The book’s commentary on the later 20th century hits many of its targets, exploring how the dynamics of seduction were transformed by the sexual revolution, women’s liberation and the pill. “You cannot seduce anyone when innocence is not a value,” wrote the novelist Elizabeth Hardwick in 1973. Knox points to online dating culture as ultimate proof of how sex has been individuated and monetised in recent times. His outlook shares the bleak perspective of French writer Michel Houellebecq, whose dystopian novel Atomised (1998) is summarised lengthily. The quest for love and human connection, as Knox sees it, has been reduced to a transaction between sellers and consumers in a sexual marketplace devoid of tenderness or sentiment.
It seems ironic to suggest that a book about the power of seduction narratives would be more seductive with less narrative but this is, I feel, the case. It is the argument that distinguishes Strange Antics, and this tends to get lost inside the life stories of the figures in the tent. There is much to praise here, but the book would have been improved by reducing the word load, focusing the plot line and tightening the guy-ropes throughout.
The stories told here have been told many times before; Knox’s achievement, in arranging them into a single narrative, is more curatorial than authorial. When his own voice does occasionally come through, we see a young writer with a quaint turn of phrase and a fondness for belletristic flourishes. Some of these are pleasing: he remarks that the case of Loving vs Virginia, which annulled Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws, ‘served as one of the few occasions when legal shorthand rose to the level of cosmic poetry’.
The trouble with this architecture is that it begins to resemble a parade of “greatest hits”. Look! Here’s Bram Stoker, mugging his way across London theatreland in the shadow of the Ripper. And look! There’s Mary Shelley, scribbling Frankenstein in the Year Without a Summer... Just as the game begins to pall, however, Knox delivers a blistering finale, drawing together themes of sexual politics, economics, law and the ordinary human desire for love and companionship into a vision of our present condition, from university codes of sexual conduct to the Me Too movement to how dating apps on which we (well, all right then, I) rely depend on seduction’s most tawdry aspects (the boasting, the lying, the insincerity).