David Williams, an English art critic and color-field painter, arrives in northern
The girls befriend David, and warn him that he can expect to be baited by their host. At dinner, as Breasley becomes increasingly drunk, he attacks the art establishment and, sometimes, Williams himself. Finally, the girls put Breasley to bed, and Diana explains that Breasley's reference to an "ebony tower" was his attempt to denigrate contemporary artists who work with abstraction because they are afraid to be clear; then she encourages David to dismiss what Breasley has said by telling David that an ebony tower is where you dump things you are too old to appreciate.
The next day Breasley is back to his usual cantankerous self. They all go on a picnic in the woods, where Diana and Anne go swimming in the nude as Breasley explains to David that he passed a kind of test the night before. After lunch--an enactment of Manet's Le Dejeuner sur I'herbe--Breasley goes to sleep and the women tell David about their lives. The three of them go swimming, and then the four of them return to the house, where David conducts one more interview, about Breasley's politics and his sources.
That night's dinner is friendlier. Afterward, Diana puts Breasley to bed early, and Anne explains that Breasley wants Diana to marry him. The two women take David upstairs to look at Diana's artwork, which he is impressed by. After Anne leaves, Diana tells David more about herself. They then decide to take a walk in the garden, where David kisses Diana and she responds with passion. He hangs back, and she senses that sexual intercourse would be a mistake. "She had broken away; and he had let her, fatal indecision." He then tries to persuade her to come to bed with him, but she goes to her room and locks the door. He believes that he has both come alive and been prevented from living, that he has both lost his principles and feared to act against them.
The next day Diana absents herself from the house until David has left. He spends the drive back to
Part I begins with an attempt by Miles Green to regain consciousness, as a pair of eyes above him gradually takes the form of his wife, Claire--or so she tells him, for Miles seems to be suffering from amnesia. His wife leaves, and the female attendant explains that he has been under sedation, but when Miles asks how long he has been in the hospital, she answers, "Just a few pages." Her name is Dr. A. Delfie, and she introduces her West Indian assistant as Nurse Cory. They explain that he must learn to relax, and as part of his treatment, they begin to massage his penis. Miles is shocked as they encourage him to fondle their bodies, more so as Dr. Delfie mounts his erection. She tells Miles to try to provide a climax from as deep as possible, in the interest of his baby, to keep going "to the very last syllable." After he finishes, Nurse Cory brings him a small sheaf of papers, cradled in her arms, which she refers to as "a lovely little story." He begins to wonder if his lost identity is that of "a mere novelist or something" when a crash interrupts and ends this first part of the book.
The cause of the crash becomes apparent in Part II. A woman appears who looks like a twin of Dr. Delphie but has spikes of hair and black eye-makeup, is dressed in boots and a black leather jacket, and holds an electric guitar. She slashes at the guitar strings and the nurses disappear. Then she turns to Miles and accuses him of antifeminist, bourgeois elitism, among other literary crimes, in what he has just written. He defends himself by saying that it could have been worse, that he at least did not represent her running through the olive groves in a transparent nightie-- though she would look terrific that way. She begins to run scales on her guitar and it changes to a lyre, as she changes into a traditional muse, dressed in a white tunic. She warns him that she will not, however, be a brainless female body at his perverted beck and call, and she gives him 10 sentences to provide a formal apology. As he does so he begins to play with her. She is not very interested--is still a bit queasy from her flight from
Erato tells Miles to listen to a story for a change, and tells him about her sexual awakening in ancient
Part III begins with Miles on the floor and Erato retransformed into Dr. Delphie. An elderly staff nurse enters and accuses Delphie of letting the ward turn to ruin, if not to a striptease show, and departs. Delphie turns to Miles and kicks him in the ribs. When he sits up, she tells him that it was a dirty trick by him to make the elderly nurse look like her sister, Clio, the muse of history. Delphie reminds him that she is an archetype and that he has been lucky that she appears to him; indeed, she says that she is never going to do so again, and disappears. Her now disembodied voice explains that literature is a manifestation of mental illness, that he has merely been acting out a primal scene trauma. She advises him to become a ditchdigger. He attempts to make her jealous by telling her that he preferred the black nurse. She tells him that he has never been any good as a writer or lover. Suddenly, a clock on the wall cuckoos, Dr. Delphie reappears, they make up and make love, not noticing that the walls of the room have become transparent and that people are watching them.
As Part IV begins, they wake up and begin to discuss how it was--both the sex and their previous dialogues. Miles and Erato discuss how they found each other, were perfect for each other in their desire for endlessly revisable textuality. Miles unwisely remarks that he especially liked her as Nurse Cory, and Erato replies that she has singled him out for her affection because he's such an incompetent writer that she can be sure he will never succeed in telling about her. He retorts that he has lots of readers, and that she does not know what it is like to be a writer. She confesses that she did once write an epic satire revealing how immature men are, called The Odyssey. He confesses that he wants Nurse Cory. Erato admits that she is not perfect, indeed gets a lot of facts wrong, but her business is to inspire people. Miles complains that they do too much talking.
As they lie together, Miles reflects that he should not complain about his situation, but that Erato does not appreciate his importance and is becoming "just one more brainwashed, average twentieth-century female." As he begins to imagine a compliant, sexy Japanese woman, he finds that Erato has turned him into a satyr. He threatens to write everything down, but she just smiles. When he tries to jump on her, Erato disappears, and he knocks himself out on the wall above the bed. He returns to the form of Miles Green, and Nurse Cory covers him up. The book ends with the cry of "Cuckoo" from the clock above the oblivious patient.