Sex sells. So novelists and their publishers often choose suggestive titles and cover images, even for books with scant erotic content. Curiously, David Huddle’s new novel, Nothing Can Make Me Do This, takes the opposite route. The title contains no hint of what’s inside, and a serene painting of what look like Burlington rooftops, by Northeast Kingdom artist Meryl Lebowitz, graces the cover.
Nevertheless, the University of Vermont English professor emeritus’ third novel is chiefly about sex — the kinds of illicit or secretive acts and fantasies that, in Huddle’s telling, provide clues to the deepest truths about ourselves.
Meet the dignified UVM provost Horace Houseman and his wife, Clara. She has always been a loyal spouse. He’s a meticulously correct individual but has lately slipped: He smuggled a few porn videos, lent by his best friend, Sonny, into the house. Clara discovers the tapes and calls her daughter, Hannah, in distress. Their conversation is overheard by Horace’s beloved granddaughter, Eve.
It seems like the start of a rollicking plot. But Huddle, who is also a poet — the New Yorker recently carried two of his poems, and Garrison Keillor read three more on his radio program “The Writer’s Almanac” — is more interested in creating a kind of loosely woven tapestry. He explores these characters’ psychology through their own and one another’s eyes. Who knows what about whom, and how they surprise even themselves with their sexual proclivities, become the issues that shape the book.
Those proclivities are a bit creepy. Sonny grew up with a louche grandmother who liked to flash her grandchildren. As a young professor at a women’s college, he stands naked in his kitchen window for every hapless undergrad to see. (The narrative visits each character at multiple points in his or her life.) Hannah, as an undergrad, has an affair with her religion professor. Her husband, Bill, spends a stretch of nights as a teenage peeping Tom, watching a high school girl make love to a pillow dressed in a man’s shirt. Eve, whose confiding voice begins and ends the book, provides its title when she realizes her sole high school friend wants her to pose naked for his camera. “But I don’t have to do this ... Nothing can make me” is what she thinks immediately before obliging him.
The novel works by accumulation, building a family portrait through linked, or at least similar, moments in relatives’ lives. In this, it’s a little like one of Huddle’s New Yorker poems, a villanelle called “Roanoke Pastorale,” which stretches the strict form by introducing small changes in each repeated line to create a nuanced whole.
The problem with the form of the novel, however, is that it raises expectations of a story that develops toward a conclusion. By coincidence, this reviewer was simultaneously reading Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, a novel so compellingly told that it’s hard to put down. Nothing Can Make Me Do This did not gain by comparison. Huddle’s novel develops only in depth of character analysis, so that from vignette to vignette — some chapters were initially published separately in magazines — the question for the reader becomes merely What kind of sexual revelation will this character have? There’s danger in titling such a book as Huddle does; one may very well groan, “Nothing can make me do this,” each time one goes to pick it up.
What is admirable about the work is Huddle’s range of voices, which run the gamut from first and third person to visually distinct narrative forms, such as a typed exchange between two people passing a keyboard between them. By far the most entertaining voice is that of Bill, Hannah’s husband, who struggles not to watch the videos Clara has asked him to remove from her house after Horace’s funeral: “Body & brain want it bad. But this little sliver of a thing that wants to rescue me squeaks out its feeble no. Hard Place City — right there’s where I have to live for a few days. Major Difficulty Ave. Discomfort Blvd.” Bill eventually gives in and indulges in an orgy of watching before putting the tapes away for good, but Huddle has created such a quirky, likeable character through voice that we’ve already forgiven him for his transgression.
Some of Huddle’s psychic delvings seem less than realistic, however. Clara, for instance, takes to deriding herself as a “whore” after Horace’s death, having done his every sexual bidding in their married life. Other imaginings, such as when a high-school-age Horace and a dancer classmate strip slowly for each other in a sunlit room, seem like pure male fantasy — a charge that’s also been leveled at Huddle’s first novel, The Story of a Million Years, about an affair between an older man and a young girl.
Of course, it should be noted that pure female fantasy abounds in fiction by women; witness romances and the Twilight phenomenon. At least Huddle tries to imagine women’s fantasies, too. Whether they strike readers as believable or not, these portrayals will get under their skin.
"Nothing Can Make Me Do This" by David Huddle, Tupelo Press, 312 pages. $27.95 hardcover, $16.95 softcover.