Gina Frangello Gives “The Hitchhiking Game” Thumbs Up


The characters in Gina Frangello‘s Slut Lullabies are living in extreme desperation: A woman watches her husband deteriorate from mental illness and wonders when their money will run out; a teenage girl comes up with a desperate plan to save her stepmother from her father’s abuse; a grad student already addicted to painkillers is on the verge of making a big mistake with one of her classmates. Gina’s in New York this weekend—appearing at ZieherSmith Gallery Saturday night and Word Brooklyn late Sunday afternoon—and to celebrate, I invited her to zero in a source of inspiration—which sounds very much like her own stories: painful to read at times but difficult to look away from once you’ve started.

Nobody writes sex like Milan Kundera. If he has a counterpart in American literature, it is probably Mary Gaitskill, though of course Gaitskill is of a different generation; by the time her debut collection Bad Behavior came out, Kundera had written some half-dozen books, some of which were first published in Czechoslovakia when she was a small child (and before I was even born). If one investigates Kundera’s American contemporaries, including those “pioneers” of erotic literary fiction such as Philip Roth and John Updike, the Americans can come across almost as adolescent boys titillated by their own naughtiness. It would take decades for American writers to truly explore eroticism, the power dynamics of gender/sexuality, and writing sex as a window to characterization with the nuance, complexity and sophistication Kundera had mastered before the American sexual revolution even began.

And since it is hard to toss a… well, in honor of Kundera, let’s say a bowler hat… without it landing on sex in one of his stories, to pick one that most exemplifies his prowess in this arena could seem difficult. However, the one story that knocked me on my ass when I first read it at the age of 20, and that I find myself teaching in Creative Writing classes again and again over the years is “The Hitchhiking Game” from Laughable Loves.

I love it for its purity, in a way. Most of Kundera’s work, while always carrying a powerful undercurrent of eroticism, concerns other matters on a “plot” level: heavy-hitting topics from the Prague Spring or the Communist repression of humor to riffs on classical music or Goethe. In “The Hitchhiking Game,” by contrast, the story is deceptively simple. A man in his late 20s and his girlfriend (referred to only as “the young man” and “the girl,” à la Hemingway) have a scant two-week holiday from their dreary Czech jobs and, on their first day of a trip, fall almost accidentally into a role-playing game where the girl pretends to be a seductive hitchhiker the young man has picked up. Jealousy—first hers that her slightly-older lover has in fact been in this sort of casual pick-up situation with many women before her; then his at seeing his shy and innocent girlfriend, whom he has on a pedestal, shedding her inhibitions and revealing a primal, anonymous sexuality—begins to flare as the game escalates in intensity.

Kundera is a fabulous author for teaching purposes, and “The Hitchhiking Game” is a vintage example of the editorial omniscient point of view he executes so seamlessly (though his metafiction tendencies are on a lower dial here than in most of his work.) Serving as analyst, spy, provocateur and, occasionally, as god or oracle, he deftly enters the mind of the young man and the girl in turn (and then tells us more about them than they know about themselves) as each becomes overcome with anger, anxiety, hatred, arousal.

At several points, one or the other attempts to end the game, but their efforts are ships in the night, and one always tries to halt just as the other becomes more determined to win their contest of wills. For as Kundera specifies: “…a game is a trap for the players. If this had not been a game and they had really been two strangers, the hitchhiker could long ago have taken offense and left. But there’s no escape from a game. A team cannot flee the playing field before the end of a match, chess pieces cannot desert the chessboard: the boundaries of the playing field are fixed.”

So it is that by the final paragraph, the girl is sobbing in their cheap hotel bed after rough, degrading, and terrifyingly arousing sex, pleading “I am me, I am me,” over and over, and the young man has to “call compassion to his aid” (Kundera stipulates that he had to “call it from afar, because it was nowhere near at hand”) so as to calm his lover down. By turns sexy, uncomfortable, hilarious and menacing, the story ends on the bleak—and yet because this is Kundera, subversively humorous—line: “There were still thirteen days’ vacation before them.”

Laughable Loves is not one of Kundera’s most famous books, and “The Hitchhiking Game” has never had enough play among American readers. Though the girl and the young man seem somewhat dated in their sexual roles (the book itself was published in 1969, and I’m not sure when this story was first written), what is more surprising is how much has not changed. Kundera is still nothing short of a mind reader, able to translate vague universal longings and ideas into language as personal and sharp as a stab wound. He perfectly captures the fact that sexual, gender and power struggles are inseparable from life—that they are life—and that the lines between battle and attraction can be permeable, as can identity itself. Reading “The Hitchhiking Game” can feel almost violating in its intimacy, and yet it is also like epiphany—that amazing revelation the best literature can offer: that you are not alone in the world; that there is a map, however indirect (and perhaps dangerous) pinpointing where you are standing with a sign that reads “I am here.” I am me.

21 May 2010 | selling shorts |