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Harold Brodkey's new novel is erotic -- but not to everybody

WE RESPOND TO STORIES WITH astonishing versatility of imagination. The three- year-old listening to his grandmother momentarily becomes Peter Rabbit; the geezer reading Patrick O'Brian's sea stories feels scared on the quarterdeck of a storm-blown frigate. But the distinction between what the reader imagines and what he actually experiences remains solid -- the geezer does not actually get seasick.

Over the whole range of literature, only erotica functions differently. If it works, sexual arousal is real, not imaginary. And if it doesn't work? The most recent example is Harold Brodkey's novel Profane Friendship (Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 387 pages). The author...

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