Ambitious novels can wear you out. Sometimes you don’t want the mysteries of the universe, clever metaphors, mind games, unruly emotions, and the elusive deeper meanings of geopolitical disasters. Sometimes all you want is a modest, witty novel about moderately articulate people who read in bed, gossip with friends, feed the cat, and drink tea. Actually, tea has nothing to do with it, except that the best fiction of this type tends to be British, from the low-key enchantments of Alexander McCall Smith to the rueful novels of the late, lamented Barbara Pym, who, starting in 1950, published 12 peerless little social comedies about vicars, spinsters, romantic folly, and jumble sales.
American writers haven’t shown much enthusiasm or aptitude for this unflashy genre, probably for the same reason we build 30,000-square-foot houses and drive Suburbans. Which makes Stephen McCauley’s fizzy new Alternatives to Sex all the more welcome. This is not an ambitious novel, just a nearly perfect one.
The setting is post-9/11 Boston, but Realtor William Collins, the puckish 44-year-old narrator, has nothing new to proclaim about the tragedy — which is itself new: ”A year ago, everyone had been reminded of something important,” he declares, ”but it was my impression that most of us had already forgotten what it was.”
The novel opens as William resolves to end his long ”post-traumatic” sex bender. (At least he hopes it’s post-traumatic: ”Perhaps I was just trying to shift blame and ascribe global significance to my predictable midlife malaise.”) He changes his ways after a grimly impersonal 40-minute encounter with a pseudonymous online hookup, Carlo (”an assumed name seemed to be part of the game, even part of the pleasure”), and by the ”unsettling postcoital silence in which I realized I was with a stranger, noticed the dirty laundry in the corner, and saw that the TV on the bureau was tuned to FOX News.”
William decides to replace sex with more wholesome pastimes, such as giving his new $125 iron a workout, reading the complete works of Simone de Beauvoir, and above all, becoming even more deeply involved in the lives of his friends and clients. Who better to narrate a novel than a shrewd, softhearted busybody? And is there a better profession for such a narrator than selling real estate?
The sharply etched lost souls we get to know through the endlessly amusing William include Charlotte and Sam, an unhappy middle-aged couple in search of a Cambridge pied-à-terre; the seductive, acerbic Edward (”Becoming a flight attendant got him out of town and kept him on the move, the homosexual equivalent of joining the military”); and Sylvia, a skinny, nutty women’s studies professor who ”frequently went on long tirades against Camille Paglia, obviously her role model.” Lines are crossed, connections are made, William irons, and a romance tentatively blossoms. That’s about all that happens in this sweet, funny book, and it’s precisely enough.