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Sex, Submission And 'Dark Desires'

Luisa Valenzuela is an important, post-boom South American avant-garde writer. Her books — Como en la guerra (1977) and Cambio de armas (1982) among them — take on patriarchy and politics. They challenge her native country Argentina's dirty past, the corruption and murderous policies of its former dictatorship. She wins awards, meets with critical success and is invited all over the world to teach and speak.

So why is she sitting in New York, unable to think about anything other than boys?

One day Valenzuela was looking through old notebooks and realized they were full of reflections about men. These diaries recorded nothing about art or philosophy or current events. They documented her encounters with men only. What, she wondered on page after page, were they thinking? Why weren't they calling her back? Why did this one stop interesting her just as he wanted to get serious? How pretty were another one's eyes? In Dark Desires and the Others, Valenzuela's new memoir/journal/confession, she works from these notebooks to inquire about a life lived with men, how she used them and they used her, and why they had such a pull on her life.

It's a little self-indulgent, perhaps, and rambling, too. But Dark Desires does rub up against an uncomfortable truth that began to emerge in the late 1970s and early 1980s, around the time her notebooks were originally written: Women were suddenly finding success in work and business, but were failing at love. Valenzuela could be a case study in Female Perversions, Louise Kaplan's groundbreaking Freudian study of this phenomenon. Women who felt powerful in their chosen professions were, in their love and sex lives, willfully subjugating themselves to their male partners.

Told in fragmentary anecdotes, theoretical asides and excerpts from letters and journal entries, Valenzuela's book is the attempt of one woman to examine, understand and break out of this pattern. She wants to feel she's worthy of her career success, trying "to reach some kind of acceptance, some kind of profound recognition. Not of exterior recognition, the applause that's also implicit in that word," but something internal. In doing so, she might be able to accept that "the male of the species also has his little heart" and stop simply using them for sex, inspiration or a prop for her self-esteem.

If this were a traditional memoir, Valenzuela would ride off into the sunset with one of the men in the book — Dieter, Pale Fire, Duck, Joe. She has no pat answers, just a continuing quest to overcome doubts and bad habits. Dark Desires and the Others is a brave book, a vulgar book and a riveting read. It's the testimony of one woman trying to surrender the fight in the war between the sexes, but who remains unable to lay down her arms.

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Jessa Crispin