Reading Oksana Zabuzhko’s Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex is like having bad sex. You’re not enjoying yourself but you don’t necessarily feel like stopping. Your mind wanders, you wonder how long until it’s over, and you may even fake a response just so it’ll stop. After all, it’s late and you need to get some sleep.
If this seems an unfair analogy, I apologize, but so much of the book is about sex, both in terms of sexuality and gender, that it seems apt to think of the book in this way. If I may (pun alert) extend my analogy: the book, like bad sex, is hard to forget because of the tease and lack of climax. It presents stimulating ideas but fails to focus on them with any sustained energy, leaving the reader frustrated.
Clearly I am in the minority; the book was a bestseller in the Ukraine and the author’s reputation was cemented by its publication. It seems an important book, worthy of translation and publication here in these United States, though one might argue that the subject matter (feminine sexuality and gender norms) dictates the book’s importance more than the actual book. Perhaps too many other writers have mined this territory before, thus the “controversy” mentioned on the book’s back cover is relative. In the Ukraine, a frank exploration of feminine sexuality might be bold, but nothing in the book seemed shocking to these jaded eyes.
Perhaps this is an issue with translation, as another feminist text, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, was famously butchered upon initial translation. Still, I want to have faith in Amazon Crossing and their ability to select good translations of quality works. And this is not a bad book, per se, though it is not always enjoyable. The stream-of-consciousness narration and lack of paragraph breaks may alienate some readers, but even those who have cut their teeth on Virginia Woolf or Thomas Bernhard may drift while reading Zabuzhko’s book. There are engaging moments, but they are scattered throughout a series of otherwise tedious meditations on sex, gender, poetry, and estrangement, all themes worth exploring, sure, but not always well explored here. Zabuzhko has some compelling moments in her book, but, again, they lack connectivity and only flit in and out (pun intended), leaving the reader confused and, well, unsatisfied.
There are good moments in Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex, but finding them requires effort, patience, and a tolerance for digressions that miss as often, if not more, than they hit. The attentive reader may be rewarded, assuming they have not seen books like this before, and assuming these attentive readers are like a polite lover: willing to overlook flaws and put up with a lackluster performance because the act itself is so important.
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