Obsession is the topic and the title of Jean Roberta’s new collection of short stories. She has got the title right, but the book does not deal with sexual obsession as I suppose most of us think of it. It is not a book about sexual fixation. It is about obsession as a state of being of which sex is a key part. Her principal characters fasten onto others in sexually obsessive ways but they want more from them than an orgasm. It is not at all certain they will get whatever it is, nor should one be too confident that fulfilling their desires is the best fate for them. In that sense, they are much like many of Shakespeare’s characters who yearn for some possession, conquest, or revenge in the name of completing themselves. That is often as much a flaw as it is an objective.
The best example of sexual obsession in Shakespeare is Lord Angelo in Measure for Measure. He has an uncontrollable desire to sexually possess Isabella, a votary in the strict order of St. Claire. It is precisely unyielding chastity which draws him on to her. He is completely aware of that, but he cannot help himself. Like many of Ms. Roberta’s characters, Angelo’s mania is driven by the fact that what he desires is what he would otherwise never allow himself. What is more, he would never have been possessed by that need if fate had not thrust the object of his desire in front of him.
In Jean Roberta’s world, obsession is most often the result of existential disconnection, a sense of drift that the characters feel more than they see and sense more than they articulate. It is the low level uncertainty that I believe all modern people feel as we are barraged by irrational bits of information and formless disorder. Sex does not fulfill her characters as it gives them a way to define themselves, regardless of whether they like the picture that forms or not.
Her characters’ problems cross all the lines of age, gender, and sexual proclivity. We may all be very different people in her mind, but we all come to the same dumb obstructions and forced turns in life. Her stories include gay and lesbian couples as well as straight sex. There is a fair amount of D/s and BDSM that is ranges from the overt to the symbolic. The greatest strength of these stories is the authenticity of the sexual play.
It is not that Roberta’s writing is unusually graphic or clinical. They are not, even though the sex is often earthy, often mildly comic, and hotly detailed. Her sense of the erotic is highly sensual and she has a remarkable sensitivity to the emotional impact of scent, taste and touch. You feel the presence of a lover’s body in these stories as a source of power, attachment, arousal and comfort. She uses sex as a deeply human form of faltering connection in an unreliable and harsh world.
The better stories in Obsession penetrate the superficially banal lives of middle-class Canadians. The stories range from incidents of the moment to broad political themes, but the resolution is never more than partial by design. Roberta is not trying to dig out the nasty – and tedious -- secrets of the bourgeois. She seems to me rather more interested in the ways in which the condition of being – and sexual being – evokes the conflicts that we can never fully understand or escape inside ourselves. That extends from erotic punishment in the form of racy spankings to the results of procreation, having children.
What do these things mean? They surely mean something, but what? We will never fully know. In that sense, sex in these stories defines itself as the medium of passion and affection. Why do we love and make love as we do? It is because that is who we are. I believe this passage from “Taste” reflects that very well :
“I wished I could tell Simone about my latest dreams and hear about hers, but that kind of exchange hadn’t happened between us for years, and now it just didn’t seem possible. Despite her attitude, her values, her portfolio and her apartment, she still seemed like a child in many ways. How much could she know about the kind of need that is too strong for politeness, discretion, or remorse? Ironically, she was the result of that kind of need, as perhaps all children are. Nonetheless, they rarely seem to understand it in themselves, let alone in us.”
Overtly this story is about the abrasion created by the difference of a mother and daughter’s sense of taste in such banalities as clothing. Unlike other authors, Roberta does not use the quotidian as a clue to the deeper self. Here the mother deeply understands that their differences of taste deeply express the difference of their sense of the sensual and thus their view of the world. It is very moving to read because these are two intelligent likeable women speaking across an uncrossable gulf.
Ms. Roberta’s style varies in quality. In a few cases, her writing becomes stiff if not rather starchy, as though she were over-explaining some nuance of literary irony to a class of dunderheaded undergraduates. As one can see though, the passage quoted above has a wonderful sense of flow and insight. It is nearly poetic. She sometimes has a hard time with dialogue. The nature of dialogue is that people do not say things when they talk. They talk to discover what they are saying.
“The Hungry Earth” is a about the Serlingesque misadventures of a gay couple in a cornfield. As any casual fan of sci-fi will tell you, grain is menacing stuff especially when it is still on the stalk. In this case, the narrator feels compelled to tell us that having abandoned the “liquid flesh” of his former wife, he sought, “to discover the good solid earth of another man.” If the image were not painful enough, what he ends up with seems to be a twink who sweetly inquires, “I want to go to the farm today. Will you take me in a wheat field?” Apparently the old rake will because he replies, “My dirty boy. You sure you don’t want a date with a sheep?” Heady stuff, eh?
“The Hungry Earth,” however is the exception in this collection. I can only imagine that this story is as it is because it is so far from direct experience. She clearly does best with narrative environments that are based in the concrete and recognizable. It is in such places that her characters seem able to discover and expand their awareness, which is the reason Roberta sets them before us in the first place.
Just as Measure for Measure ends in shady resolution, many of Roberta’s stories end in uncertainty. In some ways the stories remind one of “The Graduate” wherein there is a happy ending of sorts, but it is hard to say just what it is and what will become of the characters. The people of Roberta’s world may well be perfectly comfortable with their fate; but the reader is hardly reassured, and we are not meant to be. What we do know is that the world of the characters has been shaken and disturbed by deep, obsessive tremors of eroticism.
*Jean Roberta is a regular critic for Erotica Revealed.
For those of you who live in the modern world’s tl;dr culture (too long; didn’t read – the common response on internet forums when there’s too much text for a modern reader), here are the three reasons you need to buy Jean Roberta’s The Flight of the Black Swan.
I’ll address each of these points in full length below but, if you’re one of the aforementioned attention-span-challenged readers, click on the amazon link that you’ll find floating on this page and buy the damned book. You won’t be disappointed.
And, for those who don’t embrace the tl;dr mindset of modernity, here is the full review.
Flight of the Black Swan is a novella: a delightful form for literature that is once again seeing a deserved resurgence in popular interest. Possibly the reason why the form of the novella is seeing a resurgence of interest is because of the aforementioned tl:dr mindset of contemporary readers. The novella contains a story with the impact of a full length novel but, at a mere 130 pages: it’s an easily digestible commodity.
I won’t bother to spoil the plot by reiterating narrative events here. The story is too enchanting and exciting. I will say that a central motif for the story is the eponymous Black Swan – a three-masted wooden frigate aboard which the protagonist’s adventures meet their rising action.
James followed my gaze, and offered me his arm. “Emily dear,” he began, “have you ever observed the grace of a swan’s progress? And have you considered the impression made by any creature set apart from its fellows? That is how we think of our ship. She’s like a black swan, proud of the natural plumage that distinguishes her from her snow-white sisters. Like us she prefers the cloak of darkness.”
This analogy for individuality and freedom of spirit (in the days of American Civil War slavery) and freedom of sexual expression (in the repressive era of Victorian England) is a trope that’s extended throughout the story. Emily begins the story in a same sex relationship with a school chum. She enters a marriage of convenience with one of the Green Men aboard the Black Swan. She later enjoys a relationship with a freed slave – another creature set apart from its fellows. Character after character, like the ship at the heart of this story, expresses their inalienable right to freely celebrate their personal identity regardless of the climate’s conservative culture of disapproval. In that, this story manages to convey a spirit of identity triumphing over societal impositions – a message we should be heeding today.
The heat that arose from her womanly breasts carried a combined scent of salt and blood-iron. It seemed to come from the heart of the earth itself. I kissed each of her generous dark nubs, and rejoiced that she didn’t push me away. I wanted to explore the mysteries of her body without reminding her of past violations. She seemed to read my thoughts.
“I want to have you, Captain’s Lady. You’re not like a boy now.” My skin tingled where hers pressed against it, and my hips moved of their own accord. How I had missed the touch of a woman who revelled in the communion of female curves!
This is an accomplished piece of writing. Jean Roberta has captured the tone of Victorian erotica with a mastery of the art that few contemporary writers could have equalled.
The word “bawdy” seems to somehow trivialise the literary accomplishment that has been managed here and yet – in some ways – it’s probably the most appropriate word choice. There are sections of this story that focus more on character development and plot. In a traditional erotic novel these sections would have been lost to the dictates of the genre and eroticised. But Roberta has remained true to the spirit of the story and its milieu of Victoriana and allowed her tale to be bawdy rather than erotic.
Nevertheless, when the story does become erotic it works very effectively.
If, like me, you’re desperate to take a short and deserved break from the fast-paced hustle and bustle of our modern world, you need to relax for a couple of hours and savour the full-length story of Jean Roberta’s novella: The Flight of the Black Swan
Alfred and I couldn’t wait for nightfall to consummate our growing friendship. We lowered ourselves to our pallet, where I held her against my breasts. “Ah, girl,” she moaned. “You’re a fine one.” I felt hot tears wetting my neck, and knew they came from her.
“I need to feel your skin, lover,” I told her. “Twon’t work any other way.” As shyly as a maiden on her wedding-night, she rose up enough to pull of her shirt and unwrap her bindings. Her breasts were scarcely bigger than well-developed muscles in a man’s bosom, but they marked her as a member of my own sex.