canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Sex is Red
by Bill Gaston
Cormorant Books, 1998

Review by Aidan Baker

Sex is Red is Bill Gaston's third short story collection. Gaston has an excellent grasp of voice, character, and setting. Each story features unique and strong men and women in situations that range from the quirky to the absurd to the simple every day, in an intriguing mix of playfulness, gritty realism, and surreality. However individual each story, though, the collection is connected by a theme of estrangement. Estrangement from friends and family, from children and lovers, from the very self.

In 'The And', Don, a middle-aged man, is reunited with an old friend who has retained the ideals and lifestyle from their younger years. The difference between these old friends, one 'grown-up' and matured, the other unchanged and still into pot and popular music, is sobering to Don. He realizes his life, his marriage, his parenthood, is stagnant: "Don suddenly felt old. Severe and humourless. How many years ago had he lost the notion of 'Friday nights'?" Don tries to justify his misgivings, putting it down to middle age: "the glare of these doubting years. Typical, missing an old life that memory had cleaned up to look way more fun than it had been".

He soon realizes the falsity of this justification, though: "what was it about age that first of all complicated fun and then made it impossible?" This encounter with his old friend leads Don to realize he has grown estranged not only from old friends - and new friends, for that matter, including his wife and children - but the very ideals he once lived for and was proud of possessing.

Sexual estrangement is dominant within Gaston's general theme. In the story 'Your First Time', a group of drunken young hockey players tell each other about their first time having sex. The title character is uncomfortable because, "I didn't want to tell about my first penetration-time, because it still made me feel queasy. The whole next day I'd felt sick. Soul sickness." He has trouble coming up with any story to tell because all of his encounters have been so negative. The story he finally tells - also the first time he did acid - is just as depressing and disturbing as any of the others, despite his attempt to make it a joke.

Not all of these stories are entirely negative or depressing. The story 'Fire Heaven' likewise deals with people's inability to be intimate but there is a positive, if ambiguous, resolution. The title is taken from an euphemism for orgasm; orgasm as gateway to enlightenment. Noel's wife Sharon asks him to wait for her so that they can experience orgasm together and, when they do, that he look into her eyes as they come. Noel at first finds himself incapable of doing this:

They looked into each other's eyes all the time. What would be so awful about looking into them while coming? It might be a neat little adventure.

As a psychologist, Noel begins to analyze himself, his own fears: Is he estranged from his wife? is he estranged from himself? if he follows the path to enlightenment, to fire heaven, will he like - will he even recognize - what he finds. Maybe one thinks too much to begin with, his wife tells him, and Noel finally comes to terms with whatever it is haunting him, and forces himself to meet Sharon's request. And they do orgasm together. But the last few lines of the story seem rather negative:

he saw what he had always known he would see: two eyes framing a clanging bright emptiness, Sharon nowhere to be seen, space so vast and so clean it was only eyes after all, the fact of blue-green absolute and frightening, the black holes even more.

Several of the stories in this collection end abruptly and ambiguously. This tempered my enjoyment of Sex is Red, as it was not clear, on occasion, the meaning behind some of the endings. Perhaps this was intentional on Gaston's part - readerly estrangement - but it slightly marred what was otherwise an enjoyable and intriguing collection.








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