Seconds of Pleasure

By Neil LaBute

by Brian Miller

Presently pushing buttons off-Broadway with his study of a relationship cauldron, Fat Pig, Spokane native Neil LaBute has added this slim short-story collection to his resume as playwright, screenwriter and film director (In the Company of Men). For the most part, these 20 stories -- some no more than a few pages long -- hardly feel like stories. Long exchanges of dialogue cry out for stage directions; monologues feel like drama-student audition pieces, and some efforts appear to be false starts for potential plays -- a sparring couple, a cheating spouse, a telling detail of male piggery -- that never made it beyond his notebook. The overall effect is underwhelming, but certainly LaBute-ian. He has cornered the market on self-indicting misogyny, as if describing some evolutionary dead end of the male species. Call it homo horribilis, a creature that walks upright and thrives on Wall Street or in Hollywood but can't survive in the same ecosystem as women. The urge to f--/destroy/betray is imperative over everything else, yet its primitive brain can't comprehend how that impulse simultaneously pollutes its own environment.

Whether stalking and killing hookers (and videotaping the act), spying on teenage girls in bookstores or scamming on wannabe actresses in L.A., the men here are both acutely self-analytical and incapable of self-insight. They're almost autistic: great with details but unable to synthesize them. Other people, primarily women, exist only as figures in their solipsistic imaginations. One of LaBute's typical narrators ruminates, "I think most men carry around a secret library full of films that we've shot of every woman we've met." They're film loops, really -- the same obsessive scenarios and fetishes running forever through almost reptilian brains.

They're also tedious without a larger story or framework to hang them on. Unlike LaBute's plays and movies (or Nic Kelman's similar, more ambitious Girls), the reader has no narrative impetus to stick with his characters for more than a few pages at a time. Nor does LaBute. His Seconds are more like fragments. There is, however, a sense that his time in Hollywood could yield such a project; his scorn at the vanity, cruelty and shallow self-justification of Tinseltown rivals that of Nathanael West. But if he has his own Day of the Locust brewing, it'll have to appear on stage or film, where homo horribilis is given enough room to run amok.

Publication date: 1/13/04

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