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J.D. Landis’ first novel, Lying in Bed, is marketed as erotica, but even that billing cannot justify its masturbatory tone. Though this supremely self-indulgent work purports to explore the rarefied joys of love and the sublime mysteries of marriage, the questions consuming its male narrator are no more sophisticated than those a high-school student might pose during his first relationship (Am I the one? Who else has there been?), and far less interesting here. Narcissism generally loses its appeal shortly after adolescence, and this man is in his 30s.
But one of the characteristics that unites the uxorious Johnny with his wife Clara Bell is a dogged unwillingness to leave childhood behind. Johnny’s greatest lament is that he has not been with Clara since her birth; he declares that his “fondest wish is transport back into the womb with her.” Given the characters’ emotional maturity, one imagines it would be a short trip.
The central action of Lying in Bed spans one night, beginning when Clara leaves for an 8 o’clock dinner date. Like a toddler who has not yet mastered object permanence, Johnny starts to imagine that his wife’s absence means she will never return. To comfort himself in the seemingly endless hours she is gone (the two are seldom apart), he reads through several volumes of the encoded diary she has kept since she was 16. Johnny believes his need to know everything about his wife is not merely defensible, but commendable. “I have never understood those people who say they would rather not know,” he boasts.
Again and again, Johnny articulates his disdain for people who have merely mortal marriages involving psychic distance between partners, visits from the in-laws, and moments of silence, occasionally, at the dinner table. Neither he nor his wife will have anything to do with their parents, having renounced them years ago. They are determined not to repeat the mistakes of their elders, namely dabbling in child pornography and sleeping in separate beds. And Johnny and Clara never run out of things to say to each other, in part because Johnny is always lecturing Clara on obscure points in European intellectual history.
Though it is a struggle for Clara to keep up with her husband’s musings, she puts on a brave face and remembers to look up certain words later. In her diary, she second-guesses her spelling and tries, sometimes painfully, to reconstruct the lesson of the day. Johnny, a former rhetorician still preoccupied with the distinctions between homonyms, homophones, and homographs, finds her linguistic difficulties endearing. At one point, Clara tells him: “Thank God your cock’s as long as some of the words you use.” While she seems equally excited by his vocabulary and his genitalia, his diction can grow tiresome on the page.
It is obvious (and therefore sad) that Landis had intellectual ambitions for this love story. Although his attempt to yoke superficially risqué material with conservative—more specifically, Nietzchean—social politics is interesting, in the end both philosophy and fiction are disserved. While Landis admires his characters immensely, it’s not an admiration his readers can share; Johnny and Clara’s obsession with one another does not so much make them seem superior as simply antisocial. As a result, their story is mediocre and monotonous pornography interrupted only by gratuitous violence. Johnny is not so much a character as a Superman cutout: a rich, oversexed man who “look[s] like a Calvin Klein ad” and coins such pseudo-profundities as “AIDS kills you; marriage, mercilessly, lets you live.” And, unfortunately, lets you live to tell your story.