Cooking the Books

Anna Vaux

  • The Impossibility of Sex by Susie Orbach
    Allen Lane, 216 pp, £16.99, May 1999, ISBN 0 7139 9307 3

In 1978, Susie Orbach wrote a slim, successful book with a catchy title – so catchy you didn’t need to read the book to feel you knew what it was all about. Fat Is a Feminist Issue. The title said so much. Perhaps the title said it all. Certainly it sold a lot of copies, and went on to have a happy life of its own as a quotation and a slogan. So perhaps Orbach has similar hopes for The Impossibility of Sex. It doesn’t have the alliterative force of Fat ... but it does have the selling power of sex: a combination, moreover, of sex and mystery – for what can she mean by ‘impossible’? Impossible for whom? Impossible how? And what are we to make of the peekaboo cover, with a square cut-out of the crop-haired back view of – who? Ooh! Which of us doesn’t want to look inside to see if we, too, suffer from the impossibility of sex, whatever it is?

But The Impossibility of Sex is not about the impossibility of sex. It might have been: there is a chapter at the end called ‘The Impossibility of Sex’, which gives us the story of a lesbian couple who no longer have sex together (a phenomenon widely known as ‘lesbian bed death’, though Orbach doesn’t call it that). And Orbach says she has been intrigued for years about the ‘conundrum’ of sex in long-term relationships. She has a short section on the erotic in which she suggests that we can regard it ‘as an emergent property of the human species, a collective capacity akin to language and intelligence’. And while she believes that her observations do not amount to a new theory, they nevertheless ‘suggest some directions’. But she keeps this short, and at the end of the book, and it is not clear that readers will make it that far.

For this is a book, like the characters in it, which has problems – not least the problem of how we are meant to read it. Its central notion is to take us inside the consulting room to show us what the practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy is like from the psychotherapist’s point of view, and allow us to discover ‘not only what happens during the analytic hour but also, uniquely, how the therapist thinks and feels about her patient’. If it is about anybody, it is about Orbach – though she is not straightforward about this. The therapist whose narrative this is may look like Orbach, sound like Orbach, and in most obvious ways be indistinguishable from Orbach, but Orbach says she is not, strictly speaking, Orbach, but someone she has invented: her ‘therapist-on-the-page’. She has to be invented, because the six case-histories that make up her book are also invented. Here are Adam, Belle, Joanna, Edgar, Jenny and Carol and Maria – all, broadly, middle-class; all, broadly, left-leaning (Edgar is a trade-union leader); some of them glamorous (Adam is a ‘celebrity chef’); some of them a trifle bohemian (Belle likes sex and drugs and rock and roll); some of them well dressed (Carol and Maria, in particular, the one with ‘peachy white skin and softly curling shoulder-length hair held with a couple of ebony-and-ivory-coloured combs’, dressed in a stylish black suit – ‘the style of an architect or a designer’; the other with ‘tiny features, short-cropped curly black hair, chocolate coloured skin’ in a casual but elegant outfit of beige boots and brown linen pants that make her look like ‘a poet, artist, publisher or writer’). However insufferable they may appear to the reader, they are admirable and likable to the therapist-on-the-page.

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