The Voyeur’s Motel
by Gay Talese (2016)
Grove Press (2016)
“I wonder if it’s ethical,” asks James Jeffries, played by Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, “to watch a man with binoculars and a long-focus lens?” Gerald Foos overcame such moral difficulties without hesitation. He wanted to watch lots and lots of people have sex without them knowing, so he bought a motel near Denver, constructed an “observation platform” above eight of the rooms, to which he would assign any guests whose sexual habits he wanted to observe via slats in the ceiling made up to look like air vents, but through which he could be neither seen nor heard. Then he watched them — for three decades. He recorded everything, both by means of statistics and diary entries. In 1980, approximately halfway through this deluge of voyeurism, he wrote anonymously to famous “New Journalist” Gay Talese, who was in the process of writing about American sexual behavior between the end of World War Two and the AIDS epidemic, and invited him to learn all about it. Fully thirty-five years later, The Voyeur’s Motel is the decidedly odd result.
On an initial visit to the motel, Talese quite amusingly almost gives the whole thing away by inadvertently allowing his tie to dangle through the slats. It would have brushed against a woman’s head were it not — decency forbids more illuminating detail — bobbing up and down at the time. Foos’ demand for anonymity prevented Talese from taking the story further, though for the ensuing years he was sent Foos’ journal in installments. The Voyeur’s Motel, then, is split more or less equally between extracts from the journal presented in italics, interspersed with Talese’s personal input. The first two thirds or so focus almost wholly on Foos’ descriptions of his guests having sex. If you like that sort of thing, well, you will like this sort of thing, but the trouble is that few of them do anything interesting. There are no descriptions of wild sex positions or bizarre practices. Most of the sex is wholly routine and often rather perfunctory. Anyone below the age of about thirty won’t see what the fuss is all about given what is available in just a few clicks nowadays. In June the BBC reported that the tremendous ease with which pornography can be accessed now means that many of the young encompass what were previously seen as crazed and exotic acts, requiring real imagination, into their sex lives as a matter of routine. Foos barely describes anything exotic at all. It turns out, then, that Americans were having pretty tedious sex from the late 1960s on. This means that for the purposes of the book, the sex is of inadequate interest to be able to sustain it. So the story, therefore, must turn to Gerald Foos, which it sort of does, but here we have problems.
Firstly, however, Foos does look to draw conclusions from what he sees and makes at least rudimentary attempts at analysis. He says things such as:
Conclusion: They are not a happy couple. He is too concerned about his position and doesn’t have time for her. He is very ignorant of sexual procedure and foreplay despite his college education.
And more optimistically:
Conclusion: Educated, upper-middle class older couples who enjoy a tremendous sex life.
Years later we get comment about the increased number of mixed race couples and something approaching quite tender admiration of lesbians (“of whom I made a particular study” — I bet he did, I bet he did, thinks the cynical male reader), whom Foos finds to be the only category of guest who can reliably be expected to have sex for the pleasure it gives to the other, rather than the self. During the 1980s he observes that women have shaken off the passivity of the earlier era. He also sees a number of injured Vietnam veterans whose sex lives are obstructed by their disabilities. He speaks about them with an empathy which is evidently quite genuine and borne partly out of his own military service in the 1950s, which peaked, in fact, with selection for the precursor to the Navy SEALs.
Talese’s role in this is fairly rudimentary, occasionally popping up to describe the intermittent contact he had with Foos, including the odd meeting. He provides links from one extract of italics to the next and occasionally mediates on the ethics of the thing, or some background on Foos’ childhood, all in perfectly serviceable prose. But the feeling is that if the reader doesn’t really know what to make of it all, don’t worry, because neither does Talese. He gives the impression that he is content to get it all on paper, then puff his cheeks out with a relieved exhalation of air and furtively place it at arm’s length in front of the reader with an apologetic shrug of the shoulders, leaving him the task of trying to make anything substantial out of it. Once the shock of the existence of the observation platform is overcome and it becomes plain that not everything Foos recorded may have happened, it might just be that we are left with something somewhat tame.
The question of what is genuine about Foos is where we encounter quite serious problems, to the extent that Talese temporarily disavowed the book in June. If one accepts the diagnosis that much of the sex is of rather a quotidian nature unable to sustain the book for very long, then the divergence away from that onto other matters must be successful. Here, however, the book is at its weakest; indeed, the whole enterprise comes under question. Most glaringly, Foos claims to have witnessed a murder. The most rudimentary inquiries on Talese’s part demonstrate that it could not possibly have occurred at all, never mind in the way Foos describes. Also since proven to be fabricated is the entire period of 1980 to 1988, when Foos was elsewhere. An account of the Foos family’s son, Mark, living in an apartment previously occupied by James Eagan Holmes, who murdered twelve inside a cinema in Aurora, Colorado, in 2012, has also since been proved false. The impact of this brouhaha on what is reportedly to be a Spielberg documentary is yet to be seen.
Overall, it can be said with confidence that Foos was a voyeur of epic proportions, but the extent to which that justifies The Voyeur’s Motel as a book-length piece of work is rather a separate question. Some have said that Talese should have contacted the police and had nothing to do with it, further accusing him of being complicit in a colossal violation of the guests’ rights. Others think that the greater ethical imperative was not to break the confidentiality agreement he made with Foos. The question is what value the book has as a piece of journalism once Foos’ deceits are considered. There is a sound argument for the answer being a simple “none.” There may be some trivial appeal left, perhaps, in inconsequential vignettes about a nun who is said to have arrived for an evening of wild onanism carrying a brimming cornucopia of sex toys in her suitcase, or Foos’ musings on the question of which racial category of gentleman tends to project semen the furthest.
Most of the praise for The Voyeur’s Motel, which by implication included the publication of a lengthy extract in The New Yorker, coalesces around the view that quite apart from watching his guests have sex, Gerald Foos saw much, much more. The extent to which readers agree is probably significantly informative as to whether or not they find this endeavor worthwhile. The trouble, as evidenced by the book spluttering to just 230 pages of rather large and narrowly set text, is that it is not obvious that Talese himself thought there was all that much to it either. The impression is rather given that the project, maintained by sporadic correspondence after the motel had been sold to developers in 1995, sat gathering dust in a bottom drawer until Talese was either bored enough to write it up or, as he claims, Foos eventually waived a demand for anonymity which Talese was not previously prepared to grant. Voyeurism, even on such a grandiose scale, hardly being a subject uncharted by popular culture (The Conversation, Rear Window, American Beauty, The Truman Show), it is quite tricky to think of a reason anyone will take a serious liking to this work on the basis of anything other than mundane rib-tickling ribaldry. Had Talese taken the view that there was some historical or anthropological value to this instead of it being the sordid record of one man’s obsession and his extraordinary endeavors to fulfill it, he would surely have said so.