Department of Sex Ed

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.