A Place in the Sun
(Spuyten Duyvil, 2010)
Lewis Warsh’s A Place in the Sun begins with a murder: two young women, Irene and Marina, are in their kitchen. Irene is ironing; Marina is at the table drinking coffee. It’s a cozy scene, domestic. The women are Russian immigrants, educated, and dangerously close with the Russian mafia. Most importantly, they are in love. A gunman bursts in, drags Irene into the bedroom, and kills her. Marina, a schoolteacher, is tied to a chair and gagged, forced to listen to her lover die.
The book becomes considerably more complicated after that opening scene, spiraling into a dizzying array of perspectives and voices which dip in and out of the central storyline. The tale is sprawling, broad, and includes the narratives of essential and tangential characters. It is a chorus of voices, a feast of humanity, and each one is confessional. The characters spill their secrets, disclose their sordid pasts, and reveal their current loves. Warsh ably guides readers through the shifts in perspective in a manner that is neither off-putting nor overly demanding.
At bottom, A Place in the Sun is a murder mystery, but it’s as much about homicide as Finnegans Wake is about a funeral. The narrative is held together—delicately—by the dangling threads between the characters, who are detached emotionally, but connected literally, thematically, and genitally: Marina sleeps with Ivan who sleeps with Judith who sleeps with Harry who sleeps with Marina with whom Judith wants to sleep.
Sex is a metaphor here. So is desire. The two are distinct from love—alarmingly so. Out of gratitude, Marina screws the detective who is investigating Irene’s death; in a cameo, Theodore Dreiser finds nothing “to do in New York except pay women to sleep with him.” And in a killed porn star’s movies, cocks move in and out of bodies like “the pistons of a car…a training film for fledgling auto mechanics.”
Sexual intercourse–particularly the heteronormative kind–is presented as a mechanical commodity, a unit of exchange. It’s about dollar bills and power. But there is one exception: the lovemaking and genuine warmth between Marina and Irene. It’s no coincidence their relationship is ended with a bullet. There’s no room for tenderness here.
In the middle of the book, plunked down amid the Russian immigrants in Brighton Beach, there’s a Hollywood interlude starring the legendary Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift. We learn that Liz loves and wants Monty. As the most beautiful woman in the world, “she couldn’t understand why he wasn’t attracted to her, didn’t attempt to touch her.” Well, Liz, it’ll never work. Monty’s gay! In this seemingly disconnected digression, there’s a continuance of theme: lost desires, unrequited love, desperate longing, endless waiting. What’s more, Warsh is playing with the movies, messing with American mythology. We want to think that movie stars are happier and more satisfied than the rest of us. But they’re not. None of the diamonds in the universe can make Elizabeth Taylor happy. And all the sex in the world won’t make any of us satisfied. It’s just more pistons moving away in an ecstasy of detachment.
I can’t say reading A Place in the Sun will make readers happy or satisfied. But it’s guaranteed to make you think about the place of love and sex in our lives, about what we want and how far we’ll go to get it—and about Warsh’s brave and elegant narrative choices.