A short story is a capsule of life. It successfully says what it has to say, it leaves the readers with a line of thought which most will continue to explore and finally it creates as many questions as it answers, if any. Susan Minot and Dagoberto Gilb, both new age writers with prize winning work in their repertoire, have a way of making themselves identified as, if not the champions, then as the voices of unheard sections.
When a construction worker chooses to swear through Gilb or a teenaged, over sexed, and confused girl wants to explain in detail, the nothingness of her escapades through Minot, you can hear sounds that are well above or below the prescribed octaves of civilized writing – but you cannot deny the ring of truth in their screams. In the two short stories “ Love n L. A’ by Gilb and “Lust” by Minot, the protagonists do not evoke the readers’ sympathy with their straight and correct personalities nor do they curry favor in the way they describe their escapades.
It is the context of circumstances which force them to be who they are, that leave readers with a sense of anguish at the way things are and also give clarity as to how ideally they should be. Jake in “Love in L. A” is a dreamer, a minor schemer and one who has no compunctions about lying in words and in actions. His license plate is a fake, his credentials that he boasts to Marian are fake and so are the story’s claim to the existence of love.
In contrast the name less protagonist of “Lust” is brutally frank and through this openness, which should be embarrassing, but is not, that she transports the readers to the misery of her life, though she seems to describe in detail the numerous sexual escapades of her adolescent life. Ramming your car into somebody else’s seems hardly the stuff romantic encounters are made of, especially when you are one of life’s designated losers- with no papers, no insurance, no present and all hints of future affluence only in your dreams.
That hardly seem to bother Jake when he starts courting the timid girl whose vehicle he has rammed by being pre occupied with the dreams of a luxurious and better car (the means to buying which never seem to bother him though). In one of the most hilarious instances that can follow an automobile accident (incident) Jake proposes that he and Marian go and discuss this over breakfast. When she refuses his initial overtures, he has the guts to ask her for her phone number and he is so persuasive that he takes her phone number and leaves her hoping that he will call her.
At the end of the encounter he is sad and proud of his performance. Gilb leaves it unexplained why and it can only be guessed given Jake’s pre occupation with his dreams of a better car. In “Lust” the teenage girl explains in detail her long list of sexual escapades with boys, whose names’ she rattles off, even as she cannot remember the name of her sixteenth conquest. She has been on the pill from the age of fifteen, implying that she has been sexually active from that age. Hardly the stuff the make parents happy, but that is the truth in these emancipated times.
Lust is the narrative of a girl low in self confidence and self esteem and trying to hide that fact from herself and others by being the object of lust for so many boys around her. But she always ends up feeling more and more vacant and lonely and sad than she bargains for. There seems to be a hole in her soul and her being that she wants to fill with the boys but she fails, again and again. Perhaps the void in her life is created by her parents who ship her to a boarding school and leave her with a vacuum in place of the love that she deserves.
She is addicted to lust and she gives in to that temptation over and over again though she knows beforehand that she will come away sadder from the encounter. What is common between Jake and Minot’s teenager? Both have a tendency to try and fill their soul’s void with either dreams or dreamy encounters. Jake does not see anything wrong in faking an identity to momentarily attract the girls’ attention. Minot’s teenager sees nothing wrong in trying to bed every boy in sight in the fond hope she will find what she has been missing so far. Both are ready to pawn their identities to try and capture what is missing in their lives.
It is gratifying for Jake that Marian buys into his lies though he knows that she is only a phone call away from knowing that he was a fake. Minot’s teenager has experienced the vacant feeling after each sexual encounter but cannot help herself falling into the same trap every time a hormone driven youngster puts his arm around her shoulder. Essentially these two characters are symbolic of the generation which cannot moor its values to any particular set of ideals and seek instant gratification in daily encounters. Gilb with a large hint at irony, names this story “Love in L. A” which is not aimed at belittling love or L.
A but aims at reflecting the hunger in today’s fast-forward society to look for love in most improbable of places and instances. A guy who has rammed into another vehicle and does not have any papers of the vehicle or his insurance should be pragmatically worried about the implications. In contrast Jake tries to use this encounter to foster attraction though he knows that it can only be short lived and end in catastrophe. Similarly, in “Lust” the school girl knows full well that she is good at several things like math and painting and it is that stage in her life where she should be concentrating on enriching her education.
In her own words “Some things I was good as, like math or painting or even sports but the second a boy put his arm around me , I forgot about wanting to do anything else. ” She allows the temptation to find love through lust to distract her. This is the depiction of the generation in pursuit of love as a mirage. It is also a commentary on times that the minds of young people should be so confused as to expect love in unusual encounters and employ the crudest of methods to seek love. If there is a difference in the two characters it is the pragmatism with which each views his own position.
Jake not only tries to fool others but in the process also allows himself to be fooled by his dreams and the possibility of love. Where as in “Lust” the protagonist has the detachment required to view her condition dispassionately and analyze that at the end of each of her encounter she experiences a vacuum so unbearable than the previous encounter and she is no closer to finding what she is after. She has the capacity to clearly state her weaknesses and the temptations that she finds so hard to avoid.
In contrast Jake allows himself to dream of his big vehicle with all the fancy accessories (even as he knows his actual situation where he cannot even afford to possess valid legal documents) even as Marian notes down his vehicle’s license number. To illustrate, it is enough to look at his final words in the story. “His sense of freedom swelled as he drove into the now moving street traffic, though he couldn’t stop the thought about that FM stereo radio and crushed velvet interior and the new car smell that would even make it better”
His flight of fantasy is so complete that it prevents him from seeing his own current situation with clarity. In “Lust” the girl even has the maturity to suggest one of the prime reasons for her behavior and nature when she obliquely refers to her parents saying that they are not aware of her actions as she is almost always away from them at the boarding school. Jake does not even seem to realize that he has a problem. L. A might be the place where appearances are more important than substance, but to have that tendency so completely permeate even chance encounters is disturbing.
A pretentious young man with ambitions of luxury but no means of achieving them is not uncommon in any place or age. But the total lack of accountability to his own actions and the short term measures that Jake so easily adopts to weasel out of a potentially tricky situation is indicative of a deeper malady afflicting the youngsters of his generation. At least the teenager in “Lust” talks of a situation, seeking of love and approval, which might be an issue with longer history, though the means she adopts to achieve them (or fail to achieve them) are radical and indicative of new found sanction for promiscuity at so young an age.
Finally, it is important to note the backgrounds of the two authors who so deftly raise so many questions in two ‘short’ stories. A construction worker for most of his life, though in possession of degrees in philosophy and literature, Gilb, tries to portray the daily anxieties of the blue collar population which is enamored with appearances and is willing sacrifice long term credibility for instant gratification.
As a writer who has always questioned the basis for harmonious relationships with a romantic sensuality, Minot has been the one to shed uncomfortable light on the growing chasm between love and lust. Physical gratification has increasingly grown alienated from the personal relationships and it has been reduced to the carnal need in almost all her writings from the beginning. This uncomfortable question of whether sex has anything at all to do with love is the question the modern generation has been trying to grapple with for many years now.
In their own ways Gilb and Minot show a mirror to particularly ugly arts in the current settings. They do not pretend to profess any answers or remedies but their stories are almost like a declaration that acknowledging the existence of such uncomfortable questions today in society is the first step required to rectify them. Their class differences apart, Gilb and Minot are unified in their approach to writing for and about characters who do not see themselves as heroic but constitute the great and overwhelming “average”.