In writing my first novel, Cutting Teeth, when I got to the first scene that demanded dramatized sex — action, sound, smell, taste, the works — I paused. The word that made me lift my fingers from the keyboard was “clitoris.” Was it okay to use this word? What would my fellow literary writers, my former teachers and classmates at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop think of me?
The pleasure we derive from sex is also bound up with our recognizing, and giving a distinctive seal of approval to, those ingredients of a good life whose presence we have detected in another person. The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy,’ the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.
Tom Wolfe is up for this year’s “Bad Sex Award” thanks to Back to Blood’s numerous passages like this one:
“But then the tips of her breasts became erect on their own, and the flood in her loins washed morals, despair, and all other abstract assessments away in a cloud of some sort of divine cologne of his. Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all without a word.”
#LitBeat: Basement Boners & Mike Thomsen’s Moral Life
By Ryan Healey
Mike Thomsen. Photo courtesy of Rachel Rosenfelt.
How many boners are popped in McNally Jackson’s basement? It’s Tuesday and around 80 people are listening to essays from Mike Thomsen’s new book, Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. I show up late and trip over children’s things in the back as Helena Fitzgerald reads about Obama sex, its merits and possibilities, with Michelle & Barry about to bedside inaugurate four more years of whatever. In a voice for storms or Brontë novels, Fitzgerald says Thomsen’s words: “When I imagine myself in that position, the secret service is guarding the door while I’m in the bathroom fucking my wife, trying to hold on, in momentary freefall.” Groans joust with laughs in both the clauses and audience.
For every Rabelaisian inflection or admission from his book, Thomsen’s face is there for study, which makes the reading seem like a weird author-function or celebrity roast at times. Like when the second reader, Malcolm Harris, describes coming all over himself (as Mike Thomsen), enveloping his (Mike Thomsen’s) “chest, chin, navel, thighs.” By reports, Thomsen’s cum is warm, soft, neutral-smelling, and velveteen. The couple in front of me tighten their finger grips at Harris’s mention of Fuck Team Five, a male-exploitative porn rubric of “Amazonian pornstar women roaming the streets looking for regular guys to sleep with.” The reading seems like kind of a date night destination for some, which, when partially billed as hearing Thomsen’s dick diegetically explode, makes it a bit of a Symposium for heteros. Which is fine.
I’m standing dead in the orbit for the bathroom, which pulls a lot of unsuspecting people into what must seem like a horizontalist sex therapy, or, for some, a CIAseminar. Particularly weird is the gaggle of Wallace Shawns as they listen to the third reader, Rachel Rosenfelt, detail Thomsen’s taste for vaginal fluids: “How many men haven’t walked around the day after sex with the secret scent of vagina on their fingers, chin, or penis? To some the phrase ‘mucus flaps’ might induce revolt or socio-sexual indignation. To me it induces hunger, lust. Mmmmmmucus.” My own personal sense of socio-sexual indignation makes look at these dads in the front row with a puritan’s suspicion. Then Thomsen’s themes make me worry that this is my own perverse projection.
When Sarah Nicole Prickett begins to read, I can’t hear her from the back, which is mostly my fault, but what she reads seemed subdued and careful and on the sweet side of the Thomsen scale. Adrian Chen follows with something called “Ass Bangin’ and Astral Projection.” I can hear him read these lines just fine: “Feeling yourself penetrated at the same time that you are enjoying the metaphysical whoosh of penetrating someone else is surreal. It’s an out of body experience, like an alien abduction or astral projection. It’s like being in two separate places at once, wholly conscious of everything around you.”
Thomsen rises at last. He reads two touching stories that seem especially accomplished in their touchingness. He reads “I Am Error,” this love and departure story against the New York backdrop probably on loan for all of us: “I feel lucky to be here. I don’t deserve to live in a place so densely filled with this much life, secretly aspirating down the avenues. But I do. I’d wanted this for myself all along, to keep moving, to find a reason to not settle down and grow grass beneath my feet. I wanted to keep pushing the outer lip of what I can do. I wasn’t brave enough to say that I wanted this for my own sake. So I said it was for someone else, and that spared me the terrible weight of having to look at myself without the warping hue of romance.”
I’m in a dark corner of McNally Jackson’s basement, finding catharsis in Thomsen’s confessions of being a sometimes utterly repugnant, historically irrelevant male-bodied hetero-simian who wants to have sex and yet live a moral life. Maybe we can be better, and then happy.
This Levitate the Primate reading took place in New York City on Tuesday, August 28th, 2012, and was presented by The New Inquiry.
The source of sexual power is curiosity, passion.
#LitBeat: I’m A Very Sexy Baby
Last night Sheila Heti, Tamara Faith Berger, and Chris Kraus took the stage at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall. They were there to talk to us about sex. Margaux Williamson, who organized the panel as part of her artist’s residency introduced the event, called I’m a Very Sexy Baby, with this clip from 30 Rock. Williamson grinned at the audience, telling us “It was very exciting to see such intense feminist sexual politics on television. And it was exciting that they didn’t try to solve the second and third wave problems, that they just left them messy.”
The panel, moderated by the playwright Darren O’Donnell, nodded in agreement. After O’Donnell introduced the authors, they began to read. Each writer read from her own work, though the particular passages had been selected by another writer on the stage.
Berger read first, from her forthcoming novel Maidenhead. Heti had selected for her two scenes, one where the main character’s best friend wondered about sexual degradation, and another that involved an erotically charged bathroom episode, where a young woman is made to urinate in front of her lover while she felates a musical instrument. Heti and Kraus listened with rapt attention, hands under their chins. There was a taut energy in the room, the audience taken in by Berger’s slightly throaty voice, and the sexual and humiliating nature of the scene. Every twitching foot and exhalation was deeply felt in the crowd.
Kraus’s readings had been selected for her by Berger. The first reading involved the narrator of I Love Dick, Chris, begging the man she had been fixated on to allow her to be his lap dog. Kraus leaned towards the audience, her voice surprisingly spritely. There was a soft echo of giggling throughout her reading, the crowd mirroring Kraus’s own playful lilt. When she introduced her second reading, from an essay about the European art and sex magazine Suck, she described Germaine Greer’s involvement with the magazine, and said that she loved it, because “they took nude pictures, they wrote about themselves.” Because Kraus’s work has been linked to theoretical provocation and experimentation there was a palpable sense of relief that Berger had selected this reading for Kraus. When Kraus read that “Greer used her own body as a site of feminist polemics” and “Suck’s editors favored essays in the first person” it felt as if we were getting a contextual clue for the radical work of the writers on stage, and also a brief history of non-confessional and shameless women’s writing about the body.
So when it was Heti’s turn to read the selections that Kraus had made from How Should a Person Be? it felt as though we were ready for whatever she could throw out into the crowd. We’d been teased and sort of pleasantly tortured by Berger’s willfully degraded narrator, we’d giggled with Kraus and had been given by her a key to understanding whatever it was that we were witnessing. We were ready, and when Heti opened her book the light bounced off the page and onto her face. Heti read to us about being a great blow job artist. Again we were enthralled, and tittering reverberated through the auditorium. The second selection involved another submissive fantasy, wherein the main character is told to debase herself in public by a man; she acquiesces and begins to compose for him an exalting tract about the glory she feels in the presence of his cock. Both Berger and Kraus smiled the whole time.
After the readings, O’Donnell asked a few questions about feminism, about regrets, and about sex. When he asked abut degradation, submission, and the strange supplication the characters in these books enacted, Berger offered a quote from Kraus’s I Love Dick. “We are not degrading ourselves” she recalled, “we are exploring the conditions of debasement.”
O’Donnell then asked the panel: “And what are your findings?”
And here life imitated art, or at least imitated 30 Rock, because we were left with tangles, we were left without answers, we were left with a mess. But of course, kind of like sex, that’s what made it fun.