The first part of Amber Leigh’s Cuckold is both excruciating and hilarious to read, and that is precisely because she writes as well as she does. The book is relentless in creating the exquisite suffering that Ms. Leigh’s protagonist, Sally, brings down upon her husband Edwin. Her infidelity -- real and imagined -- provides the agony that haunts his every moment, crushes him with its revelation, and uplifts him on the cross of his own ignominious, gross penchant for being abused.
By way of contrast, Emma Bovary uses her dullard husband’s bourgeois self-satisfaction as a springboard to betray him. He responds with the sweetness of a dumb ox. That sweet dullness is what feeds her will to exploit and torment him. Sally captures and torments Edwin with all the dispassion of Pinhead. Defiling his trust heightens her pleasure. As perhaps the prime example, she lavishes a deep throat kiss on her husband with her mouth still full of his own brother’s dripping, thick, and reeking come. Edwin reacts in two ways: he is utterly revolted, and as a result, he has a mind blasting orgasm.
Who are these people anyway? Edwin talks, thinks and behaves in the manner of a repressed, prim, middle-class compulsive out of D.H. Lawrence. Strangely though, given the people around him, Edwin’s passions and desires are not off-putting. They spring from the classic problem of all men in literature who have married women they cannot sexually master. The difference is, ‘Eddie’ likes it that way even though it takes him a while to realize it. It slowly dawns on him that he craves Sally’s dalliance more than even she does. His mania is scarifying in its total obsession -- not so much with his wife -- but with the need for her to betray him. She is a kind of monster Stepford wife. Her perfection is his undoing, but not forever.
Edwin may seem a petit bourgeois bean counter, and he is, but that is not the sum total of him. He is canny, as the ironic resolution of the book shows. Nor is Edwin Joseph K. with an erection, forever pursuing his accusers to be forgiven for he knows not what. He is the perfect post-modern artist who -- having lost all faith in ordinary communication and human contact -- is creating only one work of art. That is himself, and he slowly emerges from the clutches of his beautiful and unbelievably awful wife to be the master of the situation and all those who have tormented him at her behest.
Who is Sally? Naturally Ms. Leigh has made her an artist too. Sally is a painter, who creates very salable works that appeal to the likes of Edwin’s boss, Jake, an old-moneyed, callous, and crudely manipulative boor for whom consumerism is all. Jake is not so much a henchman to Sally’s devices as he is her tool, and a blunt one at that. His very loathsomeness makes his conquest of Sally that much more erotically gratifying to Edwin.
Sally herself is everything the artist-as-commodity must become and therefore nothing like an artist at all. She makes and sells consumer goods for customers who she herself intends to consume. If her stable of males were American, they would be the familiar, beefy, self-serving frat boys who are still cute as a bug’s ear (and about as bright), but who are doomed to sclerotic decline and disillusionment in their late thirties. Not to worry, Sally will find replacements.
What is it that makes Cuckold so captivating and haunting? First, the obsession is never a source of genuine pleasure to Edwin. His experience of “pleasure” is a bleak, snake pit of sexual denigrations that few if any would willingly descend to share with him. Even he doesn’t like it in its raw form, despite the fact that he cannot stop himself from pursuing it. It leaves him pawing through garbage hoping for a clue, any clue, that Sally is unfaithful. The fact is that she really is fucking a half-dozen men on the side. That is strangely a relief for the reader. It affirms some sort of reality because, like Raskolnikov’s pawnbroker, Edwin’s wife is just as vile and deceitful as he imagines her to be.
What makes Sally so grotesque is not that she is cuckolding Edwin. He truly is a lousy lover and besides she is really doing to him out of “love” what she knows he wants her to do. It is not that she is truly a sadist. That is part of the deal with Edwin and he cannot have what he wants if she does not give rein that part of herself.
What divides Sally from Edwin is that she is a boor, and he is not. She stuffs her every opening with cocks (or their equivalent) in the way that Homer Simpson hordes and consumes doughnuts. Having found herself a license to behave like an insensate numbskull, she revels in it. She plunges in tits deep with never a moment’s reserve. Her beauty, which she holds over Edwin as a totem of her absolute power, becomes his talisman of her fleeting substance. He comes to prefer Sally at a distance so that he can fantasize about her boorish excesses, rather than have them slathered and dripped all over him. I can see why. Sally is the ultimate expression of bad taste, and that is the source of the humor in Cuckold.
Edwin, you see, always was a man of reserve, unflinching dedication (and how!), and good taste. He has the Englishman’s decorous sense of social restraint. Those around him lose all control in their pursuit of eroto-consumerism, and so Edwin becomes the ultimate master of the situation. Why?
The answer is delicious. Edwin’s obsession has put him forever at a distance from others, a fact that has given him a degree of consciousness and self-awareness that no one else around him possesses. Unlike anyone else in Ms. Leigh’s novel, he knows not only who he is, but also what he is, and that, ironically, is the tool Sally has given him to take control of her.
Much credit is due Ms. Leigh because she can actually write in fluid, deft and complex English, something which is rarely present these days and on the decline in erotica. It allows her shades of meaning and deliberate ambivalence that few eroticists are able to achieve. She is truly witty. I will leave you with an example that demonstrates how wonderfully this author has captured the dreary horror of obsession:
“Crazy,” he muttered. The word echoed hollowly from the kitchen tiles. It was slurred by the remainder of the third scotch. Forcing himself not to talk out loud, sure the verdict of craziness could only be confirmed if he compounded his present problems with a solitary conversation, he sighed and decided it was now long past the time to put the obsession behind him.
Of course he does not because he cannot, but Edwin learns to use his obsession to control others. Ms. Leigh demonstrates that, once again, there will always be an England, however anally retentive.