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The Difference Between Women and Men: Stories
Random House, 2005
208 pp., $23.95
Susan Wise Bauer
In 1999, Oprah anointed Bret Lott a Real Writer by selecting his novel Jewel for the Oprah Book Club. Freed from financial worries, the previously unsuccessful Lott could now spend his days at his desk, struggling to make sentences out of "words swirling about him in absurd order, words lined up like drunken soldiers, like harlots with painted lips slurring just as drunkenly as those soldiers he'd thought up."
The stories in Lott's new book, The Difference Between Women and Men, from which those swirling words are taken, depict a world full of women and men who are deeply estranged. In "A Way Through This," a husband insists to his wife that they can get through their difficulties together. He thinks that she agrees with him: "He smiled, astonished at his luck, at the blessing of a wife who could see alongside him the way through this." Meanwhile she is imagining a world without him: "And above everything hung a bright and huge morning sky, a brilliant sky filled with limitless possibilities. He was gone, vanished into thin air, and she smiled, astonished at her luck, at the blessing of a husband who knew when to leave." Words are incapable of reconciling these drastically different versions of reality. In the title story, a desperate wife responds to her husband's demand that they discuss "the difference between women and men" by silently stacking all of the bedroom furniture in one corner of the room, a symbolic gesture which reduces him to mystified speechlessness.
Actually the gesture mystifies me too. Lott's prose is so apocalyptically awful that it resists interpretation. Here, for example, is the heroine of "Rose," who has just given her unfaithful husband a postcoital glass of bourbon with poison in it: "She had reached to him, taken the glass from him before he might drop it and spoil these sheets, desecrate them with alcohol when they had been so blessed with the beginning of love only moments before, the two still beneath these sheets as all who have ...