"In the Cut," by Susanna Moore. Knopf. 180 pages. $21
Sex sells, as the saying goes. If that's the case, "In The Cut" should be a hit. It is a stark, stylish, and graphic erotic thriller - quite a departure for Susanna Moore, whose previous books "Sleeping Beauties" and "The Whiteness of Bones," were far more quietly literary affairs set in Hawaii.
Frannie, "In The Cut's" dispassionate narrator, lives in Manhattan. A New York University linguistics professor obsessed with slang, she defends herself from the world with words and arch humor. "I do possess a certain rigidity, a certain prudishness," she confesses. "I hate it in myself. I even divide words into good and bad."
Frannie is brimming with contradictions: she leads a solitary, hermetic life, yet likes to flirt with the dangerous underbelly of the city, constantly testing how far she can go. Instead of keeping office hours at the university, she allows her students to visit her at home; but when one of them - a black youth writing a jTC paper on a serial killer - starts coming by her apartment, it unsettles her.
And out at her local bar one night, Frannie stumbles upon a red-haired woman engaged in a sex act with a tattooed man; instead of turning away, she stays and watches it, blatantly maintaining eye contact with the man until the deed is done.
When the red-haired woman later turns up dead, Frannie is sucked into a murder investigation, and then into a relationship with the investigating detective, a macho Irish homicide cop named Malloy who thrills her with his sexual prowess. The killer Malloy is searching for has a nasty habit of lopping off his victim's body parts as "souvenirs"- which is why Frannie's life tips into the twilight zone when she receives a mysterious gift: "This morning there was a rubber hand, the nails painted red, the kind of thing you can buy around Halloween ... in the front hall under my mailbox." She fears that she may be the killer's next prey, and not even her fancy way with words can help her.
The book is full of virtuoso descriptions of sex (this is, after all, an "erotic" thriller), through which Moore seems to want to tell us something about the heroine. Too often, though, they miss the mark and end up downright creepy.
After one intense, sweat-soaked grapple with Malloy in the squad room, Frannie says, "It was as if I had to pretend that I did not know what he was about to do to me. Opening what was closed. Insisting. Fixing me. Unsealing me. At last." A great deal of time is spent on the mechanics - positions, angles, accessories and so on.
"In The Cut," while beautifully written, relies too heavily on sex for its shock value. Moore reveals too little of her characters, and so fails to engage the reader fully. This is an ambitious, lurid novel, most definitely not for the faint of heart.
Joy Press co-authored "The Sex Revolts," She is a contributing editor at Spin and British Elle and has written for New York Newsday, the Village Voice and the New York Times.