I’ve been trying to count how many times I’ve penned myself profiles for dating advertisements, and the truth is I can’t. Since my first major relationship ended in May of 1990, I have been so often so completely dateless, and I have so often thrown myself on the cold, strange mercy of lonelyhearts adverts that I can’t even begin to say how many times I have summed myself up in a 100 words (or fewer). I should also, as a point of honesty, admit that I’ve courted the audience more akin to the lonelylabia or the lonelyglans than the lonelyhearts. I’ve written ads both to be loved and to be fucked; I’ve written ads early and often; I’ve written ads cynical and earnest; I’ve written ads, in short.
I’ve even written columns about writing ads. I’ve written for magazines and websites, and I’ve written for pay and for free. I’ve walked the dating ad walk, talked the dating ad talk, and I’ve occasionally done both while chewing gum.
I know of what I speak, if what I speak of is dating adverts, and thus when I say that I’ve never read anything quite like Sexually, I’m More of a Switzerland: More Personal Ads from the London Review of Books, you can trust me. For one thing, I’ve never thought I’d come across a compendium of dating ads that quote or reference Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen. There are many poems I might have deployed in an effort to get me loved/laid. The Faerie Queene is not one of them. And yet this book has two:
Are you the man of my dreams? Green, 9’10”, three eyes, six tentacled arms and reciting the third canto of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene whilst crushing football-sized grapes with hoofed feet? Either stop it now or kiss me you monstrous wine-making fool. Woman, 41, Exeter.
That darksome cave they enter, where they find/That cursed man, low sitting on the ground,/Musing full sadly in his sullen mind. So, next time you want to turn the TV on, ask first. Finchley troll (35).
It is the London Review of Books, after all, a journal whose erudition makes the New York Review of Books look like a fluffy bunny. And England, after all, cherishes its authors, hugs them to its collective breast; it also treats them like celebrities, castigating them for their poor choices of mate, frock or alliteration. England, after all, is a land where people place bets on The Booker Prize, the national prize for a work in fiction, and even if the prize was set up by a sugar company in a desire to shine itself up with some sparkly learning, and even if the betting began because of said company’s desperate finagling to get public attention, there’s no denying that Great Britain has a very different relationship with writers than us, these United States. The personal ads in the LRB prove it.
This book is edited by David Rose, as was its predecessor, They Call me Naughty Lola. Separated into seventeen brief chapters whose names themselves are lines in the adverts (“Scrimshawed from the tusk of a walrus,” “Look sideways with schadenfreude,” “The Skoromokh of Gender Confusion,” “Hubris made me pen this ad”), the chapters provide a more-or-less whimsical grouping based on theme: one that would fit the literary devotion of my X Bert, another fitting the psychosis of my X Taaaaahd, another speaking to the science-fiction geekery of no one I’ve ever fucked, and one for you, you know who you are, among others.
Rose’s fingers are all over the text because not merely was it he who chose which ads to include in the volume (one of my favorites: “Man, 46. Animal in bed. Probably a gnu.”), but also because he wrote the notes to the volume. Being a person who cannot help herself from leapfrogging to the end, I went immediately to the appendix, where I found an annotated chronology of Miss World title holders, for no apparent reason. I am a huge fan of randomness, so I read it and was delighted to discover that I share with Norma Cappagli of Argentina (Miss World 1960) a defensive enjoyment of an anodyne glass of Scotch. I was also shocked to find out that Miss World is a political battleground wherein the relationships between Spain and Gibraltar, Israel and Lebanon, and those of other countries have played out among the tiaras and hairspray.
What is most interesting to me is what Rose chose to give footnotes to and what he didn’t. For example, in the chapter “The Skomorokh of Gender Confusion,” Rose opts to annotate a plethora of pop references: the Playboy mansion, Jennifer Lopez’s hit “Jenny from the Block,” porn star John Holmes, the acronym BBW, and Carly Simon’s hit “You’re So Vain. ” He does not, however, choose to tell his gentle readers what a “Skomorokh” is. If you’d like to know, Skomorokhs were medieval East Slavic harlequins and the word is the basis for the Scaramouch of “Bohemian Rhapsody” fame.
It’s hard not to see Rose’s deployment of notes as a sly joke on his part. Of course the people who would pick up a collection of LRB personal adverts would need to know that Oasis’ “Don’t Look Back in Anger” reached number one on the UK singles chart, and of course the same audience would hardly need to have Thomas Pynchon explained as if to yellow-helmeted toddlers. I get the joke, and it’s a good one.
I came to get my hot hands on a copy of this book from following LRBPersonals on Twitter. In publicizing the collection, Rose has whittled the great and heaving mass down to 140-character amuse-bouche, and it has been a pleasure reading the ads as he doles them out like salty caramels. It’s pleasurable too reading the book. These people make me feel like a slack-jawed yokel, and I usually strut with the cocksure confidence of being one witty bitch.
The ads—funny, smart, witty, sardonic, biting and mordant as they are—are also steeped in real, vulnerable pathos. I know that my imagination is populated with too much post-war British fiction, Dr. Who and episodes of Spaced, but I see so many pallid people penning these missives over pots of tea and sending these quiet pleas out into the hopeful dark. It’s like space exploration but with less firepower and more debris. I feel for them, each and every one, because I’ve been one of them. I’ve taken a long look at myself and imagined how to sum up all that I am and all that I want and fit that summary into one small page. How could I do better than this:
Week 3—Day 2. Breakfast: small piece of fruit (for example an apple), tow crispbreads with one tablespoon low-fat soft cheese and one sliced tomato. Lunch: one wholemeal pita bread with a quarter small pot reduced-fat hummus and crudités, one small banana. Dinner: 47 chocolate cakes, anguish, despair, bile, hatred, a small pot of low-fat fruit yoghurt. Post-divorce comfort eater and sex therapist (F, 38).
When Diana Rigg was in The Avengers I liked it. But when Dianna Rigg wasn’t in The Avengers I didn’t like it. I like Diana Rigg. Are you Diana Rigg? Please write.
Myspace.com/mantellinghimselfheisnotyetoverthehillwhenreallyheis or box no. 8743.
And that’s why this book is ever so much more than a bathroom book, which is probably where it’ll end up in homes that have a place to keep books in the bathroom. On the other side of each of these ads there is a real human who thinks and feels and hopes and, oddly, researches public animal executions, taxidermy tigers and likens his personal ad to Schrödinger’s Cat.
May someone see him for the joyful paradox he undoubtedly is, alive, dead, or some state suspended in between.
You can buy Sexually, I’m More of a Switzerland anywhere that fine, slender volumes published by Scribner are sold. Buy enough of them and then maybe David Rose will send me a photo of his new tattoo of Evil Knievel and Elvis.