Cybill Unbound is a new novel by author Catherine Hiller. It’s her 10th published book. She’s written other works of fiction, plus two children’s books, and varied nonfiction too. Perhaps most notably, Hiller published a trailblazing “marijuana memoir” (Just Say Yes!) back in 2015.
Catherine Hiller's Cybill Unbound Tells Sexual And Social History In Novel Form
What makes Cybill Unbound important and innovative is that Hiller blends autobiographical fiction with social history, and all of it is held together by her savvy use of narrative chronological order.
At the beginning of Chapter 1, readers instantly see the numerals that anchor the story: 1988. And in Chapter 2, we see 1989 above the first paragraph. Subsequent chapters are all identified in the same way, but this novel does not follow a strictly year-by-year blueprint. For example, at the top of Chapter 3, numerals again appear – but Hiller’s story has jumped forward in time to the year 1992.
Cybill Unbound has a total of fifteen chapters, and when readers get to Chapter 15 all we need to see is the title – “Passion in the Pandemic” – to know that we’re in the Age of COVID. And yet, the novel is never dragged down by its timeline. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Evolution Of The Sexual Adventurer In Catherine Hiller's Cybill Unbound
The passage of time is the ultimate theme in the life of Cybill, who is 42 and recently divorced when we meet her in Chapter 1. Each chapter is a slice-of-life episode in the tale of this sexual adventurer, who in many ways consolidates and lives out the archetypal patterns of iconic cultural personae.
Put it this way: The freethinking and risk-taking Cybill we meet in Cybill Unbound is a Child of the Fifties whose mother understood every little thing about the “housewife’s blight” that Betty Friedan wrote about in 1963’s The Feminine Mystique. Inevitably, Cybill comes of age amid Flower Power and Woodstock. She witnesses those milestones, as well as the Sexual Revolution chronicled by Germaine Greer in 1970’s The Female Eunuch and 1971’s The Prisoner of Sex by Norman Mailer.
Similarly, as Cybill’s intimate interludes and explorations in recent decades unfold, her story acquires a distinct similarity to the semi-exhausted, somewhat resigned tone of satiety that Marilyn French evoked in her 1977 blockbuster novel The Women’s Room. You can almost hear the echoes of Peggy Lee’s surprise hit from 1969: “Is That All There Is?”
But what Catherine Hiller has done is to begin her story at the peak of the AIDS era in the late 1980s, and pull it forward all the way beyond 2020 – while always keeping her protagonist’s youth in the 1960s and 1970s available for flashbacks, allusions, and ruminations.
There is, however, a never-say-die effervescence and a zest for life in Cybill’s picaresque adventures, and all of the sexual scenes and lovemaking highlights are handled with intelligence, grace, and a hell of a lot of body heat. Catherine Hiller writes about the mysterious vagaries of humans being sexual with a gifted eye for specific details and a delicate sense of balance.
Whether we’re reading about Cybill having a startled reaction to the passive-aggressive cruelty of her ex-husband blithely coming around for “mercy fucks,” or her bemusement at allowing a new lover to get his kicks by slowly and meticulously shaving her underarms, we are in the company of a witty woman who is endlessly curious about the varieties of sexual experience.
How Do Chapter Titles Enhance Catherine Hiller's Cybill Unbound?
The chapter titles enhance the novel, by manifesting themes: From “Rogue” and “Jew Girl” to “Being in Bliss” and “Cybill at Burning Man,” we move through the years. The perils of middle-aged dating are compounded by the hugely different expectations, making condom-conscious 1988 seem like a century removed from the Free Love spirit of 1968. Similarly, the 1990s seem Paleolithic compared to the weirdness of latter-day COVID years.
Other chapter titles are just as telling: “The Adultery Broadcast,” “The Facebook Lover,” and “Her Last Affair” bring us closer and closer to “Passion in the Pandemic,” and all along the way readers meet more than few fascinating characters, all of whom exchange with a maturing Cybill their ideas, secret wishes, fetishes, hungers, erotic dreams, predictable meltdowns, and penetrating intentions. Literally.
There’s married and unmarried sex; morning, noon, and night liaisons; marijuana smoke and wine-soaked delights; intimate eruptions due to shared passions for books, films, music; and of course with the rise of the Internet the infinite smorgasbord of erotic delicacies is on full display.
Body And Soul: An Excerpt From Catherine Hiller's Cybill Unbound
Here’s a sample of the smooth narration Catherine Hiller sustains for all of Cybill Unbound:
She thought of Jasper first thing in the morning and last thing before sleeping. This was her pattern: her current lover was always her obsession. She would compose teasing and revealing emails, most of which she never sent. She would create endless “What if?” scenarios. Much of what she saw and did would be magically connected to her lover, but only her three best friends could know this: never the lover himself. He already had too much power, which was how she liked it. Affairs brought her unbalance, disequilibrium, fear, joy. They made life more extreme.
This novel superbly recapitulates one of the oldest human desires: To connect body and soul.
Catherine Hiller’s Cybill Unbound belongs on the same shelf as Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying.
M. J. Moore contributes to HoneySuckle Magazine. His new book (published on June 6th) is titled STAR-CROSSED LOVERS ~ James Jones, Lowney Handy, and the Birth of 'From Here to Eternity'. You can purchase Moore's latest book here.
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Featured image: CYBILL UNBOUND by Catherine Hiller (C) Heliotrope Books