Sylvia Hubbard’s latest novel, Beautiful, resonated with me on multiple levels because it rushed me back to quick memories of a young woman I dated many years ago. I remember walking into a Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania McDonald’s to meet her for discussion about our tenuous relationship – a light-switch circus of happiness and pain, a grotesque carnival of vituperative drama. I needed clarity and coffee. She waited for me at a sunlit table in the far corner of the restaurant while I stood in the long line busy with morning-rush patrons.
“I’ll have a breakfast sandwich and a small coffee,” I said to the young woman behind the counter. I turned to look in Shannon’s direction, she, fumbling with something in her book-bag, didn’t notice me looking at her. I exhaled, handed money to the cashier and carried my microwaved sandwich and small coffee to the table and sat opposite her.
“How’s it going?”
“I’m good,” she said, grinning and pulling at her nose. She looked different. Her lips were painted fire-engine red. I wasn’t used to seeing her with makeup on her face. She looked odd – not in a grotesque way, but different. Her face (an abstract expression of happy bewilderment and confused disappointment) was not made for such mess, I believed; her thin red lips trembled across her brown-skinned face into a jerked smile with darkly circled eyes flushed in interminable anguish. Makeup seemed her way of disguising a qualitative truth – a beautiful truth (which I thought possessed far more meaning than the execrable mask that shamefully served to deny it): Shannon never needed makeup; she was beautiful.
“When we first met, did you think I was beautiful?” she asked, with a subtle hint of repressed panic. Suddenly there was silence; I needed to digest the predictable question.
Shannon reminded me of Madison Oliver. Both were young and ambitious and struggling to finish a graduate degree. But Madison’s path diverges at the point she meets a guy who is able to transport her to a more risqué place of affirmation and self-regard. Like Shannon, Madison has daddy issues and friends who have no real solidly supportive place in her life. But perhaps Nikki is a metaphoric extension of Madison’s self-loathe (we are defined by the company we keep); or, maybe Nikki provides Madison with some cosmic moral thrust which Madison has yet to realize.
Yet, I thought about my response to Hubbard’s book in terms of scene analyses, in terms of what struck me most powerfully within the novels totality, the essential force of Madison’s dilemma; that moment within the novel where I identify and come to grips with what is the perennial human struggle for the main character, but also the irony of the challenge. Perhaps the most interesting scene in Beautiful – rife with sadomasochism and self-loathing (an interesting contrast to Madison’s need for love and affirmation) – is a moment shared between Jamar and Madison. Although Jamar’s objectification of Madison (inasmuch as how he values her worth and where he places emphases on her beauty – the thing that constitutes her beauty), the following scene is necessarily a lengthy one because it moves the novel along that unavoidably predictable path towards what I consider the underlined tension – the proverbial feminine struggle – of Madison’s primal dilemma:
Jamar met her eyes, and she knew he could see her fear, but it wasn’t fear of him. Madison was fearful of what she might do. “You’re beautiful,” he said. Coming completely to reality, she rolled her eyes in disbelief. “What was that for?” he asked. “My thighs are beautiful,” she corrected him. “No, your thighs are sexy as hell, Madison. You, as a person, are beautiful.” She snorted, not believing one word, and moved his hand back to his lap with clear disinterest. His verbal dishonesty was too much for her. “You don’t have to lie to me to get me to do things, Jamar.” He looked shocked, and then had the nerve to look insulted. “I mean what I say Madison.” His tone was filled with sternness. “When I look at you I see a beautiful woman. Why do you have a problem with that?” Madison shifted in her seat, completely uncomfortable now, but she decided to be honest with him. “Because I see my face every day and I know what I see.” “Come over here,” he ordered, patting the space right next to him. Hesitantly, she scooted over…. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, Madison, and though you may have heard this before, you really should believe it. Your innocence, heart and soul shines through, enhancing your perfect nose, luscious lips, and just about the most beautifully expressive eyes I’ve ever seen on a woman.” She looked away from the mirror and looked at him. “You must know a lot of ugly women to speak so eloquently about beauty, Jamar.” “No, Madison,” he said as he held her hand. “But I can see you haven’t been told enough how beautiful you really are.” “That’s just evidence that I’m not that beautiful.” He looked flabbergasted. “What makes you think you’re ugly?” “My face,” she said obviously. “My skin. My pimples.” “That’s all cosmetic. Fixable. Just a matter of finding the right regiment and products” (47-49).
It is interesting that Madison’s self-loathe and deprecating rebuke of Jamar’s condescending compliments do little to resist the scandalous situation in which she eventually finds herself. But Hubbard places the burden of this scenario in Madison’s self-loathing reactions to Jamar’s charming motivations and cloaked intentions.
Hubbard’s sex scenes are quite interesting as well but I will not spoil the plot with another lengthy quotation – only to note that, in novels, the meaning of sex is never about the graphic description of intercourse. It’s too easy to write those scenes (which are really about repressed pornographic desire – which is always about personal revelation: we are reading the diary of the author) where one essentially embellishes and fantasize about being this great, superman-lover fucking a super fine nympho; or some super-duper fine well-hung stud subdued and conquered by the best pussy on the planet.
In novels, sex reflects a deeper conflict and tension about identity, philosophy and politics and poetry and spiritual realms – power dynamics, etc. This following example from James Baldwin’s Another Country, sex between white Vivaldo and black Ida – a racialization which takes the sex to another level even, best demonstrates this point: “She opened up before him, yet fell back before him, too; he felt that he was traveling up a savage river, looking for the source which remained hidden just beyond the black, dangerous, dripping foliage” (152). (The sex between Rufus and Leona provides an even better example.) The point is that we don’t care about how good he lays the pipe, or how well she can ravish a man. Save the literal fantasies for an unsolicited Facebook post or a personal diary. Sex scenes in literature must have a deeper meaning. And the meaning is never contained in the act of intercourse itself. The writer is like a perverted philosopher-voyeur, an analyzing fly on the wall watching – someone who knows the backstory or internal issues behind the act, the person who sees beyond the sex like peeling a rotten orange or digging up a beautiful rose garden to discover filthy manure.
I understand that urban novels (which always seem saturated with pornographic and meaningless sex) have its own devices and techniques to deal with. But sex in the novel should convey a moral and spiritual and philosophic issue, poetry, something transcendental, even, perhaps, maybe. Beautiful certainly has great dramatic tension, but Hubbard could’ve used it to take Madison’s “beautiful” conundrums to a higher and deeper climax (no pun intended). Even the underlined assumption that sex – wildly uninhibited sex and dangerously salacious – made Madison feel beautiful and wanted and important and validated, is something a serious reader would take notice of. I also find it interesting that Madison allows her sense of beauty to be defined in male-terms, her God-given naturalness reduced to Jamar’s condescending belief that Madison’s flawed beauty is cosmetically “Fixable. Just a matter of finding the right regiment and products”). But perhaps this is the new feminism: a woman’s right to define and control her sexuality…I guess. Whatever the case, I just hope that Madison is happy with herself.