Run Catch Kiss

New York Times

Friday, August 20, 1999

Generational Profile? No, It’s the Sex, Stupid

By Richard Bernstein

A little-known event that took place around the time that Richard M. Nixon was resigning as President was the birth of Amy Sohn, the ingenuish author of “Run Catch Kiss,” a clever, awkwardly hip, flimsy novel of Generation X. The sociological astrology of Ms. Sohn’s birth deserves some attention here, especially in light of the consciously vapid concupiscence of her book, which evokes the life and fantasies of a young sex columnist for a downtown alternative weekly in New York.

The birth date question seems relevant for several reasons. One is that Ms. Sohn has emerged as a representative of her generation, those comfortably nihilistic, politically disengaged, economically anxious urbanites about whom so much has been written. Second, Ms. Sohn actually is a sex columnist, for The New York Press, a conservative alternative weekly published in Manhattan, and the fact that there are sex columnists these days is perhaps a not extremely subtle clue to the spirit of the times.

Third, there is the theory of the end of history, which also means the end of world-historical causes and meanings. A concomitant to the end of history is a kind of spiritual inversion in which sex, for example, along with a cynical, solipsistic self-satisfaction, replaces the outward-looking idealism that was once characteristic of youth.
Well, I don’t believe in generational determinism; not all people in their 20’s inhabit Ms. Sohn’s world of detached, hedonistic bohemianism. Still, there is something about her career so far that suggests a mini-Zeitgeist, and “Run Catch Kiss” is a good emblem of it. It is a clever and witty book, but it is also more a collection of fragments, held together by a slender strand of plot, than a fully formed novel.

The subject is sex and longing, More specifically, the subject is a young woman’s desperate efforts to: 1, make it in the downtown world of New York; 2, find true love, and 3, while she’s waiting, have lots of sex: sex about as mysterious and spiritually fulfilling as brushing your teeth. The Spenglerian gloom-and-doom forces among us would lament that after 3,000 years of civilization it has come to this.

There is a bright and funny side to “Run Catch Kiss,” mostly in the fact that Ms. Sohn is a talented woman who writes with an energetic self-mockery. There are many clever moments in her picaresque tale of an updated Holly Golightly whose unhinged sexual experiences are material for her newspaper column. The woman in question is a recent Brown graduate named Ariel Steiner who falls into writing her sex column for a politically conservative downtown newspaper called City Week. The sex is mostly unfulfilling, but Ariel needs material, so she keeps on trying to get it, even as she worries about what her parents – liberal and permissive, but there’s a limit! – will think.

The reason the sex is not very good is that the young men involved in Ariel’s life are far too self-absorbed and egotistical to be of much use. This gives Ms. Sohn some pretty good satirical targets. Her story about the boyfriend who snorts heroin so casually he has no idea how transgressive it is serves as a commentary on the bland unawareness of Ariel’s world.

“Downtown Rag Cans Fibbing Squibber” is the tabloid headline when Ariel is fired from her job as sex columnist after her editors discover she has been making up some of her sexual adventures. That’s not only an on-the-mark tabloid headline but also a well-aimed dart at a kind of introverted journalistic idealism, like a thief getting morally outraged when his pocket is picked.

“I think how baseball is kind of like sex, because it’s not a consistently high-energy sport,” Ariel muses as she watches the 1996 World Series in a bar. “There are these intermittent surges of excitement every once in a while, followed by a steady lull for a few minutes, until the next surge comes again.” Ms. Sohn’s Brown University composition instructor would have given a high mark for that.

There is some fun here, in other words. Ariel, who is Ms. Sohn’s narrator, likens herself to Dorothy Parker and Fran Lebowitz, and one senses more than a little autobiographical projection in this. Who knows? Maybe that thinly disguised prophecy will hold true. But so far, despite the fun to be had in “Run Catch Kiss,” Ms. Sohn hasn’t arrived yet. This novel is also a bit like Ariel’s baseball; it has a few surges, but mostly it is tedious in its adorable, hapless, nervously brash one-noteness.

Aside from her few acidulous comments on her cohort’s collective consciousness, Ms. Sohn doesn’t have much to say even as she recycles herself as material, no longer for a sex column but for a sex novel. At the end of the century, after Henry Miller, Philip Roth, Erica Jong and others who have exploited the sexual confessional mode, she seems not only imitative but palely imitative as well.

Here again Ms. Sohn provides material that she aims at others but that could just as well be aimed at herself. At one point Ariel is talking about her drug-addict boyfriend, complaining that all he talks about is “what geniuses Hunter S. Thompson, Carlos Castaneda and Jim Carroll were.” But, she says, “a girl can only hear so much about Thompson, Castaneda and Carroll before she starts to get a little bored.”

Well, a reader can also have enough of unmodulated erotic bravado. What “Run Catch Kiss” needs is some psychological or moral depth to go with its slick, commercially oriented wit and bawdy energy. One sees in this book the beginnings of a generation-specific satire, but only the beginnings. And in a novel, unlike a newspaper column, the beginnings are not enough.