rev. of A Four-Sided Bed by Elizabeth Searle

Issue #75
Spring 1998

A Four-Sided Bed 
A novel by Elizabeth Searle. Graywolf Press, $14.95 paper. Reviewed by Fred Leebron.

In her first novel,
A Four-Sided Bed, Elizabeth Searle, the 1992 winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, ambitiously tackles the shifting boundaries of love and sexuality. Over the course of a telling year, two men and two women struggle to define their relationships with each other in the face of AIDS, pregnancy, and complications wrung from a present that has become decisively disconnected from its unnervingly emotional and essential past.

Allie has married the mysterious Jimmy Joe, or JJ, a librarian at the college she attends who earlier was confined to a mental institution. On the brink of pregnancy, Allie begins to intercept letters involving two of JJ’s ex-fellow patients, Kin Hwang and Bird. Gradually Allie comes to realize that Kin is a man, Bird a woman, and that the man she thought she knew as her husband is in fact the third side to a passionate and in some sense everlasting bisexual love triangle.

In the novel’s first half, these truths emerge via the letters Bird sends to JJ-letters which Allie at first keeps from him. Bird’s voice arises as compressed and lyrical, rhythmic and evocative; her letters possess an undeniable purity. “Trapped, Kin said last night,” writes Bird. “And I remembered gnawing my wood crib bars. Mother worked days, serving drinks. I chewed black nylons she left draped on my crib. She’d peel off that silky electric skin in our cold room, static crackling.”

Into the second half of
A Four-Sided Bed, Allie’s elaborate strategies to keep her husband from his former lovers erode, and JJ slips across the border into Mexico to confront the AIDS-stricken Kin and his “wife” Bird in a frank and sultry scene that is wrought with sensitivity and grace. “The State of Not-Self,” the dying Kin says to JJ. “I only know one way to reach any such state, Jimmy Joe. Remember? We used to call it going, not coming. All your desires, even your body itself. Just . . . gone.” And finally, all barriers in the narrative crack as JJ returns from Mexico with Kin and Bird, both to save them and to offer his wife the fundamental truth that he has been so long and so careful in hiding.

Given the dual narrative and the forcefully suggested subtext of Bird’s early letters, some readers may grow impatient with Allie’s chase to comprehend the facts of JJ’s relationship with Bird and Kin. But it’s precisely her persistent and urgent struggle to understand, as the critical elements of her current life shift dangerously underfoot, that makes
A Four-Sided Bed such an honest and resonant novel.

Fred Leebron is the author of the novel Out West
and the co-editor of the anthology Postmodern American Fiction.
He teaches at Gettysburg College.