Jane Unrue’s Love Hotel, we know by way of its dust jacket, is a novel, a roman, a romance. It is also a poem where the stanzas are pages: with broken lines, cinematic cuts, intensified phrasing, wavering intuitions. And it is a play or screenplay with slug lines: NURSERY, STONE STEPS, NIGHT WE MET. Yet it is resolutely counter to the spirit of the book to render it whole. It is meant to be traced, I think, by the body or hand of the mind. “In place of a hermeneutics,” Susan Sontag admonished us, “we need an erotics of art.” I know of few contemporary novels that justify this sentiment more than Love Hotel.
A love hotel is a place with love in it because it is a place where love is brought and made, where fantasies are fulfilled and delayed, dissolved and explored. Only the exploration of love is done at love’s mercy, in the sense that it transports us through memory and space. The same could be said for Unrue’s novel. The love hotel of the title is one among many spaces its lines explore: an elevator, a lobby, a set of keys, seen, again, on the dust jacket, take us through a labyrinth of ecstatic impressions, some fearful, all within the bounds of the erotic. What I mean is that the flicker that enters your body when you read the words “love hotel” frames the spirit of the book.
If so far I have made Love Hotel sound incomprehensible, it isn’t. It’s more like the state of being you might encounter during (or after) a fulfilling, or overfilling, sexual experience. In that sense, the book is filtered through the prism of the body of its protagonist, a woman of uncertain age, and it begins, more or less, like this:
When I got to that hotel however I stepped down into the patio protected by a wall of textured brick. A flagstone walkway curved around a bed of flowers.
Filled with dread I tried to keep from seeing
There is someone in my room I repeated into the tiny opening in the frosted glass window of the reception desk.
I mean to say I tried so hard to keep from being seen.
New key in hand I took the elevator up.
Only, in Love Hotel, unlike other novels, the body and mind are not unlinked. Sitting across from a woman on a train, the speaker falls asleep; she dreams of a tiny, birdlike child brought to her on a plate. She finds herself on a verandah. In a city museum. She returns to work at a mansion for a couple with sexual, perhaps insidious, intent. The novel is flush with scenes of Proustian transposition, though her ekstasis (and yours) isn’t necessarily caused by a madeleine. She is just as readily transported by the touch of metal or a frightful moment or the lingering dread of an unsettling question. The speaker’s body is the talisman of Love Hotel. In one of many sexualized, often disquieting encounters with the couple in the mansion, the speaker rebels:
Clearly they could see in me what others had not seen in me
that in me all impressions feelings touches multiply
Take hold of me.
Although the novel at first seems French — I platitudinously thought of Resnais’ Je t’aime je t’aime, the nouveau roman, and the poetic realist films of Gremillon and Carné — the above lines more likely update the eroticism of Poe or Whitman. “I contain multitudes” is kindred to the “impressions feelings” that multiply within her when she is touched. But all of this betrays the truth that Love Hotel is less written than enacted through the body of its speaker. It glides between genres too elegantly and too bodily to be the work of a single mind (or body). But somehow it is.
One of Love Hotel’s genres is the playfully erotic, although such moments are held in suspended animation — you can sense them coming in ripples of fictional time. “Curtains drawn,” pages later, becomes:
He got on top of me. Then she. Beginning here I saw an atmosphere within the darkness start to glow as if it were illuminated by the borrowed light that burned within their bodies leaking through their eyes that shone like balls thrown in the air above me kept aloft by so much heavy breathing. Panting. Moans were helpful in identifying who was who but truly there was no detective work to do in there.
They played out in a scene of jealousy.
“No detective work to do in there,” the speaker playfully enjoinders among the breathing bodies. In Love Hotel, what is detective work but interpretation? Sontag reminded us that novels, especially those that willfully cling to old forms, will remain “prone to assault by interpretation.” Not this one.