In our Stories That Teach series, we look at what some of our favorite works of short fiction can teach us about craft. In the past, we’ve examined the art of the sentence in Lauren Groff’s “Ghosts and Empties” and dissected the creepiness of Laura Benedict’s “When I Make Love to the Bug Man,” to name just two. Today, we examine the ineffable lessons that Susan Minot’s “Lust” can teach us about the fictional form, as well as its concrete commentary—still hauntingly relevant today—on relationships between women and men. You can read Susan Minot’s story here (you need to sign in with Narrative; it is free to register).
This story is about the—implicit and explicit—silencing of and disrespect for women that occurs in their romantic relationships with men. This is something that we certainly touched on, but did not linger over, in class discussions.
Discussed by Sadye Teiser
Susan Minot’s story, “Lust,” was always one of the most popular in the undergraduate creative writing courses I taught. When it came time for students to imitate the form of a story that we had read, many picked Minot’s unusual and pithy piece. “Lust” was originally published in 1989, before most of my students were born. But it teaches what is still a progressive lesson, namely: a story can take any form that it likes.
We would always discuss the story’s form and content, but the greatest lesson that I hoped “Lust” would teach my students was an ineffable one. It was a lesson I could not map on a Frye tag, assign vocabulary to, or quantify in any way. I wanted my students to realize that, though a story can take many shapes: you know a story when you read one. You know this because it feels complete.
Susan Minot’s “Lust” chronicles the relationships that its unnamed protagonist has with men while she is at boarding school. It is told in a series of stand-alone parts, from a sentence to a paragraph in length, that together form a cohesive story. They are told in first person and second person, in past and present tense.
There is a section about the protagonist’s parents, and their oblivious remarks about the boyfriends she had at boarding school. Though brief, the passage is brimming with specificity, such as the closing line: “My father was too shy to talk to them at all unless they played sports and he’d ask them about that.” There is a poignant, short section about the songs she associates with certain men. There is a sweeter, melancholy passage about a boy who dies in a car crash shortly after his tryst with the protagonist.
In one passage, she spends the night with a guy who is too shy to make a move until, as they fall asleep, he puts his arm around her—and that is the extent of it. Another passage describes a romance on a camping trip, sleeping bags zipped together. In another section, our protagonist talks, bluntly, about all the different types of penises she’s seen, remarking: “But it’s like faces; you’re never really surprised.”
Some passages are more sinister. One recounts a memory of the boys who lived next door while the protagonist was growing up. They tied her ankles together, and forced her to show them her underwear. Another recalls lines that men have yelled at the protagonist from cars. It ends with this: “So I’d go because I couldn’t think of something to say back that wouldn’t be obvious, and if you go out with them, you sort of have to do something.”
It is through these different stories, which are part of the same story, that “Lust” progresses. It ends in a different place than where it began. It feels whole.
What drives this progression? When I reread “Lust” to write this piece, the answer was eerily and painfully clear. This story is about the—implicit and explicit—silencing of and disrespect for women that occurs in their romantic relationships with men. This is something that we certainly touched on, but did not linger over, in class discussions.
But it is right there. Near the beginning of the story, the protagonist describes herself, waiting for her lover to return, as: “a body waiting on the rug.” It is followed soon after by this two-line section:
He likes it when I wash my hair. He covers his face with it and if I start to say something, he goes, “Shush.”
From there, it continues. The story builds by describing, in greater and greater detail, the effects that this culture of silencing and disrespect has on our (significantly) unnamed protagonist. Here is a selection of passages that convey this, in chronological order:
It was different for a girl.
The more girls a boy has, the better. . . . For a girl, with each boy it’s as though a petal gets plucked each time.
Then you start to get tired. You begin to feel diluted, like watered-down stew.
Then they get mad after, when you say enough is enough. After, when it’s easier to explain that you don’t want to. You wouldn’t dream of saying that maybe you weren’t really ready in the first place.
You wonder how long you can keep it up. You begin to feel as if you’re showing through, like a bathroom window that only lets in grey light, the kind you can’t see out of.
Another passage includes snippets of a conversation that the girls have with their housemother at boarding school:
“They always want something from you,” says Jill, complaining about her boyfriend.
“Yeah,” says Giddy. “You always feel like you have to deliver something.”
“You do,” says Mrs. Gunther. “Babies.”
The closing passage begins with this visceral image: “After sex, you curl up like a shrimp, something deep inside you ruined . . .” and ends with the lines: “You’re gone. Their blank look tells you that the girl they were fucking is not there anymore. You seem to have disappeared.”
Here is another message from the 1980s that shouldn’t be a revelation to us today, but it is still something rarely discussed. It is hauntingly relevant. Unlike the success of the story’s irregular form, this systemic silencing of women is something that you can feel, but that you can also name. You can talk about it in concrete terms, as Susan Minot did in “Lust.” There are still so many lessons that we can learn from this story. I hope that we do.