inSide Books: Good Sex…In Literature
The Literary Review annually awards a different writer its coveted “Bad Sex in Fiction Award,” which goes to the writer who pens the year’s most overwrought and unerotic sex scenes. Notable past winners include Jonathan Littell (2009, The Kindly Ones), Norman Mailer (2007, The Castle in the Forest), and Sebastian Faulks (1998, Charlotte Gray). It is often as awkward and disappointing to grind through these turgid pages as it is real sex.
Two authors have recently bucked the trend of heinous copulation in literature with their excellent filth-laden books: Nicholson Baker and Chester Brown. Baker originally made his name by writing relatively high concept sex novels. The Fermata, for instance, dealt with a man who used his ability to stop time primarily to look up skirts, and Vox—a novella length phone sex conversation—is today known primarily as the book that Monica Lewinsky gave to President Clinton. Baker has moved away from these sweaty themes in recent years. His last novel, The Anthologist, is the story of a failed poet named Paul Chowder trying to keep his life together. Before that, Baker wrote Human Smoke, a nonfiction reexamination of the Second World War through primary sources of the day. They are two of the more unsexy stories you will ever read. But in his latest, House of Holes, Baker has returned to his roots with a raunchy vengeance.
House of Holes is fiction, but not exactly a novel. It’s loosely constructed around an ethereal brothel of the same name, where everyone’s most perverse sexual desires can be met…for a price. The book begins with a woman named Shandee who comes across a disembodied, self-aware arm that once belonged to a man named Dave. Shandee and the handsome appendage get intimate, and Dave’s arm leads her to the House of Holes, where the reader eventually meets the rest of Dave and a host of other good-natured, well-endowed, and horny deviants. Throughout, Baker constructs what amounts to a smut lexicography, inventing terms like scrotatiousness, splatterment, thundertube, boobosity and manslurp. These dirty neologisms and the book’s unrelenting porn cartoonishness give it a lightheartedness that works better than most earnest attempts at writing fictional sex.
Chester Brown, a Canadian cartoonist with a penchant for the uncomfortably autobiographical, describes his experience as a john in his latest graphic novel, Paying For It. Like Baker, Brown isn’t shy about the subject. Paying For It begins with Brown’s final failed relationship with his girlfriend and how this experience leads him to the world of paid sex. His realization that a monogamous relationship is ultimately unfulfilling for him leads to the bold step of eschewing traditional girlfriends in favor of a series of prostitutes. Throughout, Brown debates the morality of his new pursuit with skeptical friends, and readers are left to wonder if, legality aside, Chet isn’t onto something here. Whether you side with Brown or his disapproving peers, Paying For It is a universally interesting exploration of the idea that you can have a fulfilling sex life without romantic love.
Sure, reading either of these unconventional, risqué books on the train could make for some uncomfortable moments as the elderly nun next to you glances over your shoulder and suddenly reads something about the Cock Ness Monster or sees a drawing of post-coital Brown talking shop with a hooker. But isn’t that unlikely scenario a small price to pay for reading really well-written sex?
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Elsewhere in inReads: The world’s oldest profession and poetry make interesting bedfellow, so to speak.