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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