***Content warning: Things get racy***
The Bad Sex Award is a literary prize awarded to the author who writes the most cringeworthy scene in which sex happens in a particular year. A survey of past nominees suggest that the judges have more in mind then the ding an sich, and are more attentive to column inches; bad sex awards tend to follow the trendy novelists de nos jours, and probably marks a tipping point in any writer’s career when they move from middle-aged gravitas-endowed male author to punching bag, see Jonathan Franzen, John Banville. The John Banville parody twitter accounts, incidentally, marked the occasion of Banville’s nomination rather well:
In one of my college tutorials, the conversation turned to the ways in which literature is a fairly paltry medium when it comes to the depiction of sex, especially in our age of spectacle or image capitalism; the extent to which sexual materials are available, distributed, makes ink on a page seem somewhat retrograde. Nevertheless, I might contest that with the next couple of examples. The sex scene in Don DeLillo’s Underworld, reads as follows:
Then they were everywhere at once again, looped about the other, everything new for the second time, and she closed her eyes to see them together, which she could almost do, which she could do for the sheerest time, bodies turned and edged and sidled, one way and the other, this and that concurrent, here by as there, like back-fronted Picasso lovers.
This paragraph does what DeLillo does best, in moving aqueously through a never stable milieu, with an attention to things moving in and out of shape(s), the reality inflected by the partiality of the lover’s perspectives, particularly in the barest suggestion that Klara Sax can see more of the occasion with her eyes closed. There is also the hint of Hamlet’s beast with two backs, cleverly hybridised with the cubist reference; the beast with four backs, as it were.
Anne Enright’s The Gathering treats if not quite ‘carnal intercourse, with ejaculation of semen within the natural female organ,’ the act of fellatio in terms as follows:
‘Where were you?’ he says, and I’d love to say I was out, like he is out all the time. Doing, making, being — or even shagging. I’d love to say, ‘I was just out shagging,’ in a debonair sort of voice…I put my hand gently against his shirt front and the gesture is so graceful, even as I watch it, that it leads me, quite easily, to the buckle of the belt, which I tug with my other hand, and so, by softly pushing him away while pulling him forward, I contrive to blow my husband, in our own kitchen. On a school day.
This is real, I think. This is real.
Though I am not sure that it is, actually. When we are done, Tom plants a dry, thoughtful kiss in the middle of my forehead. He can not claim that he has been fobbed off — not after his official, all-time favourite thing — but he knows that he has been fobbed off, all the same. And it makes him angry.
‘I just don’t know where you’re coming from,’ he says. A corporate phrase from my corporate boy.
This is a very unsettling, and of course, very funny paragraph. Veronica is coming to terms with, according herself to the fragments of her selfhood in the aftermath of her brother Liam’s suicide, and this is just one example of a behaviour she adopts in its aftermath, as a way of construing herself in the event’s wake, indicated by her jealousy in her husband’s seemingly effortless capacity to Be. Her husband exhibits concern for her behaviour, the prevailing domestic codes of behaviour in their household; the rules implied in the stand-alone clause ‘On a school day,’ means that this is not a regular occurrence, and that Veronica is shaking things up. Her ambivalence towards her husband in this scene, as well as her dominance, are expressed in her pushing him in two directions at once. Ultimately, the event is a failure. Veronica is uncertain as to whether what has just happened is real or not, unreality being an ongoing thematic concern in The Gathering. The bland sum-up from her husband deepens the uncanniness, and gestures towards the impossibility of accessing Veronica as a character in the conventional sense.
Both paragraphs are very different in their approaches, but there is a definite similarity in their approaches, and that is, primarily, their avoidance. Very little detail is given about who puts what where and for how long. This is why I have difficulties with the premise of the bad sex award, as it is one of the rare forays that the non-literary press makes into contemporary literature, to make fun of the conceptual apparatus of prose. And it is, often, very silly, but it is silly for a reason that writing itself is silly. Bald statements of all that is the case don’t read well, literary writing is decidedly ambiguous, elliptical, and at its best when (apologies for using a creative writing workshop phrase) showing, not telling. So it is also for representations of The Ride. Say things too directly, and it becomes monotonous, but go too far with the figurative language, and journalists will mock you publicly.
We see similar methods of elision in Eimear McBride’s second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, which probably devotes more pages to sex than any other novel I can remember, let alone a self-consciously experimental one:
Alright. He wets his lips then goes to the words at a similar lick
and allthecloudsthatloured upon our hours…hs right I’m right there I’m. I pull back quick. He presses it onto me as his body gives up. Wet on my chest, ends of my hair and my breast and the heat. Goes everywhere and him smearing it all down me as I, touching the threat of bruise on my lip, lay my head on his knee.
The most significant absence here, is the word semen, or come, or whatever word you want to substitute over ‘it.’ Sex in The Lesser Bohemians generally observes this rule, interior monologue emphasising immediate sensory perception over systematic apprehension, interspersed with erratic formatting, punctuation, etc. Though the above is unique in that it is one of the few occasions in which Shakespeare is channeled directly. It’s never totally cringeworthy, it’s relatively interesting and not at all sexy. McBride’s methodology is however, drained of some of its vitality by its overuse; there is an awful lot of riding in the book.
It’s peculiar then, that McBride, having demonstrated her commitment to showing, not telling, then spends quite of the novel doing the latter. About halfway through the text, the novel’s love interest, Stephen, outlines his personal history, over the course of fifty or so pages. This soliloquy is interrupted about seven times, as Claire Lowdon points out, solely in order to remind us that the main character, Eily, is there. The endless references to Stephen’s tic, repetitions of howlers such as ‘the irony wasn’t lost on me when,’ just emphasise the strings and incongruous presence of what seems to be a first-draft of a screenplay based on an Edna O’Brien novel within an Edna O’Brien novel. Stephen’s Miserable Irish Childhood™ (complete with alcoholic father, suffocating mother, sexual abuse, etc. etc.) manages to disperse any mystique that might have imbued the character, and it escalates to such an absurd level by what is not even his early adolescence that I lack the ability to do justice to the exorbitant heights of its ridiculous hamminess.
Further, the self-hatred fuelled drug vortex into which both characters fall into at various points are singularly unconvincing. Choosing just one example is difficult, but I might have to go for the one wherein Eily, after having injected herself with one marijuana too many, begins to argue with Stephen, (who has just taken her back for having sex with someone else) and then dares him and her flatmate, named Flatmate, to have a threesome with her. The rage that she manages to sustain after having smoked weed is one level of ridiculousness, the blows to which Stephen and Flatmate nearly come is another, but all this is trumped by the next morning, when Stephen, all strife forgotten, begins assisting Flatmate in converting the flat into a squat to fend of some meddling bailiffs. Knowing what McBride is capable of from the undeniable virtuosity and power of A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and even some of The Lesser Bohemians’ more successful moments make these lapses from form all the more baffling.