2004 SAMLA Panel
Roanoke, Virginia
12-14 November

Price McMurray,

Texas Wesleyan University

"Malicious Agencies": Gender and Desire in T.C. Boyle's "A Women's Restaurant"

Do not cite without permission of the author.



One of the more entertaining pieces in T.C. Boyle's 1979 debut collection Descent of Man , "A Women's Restaurant" is the story of one man's Ahab-like obsession with a neighborhood dining club for women.   Content initially to divide his time between sifting through the restaurant's garbage and surveilling the membership of this "gynecomorphous melting pot" (85) from the relative safety of a strip bar across the street, Boyle's narrator becomes increasingly dissatisfied with "what any interested observer might know" and hungers "for an initiate's knowledge"(86).   A knock on the door yields a first furtive glance of the restaurant's interior.   One evening shortly thereafter, indignant because Grace, one of the owners of the club, has forced her business partner and sometime lover Rubie to shave her head (presumably in a gesture of feminist solidarity), Boyle's voyeuristic knight errant breaks in--only to be beaten soundly and ejected by a group of lesbian bikers versed in the martial arts.   Undeterred by failure, the narrator visits a local department store, spends two weeks mastering the basics of make-up application, and returns again, dressed in a pink pant suit and trailing the scent of My Sin perfume.   Success at last.   Finally inside, he drinks freely, abandons any plan of rescuing Rubie--"whipped" as he crudely puts it, she is now little more than a Dickensian waif--and proceeds to seduce one of the bikers.   The narrator is found out, of course, and at tale's end he sits in a jail cell awaiting trial and a possible psychiatric evaluation.   Unbowed by failure or the taunts of the police, however, he vows to return to the women's restaurant, not as an interloper but as an initiate, for there are, he explains, "surgeons who can assure it."

We can only imagine the reaction of a first-time reader of Boyle's story--presumably male, presumably young, perhaps uneasy about sex though not because of AIDS, at least dimly aware of the growth of feminism, and doubtless sufficiently rapt with visions of that pleasure dome called a penthouse to have purchased a copy of Bob Guccione's magazine--but I suspect that he would have been surprised.   And likely a bit uncomfortable.   After all, the narrator's quest has a bit of the frat house prank to it, and it is easy enough to imagine the story's original readership ignoring his eccentricities and taking his attitudes toward feminism and lesbianism as their own only to be brought up short by the prospect of the surgeon's knife.   In any event, even if the story was not meant as a satirical Trojan Horse, the narrator's revelation complicates things considerably.   Should we read his desire as transsexual or homosexual and dismiss the narrative's scopophilic misogyny as a diversion?   Or is "A Women's Restaurant" a story of discovery, and one that documents the mutability of desire?   Considered thus, the story becomes a version of the chicken-and-the-egg conundrum.   On the one hand, the very idea of gender reassignment would seem prima facie evidence of a gap between desire and gender/sex identity, just as the problem of whether such a procedure should be called gender reassignment or a sex-change operation would seem evidence that the distinction between sex and gender is problematic.   On the other hand, the project of transsexual self-fashioning would seem to assume that some meaningful alignment of sex/gender and desire is possible.   Otherwise, why undergo such an ordeal?   Something of a paradox, then, desire here becomes the quixotic pursuit of a gender identity that will, in turn, ground desire.

This paradox has interesting literary implications, and I would argue that "A Women's Restaurant" is not simply a narrative of or about desire but a narrative that withholds the nature of that desire or--better--hints that in some significant way desire is unknowable.   Consider the opening scene of the story, for instance, in which the narrator catalogs the comings and goings of the denizens of the women's restaurant from the vantage point of a nearby strip bar.   Since the habitués of topless bars are usually male and usually heterosexual, it would seem reasonable to assume that the story's point of view is heterosexual.   We might also take the narrator's surveillance of the women's restaurant as a first-cousin to the gaze he directs at the strippers and observe that his fantasy of knowing/penetrating the women's club falls within an episteme traceable to the Enlightenment and science's long-standing fantasy of appropriating the creative powers of Mother Nature.   By the same token, that the narrator is much more interested in the gynetopia across the street than the fleshpots before him is puzzling.   Indeed, we only see the strippers as they enter the women's restaurant.  

I have watched women of every stripe pass through those curtained front doors: washerwomen, schoolmarms, gymnasts, waitresses, Avon ladies, scout leaders, meter maids, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, spinsters, widows, dikes, gay divorcées, the fat, the lean, the wrinkled, the bald, the sagging, the firm, women in stockings, skirts and furs, the towering Grace, the flowering Rubie, a nun, a girl with a plastic leg--and yes, even the topless dancers.   (85)

There is a fine irony at work here, for while the strippers' membership at the women's restaurant can be taken as a nod to the feminist critique of pornography, or a vision of a truly generous solidarity, what's also underscored is the cooptive power of desire.   The narrator's obsessive scrutiny of the women's restaurant, we might infer, is simply the act of watching the strippers raised to a higher power.   Desire is engendered most powerfully not by the presence of female flesh but by lack, in this case a lack that is synonymous with the mystery of gender itself.

Even more ambiguous is the scene preceding the climax of the story, where the narrator, dressed in drag and posing as "Valerie," makes out with a butch lesbian.   I quote:

    I sipped my drink, taking it all in.   There they were--women--chewing, drinking, digesting, chatting, giggling, crossing and uncrossing their legs.   Shoes off, feet up.   Smoking cigarettes, flashing silverware, tapping time to the music.   Women among women.   I bathed in their soft chatter, birdsong, the laughter falling like coils of hair.   I lit a cigarette, and grinned.   No more fairybook-hero thoughts of rescuing Rubie--oh no, this was paradise.

                 Below the table, in the dark, Ann Jenk's fingertips massaged my knee.

    I studied her face as she talked (she was droning on about awakened consciousness, liberation from the mores of straight society, feminist terrorism).   Her cheekbones were set high and cratered the cheeks below, the hair lay flat across her crown and rushed straight back over her ears like duck's wings.   Her eyes were black, the mouth small and raw.   I snubbed out the cigarette, slipped my hand under the jacket and squeezed her breast.   Then I put my tongue in her mouth.

                 "Hey," she said, "want to go?"

    I asked her to get me one more drink.   (96)

Since the narrator can't, I assume, complete his seduction without provoking Ann Jenk's formidable ire, we have to wonder just what he is up to.   Is he simply an interloper, a prick and a tease who is contemptuous of the women's movement?   Is his lesbian burlesque an assertion of power that privately mocks Ann Jenks' disavowal of men and heterosexuality?   Or does he experience desire as he makes out?   If he does experience desire, is it as a man or is it as a man who identifies as a lesbian woman?   And what of Ann Jenks?   If she is aroused by a man she believes to be a woman, is her desire heterosexual or homosexual?   Or does she simply make a mistake?   And could she, upon learning the narrator's true sex, disavow her desire?

Common sense might dismiss these questions as gender casuistry, but I think Boyle's story asks them.   Keep in mind, too, that such questions can be and have been posed in a more realistic fashion, as is the case in a text like M. Butterfly , which requires of us a strenuous suspension of disbelief but is nonetheless based on fact.   If the narrator of "A Women's Restaurant" is, as are many of the narrators in Descent of Man , the familiar unreliable narrator of modern and post-modern literature, what bears underscoring is that his unreliability is inflected through gender and invests even the apparently definitive revelation that he will seek a sex-change operation.   I mean: while a jail cell is emblematic of the regulatory and punitive power which the state exercises over gender and sexuality, it is also a reminder of both the narrator's alienation, his sense of being imprisoned in a man's identity and/or body, and, more immediately, of the varied practices and gender performances of prison life.   I want to insist on this ambiguity, for as the narrator's repeated ejections and Rubie's unhappy transformation make clear, the women's restaurant is a site where--liberatory and subversive aims notwithstanding--gender and sexual roles are in fact subject to rigorous regulation.   If it would be going too far to say that the prison is the restaurant's doppelganger, it is clear that Boyle's story depicts desire as shifty and gender as a social construct.  

To the extent this is the case, the story finds a suggestive template in a book like Judith Butler's Gender Trouble . Though the narrator is apparently incapable of abandoning his essentialist pursuit of Woman, his posture vis-à-vis the women's restaurant is nonetheless reminiscent of Butler's critique of '70s feminism and its appeals to separatism and solidarity.   At the same time, because the story presents the narrator's odyssey in the fractured mirror of ten brief chapters, it implies that the self--and gender--is discontinuous and performative.   Section VII is arguably a paradigm for the story as a whole, for the narrator divides his time between meditating fruitlessly on "the essential differences between men and women" (92) and perusing the fragments of Rubie's Dear John letter to the boxer she has rejected in order to show her solidarity with Grace.   Though he may not recognize as much, obsessed as he is with the white whale of essentialist difference, the narrator, like Rubie, leads a life of conflicted gender and sexual allegiances that is suitably emblematized by the discontinuities of literary fragments.  

I don't want to make this argument too solemnly, of course, for "A Women's Restaurant" is outlandish and even a bit cartoonish.   Yet Boyle's way is to see the world sub specie risibilitatis, and the title piece of the collection in which "A Women's Restaurant" is equally outré.   The story of a man who can only watch unhappily as his girl friend--a primate researcher named Jane Good--becomes romantically involved with one of her subjects, "Descent of Man" spoofs both liberal politics and the reactionary fears of the embattled white male.   Jane's love interest is no ordinary chimp: prodigiously endowed and deeply learned, he numbers Yerkish translations of Chomsky's Mind and Language and Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil among his accomplishments, has a natural rapport with the African-American janitor at the Primate Research Center, and is a political leftist who, Jane assures the narrator, "likes to play Che but [...] is basically nonviolent" (14).   The hapless narrator pursues his fugitive girlfriend to the Research Center's lab but comes to a grisly end at the hands of his simian rival after he stumbles on a bizarre eugenics "sexperiment".   For all its zaniness, Boyle's account of the descent of man (and woman) is essentially a Swiftian indictment of human failing, and much the same might be said about "A Women's Restaurant," which targets not only feminist separatism but the anxieties of men caught in the shifting political tides of the '60s and '70s as well.

Yet if I am inclined to suspect that searching for too progressive a message in "A Women's Restaurant" would be a misplaced critical exercise, I do not want to sell the story short, for its analysis of gender and desire traverses the distance from metaphysics to social construction and back again.   We need only return to the tale's epigraph: "....the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung" (83).   Taken from Chapter 41 of Moby-Dick --where Ishmael recalls the legends surrounding the white whale and offers his explanation for Ahab's madness--this epigraph would seem straightforward enough: a Romantic if not entirely romantic quest, the narrator's search for the essentialist truth of Woman is a latter-day version of Ahab's mad pursuit of the white whale.   Nor is this simply a joke.   Boyle's allusion anticipates the scholarly recuperation of Moby-Dick as a book about the meaning of masculinity, and the narrator of "A Women's Restaurant" would likely concur when Ahab says, "Yet while I earthly live, the queenly personality lives in me, and feels her royal rights."

But there may be more to the allusion than first meets the eye.   To the extent that the epigraph is a fragment, a quite literal excision from the corpus of Moby Dick , it recalls the violence of Ahab's dismemberment and implicates intertextuality in Oedipal struggle--a concern surely appropriate in an apprentice collection by an ambitious author.   A bit differently, it highlights the thematic of eating, of consumption.   While a reader unfamiliar with Moby Dick , for instance, might take the epigraph literally and wonder if Boyle's story was somehow about feminist cannibalism, a reader familiar with Melville's novel would recognize that eating and cannibalism were persistent motifs in Melville's world.   What eats at Ahab and the narrator of Boyle's story is arguably lack, a lack that is both epistemological and ontological and that we might interpret as the Lacanian phallus.   Much as Ahab's castrating wound is the goad that drives him on a mad quest to smash through pasteboard masks and bridge the gap between signifier and signified, Boyle's narrator embraces castration as a way to continue his mad pursuit of some essential femininity beyond the masks of gender.

Whether Boyle imagines desire as finally ineffable, something beyond the constraints of gender, is an open question, but his story does weigh the possibility that, as some feminist critics have argued, our binary system of gender has a deeper masculine bias.   Most obviously, while the story's enabling conceit--namely, that a women's restaurant is a latter-day version of the greatest phallic symbol in literature--is quite funny, it also implies that the enigma of feminine difference, like the threatening agency of feminism, is really an old story about masculine identity and self possession.   Were there any doubt about it, the closing lines of the story clinch the matter, for the narrator vows to return to the women's restaurant and "feed on honeydew and drink the milk of paradise" (98).   If this allusion to "Kubla Kahn" underscores the Romantic genealogy announced in the story's epigraph, it also helps to clarify the ways the story negotiates gender and aesthetic categories.   While Boyle is not, I think, terribly concerned with how to categorize the beautiful and the sublime, his protagonist's quest, like that of the protagonist of Coleridge's poem, is a recognizably Orientalist construction of the Other.   In one of his early fantasies, for instance, the narrator imagines the women as they "begin a slow primitive shuffle to the African beat of the drums and the cold moon music of the electric piano, [while] the others watch, chanting, an arcane language, a formula, locked in a rhythm and a mystery that soar grinning above all things male, dark and fertile as the earth" (87).   Small wonder, then, that the narrator should finally attempt to appropriate the feminine for himself.

I have penetrated the women's restaurant, yes, but in actuality it was little more than a rape.   There was no sympathy, I did not belong: why kid myself?   True, I do have a lifetime membership card, and I was--for a few hours at any rate--an unexceptionable patron of the women's restaurant.   But that's not enough.   I am not satisfied. The obsession grows in me, pregnant, swelling, insatiable [...].             (97)

How we should take the narrator's remarkable account of his obsession is an open question.   Too weird to be a progressive gesture or even the banality of getting in touch with one's feminine side, and too overt, too scandalously hermaphroditic to be simply an instance of the male Romantic's appropriation of the feminine, the narrator's confession is a slightly mad bit of rhetorical cross-dressing, cross-dressing that celebrates the rhetorical and epistemic resources of the mystery of gender.

[Finish note] Although T. Coraghessan Boyle has had considerable commercial and critical success, wining the 1988 PEN Faulkner Award for World's End , receiving numerous prizes for his short fiction, and being named a finalist for the 2003 National Book Award for Drop City , the scholarly paper trail on his work is relatively short.   A search of the MLA Bibliography yields thirty-one items, many of which are interviews and dissertations that focus on the novels.   For some general background and an introduction to the Boyle cosmos, one might consult the official T.C. Boyle Homepage (www.tcboyle.com) and/or the T. Coraghessan Boyle Resource Center (www.tcboyle.net).   My source for quotations from "A Women's Restaurant" is T. Coraghessan Boyle, Descent of Man (New York: Penguin, 1987).

"A Women's Restaurant" was first published in Penthouse in 1976.

[Finish note] For clinical, rather than simply literary, discussions of some of these issues, see... Deborah L. Tolman and Lisa Diamond, "Desegregating Sexuality Research: Cultural and Biological Perspectives on Gender and Desire" and Kenny Midence and Isabel Hargreaves, "Psychosocial Adjustment in Male-to-Female Transsexuals: An Overview of the Research Evidence' Journal of Psychology 131.6 (1997).

[Add note].   Mulvey, Foucault, Hitchcock

[Add note]

[Finish note] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble .   It might be added in passing that the ten-part structure of the story likely recalls the Darwinian milieu and gender/genre conflicts of Melville's "Encantadas."

The classic account of primate research--and the ways in which that research was shaped by a larger ideological context--is Donna Haraway, Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (New York and London: Routledge, 1989).

[Add note]   Melville; queer theory stuff; Leverenz, Manhood and the American Renaissance

[Add note] Bloom

See, for instance, Mark Edelman Boren, "What's Eating Ahab?   The Logic of Ingestion and the Performance of Meaning in Moby-Dick ," Style 34. 1(2000): 1-23.

[Add note] Lacan; pasteboard masks

[Add note] Irigaray; Mark Lloyd Taylor, "Ishmael's (m)Other: Gender, Jesus, and God in Moby-Dick " The Journal of Religion (1992); 329-50.

[Add note] Said; essay on Orientalism in "KK"; Tim Fulford, "Mary Robinson and the Abyssian Maid: Coleridge's Muses and Feminist Criticism"