Dark Desires and the Others

by Luisa Valenzuela

Rating: 3.7/5.0

Publisher: Dalkey Archive Press

It is a truth universally assumed that any woman’s diary will be filled, at least to some degree, with reflections, rants and raves about men. Writers are no exception to this rule; in fact, they are arguably prime culprits – conscious, determined contenders in a tradition historically dominated by men who find themselves forced to grapple with the opposite sex as the object, at times, of simultaneous affection, repression, lust and fury. Frankly, it’s no wonder that so many women writers try to escape the significance of men in their lives, either through fiction, feminism or simple frustration put down on paper. In her latest book, Dark Desires and the Others, Luisa Valenzuela doesn’t break this pattern, nor does she attempt to; instead, she seeks to understand and probe and question it, to wrestle it down in a manner singular to her time and place in the colorful, exciting and sexually adventurous literary world of late 20th century New York.

Valenzuela is an Argentine-born novelist and short-story writer known for experimental meanderings concerning patriarchal social structures and the inevitable gendering of relationships between the sexes – most of which are told from a perspective informed by the height of first-wave feminism. Her principal works, including Como en la guerra and Cambio de armas, brought her critical renown, literary awards and a covetable teaching position at Columbia University during the ’70s and ’80s. Yet throughout her time in New York, it seems that Valenzuela, for all her literary clout and incendiary power on the page, spent an awful lot of time thinking and fretting and wondering about – what else? – boys. At her core, even this impressive and brilliant creature felt slighted by unreturned phone calls, inadequate professions of affection, missed dates and conversations cut short. And in Dark Desires and the Others, she compiles her collected diaries, journals, letters and notes – astute, romantic, graphic, self-indulgent and delightful all at once – in an effort to trace the reason that men, sex and the details of both played such a persistent and pivotal role in her day-to-day consciousness.

Dark Desires and the Others admittedly plays a fine line at times between enviable erudition, authorial whimsy and theoretical pretension. Bedroom romps and charming recollections beautifully rendered are interrupted with references to literary theory that sound a bit too much like that insufferable classmate most liberal arts students found themselves forced to put up with at some point in their careers, the ever-questioning type, who spoke in ways designed to ensure endless masturbatory reiterations of the same idea ad nauseum. Fortunately, Valenzuela isn’t an obnoxious undergrad; and her digressions into such territory are justified, in a sense, by the honesty and solitude of the journal form, by the fact that these notebooks weren’t written to impress but merely to provide an outlet for a writer’s “off duty” mental wanderings.

And that’s the remarkable thing about this book: even at her most deconstructed, controlling, petulant, graphically sexual or just plain silly, Valenzuela is a damn good writer whose words turn mere ramblings into page-turning drama. We may feel inclined to judge, smirk or roll our eyes every now and again at the umpteenth phallic reference until we remind ourselves that these are simply diary entries (and compare them to the drivel that so frequently makes its way onto our own most private pages), and step back in awe.

For women who love words, men, sex, power, travel, beauty and books – and perhaps for the brave men who love such women and are willing to explore what goes on in their heads – Dark Desires and the Others is a revelation and a catharsis, a cautionary tale and a fantastic dirty read. Unlike most any popular, socially-sanctioned guide to love and romance for the modern woman, Valenzuela’s stories offer neither rules nor answers nor manicured ideals: instead, they are real and crazy, sweaty and sloppy, deep and dark and wanton… in short, they are just as they should be.

by Lauren Westerfield

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