The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

mar­riage ar­range­ments of times gone by. As he puts it: ‘‘ To judge a cou­ple solely by the yard­stick of ve­he­mency is to con­demn it to in­suf­fi­ciency.’’

Though much shorter than Bruck­ner’s pre­vi­ous books, Has Mar­riage for Love Failed? does oc­ca­sion­ally suf­fer from its author’s ten­dency to make an in­ter­est­ing point and then re­peat it in ever more colour­ful ways. Nev­er­the­less, it is beau­ti­fully ar­gued and, for the most part, beau­ti­fully writ­ten.

It is also an in­ter­est­ing de­vel­op­ment in the con­text of Bruck­ner’s thought more gen­er­ally. Af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of The Tyranny of Guilt, which anatomised Western masochism in the face of the threat from Is­lamic ex­trem­ism, it was not un­usual to see Bruck­ner char­ac­terised as a shal­low cheer­leader for ‘‘ Western val­ues’’. Here, how­ever, he in­vites us to con­sider how a value com­monly as­so­ci­ated with the West is in many ways a mixed bless­ing. ‘‘ If we want [mar­riage] to last,’’ he writes, ‘‘ let’s stop sub­ject­ing life in com­mon to the despotic law of ex­u­ber­ance.’’

The despotic law of ex­u­ber­ance is cer­tainly on dis­play in Vow, a ‘‘ mem­oir of mar­riage and other af­fairs’’ by Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Wendy Plump. In­deed, if Plump’s book has any value it is as an il­lus­tra­tion of Bruck­ner’s the­sis that un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions drive a wedge be­tween cou­ples.

‘‘ I was com­mit­ted to one man whole­heart­edly un­til sud­denly I wasn’t,’’ writes Plump, adding: ‘‘ What I wanted most, what drove me in ev­ery af­fair I had, was the drug and en­ergy of pas­sion, of new in­ti­macy.’’

There is more, much more, in the same vein. Ac­cord­ing to my in­stru­ments, Plump has four af­fairs in the book, all of them de­scribed in such volatile prose. (Her hus­band, Bill, has a num­ber of af­fairs, too, one of which re­sults in an il­le­git­i­mate child; here, the prose cools off a lit­tle.) None of them is re­motely in­ter­est­ing, even at the level of gossip.

Cer­tainly, Plump’s in­form­ing as­sump­tion that her per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences have im­per­sonal res­o­nance — an as­sump­tion re­flected in her ten­dency to slip from the first to the sec­ond per­son — re­mains stub­bornly un­jus­ti­fied. Vow, I’m afraid, is an in­sight-free zone.

Such con­clu­sions as Plump draws are in­vari­ably limp — a fact not dis­guised but rather em­pha­sised by the faux pro­fun­dity in which they come wrapped. (‘‘Ex­pla­na­tion is a pow­er­ful se­ducer. We use it to keep un­cer­tain­ties at a dis­tance.’’)

Nor does her pen­chant for bizarre metaphors and sen­tence frag­ments help her case. Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, the fol­low­ing pas­sage: ‘‘ And so I con­cluded that noth­ing all that ter­ri­ble was go­ing to come of my hav­ing an­other [af­fair]. Even if I be­haved like a reck­less ado­les­cent. Even if I stayed out all night. Even if I blew that vow out of the wa­ter. Even if I did jump off the roof clutch­ing a lighted blow­torch into a pool of knives.’’

If Plump is try­ing to con­vey breath­less­ness with this out­break of de­pen­dent clauses she’s cer­tainly achieved her goal: at times, her book reads as if it were dic­tated by some­one suf­fer­ing em­phy­sema.

I’ve al­ways been sus­pi­cious of con­fes­sional lit­er­a­ture but at least the rev­e­la­tions of Robert Low­ell and W D Sn­od­grass had lit­er­ary merit. By con­trast, Vow tells us lit­tle of note, in prose no­table only for its oddness.

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