Reading Like a Writer: Lucky Us and Perspective
How do you write about an orgy? How do you write about an orgy without it feeling gratuitous or pornographic? How do you make it a little bit sexy, but mostly descriptive and peculiar and lovely?
Amy Bloom's Lucky Us is a novel set in the years surrounding World War II. It's about rebuilding family from the unconventional people and pieces that remain after loss. After loss after devastating loss.
And there's an orgy scene—one that has some sex, but is also delightfully about things other than sex.
(I don't mean, by the way, to be down on writing that is overtly sexy. But this isn't that kind of scene.)
Three girls wearing white satin tap pants and white satin court shoes, and no tops, with pink ribbons around their necks and pink bows in their towering white wigs, walked past Iris, offering pigs in blankets and scallops wrapped in bacon. The girls had little mouche marks near their eyes and rouge on the tips of their nipples.
The nakedness is stated so matter-of-factly that you could almost miss it. Except for the commas, which set it off slightly, the fact that the women wear "no tops" is mentioned as casually as that they wear tap pants, as casually as the blankets on the pigs and bacon on the scallops. When nipples are mentioned, it's not because they're remarkable, but because the makeup artistry is being detailed.
Bloom is free to describe the costumes and the extravagance of the party without obsessing over naked body parts because she's found a great POV through which to relate the scene.
Iris is an aspiring actor, newly arrived in Hollywood from Ohio. The first sentence of the chapter puts us in her perspective: "Iris wasn't sure what kind of party it was." The sentence highlights the fact that Iris is not expecting an orgy. In fact, she's never attended one before. Therefore, it makes sense for her to watch closely and notice details instead of jumping in and mixing arousal with the telling. But even though she's a novice, she desperately wants to fit in to the Hollywood world. So the scene doesn't have to be filtered through disgust or fear either. Iris's particular mix of naivety and eagerness allows her to observe cleanly, carefully, and without much emotion.
But even with the perfect narrator, there's the puzzle of anatomy. In the passage above, it's simply "nipples." No need to spice that up—the simplest word is best. But other body parts are more difficult. Words can feel too clinical, too vulgar, or too cutesy, which makes writing about sex seem impossible.
Look, Rose said, Shmundies on parade. Iris didn't know the word but she got the idea. There were naked women everywhere, drinking and eating and smoking and dancing, all naked and nearly naked.
"Shmundie" is a Yiddish word for vagina. But I didn't know it when I first read the passage. The italics, as well as Iris's response, made me feel okay about not knowing, and the context told me the meaning. Since the word was new to me, it wasn't laden with any vulgar, clinical, or cutesy connotations. Once I googled the word, I learned that it really is free of those undertones. Yiddish is also exactly right because the language becomes important later in the novel. So Bloom both found a perfect word and capitalized on its obscurity.
After the parade of shmundies, things start to get hot in the room, yet the telling is still concrete and slightly distant.
A chubby girl lay over the back of one of the divans, her head almost touching the floor. A woman sat underneath her, kissing her face and neck and cradling her head while another woman pulled the girl's legs over her shoulders and buried her face between them.
This can happen because Iris is observing rather than participating, and she's free of judgment.
When Iris becomes more comfortable with the scene, she picks up the word shmundie and applies it to herself: "The Champagne soaked Iris's bodice, down to her lap. To her shmundie." It's a signal that she's accepting this world, this party, this sexuality. As her detachment lessens, the language moves her from describer to described, from observer to participant.
Eventually, Iris does have to filter the scene through arousal. Bloom handles this through a shift in the language, which becomes metaphorical rather than literal.
Iris thought the top of her head would come off, shooting through the room like a cannonball of dense, rocketing pleasure. The room did not spin, the way it did when there was too much beer at a party back home. It opened like a flower, the walls falling back to contain the smoke and the scent and the
The transition signals Iris's change in mood, from attentive to aroused. It also gives us a pretty good idea of what's happening without becoming explicit.
But this isn't quite how I read the scene my first time through.
Lucky Us begins with a first-person narrator, Eva (Iris's younger sister), and much of the novel is told in her voice. Letters written by different characters also appear. And there are parts, like this orgy scene, that are told in a third-person limited perspective, closely aligned to one character at a time. In these sections, Eva is mentioned by name, so we know she's not the one talking. We also get pretty direct thoughts of the POV characters.
But because the orgy is the novel's first scene in third person, and because I was already accustomed to Eva as the narrator, the first time I read it, I thought it was Eva talking. I thought that Iris must have described the party to Eva, who then narrated it to us.
And this reading worked for the scene. It made sense to me that Iris's younger sister would describe the room and the costumes colorfully yet objectively. It made sense that she would relate her sister's participation through metaphor rather than explicit part-by-part description.
The chapter mentions Eva by name, but it's not until the very end, which is separated from the rest by a space break. So does the break indicate a shift from Eva's first-person account (admittedly without using "I") to Iris's third-person perspective?
Maybe. But I know I'm only worried about it because I'm analyzing the scene. And maybe it's not the point. A casual reader wouldn't question the perspective.
Ultimately, it doesn't matter all that much if we're directly in Iris's head or if Eva is telling us what Iris thought. The distance, the attitude, and the style of the voice are correct for the scene.
I tend to get hung up on perspective in my own writing; it can become paralyzing. But Bloom is smart enough—and confident enough—to pull off something better. Instead of letting decisions made in other chapters hold her back, she picks the best voice for the scene and goes with it.
When have you encountered a scene that used just-right perspective and voice? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.
Allison Wyss is teaching "Flash Fiction: The Power of Brevity in a Multitasking World" this fall at the Loft. Herstories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.