Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Johanna Kaplan, a critic for The New York Times, has called L’Heureux’s style “spare, witty and elegant.” Those words certainly apply to “The Anatomy of Desire”; it is spare and witty and, despite the gruesomeness of certain scenes, the language remains elevated. Even the saint’s flaying is described in an elegant fashion: “Hanley lifted the shroud of skin from her crimson body.” This elegance and spareness create a tension within the story simply at the level of style. If fiction needs friction in order to achieve its effects, L’Heureux creates friction by yoking together the understated style with the sensational aspects of the story.

The technique that gives this story added complexity is L’Heureux’s use of the double, or counterpart. He avoids relying on the simple dichotomies of good and evil by carefully plotting the story so that the difference between victim and victimizer becomes muted. The villainy of the general is clear: He is a pointlessly cruel powermonger who serves as a trustee for nuclear arms conglomerates. Because his actions are mirrored almost exactly in the actions of his victim, Hanley, the reader can see the general not as an individual with serious faults, but as a type, a representative of humanity. Certainly he is cruel, but he suffers as well. Just as Hanley caresses the face of the nurse whom he has flayed, so too the general caresses Hanley’s skin before he orders his flaying. The general and Hanley both yearn for an end to desire, for a level of satisfaction that they never achieve. The general and the soldier, the two enemies, the innocent victim and nasty victimizer are one, it seems, under the skin.

This use of the double allows the character of the saint to stand out in full contrast. Unlike the general and Hanley, who are united by similarities, the saint is shown in relief despite her similarities to Hanley. When she is flayed, her face and genitals are spared, just as Hanley’s were. She is caressed by Hanley and told she has a beautiful face, just as Hanley was. She has the blood retardant applied to her skin, just as she applied it to Hanley’s. These similarities only suggest the differences between her and Hanley, between her and the general. They are horribly human, desperately human, whereas she is resignedly a saint.