Desire gets a bad rap, and not just from prudes. Buddhists, for instance, come out pretty firmly against it (desire, they say, is the root of suffering), and even atheists like me are susceptible to the wisdom of the Buddha. But Jamie Quatro sees it differently. Maggie, the protagonist and intermittent narrator of Quatro’s new novel, Fire Sermon, wants to want. Her desire is what makes her human and also what connects her to something larger, something she insists on calling God.
Those who have read Quatro’s first book will recognize the theme of desire. I Want to Show You More, a collection of stories, was handsomely blurbed and ecstatically reviewed, and—perhaps most telling of all—was one of those books that get fervently passed from writer to writer. Among other enticements, it featured a series of lambently honest, somewhat otherworldly treatments of adultery. The stories exerted an urgent tug as I read—they created a beating, hot, weird heart at the center of the collection. As James Wood wrote in The New Yorker, “The stories about adultery make a book-within-a-book.”
In Fire Sermon, Quatro places all her chips on that book-within-a-book. Maggie is a writer and a mother, raised as a strict Christian, who falls in love with a man who is not her husband. “This story begins where others end,” Quatro writes. “A boy and a girl in love, a wedding, a happily-ever-after.” And then what? Two children, two careers, a few moves, and a couple of decades later, the wife discovers that she wants—well, what, exactly? Maybe she just wants. Full disclosure: Quatro blurbed my recent memoir, Love and Trouble. Fuller disclosure: Quatro and I hoe the same occasionally dolorous row of female midlife yearning. The wanting to want, the insistent shoulder-tapping of desire—these things seized me in my mid-40s, and so I expected to be a sitting duck for Quatro’s all-in take on the theme.
Desirousness moves restlessly like a bird across the landscape of Maggie’s life—she has flirtations with, or crushes on, or inappropriate friendships with, a series of people. An unattributed voice, presumably that of her shrink, says to her: “So you’ve come to me, again, because you keep falling in love with men who aren’t your husband.” Her wanting finally settles on James, a poet whose work she admires. The two become correspondents, as do so many of the characters in I Want to Show You More, which deals with love at a distance, replete with torrid email exchanges and phone sex—rituals of modern-day longing. In Fire Sermon, too, Quatro is good on the mores of this sort of courtship: the coyness, the posturing, the elaborately casual self-presentation.
Eventually Maggie and James meet in person, and I have to say that I don’t think they bring out the best in each other. Here’s what flirtation looks like between these two: They sit on a park bench and chat about “St. John of the Cross, how he said we might become sexually aroused in the middle of spiritual acts, such as prayer, or communion, because when the spirit is moved to pleasure it drags the body up with it.” At this point I scrawled in my copy of the book, “Can’t they just fuck and be done with it?”
We’re meant to understand why James makes Maggie swoony, but to us nonpoets he sounds tiresomely pretentious—so much so that I wondered whether Quatro intended us to roll our eyes. When the two first meet: “I shook his hand. Tattooed on his wrist: the word sight. Later, at lunch, I’d notice the other wrist: vision.” (On his third wrist: a drawing of Camus smoking a hand-rolled cigarette and wearing a beret.)
We know right from the start that they will end up in bed, because the book skips around chronologically. The middle of the novel is consumed with Maggie and James’s letters, fragmented memories of their single night together, and an accounting of her life with her husband, a relationship drained of whatever intensity it once might have harbored. By contrast, when she imagines sex with the genteelly tattooed poet, Maggie has this to say:
Actually it was otherworldly, ecstatic in a religious sense, at the deepest point of penetration the room fell away and the sky tore open and we were swept up into electric galaxies, our bodies fused together in the presence of a God who allowed us to reach up and run our fingers through the down of his beard.
Prose as awful as this, from a writer of Quatro’s gifts, again raises the question of whether she means us to grow impatient with her protagonist.
Quatro repeatedly returns to this kind of egregiously full-throated religious language. The rest of the book—the descriptions of marriage and family—unfolds in a far less stagy register, allowing the reader to slip into the nuances of the novel’s emotional flow, only to be yanked out by this God stuff. I was initially suspicious of and even hostile to Quatro’s religious preoccupation. It felt like a veneer, a spit shine, a way of elevating the down-and-dirty nature of the material—as if Quatro were thinking, Hmm, if I describe adultery or anal sex in this high-flown language, then I can get away with it.
I thought I detected another, more insidious impulse at work as well, a kind of subconscious misogyny. The author seems at times to be punishing her adulteress. Maggie must be made to endure mortification, the way so many of her fictional sisters pay for their transgressions, from Anna Karenina to Emma Bovary to more-recent examples such as the protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau. Even the eternally independent thinker Rachel Cusk is unable to resist punishing the straying wife Tonie in her novel The Bradshaw Variations; faithless Tonie ends up imperiling her own child. In the case of Maggie, the chastisements are quieter and certainly more interior—mostly taking the form of her own (rather histrionic) discomfort over her affair: “Shall I pray, Let Christ always be dying for the pain that moment caused, and is still causing?”
Worn down by Maggie’s breast-beating, I found myself missing the kinetic oddness of I Want to Show You More, a book that combines a charmingly flat, demotic style with a taste for the surreal. Some of Quatro’s stories, which feel as though they have been dredged from dreams, recall the painter and writer Leonora Carrington’s short fiction. In “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement,” all the runners in a marathon must carry personalized statues, the majority of which are “half-human, half-animal sculptures doing lewd things with their bodies. Creatures with hideously sized phalluses.” In “Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives,” an ex-lover’s body lies decomposing in a married woman’s bed, causing logistical problems and also some very bad smells.
In Fire Sermon we get God instead of such playful, parable-like turns. It’s not a trade-off I would’ve chosen. And yet. Eventually Quatro brought me around to her way of seeing things. The God stuff isn’t there to polish or to punish her adulteress. It’s essential to Maggie’s character and to what Quatro wants to say. In the end, the book is a profound, and profoundly strange, meditation on desire and how it connects us to the “eternal” (a word Maggie is fond of). Maggie is someone who is never satisfied by what she has—who is defined by what she lacks. Her mother says of her: “She’ll go hard after something and once she gets it no longer care. A hammered gold necklace she pestered me to buy for a year … she wore it twice and gave it away.”
The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan developed the idea of the thing that you desire but will always lack—the unattainability of the object being essential to the desire. The concept will be familiar to anyone who’s ever scribbled her crush’s name on her Pee-Chee folder in seventh-grade math class: You don’t really want the boy in the next row—honestly you wouldn’t know what to do with him if you got him. You just want to want.
Throughout Fire Sermon, Quatro weaves the image of desire slipping away once its object is at hand. “I read an interview with a poet yesterday, someone you mentioned knowing,” Maggie writes in an unsent letter to James. “He said that when he was a boy he climbed the tree beside his house to gather apples. Sitting in the top branches … his desire for apples fell away. He forgot about them completely.”
So perhaps I shouldn’t have been as surprised as I was when the book offered a startling gift: a very serious, and deeply against-the-grain, reconsideration of marriage. The institution is valuable, Fire Sermon tells us, because it creates an impediment to obtaining the object of your desire. In the absence of real religious proscriptions in the modern world, marriage itself becomes an engine of longing. In other words, Maggie is able to feel these desires not in spite of the ramparts of marriage, but because of them. In a climactic passage that Quatro titles “Fire Sermon,” Maggie celebrates the role marriage plays as a lifeline to eternity:
But what if (Brothers, Sisters, bear with me) the institution of marriage was given to us as an intentional breeding ground for illicit desire? … Hear: without the prohibitions against fornication and infidelity, we would sate and sate and sate again, looking always for the next object in which to find fulfillment, we would gratify our longings until we had nothing left to long for, and the ability to long itself died off.
She concludes: “So let me burn.”
This declamation wowed me with its derring-do. We sometimes hear people say that an affair helped their marriage, but I’ve never heard anyone promulgate the idea that her marriage helped her affair. It’s just not a very comfortable thought. And yet that’s what Maggie’s saying here. The state of marriage makes yearning possible, and yearning makes us burn, which Maggie (and perhaps Quatro) sees as a good and essential and human thing. I was stunned by the notion, and enchanted by the way the book built to a crystallized idea rather than a scene or an event—thinking as a dramatic gesture is a pleasure found more commonly in nonfiction than in fiction.
Rereading with this idea of unsated desire fresh in my head, I found that Quatro had seeded the problem of wanting throughout. What had seemed a lot of overblown palaver about God felt illuminated, now that the “Fire Sermon” echoed in my mind. Once I understood its creator’s design, the pattern of the book became beautiful to me. By the time she’s done bobbing and weaving her way through her narrative, Quatro makes us feel the absolute necessity of desire, which she reveals as something shining: a hammered-gold necklace, begged for, worn twice, given away.
This article appears in the March 2018 print edition with the headline “The Virtue of Illicit Desire.”