- Fools for Love
In Daniel S. Libman's collection Married but Looking, the recognition of desire in oneself is a powerful thing. When Boze from the story "Best Man" realizes that Elizabeth, another guest at the wedding, is coming on to him, he concocts a fantasy that requires her to drive home with him through the fog-covered, winding roads of Pennsylvania. Like many of the characters in the book, Boze stumbles upon his desire and has no emotional or linguistic tools capable of encapsulating, incorporating, or controlling it. Boze is traveling in the dark here.
The stories in this collection are of marriages and couplings gone wrong. While having something in common with the suburban domestic drama, Libman focuses on the frustration of desire and the dislocation and confusion it causes. The stories are, for the most part, grounded in realism but include a macabre whimsy that often comes out of nowhere. The structure reflects the subject well. Although hopeful, the characters are incapable of parsing and controlling their desires and it often leads them careening wildly into danger, whether physical, emotional, or fantastic. Often, this same emotional and intellectual movement happens in the reader. We are unsure where the narrative will move next. Several of the stories make you think you are in familiar territory until the story dips and turns and he's taken you somewhere you never predicted. In the most pleasurable way, the stories are unexpected but inevitable.
Libman's characters are masters at deflected responsibility, allowing themselves to be caught in situations that are plausibly not of their making. Or at least they try to master this. The problem is that the insight and understanding the characters think they have is often based, as is Boze's impression of Elizabeth, on fantasy.
Fantasy plays a large part in the collection. Many characters disengage from the one they are with to emotionally or intellectually live in a (mostly) sexual alternative that grants them the power and engagement they think they deserve. Libman masterfully and playfully uses epiphany to trip up those coddled fantasies. In "Tantric Butterfly," Todd finds himself snowed in with his wife, three daughters, and the Internet prostitute, Megan, he's fixated on. After his wife falls asleep, Todd sneaks downstairs to assert or engage or enact something. Anything to relieve his frustration. ("You're all over the place, dude," Megan points out.) Megan challenges Todd to answer the "call from the universe" and reach his epiphanic moment. However, the fantasy and the epiphany are at odds, and Todd ends up cold and alone, literally. Characters like the husband in "Tandem" and Gloria in "New Pueblo, New Mexico" claim deep understanding as their own too, only to be disappointed when realization trumps epiphany.
Libman doesn't present fantasy as sublimated desire so much as the inability to make a choice. In "Lemons," Miller, a corporate accountant for a fast food seafood chain, faces a long line of personal surrenders that have led him to a lonely and defeated place. When a young coworker serendipitously presents herself in his hotel room, he has the opportunity to fulfill his sexual appetite and assert his personhood. At first, the "little ping—a sexual charge that he knew would amount to nothing" gives Miller the courage to verbalize his desire. When the coworker responds, removing her dress and offering herself to him, Miller withdraws to his familiar place. "The ping was gone, replaced by fear pecking like a little bird at the lining of his stomach. This was another feeling he was comfortable with." Unable to cope with the reality of his desire, Miller rejects it because he realizes that what he desires could be a substitute for what he really wants, but could also be far scarier than the familiar.
"Lemons" is also a good example of the restraint that Libman shows in populating his book with complicated and interesting people. These are not outsized personalities of hyper-realized reality television but carefully observed and, occasionally, quirky people you pass on the street...