After this I promise I won’t mention Stephen Elliott for at least a week

Robert Birnbaum's true-to-life photo of Elliott, reproduced here without permissionToday Robert Birnbaum interviews writer Stephen Elliott about Happy Baby, Elliott’s latest novel. Like all of Birnbaum’s interviews, the conversation is wide-ranging — Elliott offers thoughts on writing, politics and the publishing industry — but you know you only care about the sex talk:

Birnbaum: You thanked someone in your acknowledgments for help in writing about sex?

Elliott: Tamara Guirado. I was dating her and she said, “You are really messed up; you need to write about sex.” In my first two novels, there is not that much sex, and what there is of it is very below the surface, erotic but glossed over. It’s not graphic, and that was when I wrote a short story that would become the second chapter of Happy Baby. And it was like opening the floodgates. It was like a whole thing I never explored. Once I started writing about sex, especially through my history and the group homes and all the stories I had heard in the group homes—molestation is so prevalent, just prevalent among wards of the court. It was just a whole area I hadn’t even looked toward.

(Thanks to Pete for the link to the interview.)

Happy Baby‘s spare, sharp prose reminds me of Hemingway, and its frankness about sadomasochistic impulses recalls Denis Johnson.

The book opens as the narrator visits his first girlfriend, Maria, the love of his life. He arrives at her door sporting blistered cigarette burns from a new, dominating lover on each of his hands. When Maria asks about the burns, Theo, the narrator, lies. But Maria knows exactly what they are. She tells him she’s got a series of her own, like a row of buttons, under her clothes. She was burned, she says, by the domineering, possessive lover for whom she quit Theo some years before.

This is the first hint at what we later come to know: the relationship between Theo and Maria failed because both needed to be abused rather than embraced to feel whole.

Happy Baby’s told from the first-person, present-tense perspective, so that we see things at the moment Theo sees them, know his thoughts as they occur to him. It’s a trendy approach, but difficult to pull off. In the hands of lesser writers than Elliott, the immediacy of the action often, paradoxically, subverts the emotional thread of the narrative. Many first-person, present-tense stories start to feel like screenplays, or worse, like adventure games: “I walk down the hallway. I see a monster. I turn to the right.”

But the reverse-chronological structure of Elliott’s book uses the point of view and tense combination to great effect. As Theo is catapulted backward in time to confront, or fail to confront, the childhood abuse he suffers at home and as a ward of the state, the reader sees how violence becomes entangled in Theo’s mind with safety and love.

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