Thursday, October 3, 1996

Behind Closed Doors, by Alina Reyes

A review of Behind Closed Doors, by Alina Reyes
Published October 3rd, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

And Behind Door No. 1…

By Alina Reyes
Grove Press, $22

Do you sometimes feel like you’re a character in a novel? Do you dream, like Madame Bovary, that thousands of eyes watch your every move and that some benevolent author has planned a series of enlightening adventures for you? Then maybe you’re the protagonist of Alina Reyes’ new novel, Behind Closed Doors.

Billed as “an adventure in which you are the hero (or heroine),” Behind Closed Doors contains two sections, male and female, and the reader can choose to be either. The novel has two beginnings, one at each cover, so the male and female readers read toward each other.

Reyes seems to have gotten much of the inspiration for this structure from Milorad Pavić, whose first novel, Dictionary of the Khazars, exists in male and female versions, and whose latest work, The Novel of Hero and Leander, was written toward the center from both ends. To this Reyes adds a device borrowed from Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch—within each section, the reader chooses the paths that most please him or her, creating a new story with each reading. Each section (or gender) offers four or five possible endings and an almost infinite variation of stories.

Reyes, however, adds her own wrinkle to the mix. Rather than writing the novel in second person, telling the reader what he or she does, she uses first person, making the reading feel more like a recitation or a memory than a novel. With the reader as the “I,” the novel seems more intimate and less separated from the reader. The device also strengthens the reader’s feeling of autonomy, making the stories seem less ordained by the writer.

At each section’s beginning, the reader stops at a traveling circus and enters a funhouse of sorts called “The doors of Eros.” Within these doors the brave adventurer finds every variation of erotic fantasy, and the paths follow the reader’s sexual and intellectual desires. Along the way, a male reader finds nurses, secretaries, ogresses, amputees, ghosts, and hermaphrodite angels to fulfill his desires. The woman finds pirates, Black Knights, firemen, kilt-wearing bagpipe players, and even an aged version of herself. Both sexes find innumerable voyeuristic opportunities for self-abuse—glass doors, hidden portals, conveniently placed hotel windows—and this voyeurism seems at first to be the whole point of the novel.

There’s much more to this than erotic pleasure, though. Just when all the bumping and grinding starts to sound repetitive, each story funnels through a middle section called “The Exchange.” Here the stories take on a more serious tone, because instead of finding another sexual partner, the reader/protagonist meets the author. In this exchange the protagonist and author discuss the nature of writing, reading, desire, and free will, illuminating Reyes’ motives as an author and provoking the reader to examine why he or she reads—and lives.

Here the reader makes the choices that affect the final outcome of the story. And despite the illusion of free will, here Reyes writes with the heaviest hand. Of the possible endings, Reyes obviously favors the choice of commitment to an idealized “true love.” All other endings leave the reader pathetically alone and unhappy, as if love were the answer to all of life’s problems.

Reyes’ slight puritanical streak is not this novel’s only shortcoming, either. Even with the wacky innovations in structure and the variety of Reyes’ sexual imagination, the novel often reads like a Penthouse letter. Lacking any kind of lyrical edge—even in its most inspired and riotous moments—the novel simply reports the mechanics of sex.

With little or no poetry in her erotica, the intimacy that Reyes so strategically renders loses much of its immediacy. She sets up the most amazing scenarios—two women and a battalion of firefighters, acrobatic sex under the big-top, even sex with the reader’s own shadow—but the pedestrian language mars the whole effect.

Often lapsing unwittingly into silliness, Reyes uses phrases like “hard pine cone” and “rod” to describe a penis and “crack” and “shell” to describe a vagina. The reader often ends up more amused at the situation than aroused or enlightened.

Still, Behind Closed Doors offers much to the adventurous reader. If only for Reyes’ treatise on the nature of authorship, authority, and individual will, this novel is well worth reading. Well, maybe that and the great cross-dressing scene….

—David Wiley

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