Adam Thirlwell loves to write about sex. It's is the central activity in The Escape, upholstered—like everything else in this allusive, philosophical, melancholy comedy—in mock-heroic chutzpah. Thirlwell's word choices are showy, his phrasing bravura: "They had sat in the rose garden, in the pale sunshine, a police siren tumescing and detumescing in the background. . . . A tree was leafing through itself, anxiously."
The novel takes place "in the final year of the twentieth century," in a spa town somewhere in the former Czechoslovakia. Its hero, an elderly Jewish banker named Raphael Haffner, has journeyed there from London to reclaim the family villa of his late wife, Livia. The mansion had been "appropriated first by the Nazis, then by the Communists, and finally by nationalist capitalists"—a backdrop that affords Thirlwell maximum opportunity to reflect on history, family, and assimilation.
And sex. Women have always thrown themselves at the willing Haffner, and even at seventy-eight the old goat hasn't lost his touch. At the spa, he cagily woos a young yoga teacher named Zinka while being determinedly pursued by a middle-aged fellow guest named Frau Tummel (Yiddish for "commotion"). Then, his twenty-three-year-old grandson, Benjamin, an obese nudnik whose religious fixations are crumbling before his sexual urges, shows up, giving Thirlwell further occasion for ruminations on family, Jews, and infidelity.
The Escape is a comedy laced with weltschmerz—choking on it. Although the protagonist is a world-class adulterer, the driving force is the primacy (if not the sanctity) of marriage. Only as he nears the end of his life does Haffner comprehend that his marriage is "endless," that it endures even after Livia's death and the two-year separation that preceded it, a development that enraged Benjamin's mother:
He would learn nothing and leave everyone. That was what his daughter had said of him, when she patiently shouted at him and explained his lack of moral courage, his pitiful inadequacy as a husband, as a father, as a man. He would remain inexperienced. It seemed an accurate description.
This description will prove to be quite in-accurate.
Thirlwell supplies snippets from the stories of Haffner's various liaisons, along with larger swatches from the history of the long-suffering Livia, the only woman who has ever truly mattered to him. The only one, that is, until he falls for the Eastern European beauty Zinka. Thirlwell is willing to grant that Haffner's ardor is ridiculous:
In the same way that a passion is always so much more fleeting than it believes itself to be, so a passion is always bestowed on an inappropriate object. . . . Was Haffner laughable? Perhaps. But no more laughable than anyone else in love. To go for a young woman at seventy-eight was simply to add to the comedy of passion the comedy of the object.
And this is where the novel goes seriously awry: It turns out that Thirlwell is, for all his worldliness, extravagantly, absurdly, hopelessly romantic. He believes in sex as a means of transcendence, and he wants to convince us that Haffner is exalted—translated is Thirwell's word—by an s/m session with a dominatrix fifty years his junior, that Benjamin is transfigured, and his life changed, via congress with a party girl in a nightclub toilet.
But there are some strong factors mitigating against his putting these epiphanies over. One is the work of a certain American novelist who has spent much of the past decade deflating the sexual yearnings of geriatric Jews. But The Escape doesn't require the external pressure of a Philip Roth to effect its collapse. Thirlwell is writing about a man who has spent his life in blinders, but the author seems to have them on himself. It's embarrassing, at this late date, to read a story in which the men achieve sexual transcendence, while the women who facilitate it—well, their satisfaction must be a problem for women novelists. The female characters are treated very badly, by both Haffner and the author. Zinka gets off easiest, and I'm afraid it's no coincidence that she happens to be young and lovely. Livia, the sainted wife, is young and lovely before decades of her husband's infidelities wear her down—and as if that lingering humiliation weren't enough, Thirlwell reserves a special indignity for the end of her marriage, when her youth and loveliness have faded, to serve up as a climactic jolt.
But the ghastliest treatment is meted out to Frau Tummel, who—far from coincidentally—is fat and fifty-five. Her womanly wiles are coquettish in a way that's intended to be hilarious and isn't. I'm willing to grant that the vain and vindictive Frau Tummel is a stock comic butt, with antecedents in the comedy of the Renaissance, the Restoration, and the Marx Brothers. But I'm not sure Groucho's caddishness toward Margaret Dumont would play quite so funny were they making movies in 2010. And I'm certain that, whatever indignities a modern Dumont might be subjected to, an audience presented with this "monumental" woman (as Thirlwell describes Frau Tummel) clad in nothing but a bra ("dotted with stitched pink roses") and prone on a hotel bed with her large legs spread, or on her knees before the old man her middle-aged girth is unable to arouse, "the head of his slumped penis slumped on the slump of her lower lip"—such an audience would find its laughter sticking in its throat.
Thirlwell may find endless comedy in the enslavement of both sexes to their passions, but in The Escape only the men rise above comedy into revelation. Once they've arrived there, woman's work is done.
Craig Seligman is a critic for Bloomberg News and the author of Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me (Counterpoint, 2004).