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[371] Alternatives to Sex – Stephen McCauley

” During the scattered periods of my life when I’d been in long-term relationships, I’d been ashamed by adeptness at fidelity, which had made me feel unmanly. I’d used evasive language and innuendo to convey the impression that I was leading a wildly promiscuous life. ” (13)

Set in a “posttraumatic time of uncertainty and anxiety for the whole country,” (5) Alternatives to Sex zooms in on the human nuances of a morally ambiguous America when people, awakened to the sharpened sense that life is indeed short, choose between combating the evil of mankind by putting selfishness aside and doing good, and relinquishing altruism altogether and doing whatever it takes to please themselves.

At the center of this heightened awareness is William Collins, a Boston real estate agent whose sales figures take a huge plunge during a housing market boom due to obsessive-compulsive cleaning binges and a penchant for nightly online cruising for hookups. He decides to practice celibacy to save his career.

My problem was that I’d let an activity become a habit, a habit become a distraction, and a distraction become an obsession. After a while, it had become like eating vast portions of flavorless food at every meal, simply because it’s on the plate or because there’s nothing good on television. Oh, one more bite, you think. Why not? (117)

Lurking in the back of his mind is tender thought of his best friend Edward, whom he’s certainly not in love with, but for whom he has harbored feelings. Three years ago, after being on the wrong side of a long-term relationship, William, jaded, has been using that as an excuse to go out with elaborately inappropriate people. He is protective of his relationship with Edward (platonic, that is), because friendship has a way of enduring while romantic relationships could perish quickly.

What depressed me so profoundly was that they’d constructed a twisted moral code that allowed them to behave horrendously while still believing they were doing good. (225)

Into his life comes Samuel and Charlotte, wealthy and happy suburbanites looking for the perfect city apartment, shortly after his new resolution to be celibate. Soon the outwardly having-it-all-together couple reveals the true colors that, despite their sophisticated lifestyle, they are not above the tedium of marriage squabbles.

At my age, I was living in the cold waters of semireality, trying to swim from one set of delusions to the temporary safe harbor of the next. (73)

Despite an abundance of wry humor, Alternatives to Sex delves into the heart issues that confront everyone: love, monogamy (in the Webster’s sense, not the flushed don’t ask-don’t tell monogamy), and moral boundaries. It is a comedy of manner that tries to answer questions about whether love lasts, as the notion of love has been undermined by compromise on moral standard. Fidelity is trampled on as unmanly. As McCauley navigates readers through the confusing world of complicated human relations, I also see glimpses of myself in them. These people are all in transitions of their lives, career- or relationship-wise. William is witty and perceptive despite his own self-destructiveness. Anxious to be unhappy and hurt again, he opts for no-string-attached escapades with men instead of following his heart feelings. He is slow to come to terms with the real reason for his unhappiness. Consider the few psychological depth of the characters, McCauley are employing them very well to give his commentary on modern culture, where the desire to do good is constantly being tripped up by the need to feel good. The use of real estate as a literary device is also very clever—the way people never sacrifice the hopefulness for a done deal serves both real estate and relationship very well.

289 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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9 Responses

  1. Wow, I remember reading about this one in EW from a long time ago, and it did make my list. I think that list is long gone somewhere. It was pages and pages and was ratty and scratched up. I would drag it with me wherever I went…bookstore, library. So once upon a time I did want to read it, but never could get my hands on it. YOu have renewed my interest!

    • Stephen McCauley is a great writer and satirist. I am never disappointed although some of his books are better than others. Alternatives to Sex is by far the best novel I have read so far. The books read like beach reads but they all inquire into deeper subject matters. I just love picking up his books.

  2. I still really need to read something by McCauley – I know he is one of your favorites and you pointed out a bunch of his books to me when I was in San Francisco. He sounds like such a relevant, modern author.

    • The books are definitely not literary fiction, but they are not what I call “fluffs”, even though the blurbs often make that impression. He is very observant to the absurdity of human nature and try to convey them in a comic manner. As a gay man I found his commentary so hit-home.

  3. […] [371] Alternatives to Sex – Stephen McCauley […]

  4. This is a book that i’ve always picked up to look at when at a bookstore but never read. Mayhaps I will have to check the library for a copy.

  5. Last year Stepehen McCauley came to read his latest novel, Insignificant Other. At the reading, on the table full of his books, I found Alternatives to Sex. It’s very funny and satirical, really hit-home about how in relationship we are just as hesitant as closing the deal for a house. He’s so right on about many things about relationship: fear to commit, celibacy, and the morality. I think it’s his best novel.

  6. […] Alternatives to Sex Stephen McCauley. It’s so right on about some of the gays that make me very frustrated. “What depressed me so profoundly was that they’d constructed a twisted moral code that allowed them to behave horrendously while still believing they were doing good.” […]

  7. […] me. I have enjoyed his other works, including the most recent Insignificant Others and my favorite Alternatives to Sex. He’s funny, pithy, and sarcastic. He’s a keen observer of relationships and the […]

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