Department of Sex Ed
October 12, 2010 | by Justine van der Leun
I was reading a scene near the end of Harrison’s novel Dalva, when Dalva Northridge meets a Native-American cowboy named Sam Creekmouth and ends up having bourbon-fueled trailer sex with him. During their rib-bruising lovemaking session, Dalva’s pup howls along. “That dog music’s a real mood swinger,” says Sam.
I had discovered Harrison during a lonely summer abroad. His novel Returning to Earth, sent by my mother, was comfortingly American—full of Michigan glacier lakes and complicated delinquents. Now back in the States, I was reading everything he had written. He was a master of the unconventional character, and Dalva was queen among them.
I very much liked the idea of being entangled with a shirtless horseman who fried up post-sex bacon before skinny-dipping in a pond and said things like, “If I see another oilman, I might shoot the son of a bitch.”
There were some challenges: I was not a grand, reckless, independently wealthy beauty who rode bareback over the plains; I gagged at the smell of brown liquor, and grass-chewing rodeo riders were hard to come by in New York.
But I did have a dog. And from now on, I would not shut her away in another room during relations. This was potentially the first step to becoming as brave and earthy as Dalva.
Immediately, there were problems. Read More »
October 1, 2010 | by Nick Antosca
When my dad gave me a stack of his old college paperbacks, I think the education he hoped to foster was aesthetic, not erotic. But one of the books was Lolita, and to a twelve-year-old boy with passable reading comprehension skills, the twelve-year-old girl with the “honey-hued shoulders” and the apple-patterned dress was, above all else, sexy:
There my beauty lay down on her stomach, showing me, showing the thousand eyes wide open in my eyed blood, her slightly raised shoulder blades, and the bloom along the incurvation of her spine, and the swellings of her tense narrow nates clothed in black, and the seaside of her schoolgirl thighs.
At least Nabokov was teaching me fresh vocabulary. I had to look up nates, of course, but another new word, nymphet, was helpfully defined throughout the book. Suddenly I saw the world through wiser eyes. Who among my seventh-grade classmates, I wondered with a frisson, was such a creature? What girl had that “soul-shattering, insidious charm” that, while invisible to me, made the antennae of certain adult males tremble?
For much of middle school, I’d been enamored of a smart and introverted girl in my grade. I’ll call her Anna. Red-haired, freckled, and painfully pale, Anna was hardly a dead ringer for Dolores Haze, but I was observant enough to recognize the “ineffable signs—the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb”—that marked her as a nymphet. Read More »
September 24, 2010 | by Jillian Lauren
My first sexual fantasy involved my abduction by a composite character made up of equal parts Danny Zucko from Grease and the weathered carny who had looked me dead in the nine-year-old eye as he pulled the lever of the Tilt-A-Whirl. The post-abduction details were unimportant. What mattered was the moment of being caught; what mattered was the fact that one moment I’d be navigating the root-torn sidewalk of my street and the next an arm would be around my waist and the world would be set into wild motion.
The next fantasy I can remember was a lesbian prison gang rape. I appropriated this fantasy not from the wonders of cable TV but from books. My mother was a voracious reader, if not a discerning one. Lining her shelves were the eighties airport standbys: V. C. Andrews, Danielle Steele, and Sidney Sheldon. Every night I sat on my white wicker bed and read trashy novels by flashlight until I began to understand what sex was in those stories—a plot device. Sex, I learned from my reading, was a function of power and nothing more. If one could just wield it properly, one might figure out a way to win a happy ending, or at least a prison protector.
But it wasn’t until age fourteen that I met Seymour Glass and fell in love. I read Nine Stories and read it again and found that it left me suffering more sleepless, feverish nights than the carny and Danielle Steele combined. I wasn’t even sure why I related to it exactly. I had so little in common with the female characters who populated Salinger’s landscape—slim, Gentile women in camel-hair coats sunk in noble pain while standing on train platforms in New England college towns.
There is nothing literary about the pain of a fat, Jewish Jersey girl wearing a Sex Pistols T-shirt and sitting on a bench in the Livingston mall, eating bagels and smoking cigarettes.
And yet, boiled down to the metaphysics of the thing, there was my world, a world of persistent discomfort and inappropriate hunger. A world in which perilous desire trembles just under the surface of the polite world. Seymour kisses the arch of a small foot and moments later puts a bullet into his brain. Eloise, drunk and heartbroken, kills her daughter’s imaginary friend. It was a world of sensual details and dangerous, irreparable moments.
I first read Nine Stories and felt the nakedness of being recognized in my loneliness. Desire wasn’t a narrative device with a neat payoff; rather, it was an ocean of longing that unfolded toward an ever-receding horizon. The book got inside me in a way that changed me irrevocably and, conversely, felt like it had been there all along. And that, I imagined, would be what having a lover would feel like.
Trashy novels encouraged me to employ sex as a strategy. But it was ultimately Salinger who made me want to fuck.
Jillian Lauren is the author of the memoir Some Girls: My Life in a Harem. Her novel, Pretty, will be published by Plume next summer.
September 17, 2010 | by John Wray
A lesson on how not to get laid.There are books a young man with literary pretensions should read if he wants to get laid—see the other entries in this department—and then there's Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille. This slim little packet of social anthrax was delivered to me six weeks into my freshman year at college by another very nice young man with literary pretensions who purported to be my friend. Let the record state that this individual wore a cinnamon-colored beret around campus and listened to exactly one album, Einstürzende Neubauten's Haus der Lüge, on repeat on his jet-black Sony Discman. Let the record also state that this individual had (or seemed to have) a lot of sex. As far as I could tell, the world had gone insane: where I'd grown up, my new friend would have been beaten into a quiche-like gruel every Saturday night as a trust-building exercise for the rest of the community. But I was only too happy to accept his reading recommendation, if only because my first month at school had been a washout. If talking in a fake Scottish accent and brewing non-alcoholic absinthe in your dorm room had sexual currency in this new world, after all, there might actually be hope for me.
Story of the Eye, for those of you who may not have attended a militantly freaky liberal-arts college in Ohio in the heady, uninhibited early nineties, is a dirty book by an unhappy Frenchman. It chronicles the amatory hijinks of a nameless but extremely open-minded narrator, his girlfriend Simone, an English voyeur named Sir Edmund, and Marcelle, a suicidal, mentally ill sixteen-year old. A staggering amount of mirthless sex is had by all, much of it in front of Simone's middle-aged mother, who is not amused. Fornication is indulged in alongside of, on top of, and eventually with corpses; various oblong and/or spherical objects are inserted into sundry cavities; a priest is seduced, corrupted and finally murdered at the moment of orgasm, after which one his eyeballs is recycled in a manner I blush to recount. Then things proceed to get a bit risqué.
Not what girls back in Buffalo had been into, broadly speaking, but who was I to judge? Within my first week at college, I'd been mocked for my Allman Brothers bootlegs, yelled at by a beautiful lesbian for holding a door open, and generally exposed as the terminally unsophisticated yokel that I was. I was farther than ever from my top-secret goal of convincing one of my fellow students to take off her clothes in my presence; I was painfully out of my element, whatever "my element" might be. What could Story of the Eye possibly do but make me seem, however fraudulently, a more profound and cosmopolitan person than I was?
Lots of things, as it turned out. The author of such notable works as The Pineal Eye, Slow Slicing, and The Solar Anus turned out to be the worst conversational topic imaginable for the handful of dates I managed to line up in those first few hapless months of my adult life. Whatever it was that drew the ladies to my beret-sporting friend, it seemed, Mssr. Bataille wasn't it. Carla K. was instantly disgusted by my description of Story of the Eye; Stephanie T. got bored so quickly and absolutely that she seemed to have had a small stroke; and Liz H. became so engrossed in the book that she forgot about me altogether, which devastated me (and, to be honest, kind of creeped me out). I was not to be discouraged so easily, however. I'd resolved to become a flagrantly alienated person, a filterless cigarette-huffing degenerate, and nothing could sway me from my chosen calling. Not for a few months, at least. I cringe to think of it now, but I pressed ahead with my plan long after any sensible person would have seen the fatal error in his strategy. Common sense reasserted itself eventually, but by then the novel had long since done its evil work. To this day I feel a subtle thrill of revulsion at the sight of hard-boiled eggs, and I try to avoid traveling to France if I can possibly help it. I've also recently decided to stop having sexual relations with my girlfriend, at least when her mother is looking. A modest step forward perhaps, but an important one.
John Wray's most recent novel is Lowboy.
August 18, 2010 | by Sarah Fay
How effective is it to use literature to seduce men?
So maybe it wasn’t fair to invite him to the lecture I was giving on The Great Gatsby and then use it as a chance to get back at him. After all, I’m a writing teacher and a student of literature—soon to be a professor of literature—and I should have respect for Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, even if it flopped when it came out. Was I really going to use it to show him—in the most petty and humiliating way—how hurt and pissed off I was that he had told me he just wanted to be friends?
Yes, I was. I sat on a bench on the “literary walk” in Iowa City—the UNESCO City of Literature—and made notes so that my lecture had less to do with how anecdotes hinge together within chapters and more to do with what a philandering ass Tom Buchanan is. My plan was to focus on chapter one, specifically the moment when Nick goes over to Tom and Daisy’s for dinner and glimpses East Egg for the first time. I’d talk about how each anecdote—each seemingly random incident—sets up what a snake Tom is. After all, he’s the one who shuts the windows and brings Daisy and Jordan Baker—whose dresses are “rippling and fluttering” as if they’ve just taken “a short flight around the house”—to the floor. Tom’s a bummer, the kind of man who uses his “gruff” voice and “cruel” body to beat the spirit and life out of women.
He would get the message.
As I got up from the bench, the better part of my thin soul tried to remind me that Gatsby is the kind of book that proves writing is an art, even if Fitzgerald did write it for money. It’s a novel I love, one I teach to literature students twice a year.
And really, what had this guy done? I wasn’t Daisy and he wasn’t Tom Buchanan. He was just a guy who liked to flirt and send lots and lots of text messages laden with sexual innuendos late at night, just one of the many Americans who thought about writing a memoir and wanted to talk to “a real writer” about it. Was I really going to break his newly found literary spirit? Wouldn’t I be better off delving into Fitzgerald’s rich text for the right reasons?
No, I would not. I walked into the lecture hall packed with aspiring writers wanting to know how novels work. The guy was in the fifth row innocently reading the newspaper. I was the one who had convinced him to read Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and then meet me “for strawberries” to discuss it. I was the one who told him he should read Hemingway and then invited him to go for a walk because I really wanted to know what he thought of Papa.
And he wasn’t the first. There was the filmmaker who wanted to read more poetry, the luthier who was curious about novellas. I don’t know when I started using literature to seduce men, but my bookish attempts to entice were starting to make me feel desperate and unclean.
I delivered my vengeful Gatsby lecture. But every time I caught the guy’s eye, I started to feel a lot like Tom with his $300,000 pearls. Wasn’t I just trying to bribe men hungry for something to read? And what would happen when and if the guy reciprocated? How could I deliver book recommendations for an entire marriage? Wouldn’t he, eventually, see right through me—just as Daisy had with Tom? And wouldn’t I, like Tom, eventually stray to fill my need to entrance someone who had never read a personal essay?
When I finished my lecture, the writers in the audience applauded. They seemed genuinely pleased. They came up and asked lots of questions about structure and scene-versus-summary. The guy stood up and left. I assumed he was irrevocably pissed off. I had achieved my goal. I’d won. Hadn’t I?
The writers filed out, and I erased the blackboard. As packed up my things, I felt my phone vibrate. A text from the guy: Great lecture. Meet for lunch?
At the end of the first chapter, Nick sees Gatsby looking out across the Sound. He assumes he’s staring at the green light at the edge of Daisy’s dock. But how can Nick be sure what Gatsby’s really looking at? How can he really know?
August 10, 2010 | by Dan Piepenbring
Have we abandoned the quest for serious smut?
When I was sixteen, my most literate friend gave me a copy of Couples, John Updike’s 1968 “seductive” celebration of “the post-pill paradise.” (It was the mass-market edition.) Even that snippet of cover copy gave me chills. Sure, the rest of the world had long since realized that there’s more to heaven than birth control. But I was growing up in the Catholic heart of Maryland. This was a primitive, pre-pill prison. You could whisper “Ortho Tri-Cyclen” and every boy on the street would get a boner.
Updike is vaunted as a realist par excellence, a careful chronicler of our suburban mores, but what I found in these pages seemed pretty fantastical to me. Certainly it bore no resemblance to the suburbia I knew. His characters talked about Bertrand Russell, bristled at undercooked lamb, and screwed each other senseless at every possible interval. It called my own world into question. Was this man in the grocery store just shopping, or was he composing a paean to his penis as he browsed, “his balls . . . all velvet, his phallus sheer silver”? Had the man shearing his Japanese maple praised his wife mere minutes ago for her “surprisingly luxuriant pudendum,” kneeling to pleasure her in the crabgrass? Was this couple merely waxing their PT Cruiser together, or was he squirting her with the hose in hopes that “she would take his blood-stuffed prick into the floral surfaces of her mouth”?
I couldn’t say, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. The truest moment of mystification came when I encountered the first of many instances of adultery:
Between the frilled holes her underpants wore a tender honey stain. Between her breasts the sweat was scintillant and salt. He encircled her, fingered and licked her willing slipping tips, the pip within the slit, wisps. Sun and spittle set a cloudy froth on her pubic hair: Piet pictured a kitten learning to drink milk from a saucer.
Color me baffled—blushing, but baffled. “Underpants”? Women wore panties, sure. Women wore thongs, g-strings, boy shorts, maybe garters. But “underpants”? This was a revelation. Verbs like encircling, fingering, licking—these were titillating enough, and for all I knew, this slant-rhyming “slip tip pip slit wisp” business was a good indicator of how it felt: an expressionist’s take on balling another dude’s wife. But the kitten simile I could not abide. Kittens were the paragon of innocence, one of those distracting nouns I’d trot out mentally during pre-calc when summoned to the chalkboard with a tent pole in my pants. To claim that any part of sex had anything to do with kittens, even metaphorical kittens, was ruinous to their deflationary power. This was prose so resolutely sexy that it sucked other, unsexy nouns into its vortex. I read and reread the passage, repulsed and attracted, trying to file it under “like” or “dislike”; I couldn’t. I understood, then, why most people stuck to porn. At least that raises fewer questions than it answers.
Couples is a funny thing, a bodice-ripper with a sense of entitlement. It goes on far too long. To this day, I’m neither old enough nor suburban enough to say for certain if it’s realism or not. Part of me hopes it is—if one is to while away one’s forties in a tiny New England hamlet, one might as well get laid—but the more sensible part of me suspects otherwise.
I understand perfectly why it’s fallen out of fashion. We’re inured against the erotic jolt it once promised. But I wonder why, in the era of radical genre-grafting surgeries, when zombies hijack Jane Austen and vampires haunt our every lowbrow nook and highbrow cranny, we’ve abandoned the quest for serious smut. An undead Mr. Darcy may be good for a chuckle, but has it got staying power? Many decades down the line, will it float around at yard sales and in school lockers, just waiting to blow some sixteen-year-old’s priggish little mind?
Dan Piepenbring is on the editorial staff of Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.