Kamasutra U

In Lee Siegel's outrageously inventive new novel, sex manual marries academic farce with orgasmic results.


Carol Lloyd
June 7, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Rare is the book that makes one stop and wonder: Is this a literary
masterpiece or do I need my head examined? But such is the alternately
awe-inspiring and goofy thrall cast by Lee Siegel's "Love in a Dead
Language."
It is a book of many things -- a satirical romp among the
bloviated windbags of academia, a translation of the ancient sex manual the
Kamasutra, a cross-cultural Lolita tale, a scholarly exegesis on love, and a
murder mystery -- told in myriad whimsical ways through four nested
narrators, a Kamasutra board game, a design for a CD ROM of multiple
translations of the Sanskrit text, sheet music for a romantic aria,
Kamasutra cartoons, numerous newspaper clippings, a bad undergraduate
student essay, excerpts from never-to-be-made, presumably apocryphal
Hollywood scripts, and countless fictive and factual quotes from real and
fabricated historical lovers of India. As if that were not enough to sate
even the horniest linguistic slut, Siegel further molests the reader's
experience by sometimes turning the pages upside down or simply offering
text fragments for the reader to puzzle together. The result is a
contemporary "Tristram Shandy" that makes the original look as spare and
controlled as Raymond Carver.

For anyone who hoped that the days of Robbe-Grillet-esque anti-plots had
been relegated to the literary dust heap forever, "Love in a Dead Language"
may sound like a dangerous step back into the dark ages of postmodern tosh.
But that's the beauty of this book: It instills a pleasure so guilty only
illicit sex on a hot summer night could outdo it.

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The first few pages daunt with their structural complexity, but once the
plot is set in motion the novel gyrates and twists with all the disarming
energy of a royal whore trained in the court of Agra. The hero is Leopold
Roth, a middle-aged, romantically overwrought professor of Indian Studies
at one "Western University," a sun-drenched L.A. college. He falls madly in love with the coyly named Lalita Gupta ("Lolita with an A+," as Roth puts it), a foul-mouthed, second-generation Indian-American undergraduate with no interest in India. At the same time, he embarks on a translation of the Kamasutra -- and it is never quite clear if the translation inspires his infatuation or the other way around. As the translation unfolds, Roth's accompanying "Commentaries" tell the story of his demented obsession with the vapid American student. From the beginning, his love is fueled by his patently racist conception of India as a land of mystery and beauty he can't quite conquer or understand; sex with Lalita, he reasons, will give him some much-needed insight into his subject. Killing two birds with one stone, he contrives a summer study-abroad program in which Lalita is the sole student. In the seduction that unfolds, Roth applies the rules of the Kamasutra, a large portion of which is dedicated to helping the male reader seduce an unlikely lover. In the end (which we know from the beginning), Roth -- ruined by accusations of sexual harassment -- meets an untimely death from a blow to the head from his 10-pound
Monier Monier-Williams' Sanskrit-English Dictionary (1899; reprint, Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1945).

Again, Roth is but one of four narrators: The others include Vatsyayana Mallanaga, the author of the Kamasutra; Pralayananga Lilaraja, Hindu intellectual and Persian translator of the Kamasutra, whose own past commentaries inform the scholarly background for the final narrator; and finally, Roth's only graduate student, the half-Indian/half-Jewish Anang Saighal. Charged with being Roth's literary executor, he undertakes to bring the entire manuscript together, offering personal and scholarly footnotes for the whole, unwieldy mess that Roth has left. In the process, he sets out to discover the mystery of Roth's death.

The mix of ivory tower babble, murderous intrigue and sicko love story is
enticing; the sheer breadth of Siegel's style makes the book irresistible.
Reeling from hallucinatory poetry to wry parody, high theory to base
eroticism, Siegel seems engulfed by the same rapture over language that his
debauched protagonist feels for love.

At times, Siegel shows himself to be a wicked ventriloquist, mimicking a
range of writing styles and making each sing with its own perfect
stupidity. Here's an announcement of his death from the fictive student
newspaper: "Leopold Roth will be remembered not only as a sexual harasser,
but also as a teacher by some undergraduates (who took his Asian Studies 150
class) and by a few graduate students (for his advanced seminars on
Sandscript [sic]). He may also be remembered as a person by some of the people who knew him."

Yet such mockery disappears when Siegel approaches his most revered topic:
sex. When Anang Saighal details a furtive search through his parents'
gynecological texts, the prose turns incantatory and precise. "In secret
study, I marveled over the extravagantly flocculent mons veneris, the demure
prepuce, the pearly clitoris, the shadowy vestibule, the puckered urethra
meatus, the yawning labia majora and minora, the ravening vaginal portal,
the esoteric fourchette, and the contumelious anus."

A few pages later, Siegel offsets the beauty of high-flown and base language
as Lalita Gupta enters Roth's office for an admissions waiver and Roth
rhapsodizes about her sewer-mouthed speech.

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"Fuckin' bureaucracy!" She sighed and sat down. "Will you sign me in?"

My heart lubdubbed itself into a gyroscopic spin. Oh, Her use of the precious present participle, "fucking," from the Indo-European peik, cognate with the Latin pungere, related to the Germanic ficken,
purloined from the Middle Dutch fokken, associated with the Zemblan
fogen, universalized in the Esperanto fuga.

Despite the inane etymological gushing of such love-drunk passages, Leopold Roth is, finally, more emotionally complex than his cradle-snatching precursor,
Humbert Humbert. Roth dearly loves his wife, a professor of feminist studies, and he feels his fall from 20 years of fidelity as a sadness if not a sin. Upon arriving home after running into Lalita at the supermarket and trying to impress her with his purchase of an expensive bottle of champagne, his wife notices.

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"What's the occasion?" asked my dear, bright, and beautiful wife.

"I'm in love," I sadly answered, and Sophia smiled.

Despite the plethora of such poignant, understated moments, however, "Love
in a Dead Language" can't help but suffer at times from its elaborate facade. Just as an overdressed lover can use his ornamentation to distract from his beloved's inquisitive gaze, so too does this rococo linguistic playland keep us from seeing into the hearts of all but the two primary characters -- Roth and Saighal.

And it's hard not to wonder if Siegel has put just as much misguided faith
in the power of the Kamasutra and its intricate codification of love as Roth
has. To the extent that Roth's seduction of Lalita works, it also strains
the credibility of her character as a naive but basically sensible modern
chick. When Lalita accepts Roth's advances (the extent and result of which I
won't disclose) she seems to drift behind the veil that Roth has erected for
her -- becoming a full-blown embodiment of his fantasies, but all the more
invisible for us. It's compelling that intimacy with Lalita causes Roth to quit idolizing her and begin to see her more as an individual, a process nicely paralleled in orthographic fashion as he drops the Biblical pronominal capitalization. But this doesn't help the fact that we've lost sight of one of the book's most important characters.

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Yet, this is nit-picking. "Love in a Dead Language" triumphs in so many areas -- poetic, intellectual, comic, erotic -- that it hardly matters that Siegel bends the integrity of his characters in order to pursue his peculiar vision. His work stands out as a book that is not simply a novel but its own genus of rollicking, narrative scholarship, and in an age when many, inside the academy and out, are finally merging the dreary mind-body split, it is just the cerebral aphrodisiac we need.


Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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