Cutting Edge
Review Notation: Cutting Edge...

by Elizabeth Searle

Published by Graywolf Press

"What was her name?" Allie lowered her hands. She folded her arms, chilly in her T-shirt and panties despite a triangle of sun warming the sheets.
"Kin." JJ leaned on the knotty pine wall. "Or so I thought," he added, his monotone sliding into new flatness. Gently, he pulled Allie down against him. "This was back in Mass. Mental. The Massachusetts Mental Health Center."
"Oh?" A soft, respectful breath. "When was that?" She kept her head still on his chest, gauging whether this was an OK question to ask. ...
"Spring, 1980." JJ's chest vibrated. "Then I spent two years recovering from my recovery. Back home, here in Ohio. That's why I only graduated here last year. Mathematics B.S., no clue what to do with it. But listen." He squeezed her shoulders. "Even when I was all-the-way crazy, certified schizo, even in Mass. Mental, I never hurt myself or anyone else." He loosened his grip, adding with bemused thoughtfulness, "No wonder I'm so screwed up."

In the first pages of this tasty novel, Alice, a twenty-something virgin, falls for JJ, an experienced and mysterious slightly older man. That could be the plot of a Harlequin "romance," except for JJ's early admission that he's been institutionalized for mental health concerns: an admission which could, certainly, take us into the two-dimensional sets of Melrose Place or, perhaps worse, Ally McBeal.

What we have here, instead, is an equation of another type entirely, and for that we are enduringly thankful. Other reasons to offer thanks to Elizabeth Searle for her management of this plot include the frank treatment of mental health issues, and for the agility with which she manages various perspectives on bisexuality, heterosexuality, homosexuality, and "coupling."

Enter A Four-Sided Bed with your mind opened or closed. Either way, Searle will surprise you. Take a straight girl, a bisexual man, a woman who only feels complete loving two men at once, and a gay man, and try to fit that into a single bed. Think you know how to render this on the page without turning it into a talk show scenario? Searle will surprise you.

In this novel, relationships begin in -- and are circumscribed, but not confined by -- institutions: marriage, mental hospitals, immigration, and health care all play a role in developing the quadrangle of characters who become enmeshed here. Searle manages her review of each institution deftly, and with the writer's understatement that allows the reader to experience the confusion and gentle rewards of each character's unique movement toward discovery.

This is not to say that this work is a "kinder, gentler" view of the biting issues which have become so easily dulled in recent media displays. Suffice to say that, if Sam Shepard wrote novels (or if Elizabeth Searle penned for the stage and screen), A Four-Sided Bed would stand evenly alongside Paris, Texas and Fool for Love.

Yet, what sets Searle apart from other writers tackling similar issues is her ease of invocation: illusory fragments, dilapidated dreamscapes, uncertain patterns from the past, and those phantoms that re-emerge with intent certainty are all rendered here with a nearly poetic incantation, urgent with the pull and arch of erotic tension.

This is a novel about taking chances, about second chances, and about release. There are no clumsy efforts on the part of the author to foist "redemption" on her characters, although some of them, particularly the young Alice, certainly struggle in that direction. In this book, as in life, there are as many questions as answers.

Review by Emmanuela de Léon

Forward to review of James Wright and Leslie Marmon Silko's The Delicacy and Strength of Lace
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