It is commonly agreed that desire is a self-perpetuating rather than substantive thing. Everyone from George Bernard Shaw to Nietzsche to the Buddha himself has commented on the dissatisfaction inherent in obtaining what we want. Desire is, we are told, an endlessly hungry beast, and to feed it is only to stoke its appetite. If desire is itself mercurial and shifting, womanly desire is considered a particularly unreal quantity. ‘The man’s desire is for the woman; but the woman’s desire is rarely other than for the desire of the man,’ said Coleridge, and this assumption is seen everywhere in art and in life, in woman as subject, woman as muse, woman as vessel.
Desire always exists for its own sake, leading to nothing, meaning nothing, then. But womanly desire is not even for its own sake. It is for the sake of others. The only desire women are supposed to feel is the desire to satiate the desires of men.
This being our history, woman’s proactive desire being a relatively recent concept, there is often an absence of definition when we attempt to discuss it. Can we talk about what woman’s desire is, rather than what it is not? Fire Sermon, this thrilling, maddening debut novel by acclaimed short story author Jamie Quatro, tries to do that.
Fire Sermon sees Maggie Ellman – a devoutly religious mother of two, married to the dopily, blandly loyal Thomas – sort through the ecstasy and eventual grief of an adulterous relationship with James, a poet. Maggie’s affair is largely emotional at first, a lengthy email correspondence exciting her need for intellectual play and earnest discussion of Christian faith with a fellow believer, neither of which are possible with Thomas.
There follow painfully, arousingly repressed meetings, at a conference in Nashville and then in New York, and finally, a single night of intemperate sex in a hotel room in Chicago. Fire Sermon is concerned with the aftermath of this night, with Maggie’s need to set the act into a religious framework, and the effect this catastrophic submission to desire has upon her belief in marriage and in God. We see her sifting through her various truths in conversation with a nameless therapist, we read her letters to James and to God, and from a third-person narration we gather an idea of what her marriage was before this intervention.
Quatro writes wonderful prose. Many of the details of Maggie’s domestic life with Thomas rang around my head for days after I read them: like the bewildered, breathless intimacy of the family watching 9/11 unfold, the children going on with their play even as they watch bodies jumping from the burning buildings, in that way children do. Or the description of their anxious daughter Kate pulling her hair out, the hair stylist calling Maggie in to see: ‘From the back of her head sprouts what looks like the tip of a tiny saguaro cactus.’
I finished the book in two greedy sittings: one as I ate pizza and drank wine in an Italian restaurant near my home until the staff were wearily sweeping beneath me, and another as soon as I got in the door afterwards. It felt a fresh, startling thing, a strange and beautiful book I could imagine pressing into the hands of my women friends. So why, then, was I also so bothered by it? Why did I have to go back to the beginning as soon as I finished, to search out clues for my unrest? How had I come away from a work of such intensity with the feeling of anticlimax?
To be a woman and want is a necessarily degrading thing. In porn, male actors ask their co-stars ‘Do you want it?’ and the simple confirmation that, yes, they want it, is taken as a naughty little transgression (the actress pouts and narrows her eyes challengingly, a wilful child, when she replies in the affirmative). Recently in The Guardian, a man wrote in to a sex therapist to ask why his girlfriend has to masturbate after they’ve concluded intercourse: he worried that she is insatiable. (Incredibly, the therapist’s response did not so much as raise the possibility that the girlfriend had not found satisfaction or orgasm during sex, and was therefore simply relieving herself of sexual frustration.)
It’s no wonder that so many women eroticise the idea of their own reluctance and eventual capitulation. Maggie (so cold and indifferent to her husband’s unpleasantly persistent sexual advances) is enthralled by the magical freedoms of submission to James. She wants to be thrown around by him, used by him, instructed by him. She longs to, and does, beg him and thank him for doing these things. How good it feels to say please — to allow ourselves to be used. That way we are never fully to blame for what takes place.
Maggie concedes that she has used the fact of only having had two lovers – her husband, and then James – to titillate James, to prove her worthy innocence. He is evidently amenable to this kind of arousal, asking for and receiving anal sex because he doesn’t want to have sex with her in the same place her husband has.
All this denial, submission, this bossing around, works to alleviate Maggie of her agency. This, in a way, is what religion does for her too. It can’t be just an affair, it has to be the affair, written in the scriptures, wept over by Christ. Her therapist challenges her on this, reminds her of her previous attractions, described then as love – an Aquinas professor, a minister, a friend of her husband’s.
But Maggie insists that with James it is true love, a sacred love. It has to be, after all, to let her live with herself. The minutiae of their affair is laden with borderline histrionic religious imagery. Sometimes it works – imagining God, ‘tall friend of my childhood’, watching over them on the night of their betrayal. But the earnest excesses sometimes test the patience a little: sitting in a church with James, she contemplates the statues crying blood in response to their sin.
We can endure our own pain but we must never consummate this – my hand inside your shirt, index finger tracing a line down your abdomen, the sparse soft hair; your fingers unfastening the buttons on my blouse.
The third day. That is what we’d be thinking. The resurrection that follows suffering, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (lips, mouths, tongues, hands, burning) why not go on sinning so that grace may increase?
Come on, I started to think, do you really think your adultery is powerful enough to anger God himself? To make the saints cry?
And then, most unforgivably, to James: ‘There is you, and there is God. I’m not sure, anymore, that there’s a difference.’
Maybe it is because women’s desire has always been so secretive and smuggled that it is often spoken of in awed tones of this kind, that this religious ecstasy seems fitting, even if it grates on me — but grate it did. I found myself wanting both more and less from this book, less of the earnest theatricality of desire, more reason to believe in it. I wanted to understand why it was James particularly who did this to her, when other men could not. The mannered, abstract conversations which pepper their affair left me perplexed.
I felt, too, a lack of investment in the drama of betraying Thomas. Though Maggie calls him a good husband, and Quatro shows this to us in the ordinariness of the considerate, learned gestures he offers up, Thomas seemed to me so dislikable as to be unworthy of a book filled with guilt. His sexual aggressions are referred to several times, oddly un-remarked upon, ordinary.
Fuck this, he’ll say when she gets into the bed with her shirt on. I want to be inside you, I’m your fucking husband – and he will shove her onto her side, then onto her stomach, the weight of his body pressing her into the mattress.
These sit alongside his acts of kindness and devotion; eventually I came to suppose that this is how real love, and also how real violence, real indignity, do exist in the world: cooperatively. Even so, they helped me quickly lose any real desire for Maggie not to just throw the towel in and do as she pleased with James, or someone else, or alone.
In the end many of the criticisms I feel most keenly, and feel most conflicted about voicing, come from a place which proves Fire Sermon’s necessity; a book like this is so rare, relatively speaking, that I wanted it to do everything. There are so few concentrated expressions of female desire that I suspect I came to this book with some expectation of it somehow summing them all up at once, to be definitive, which of course is not an answerable task.
We come, near the end of the book, to understand that monogamy for Maggie is not just the barrier to her desire but its creator too:
I admit that unless something is forbidden I cannot want it with any intensity.
I admit that unless something is forbidden I can’t fucking feel anything.
It isn’t that she couldn’t have chosen another life – she was free to, and did not, and this freedom helped to author her pain, as much as her loss and grief did. The book’s end is its strongest part, rushing along with a fervency and whole-heartedness – an agency – I wished I had felt through it all. Part of its power is in the generosity of acknowledging the infinite multiplicity of lives we are forced to give up in order to try and keep some calm and happiness in the one we have chosen, or ended up with.
The sadness of this, but also the good grace of it, of acceptance itself, are beautifully wrought in the final pages. Those pages, and much else which is so good here, make me grateful for Fire Sermon, despite its frustrations, and hopeful that it will eventually be just one book of a great many which speak seriously about woman’s desire.