There Are Books a Young Man Should Read


Department of Sex Ed

A lesson on how not to get laid.

George Bataille

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.