The Disastrous Things Desire Makes Us Do

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection of stories explores sex, trauma, adultery, and virginity

At first, the Southern evangelical setting of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection of short stories, Virgin and Other Stories, might seem a strange fit with the questions of sex and desire that are ubiquitous throughout the book. Unlike other writers who focus on American Christianity — Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’Connor, Hanna Pylväinen, etc. — Lawson does not use faith and doubt as the main source of motivation for her characters. In spite of the fact that the characters attend Christian colleges, are homeschooled, and attend weekly church services, thoughts of God or discussions of theology are largely absent.

Instead, the characters in these stories spend prodigious thought and energy contemplating and anticipating sex. Some try to overcome past sexual traumas. Others wonder if they are being cheated on, and, instead, end up being cheaters. A few learn how to masturbate to images in stolen library books. Throughout these stories, Lawson repeatedly returns to the same questions: How is desire created, and why do we desire what we desire?

Very little actual sex takes place. When it does, it’s either much worse than expected, a repetition of a past trauma, or just a plain letdown. “I guess that’s it, then,” Sheila says to her husband Jake in “Virgin,” after finally having sex for the first time, months after their wedding night. “Sex. I mean, it’s fun… It just feels so… physical… I expected a spiritual element.”

Lawson zeroes in on moments when desire is odd or inappropriate. “Virgin,” the first story in the collection, begins with the line, “Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress.” These breasts belong to Rachel, a woman who is not Jake’s wife, a woman who has gone through a double mastectomy. “What did they have inside them,” Jake wonders, “saline or silicone? And how did these feel, respectively?” Jake thinks Rachel may have noticed him staring at her breasts, which worries him since she must have “extraordinarily complicated feelings” about her breasts. But its Jake’s own “extraordinarily complicated feelings” that Lawson highlights — his attraction to Rachel; his fascination with her body; his frustration with his sexual relationship with his wife that, ultimately, leads to projection and self-delusion.

In “The Way You Must Play Always,” 13-year-old Gretchen first gets caught kissing her 16-year-old cousin, then, shortly after, with her hand in the bathrobe of her piano teacher’s brother, a grown man who spends his days in his bedroom reading and smoking pot, recovering from a brain tumor. Lawson captures Gretchen’s early adolescent yearning, which is mixed with an all-encompassing summer boredom that leads her to stop caring about the consequences of her actions. With both of her parents at work everyday, Gretchen sleeps well into the afternoon. Her only source of amusement is strolling through her lonely neighborhood. Lawson, with a hypnotizing lyricism, explains how this boredom is as important a component of Gretchen’s desire as anything else: “And so the sleeping late and sweaty walks and quiet desire melted into a thick, heady dream.” In a dream, nothing matters. Nothing is inappropriate.

But the odd and disastrous things desire causes us to do have real life effects. In the final two stories, decisions rooted in confusion and desire lead to moments of violent epiphany — climaxes that, more than the particularities of character or setting, truly do seem influenced by Flannery O’Connor. These are the most engaging and affecting stories in the collection, where the style, setting, and theme come together to form something unsettling and complex.

“Vulnerability,” which is almost novella-length, in particular indicates Lawson’s substantial talent. The abuse in the story is made even more unnerving through the character’s focalization. The character’s point of view makes us privy to her complicated desires, which are not eradicated by the violence she suffers. Before the harrowing ending of the story, the narrator contemplates her desire for a famous gallery owner:

And frankly by then I’d decided to sleep with you as an act of compassion. Poor thing — that night, I’d never seen anyone who so needed to be fucked. You were the kind of sad person who’d become so numb he didn’t even know what sadness was anymore, who thought he was fine because he couldn’t even remember being happy, and I wanted to help you…Happy. I saw I was making you happy. I had forgotten what it was like to make someone happy.

Lawson, again, severs desire from actual sex here. Because the narrator’s desire is more complex than something purely physical, because it is rooted in compassion, in wanting to make other people happy because of the immense sadness that surrounds her, the traumatic sex she is subjected to does not affect her in the way one might assume. Her compassion, her desire to make his life better, is not incompatible with the man’s abusive actions, because she sees these actions as rooted in his own miserable history. This is an intricate and realistic portrait of abuse, illustrating how empathy can curdle into something sour when directed at the wrong person.

Contrasted with the unsatisfying and distressing sex in the book are the characters’ relationships with high art. Each story features at least one character who is an artist, generally either classical musicians or painters. It is in art that the characters find the convergence of sensuality and spirituality they seek. In fact, both Connor in “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling” and the narrator of “Vulnerability” steal art books from the library to which they then masturbate, an act they find more satisfying and pleasurable than their physical contact with other people in the stories.

Lawson’s prose becomes effervescent when she describes characters’ relationships with high art. In “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling,” Conner thinks of his mother’s mink coat:

“Its fur was white and shot with umber streaks. The streaks turned lighter at their edges, broken up with white like streaks of dry-brushed watercolor.”

He recounts how he’s stolen a book of Andrew Wyeth watercolors and —

committed acts of passion while staring at the book The Helga Pictures…and all the desire and shame and the layers of desire, of which I’ve only recently become aware — Wyeth’s desire for Helga, my desire for Helga, my desire for Wyeth’s desire for Helga — had warped my brain, so that my imagination tried to turn half the things I saw into his paintings.

Lawson, like Conner, wants to tease out the “layers of desire” we always feel, and the characters in the book are often quite conscious of the way they can manipulate, or are manipulated by, the desires of others. Art becomes the only way for these characters to find any true or satisfying pleasure. The “acts of passion” Conner later tries to enact with an actual person — a girl from his church — curb his desire for her, rather than energizing his imagination, as happens with his relationship to Wyeth’s watercolors.

Would the characters, then, be better off dropping sex altogether? Should they sublimate their desire into their art? Or would trying to ignore their desires just cause the desires to grow even stronger, leading to even greater disasters?

There is no answer. The book, instead, is an extended meditation on these questions. These questions and themes, of course, are not new. Since at least the 19th century — think Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Stendhal — desire, and its reverberating effects, has occupied the minds of fiction writers. Lawson injects life into these questions through the specificity of her setting and the careful attention she pays to language. Virgin and Other Stories is a redolent, troubling read, both emotionally penetrating and intellectually probing.

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