Thursday, June 10, 2010

It Takes Two

Novelette by Nicola Griffith

Originally published in Eclipse 3
Podcast by Starship Sofa, read by the Christie Yant.

Cody is a female executive trying to close a big contract and get a promotion. She's a lesbian and in order to seal the deal, her southern good ol' boy client insists on taking people to a strip club. Some kind of weird test. Cody is understandably uncomfortable with the whole setup, both the strip club in general, and the guys watching her watch the girls. Then Cookie takes the stage and Cody falls madly in lust.

This is almost a love story. But rather than the point being "happily ever after", it's philosophical about what love, lust, and attraction are. The setting is two-weeks-into-the-future.

I'd recommend the audio over the paper version: Yant is a good reader, but more importantly, the awkward exposition bit 2/3 into the story is less awkward when listened to. And the sex stuff is less generic-erotica-sounding than it reads on the page. But I might be biased because Yant sounds like a friend of mine.

I can't say much more without spoilers. And they matter to this story. So go listen/read if you're going to. This is definitely R-rated, if that matters.

Anyway I do recommend this, but not unreservedly: 4 eccentric strip-club-loving businessmen out of 5.

My likes, dislikes, and general thoughts on the story (with spoilers) are well mirrored by this review. So rather than make the internet more redundant, I'll just post the link and for the sake of posterity, quote the relevant part of Abigail Nussbaum's Strange Horizon's review in white text on white background (highlight to read):

Nicola Griffith's novelette "It Takes Two," ... is one of my very favorite stories from 2009. It also doesn't really work.

...

After several pages of Cody and Cookie (real name Susanna) simultaneously marveling and rejecting their undeniable chemical response to one another in slightly clich├ęd terms ("'Do you suppose this is l—' She couldn't say it. She didn't believe it."), Cody returns to San Francisco and is accosted by her friend Richard, and for the next ten pages or so "It Takes Two" mainly consists of Richard explaining the story's McGuffin and Cody reacting with varying degrees of alarm, disbelief, and horror to the revelation that she hired Richard to prime both herself and Susanna with each other's sexual and romantic preferences and fantasies, essentially manufacturing love at first sight. Even leaving aside just how convoluted and tenuous a method this is of securing a deal (are there really executives, even Atlanta good ol' boys, who will sign a deal with someone because "I like the way you handle yourself . . . no boasting, no big words, you just sit quiet then seize the opportunity"?) the structure of the story is off: story, story, story, exposition, exposition, exposition, dilemma—as Cody has to decide whether to take what Griffith rather cleverly dubs "RU486 for the brain" and destroy her artificial feelings for Susanna, or embrace them.

Why then, do I still think that "It Takes Two" is a brilliant story? Because it is just so damnably creepy. We all know, even if we don't like to be reminded of it, that even the loftiest of emotions are chemical fluctuations in our brains, and that those chemicals can and are being manipulated on various levels and with various degrees of finesse. What makes "It Takes Two" disturbing is not so much that it adds love to the list of reactions that can be externally, medically controlled, but that it takes the obvious next step of assuming that once that ability is achieved it will be commodified, that the next step in prostitution will be whores who really do mean it when they say "you're special, I wouldn't do this with anyone but you" (in that sense "It Takes Two" covers much of the same ground as Joss Whedon's recently cancelled Dollhouse). "It Takes Two" doesn't shy away from the fact that Susanna has sold herself in the most profound way possible, and that Cody has bought her, but at the same time it encourages us to root for a romantic ending. The resulting tension between romance and revulsion is what makes the story, what makes it possible to ignore the problems in its premise and structure, and what makes its ending simultaneously satisfying and horrifying.

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