Nelson is a realist and delivers each scene as a graphic study in how sex works. Real-world sex is hard to lay on the page; Nelson rises to the task. When I asked about technique, he said, "I used to have to practice sex scenes. I'd write one after another until I got it rightthey're crucial to realist fiction. Especially if you're writing about young people who live and breath sex all the time. Sex shows how people relate to each other."
If we believe Freud and Blake Nelson, it's a heartbreaking situation for the narrator of Moon Unit Zappa's semi-autobiographical work, America the Beautiful. Intentionally or not, Zappa has generated one of the least steamy--or even bodily--sex scenes in ages: "Jasper rolled over on top of me spreading my legs open with his. I reached my hand into the drawer of our little yellow bedside table and felt around for my diaphragm and a single serving of sperm killer. Jasper removed the wrapper of the applicator tube and squirted some gel into the little rubber cup I held in my hand, then I pinched it in half and inserted it. Then he tossed the applicator aside, pulled my arms above my head, lifted up my nightgown, parted my underwear to one side, and--missing--pressed his giant early morning erection into my belly.
Now I really had to pee."
The applicator tube, the gel, the yellow bedside table, underwear--the scene is about objects instead of humans, cataloguing consumer goods. Following Freud's claim, this character's real self is an instruction manual in how to use a diaphragm.
It's meant to be bad sex, but it's also a flaccid patch in the writing. The inventory of sexual tedium isn't pushed far enough to be absurd or personalized enough to be emotionally tumescent. It's sex as influenced by two decades of AIDS and other STD awareness, from a writer raised in a culture speaking medically established safe-sex and anti-pregnancy jargon instead of mystery; no more time for the cryptic, poetic phrasing of "the girl most part of you," as printed in 1950's Joy of Sex manuals.
Of course there's no rule that literary sex needs to be sexy, and there's a definite line between the aims of pornography and literary fiction--the first is meant for short-term titillation, the second explores human nature. But a sex scene in fiction should reveal character and unfold plot as much as any other moment, and a dry list of tools serves little in either direction.
Poet Octavio Paz saw eroticism as poetry of the body, and poetry as an erotic approach to words. This explains why the poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay, brimming with sex and sensuality, thrilled the country in the early half of the last century and made her a superstar. Paz said, "in the poemlanguage deviates from its natural end, communication," the way erotic acts deviate from the sexual goal of procreation. But fiction is another form altogether, with it's own rules. Prose takes a more direct route than poetry, and the ongoing social narrative of abortion, birth control, AIDS awareness, homosexuality and teen moms has leaked into the way writers now wrestle with sex on the page.
In the 1930s, Henry Miller wrote rambling, monologue-based novels of sexual bravado and overblown personal "insight." Books like Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn blur the line between pornography and literature, philosophy and pipe dreams, misogyny and art. In an exchange of letters, author Lawrence Durrell called Miller's works "childish explosions of obscenity," and asked, "What on earth possessed you to leave so much twaddle in?"
Twaddle, of course, was Miller's fortè.
In the middle of Tropic of Capricorn, Miller writes, "This is all a figurative way of speaking about what is unmentionable. What is unmentionable is pure fuck and pure cunt: it must be mentioned only in de luxe editions, otherwise the world will fall apart. What holds the world together, as I have learned from bitter experience, is sexual intercourse. But fuck, the real thing, cunt, the real thing, seems to contain some unidentified element which is far more dangerous than nitroglycerin"
Nearly 70 years later, with an abundance of books eagerly disrobing Miller's dangerous nitroglycerin of sex, mentioning the unmentionable, picking at the world's glue of intercourse, the act itself can seem uneventful as a missed bus stop, a Christmas present unwrapped too early and grown dull too fast. Andy Warhol, riding high in the throes of the sexual revolution, may have been right when he called sex the "biggest nothing of all time." But this still leaves writers with the question of how to manage the sex act, how to keep it new, because sex happens and so shows up in books.
As in Zappa's work, the trend now is toward undermining any expectation of hot sex instead of celebrating or indulging it a la Miller. Part of this springs from performance anxiety and the sticky trouble of translating sex into words. As author Kevin Canty put it, most writers are happy to get through a sex scene with their dignity intact. Canty said, "I find the writing of sex awkward enough that I would probably never write another--except that I get tired of stories that lead their characters all the way to the bedroom door and then tiptoe quietly away when I know something interesting is going on in there You're trying to figure out who these people are and the only way to do that is to see what they do if this happens in bed, you can't just skip it."
The goal is to find a working spot between clinical and clichè, while propelling the novel forward. Blake Nelson succeeds through a combination of observation and his narrator's inner dialogue. Chuck Palahniuk, with his recent novel, Choke, also makes the scenes work. He keeps the language muscular, the narrator's voice active, and real-world details mixed with the bodily and the fantastical.
In Choke, he writes, "Our special morning in the smokehouse, Miss Lacey was bobbing on my dog with a good mouthful of spit. Then we were sucking tongues, sweating hard and trading drool, and she pulled back for a good look at me. In the dim smoky light, those big fake plastic hams were hanging all around us. She's just swamped and riding my hand, hard, and breathing between each word. She wipes her mouth and asks me if I have any protection."
Victor Mancini, the protagonist, is a sex addict who divides his time between choking in restaurants for money, working in a Colonial-period theme park, and scamming on "recovering" female sex addicts out on short-term, treatment-oriented jail release.
The sex is grueling, born of compulsion, pushed to absurd levels of dark comedy. Even orchestrated efforts at fantasy-based sex are undermined by slavish attention to material trappings: "I can't rape her on the bed, she says, the spread is pale pink silk and will spot. And not on the floor because the carpet hurts her skin. We agreed on the floor, but on a towel. Not a good guest towel, she said. She told me she'd leave a ratty towel on the dresser, and I'd need to spread it on the floor ahead of time so as not to break the mood."
There's no place for Victor's "white soldiers," his jism, his spooge, to fly.
Choking on food takes on more sensuality: "My lips crack, trying to get around the chunk of steak, the meat salty and juicy with fat and crushed pepper. My tongue pulls back to make more room, and the drool in my mouth wells up. Hot juice and drool slop out on my chin."
When I ask Palahniuk what role he sees sex filling, in this book and in life, he says, "Sexual attraction is an energy, device, or motive to bring two people together, hopefully for long enough that they discover each other more fullyIn Choke, the protagonist uses the physical act as a reward in itself, to deaden his own fears. The way people drink or use drugs. In the culture of sexual addiction, you just hook up with other sex addicts and there's never the expectation for intimacy beyond the last orgasm...In Choke, sex is a distraction. A way to procrastinate on your big issues, hopefully until you die. Like television."
He says, "We collapse love and sex too much in our culture. Sex is the immediate symbol for romantic love in books and songs and movies. Love, L-O-V-E, love is what my grandparents have after 60 years of being together, supporting and serving each other. And my guess is they haven't done the hot-thing in decades."
Despite all the sex scenes, Choke is still a novel of ideas, an analytical book, rather than simply linked, gratuitous physical groping. Palahniuk says the book uses "sex as a sort of physical wallpaper or 'business' that people are doing while they talk or otherwise reveal secrets about themselves." He says, "When you think about it, sex is seldom just sex. More often it's: 'I want to make him love me' or 'God, I'm such a stud' or 'I can't wait to call my girl/boyfriends and tell them who I'm bagging right now!' Writing sex is just a way to space out the real message of the scene. It's filler. The Hamburger Helper of fiction."
Like his previous novel, Fight Club, Choke ends just as two lead characters come to the place where they could possibly move to a deeper level of relationship.
"This structure is a classic form of myth," Palahniuk says. "It takes two people and cements them together by forcing them survive a trial. The trial reveals the best and worst of them to each other. In a way, it could be like so many romances where limerance is cut short by pregnancy, then marriage, then the ordeal or quest of raising a child. The trick [in writing] is to drop the curtain soon after the ordeal is resolved. We don't want to see Cinderella arguing with the Prince after he puts the shoe on her foot. We don't want to see Odysseus and Penelope get bored with each other after he returns from his voyage."
This also approximates the structure of Barbara Cartland's three hundred or so highly successful romance novels. In Cartland's work, two characters meet but are bound for separate destinies, until they endure a trial and fall in love. Then sex and love are collapsed. In concluding A Duel of Jewels, Cartland writes, "Because his hands were touching her, she was quivering against him, and his lips were close to hers. Then as he drew her closer still and kissed her she knew that it was indeed a miracle. She had found the love in which she had always believedhe lifted her up to the peaks of ecstasy, they entered a heaven that was all their own."
In Cartland's novels, sex is the brass ring, achieved only after the last page has been turned. Twaddle is still the secret, off-stage reward, the answer to everything. In Palahniuk's work, sex is plentiful and disposable. The final prize becomes instead an emotionally clear, honest moment. The glue that holds the world together isn't doing the deed, as Miller claimed, but instead a new level of self awareness and even vulnerability.
I asked Palahniuk, what's the hardest part of writing a sex scene, the hardest aspect of capturing the Great Mystery?
He said, "Making it crude enough to seem honest, adding the smells and awkward movements and thinly-veiled statements that reveal the inner needy parts of the people while they hump."
Monica Drake is the Mercury's Book Editor. She teaches creative writing classes by arrangement, is a contributing editor to Born Magazine (bornmagazine.com) and is currently working on a novel.