Saturday, February 04, 2012

Book Review: The Other Side of Desire

Daniel Bergner’s The Other Side of Desire is a self-proclaimed case study of four distinct paraphilias, or what in layperson terms would be called sexual fetishes. Chapter one is dedicated to podophilia and centers on Jacob, a man who bemoans the fact that his erotic interest is limited almost solely (no pun intended) to feet. Chapter two examines the world of BDSM, a subculture in which a woman known only as The Baroness is both a celebrity and, even among her fellow sadists, something of a rebel. In chapter three, we learn of Roy, a 40-year-old whose yearnings for his 12-year-old stepdaughter ultimately lead to court-ordered counseling sessions and a surprising slew of sympathizers. And finally, chapter four introduces us to Ron, the highly successful advertising director whose keen eye for conventional beauty has not diminished his carnal (and emotional) cravings for amputees.

Considering the menu of sexual “anomalies” that The Other Side of Desire covers, Bergner cannot take much credit for the fact that his book is consistently interesting. Curiosity comes easily in matters like these. Where Bergner flounders, then, is in failing to plumb the psychological depths of his subjects. Much of the time, Bergner seems oblivious to the endless array of fascinating questions that he fails to explore, while at other times, he teasingly raises such questions only to squander them as food for the reader’s thought. It is as if he does not wish to impinge on the stories he tells by taking them anywhere other than where the subjects wish for them to go—an admirable aim, perhaps, but one for which the book suffers.

Missed opportunities aren’t the only failings of Bergner’s work. The writing style in general is hit-and-miss. It is sometimes unclear what one paragraph has to do with the next, and occasionally even the individual sentence is clumsy enough to cause confusion. Unfortunately for the reader, Bergner’s writing is at its best when it is at its least relevant. The author shows a much greater knack for describing the physical appearances of the people to whom he speaks than for articulating their psychoses (as some would consider them). It is evident that Bergner is a journalist, not an academic, and that his tome serves more as an idiosyncratic human interest piece than as a culmination of scholarly research. (The book doesn’t even feature an index!) That is fine, if that is Bergner’s purpose. And yet, I can’t help thinking that a few further deviations into the annals of science would have benefitted the book greatly.

To reiterate, The Other Side of Desire is far from uninteresting. But that is precisely why I wish it had been better. Rare is the reader who will not learn something from the book, and there are certainly some interesting (if not discomforting) points to ponder. Among other things, you’ll hear plausible explanations of why some people might find sexual intimacy with a horse to be more emotionally rewarding than with another human, of why it might make a lot of sense to prescribe Viagra to a child molester, and of why paraphilias are just as likely to be hardwired in the brain as is sexual orientation. Perhaps the greatest asset of the book, however, is the increased understanding and sensitivity that it will bring to open-minded readers, those who previously may have been all too ready to write off certain sexual proclivities as vile and depraved. When you learn just how common some of these paraphilias can be, you may even question the legitimacy of such a label, as I did. (Thus, my use of scare quotes in the second paragraph above.) As it turns out, it may be that the true paraphiliac among us is the one who has no sexual fetishes at all.

1 comment:

  1. Are you sure?
    I've been trying to think of what to comment for a while! Just want you to know I read and love your reviews. Jeff just watched Real Steel today so I'll have to see if he agrees with you. I don't know if I'll get a chance to watch it or not... probably not :(
    Love ya!