March 18, 2017

The Virginity of Famous Men
Christine Sneed

Old Friends – Reading the fourth book of a much-admired writer is like meeting a dear chum for a relaxed, happy dinner in a charming bistro overlooking a calm, beautiful bay. You know it’ll be good. Plus, you know something of what to expect while, at the same time, you’re eager to discover what’s new.

“The Virginity of Famous Men” is Christine Sneed’s fourth book, her second collection after her debut, “Portraits of a Few of the People I’ve Made Cry,” and two novels, “Little Known Facts” and “Paris, He Said.”

As I began reading these new stories, I found myself looking forward to Sneed’s signatures: her titles, which almost always evoke a different emotion from me after reading the story than before; her agility at conveying human relationships and the shifting dynamics in fraught conversations; her sometimes-gentle, sometimes-biting humor; her skillfulness at depicting just the right level of social clumsiness in awkward situations; and her talent in condensing time, action and feeling into powerful paragraphs. In fact, Christine Sneed accomplishes more in a paragraph than many writers achieve in an entire story.

From her story, “The First Wife:”
“After seven months of bickering, I got much more than four million in cash and the Laurel Canyon house. As soon as we both signed the papers, we didn’t speak again for two and a half years, not until our paths overlapped at a fundraiser for an AIDS research foundation that his second wife had insisted he attend with her. He married her a year after leaving me, and this time he insisted on a prenuptial agreement. Five months later, they were parents.”

And another:
“I wanted him to come home and tell me to my face that he was leaving me for another woman. As you can see, I wanted to make it difficult for him.”

And from “The Functionary:”
“The last utterance was code for annihilation, as so many of the underground room’s phrases were: ‘address all contingencies,’ ‘overcome obstacles,’ ‘confront a foreign presence,” and, in a few of the more specialized cases, ‘meet and greet.’ As Marcus soon realized, the underground room was a morgue, with the world’s dead hidden in words rather than on rolling metal planks concealed behind a stainless-steel wall.”

Here was a fun surprise: Sneed even gets more out of an abbreviation than most writers! Observe her use of N.B., meaning nota bene: “N.B. No one who marries someone famous knows precisely what will happen to their self-esteem.”

In this new collection, I found Sneed’s playing with form – an invitation in “The Couplehood Jubilee,” and entire story in “The New, All-True CV” – to be delightful. And I was reminded that when she writes about Hollywood, Christine Sneed gets the movie titles just right. The Color of Exile is “a film that eventually ended up on some of the worst-films-of-the-year lists.” And the sequel to Two Things You Should Know? Two More Things You Should Know. Perfection.

I also was reminded how she gets Paris just right – or, at least, the Paris I romanticize. From the book’s title story, “Rain was falling for the fifth day in a row, the sky layered with baggy, newsprint-gray clouds, birds silent and chasten in their nests. Water poured or dripped from every awning and overhang onto the heads of sullen passersby.”

Christine Sneed’s explorations of the lives of the famous, the not-famous, the young and the aging, is always illuminating. What a terrific book.


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