The Bed Moved

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

Arlene Hey­man’s Scary Old Sex and Rebec­ca Schif­f’s The Bed Moved are curi­ous­ly sim­i­lar: both are short sto­ry debuts, both use sex as a micro­cosm of human behav­ior, and both col­lec­tions fea­ture a sto­ry about can­cer and a sto­ry about Sep­tem­ber 11th. They are also, of course, both by Jew­ish women, although of dif­fer­ent gen­er­a­tions. Sex and death cir­cle around each oth­er in these sto­ries with such unre­lent­ing pres­sure that there’s lit­tle room for any oth­er kind of experience.

Schif­f’s work has been labeled Slut Lit” by some review­ers — divi­sive yes, but by no means nec­es­sar­i­ly insult­ing. Many women write about sex, but Slut Lit” seems to be about women hav­ing sex that is detached, imper­son­al, and maybe a lit­tle bit sad. That there needs to be a sep­a­rate genre for this kind of writ­ing sug­gests that female sex­u­al ambiva­lence is strange and sur­pris­ing instead of a nor­mal aspect of adult sex­u­al­i­ty. That is what makes the Slut Lit” label tire­some instead of rev­o­lu­tion­ary; there will nev­er be a sep­a­rate cat­e­go­ry of books by men exam­in­ing the curi­ous con­cept of emo­tion­al inti­ma­cy as it relates to male sexuality.

All of that said, slut” does not have to be such a ter­ri­ble word. It could con­jure an unapolo­getic woman who’s in touch with her desires. Heyman’s cadre of old­er women is cer­tain­ly slut­ty by that def­i­n­i­tion, yet the genre hasn’t claimed her. Per­haps the idea of old­er women in pos­ses­sion of a sex dri­ve is too much to stom­ach for even the most slut-friend­ly reviewer.

Where Heyman’s female char­ac­ters are demand­ing and irri­ta­ble, Schiff’s are lacon­ic and ambiva­lent. They rep­re­sent an age gap in slut­ti­ness. Hey­man writes about phys­i­cal encoun­ters frus­trat­ed by the mun­dan­i­ty (or even grotes­querie) of aging, while Schiff writes about com­plex, emo­tion­al empti­ness stem­ming from amounts and types of sex that Heyman’s gen­er­a­tion was hard­ly allowed to put down in writ­ing when they were young.

It is too bad, then, that most of the char­ac­ters in both col­lec­tions are dif­fi­cult to invest in. Both authors’ obser­va­tions are keen and fun­ny, but both cut too close to what they already know: Schif­f’s char­ac­ters are often sur­pris­ing­ly self-inter­est­ed and grate in their youth­ful expectan­cy, while Hey­man’s are most­ly melo­dra­mat­ic and make you want to roll your eyes at their obstinacy.

Schiff’s sto­ries feel like anec­dotes from a sin­gle, white, mid­dle-class life, rather than a mul­ti­plic­i­ty of voic­es and expe­ri­ences. The entire col­lec­tion might as well be about the same per­son, and is beg­ging for the deep­er invest­ment of a nov­el and the chance to grow. Schiff is most suc­cess­ful with younger char­ac­ters who are every bit as wry and bit­ing as their old­er peers, rec­og­niz­ing the emp­ty trade­offs they are expect­ed to make as they mature. I’m in high school,” says one girl. I don’t have sex. I don’t have any­thing.” That line might be the rage at the heart of Slut Lit”: with­out sex, you have no pow­er, and with it you some­times have even less.

Heyman’s explo­rations of the pet­ty and the dull are promis­ing, but her hyper-obser­vant style relies too much on expla­na­tion and leaves lit­tle room for feel­ing. It is also hard to tell if the often insuf­fer­able atti­tudes on dis­play are meant to be iron­ic. Hey­man is at her best when she embraces empa­thy in Danc­ing,” a sto­ry that’s prob­a­bly the least about sex and the most about death in the entire collection.

Despite their short­com­ings, both of these col­lec­tions suc­cess­ful­ly break taboos around sex­u­al­i­ty. Schiff treads rare emo­tion­al ground in writ­ing about female sex­u­al ambiva­lence; Hey­man plunges into large­ly unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry with her sex­u­al nar­ra­tives of old­er women. Schiff’s char­ac­ters, who have what they don’t real­ly want, and Heyman’s, who don’t real­ly want what they have, deserve to be lis­tened to. Hope­ful­ly we are on the edge of a Slut Lit” typhoon, and these voic­es will only become more diver­si­fied and complex. 

Relat­ed Content:

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Final­ist Rebec­ca Schiff

Jew­ish Book Coun­cil is proud to intro­duce read­ers to the five emerg­ing fic­tion authors named as final­ists for the 2017 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture. Today, we invite you to learn more about Rebec­ca Schiff and her book, The Bed Moved, a col­lec­tion of twen­ty-three short sto­ries about the expe­ri­ences of women.

A warm con­grat­u­la­tions to Adam and the oth­er four final­ists: Paul Gold­berg, Idra Novey, Adam Ehrlich Sachs, and Daniel Tor­day. Join Jew­ish Book Coun­cil on May 3, 2017 at The Jew­ish Muse­um for a dis­cus­sion with the authors and announce­ment of the recip­i­ent of the $100,000 Sami Rohr Prize for Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture! Reg­is­ter for free tick­ets here »

What are some of the most chal­leng­ing things about writ­ing fiction?

The most chal­leng­ing thing about writ­ing fic­tion is fac­ing the fact that some­times – often – you’re going to write bad­ly. The chal­lenge is to trust that the good stuff is going to come.

What or who has been your inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing fiction?

Most of my inspi­ra­tion for writ­ing fic­tion has been the work of authors I admire, authors who take risks, who are hilar­i­ous and strange. Their books make me want to write fiction.

Who is your intend­ed audience?

A teacher I had told us to Write for the smart peo­ple.” I take that to mean you should trust your audi­ence to get what you’re doing. But the intend­ed audi­ence is a pro­jec­tion, a fan­ta­sy. Any per­son can pick up your book. Some of them are going to hate its guts.

Are you work­ing on any­thing new right now?

I’m work­ing on new stories. 

What are you read­ing now?

I’m read­ing 10:04 by Ben Lern­er (a pre­vi­ous Sami Rohr final­ist) and Assist­ed Liv­ing by Gary Lutz.

Top 5 favorite books

Oy, I feel bad about every­thing I’m leav­ing out, but here goes:

Birds of Amer­i­ca by Lor­rie Moore

I Would Have Saved Them If I Could by Leonard Michaels

Venus Dri­ve by Sam Lipsyte

Loli­ta by Vladimir Nabokov

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Ray­mond Carver

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I was in third grade when I first decid­ed to be a writer. Our teacher had us hand in a new short sto­ry every two weeks. Dead­lines are always help­ful. I also remem­ber revis­ing one of my sto­ries after school in my par­ents’ bed­room. It was the first time I noticed that I cared about sentences.

What is the moun­tain­top for you — how do you define success?

I first thought this was a ques­tion about my favorite moun­tain­top. There are so many great ones! But writ­ing-wise, if I get to keep pub­lish­ing the books I write, that is success. 

How do you write —what is your pri­vate modus operan­di? What tal­is­mans, rit­u­als, props do you use to assist you?

I know peo­ple have hats and wrist­bands and cof­fee and rou­tines. I don’t real­ly have any of that. I like to write when I first wake up or right before I fall asleep. 

What do you want read­ers to get out of your book?

I want them to feel. And laugh. 

Rebec­ca Schiff grad­u­at­ed from Colum­bia University’s MFA pro­gram, where she received a Hen­field Prize. Her sto­ries have appeared in n+1, Elec­tric Lit­er­a­ture, The Amer­i­can Read­er, Fence, and Guer­ni­ca. She lives in Brooklyn.

Relat­ed Content:

Nicole Loef­fler-Glad­stone is a dance artist, chore­o­g­ra­ph­er, cura­tor, writer and edi­tor liv­ing in NYC. Read her dance crit­i­cism atThe Dance Enthu­si­ast and peep her cura­tion @thebunkerpresents.

Discussion Questions