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Tucson Weekly Feminist Theorizing

When in doubt, don't sleep with it.

By Mari Wadsworth

MAY 18, 1998: 

Sleeping With Random Beasts, by Karin Goodwin (Chronicle Books). Cloth, $22.95.

BOB GUCCIONE, THE un-PC publisher of Penthouse, was interviewed in a recent Time magazine article on Viagra that stated the drug would "free the American male libido from the emasculating doings of feminists." It was an incomprehensible comment, no doubt about it; ill-advised and uninformed at the very least, and at worst, validating to other uniformed, non-reflective readers. Yet it's a comment brought to mind while reading Sleeping With Random Beasts, the debut novel by local author Karin Goodwin, which (like other such erotic, anti-romance novels) seems to hope to free the American female libido in some similar fashion.

Goodwin herself appears to be an interesting character: Her author's bio identifies her as having worked as a deejay, house painter, nude model, gymnastics coach and tutor, and "she is also a licensed private investigator." All this, and she looks like she's barely pushing 30. None too shabby, indeed.

Her protagonist in Random Beasts is less interesting--which is odd given that she comes across as being uncomfortably close in the abstract to the author herself.

There is a popular lineage for the feminist tell-all, as authors like Erica Jong have proved (however regrettably). Goodwin's Beasts fits well into that vaginal groove, as protagonist Eleanor May (a.k.a. "Bean"), a bored bank teller turned artistic photographer, breaks up with her loser alcoholic Irish boyfriend "Pat" and hits the road--the better to fling herself from one dysfunctional relationship to the next, from Boston to Portland and all major cities in between (and a few minor ones, including Tucson).

Along the way, anecdotes involving her sage best friend Travis (a gay man), herpes, Texans, cocaine, various infidelities and abortion are doled out in such a way that we're to be amused without actually losing sight of the fact that none of this is humorous. Though Goodwin has a certain flair for colorful turns of phrase, her storytelling is disappointingly flat as a work of fiction; and leaves us sympathetically concerned about the extent to which the text might be autobiographical.

This is probably the fault of some well-meaning writing instructor who once told the promising young Goodwin to "write what you know." We wish writing instructors, at least for fictional purposes, would stop saying that. "Take an interest in something you don't remotely know, observe it, and then write about that," we wish they'd say. Because even fictional characters deserve their own fictional voices; they deserve to be more than the bone house for someone too obscure to publish their autobiography.

Though our collective obsession with censorship has denigrated the line between public and private, these personal exposés really don't add anything new to the discourse on human relationships. In spite of book publishers who laud them on the cover as "hilarious, thoroughly enjoyable and sharply insightful--an eventful journey with an unusually rewarding destination," they come across as trite. And there's nothing more depressing than reading about a life that could be one of many lives you might have known, and feeling that it's trite. That does nothing to heighten our sense of tragedy, or compassion, or understanding of the human spirit.

Not that we're singling out Goodwin, here, whose book is entirely believable; it reads like somebody's eloquently written journal, which is precisely why it reads as a very mediocre novel. Ours is less a criticism and more an appeal: Judging by the numbers of such books piling up around our desk--the majority of which are by female authors--obviously publishers aren't going to quit publishing them. But it's high time for self-respecting novelists to stop writing them. The real crime with such books isn't that they're controversial, it's that they're boring.

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