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BOORS & THE CULTURE Breathless in St. Petersburg BY JAMES E. McWILLIAMS Lying Together: My Russian Affair Jennifer Beth Cohen University of Wisconsin Press 211 pages, $22.95 IIt demands either ignorance or arrogance to think that anyone really cares about a well-bred, well-educated, well-heeled, and well-packaged white woman whose mundane romantic life takes a turn for the worse. It demands even more ignorance or arrogance to think that anyone would care about this woman’s vapid relationship with a recovering alcoholic \(who drinks furin love with online and pursued in Kiev under the false pretence of journalistic fame \(he claimed to possess a receipt proving that then Secretary of State Strobe Talbott bedded a Russian prosGiven the raw manner in which Jennifer Beth Cohen, at the time a tabloid journalist, wrote her lovelorn declension narrativeone that sinks squarely into that unappreciated genre known as “honky trouble” literature \(think The Virgin Suicides and the culprit is clearly ignorance. Which is sort of a relief. If Cohen were writing a sex manual, a guide to eating disorders, or a self-help bookthemes all peripheral to this memoir in which nothing is really centralthere’d be hell to pay, or at least lawsuits to settle. Her perspective on these themes is misinformed at best, and, more likely, clinically dysfunctional. But Cohen writes bluntly about a busted relationship, so she’s off the hook as an expert on these other, more marketable, matters. It’s a busted relationship, moreover, that hadn’t a chance in hell. It’s also a busted relationship that she honestly believed would work. Even overlooking the quandary that her new found lover boy, Kevin, still had his old girlfriend’s name tattooed on his arm and never had that Talbott receipt, that’s a sad, even pathetic, thing for Cohen to believe. It is, however, good news for us. Indeed, Cohen’s daffy assumption makes the book tick. If she dropped hints that she should have seen the obvious emotional implosion coming, that she should have kicked herself for being so emotionally nave, so quick to rationalize the obvious warning signs, I missed it. And so the benefit of Cohen’s failure to anticipate the inevitable blindsideone that she documents in often shameless detailis that I was able to read her memoir and periodically howl things like “Jesus Christ! How could you be so damn stupid!!” or “You did WHAT with your fianc on the bus going to These are not refined literary responses. But hey, they’re fun. Of course, there’s always the chance that I’m the one being duped. Cohen’s innocence could be artfully feigned. Perhaps she is so gifted a writer, so in command of her narrative point of view, that her innocence is coy, working as a brilliant literary conceit finely calibrated to evoke the bitchy outbursts more appropriate for “The Jerry Springer Show” than a chick-lit memoir. The problem with this remote possibility, however, is that Cohen’s prose is simply too coarse to have ever mastered such a conceit. Burdened with a story that only a coup of brilliant writing could salvage, Cohen overwrites, relying on several props to stabilize her wobbly material. Here we have a story, after all, where two young professionals a few years out of Boston University fall in love cyberspacially, meet physically, screw mightily, grow bored predictably, fight passive-aggressively, and break up in a manner so trite no adverb could do it justice. So, you see, not much in the way of originality \(aside from the sequence where Kevin tries to kill Cohen, but even that’s kind her prose feel like it has just run the 50-yard dash. “I inhale deeply, and so does he.” “After a long, exaggerated inhalation, he simply shakes his head no.” “As he inhales, I exhale.” “I have to catch the midnight train back to St. Pete,” he tells me, breathless. “I gather steam as we barrel breathlessly …” “Breathless, I tell him about the attack…” “Take a deep breath, Jen. You don’t know him.” “Fingers intertwined, breath heavy, we move together until…” Whew. The tabloid-ish nature of Cohen’s chatty memoir leads her to refer awkwardly to, of all things, poetry. Describing St. Petersburg, she writes, “Everywhere you turn there are touches of evil decorated with hints of poetry. A lot of poetry.” Before the couple descends back to earth, Kevin says, “Hey, … in that tone that speaks poetry?’ Back on earth, “Expletives lace his diction like metaphors in a poem.” Later, in a moment of hope after the fall, Kevin says “hey” again. This time, though, it’s “like an artist worn from work… like a secret code, a pact, or”lo and behold!”a poem.” Cohen further struggles to imbue her flighty story with gravitas by larding her prose with writerly descriptions and MFA-patented metaphors. More often than not, they fall with a thud. A particularly tense moment is “drawn through a molasses-saturated version of time.” An apartment is not a welllighted place but rather a venue where “two cavernous rooms absorbed heated blankets of sun.” On a rainy evening in Helsinki puddles don’t just form, they “litter the ground.” When Cohen finds Kevin’s pornographic e-mail to his exwife, she wants to “release the stonehard tears stuck in my throat, in my stomach.” Cohen doesn’t just smell the cigarette smoke on Kevin, she “can feel the nicotine emanating from his skin.” That’s right, she felt it, right about the time continued on page 28 20 THE TEXAS OBSERVER FEBRUARY 4, 2005