completely distinct from the later Webber. Her larger symbolic function in Thy Neighbor’s Wife wasn’t obvious—Talese seems to view her as someone who didn’t go all the way, or as someone who isn’t as much a seeker as others. Books often play a prominent role in this process; in eventual free-love guru John Williamson’s apartment, “the many books he owned dealing with psychology, anthropology, and sexuality represented not only intellectual curiosity on his part but also a growing professional interest. Twenty pages later, another John, this time surnamed Bullaro, “petulantly reminded himself that he must revive and broaden his education, must read more books…” Another man who becomes a pornographer “had matured in the Army, had done considerable reading during many lonely nights in the barracks…”

Williamson gets a starring role in many mini-essays. He sought to create an island of open sexuality that now seems more mocked than practiced. This took the form of a retreat named Sandstone, where the “living room at times resembled a literary salon, [while] the floor below remained a parlor for pleasure-seekers, providing sights and sounds that many visitors, however well versed they may have been in erotic arts and letters, had never imagined they would encounter under one roof during a single evening.” That’s all very nice, but the detached and yet voyeuristic prose feels silly and stilted, even if the idea is an important one, especially since the major qualities that required to participate in the events of places like Standstone—and there I go with my euphemistic phrases—are ones that probably help with success across broader avenues of life than just sexuality, like confidence, tenacity, fortitude, and, as Talese writes approvingly of Barbara Cramer, “not [being] intimidated by the possibility of rejection.”

Weakness and Strength

In one section we learn of a rebellious girl named Sally Binford, who “…lured young men with an ease that was the envy of her female contemporaries, who regarded her as bold and shameless.” They sound unable to complete, and another reading of Thy Neighbor’s Wife might more closely examine the evolutionary, social, and economic competitive forces swirling around it. But if Binford was envied, why didn’t the other girl emulate her? When one business finds success with a particular product, one can often can on a swarm of imitators. But when one person finds social success using a particular method, others tend to downplay that person’s success. Why? It seems that there are a variety of explanations, but perhaps the most interesting is to conceive that refusal to reject convention as a weakness.

Books like Leora Tanenbaum’s Slut! Growing Up Female with a Bad Reputation echo how the dominant social structures—the “Davids” if you will—use scorn against those who outcompete them. I’m reminded of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker article, “How David Beats Goliath: When underdogs break the rules,” which says:

Insurgents work harder than Goliath. But their other advantage is that they will do what is “socially horrifying”—they will challenge the conventions about how battles are supposed to be fought… The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider… Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David.

That’s what Binford feels from her female contemporaries, and many women continue to feel that heat from their contemporaries today, as Tanenbaum shows.

One other fascinating aspect in Gladwell’s study could apply to Talese’s description:

When an underdog fought like David, he usually won. But most of the time underdogs didn’t fight like David. Of the two hundred and two lopsided conflicts in Arreguín-Toft’s database, the underdog chose to go toe to toe with Goliath the conventional way a hundred and fifty-two times—and lost a hundred and nineteen times.

Gladwell refers to military conflicts. The analogy to sex and dating is not hard to grasp: most people feel like romantic underdogs, at least to judge from cultural production, but they play like Goliaths and lose. In Talese’s descriptions, many constricting social forces are abrogated or elided by discarding conventional rules as a path toward romantic success and satisfaction. Sally Binford’s story expressed that. Yet most of us don’t play like Davids, preferring to simmer in dissatisfaction rather than face the disapproval of insiders. When put that way, or in the sexual way Talese presents it, this habit of acquiescence to social forces sounds like a weakness. Put other ways, like as respect for other people, it might sound like the strength, and the temptation is to announce that a middle road exists. Grasping that middle road, however, requires understanding both extremes, as well as one’s place in larger historical and social forces.

Larger Meaning and The Atlantic

The reissue of Thy Neighbor’s Wife caught my eye after “A Nonfiction Marriage” appeared in New York Magazine, which chronicles the Talese hidden behind the story of Talese. It seems that he and his wife, Nan, had as much tension, uncertainty, and ambivalence in their marriage as the subjects about whom Gay wrote. It has no resolution.

Maybe this obsessive study of sexuality and change means something, and maybe it means maybe. Perhaps it means nothing, or that we have all the options open to us and still don’t know what we want or how to resolve the mutually incompatible desires within us. The Thy Neighbor’s Wife solution of radical openness doesn’t appear to have gained ground; as Sandra Tsing Loh writes in “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off: The Author is Ending her Marriage. Isn’t It Time You Did the Same?” for the July/August 2009 issue of The Atlantic (not yet online as of this writing): “But as we all know, the Sexually Open Marriage fizzled with the lava lamp, because it is just downright icky for most people” (it is for this kind of scintillating insight and incisive analysis that I subscribe to The Atlantic).

Nonetheless, Tsing Loh’s comment does illustrate that, for all the swapping and coupling Talese describes, social norms haven’t moved as Williamson and Hugh Hefner might have once imagined they would. We’re now free to negotiate the kinds of arrangements we want, but they don’t tend to be of the free-love style that Talese implies might have been plausible as the dominant social position. Consider as evidence both Tsing Loh’s article as well as Lori Gottlieb’s “Marry Him!” and “The XY Files.” Now, as in our jobs, we are all moving toward free agency. Judging by the timescales present in The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, the consequences won’t be apparent for a long time yet. With that perspective, maybe the waves made by Thy Neighbor’s Wife are even smaller than they appear.

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