05/17/2010 02:01 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

William T. Vollman's Exploration Of Female Beauty In 'Kissing The Mask' (New York Review)

In Kissing the Mask, not a literary fiction this time, Vollmann sets out on an equally romantic quest, for the secret of female grace, feminine beauty, the source of man's dreams of erotic fulfillment. He seeks it, this time, not in the sweaty stink of cheap Skid Row hotel rooms, where the promise of love and beauty is grotesquely out of sync with reality, but in the masked dramas of the Noh stage, where male actors express the ancient passions of female beauties with a flick of an exquisite fan and the tilt of a pale mask. Something no less artificial, of course, but of a very different order. Artificiality is in fact the point, for grace and beauty in Vollmann's books are not the unadorned products of nature. Adornment is everything; what leads men on in their never-ending chase after female beauty is less a matter of biology than of art and performance. And no performance of femininity is more stylized, more artificial than Noh.

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