Bed and Bored

Bad Sex BY Clancy Martin. Tyrant Books. Hardcover, 180 pages. $23.

The cover of Bad Sex

The plot of Clancy Martin’s new novel, Bad Sex, is rickety; it makes the narrative sway. Brett, a writer, is married to Paul, a hotelier with kids. The couple live in Mexico City. When a storm hits Cancún, Brett goes to check on a property there. By chance, her husband’s banker, Eduard, is also in town; by luck, he looks like Benicio Del Toro, if only because Benicio Del Toro is the one hot and famous Latino of whom Martin—or Martin’s reader—has heard. Some months later, Paul discovers her and Eduard’s affair by way of, what else, her phone bills, and when Brett tries to talk him out of his anger, she narrates: “I could hear him hearing the lies. He understood: I was in love with a Mexican banker.” If you don’t already know this from life, you can tell from the distancing tone (“a Mexican banker”) that her lover won’t last as her boyfriend for as long as it takes a husband to get a divorce, and if you’ve ever read a classic with a woman adulterer as the star, you’ll prepare for a desolate end.

Martin is a philosopher by trade, and Bad Sex reads like a sabbatical from difficult thinking, in particular about his two favorite subjects (his latest nonfiction book, published around Valentine’s Day, 2015, is Love and Lies). That the novel gives few details to explain the affair is fine with me, since more information rarely helps us see through the heart. That the characters insist on trying to be wise about what amounts to so little, though, is frustrating. When Eduard comes to Mexico City on business and stays, nonsensically, with Paul and Brett, Brett eases her panic in the kitchen by making Paul go back to the grocery store for cooking wine. “That’s when I knew you were in the wrong relationship,” Eduard tells her later. He could have just said, “That’s when I knew you were in a relationship.” All long-term caring between two people is subject to petty tests of will, and it’s madness that Eduard, who has a girlfriend himself, doesn’t know that. Nor does he sense that the evidence Brett is in the wrong—never mind the “relationship” part now—is that she has sex with him in the guest room while her husband sleeps. (Infidelity isn’t per se disrespectful, but flagrancy is.)

The observations that do click are memorable. A money quote is also a key to the vacancy in Brett: “Cheating on your husband is a lot like doing cocaine,” she says. “It’s rarely pleasurable, but try quitting.” The nicest side effect of cocaine is that it keeps you awake when you’re drinking, usually so you can drink more. Brett, an alcoholic who is sober for Paul’s sake, finds that Eduard lets her drink, then drink more and more, until even he’s had enough. By then, she has exercised a wiliness in hiding her drinking that she never used in having an affair, maybe because alcohol is her truer secret. Certainly, to come full circle with the similes, it’s a good way to analogize cheating. The routines of being married make emotional unsteadiness stand out, just the way that stepping out of a car and walking a heel-to-toe line reveals drunkenness.

As Brett gets drunker, the novel gets funnier and bitter, and picks up the feeling of a stiff breeze; inside the novel, too, she gets over her writer’s block. Her agent e-mails: “Whatever it is you’re doing, don’t stop.” Almost every woman I know does her best work when she is committed, either to a relationship or to being single, not when she’s in the frenzy of waiting that lovers inspire; not when she’s in a life-changing breakup; and not when she’s drunk. None has ever mused, as Brett does, that cock size doesn’t matter; many of us have gone outside with sex bruises, but we’re never stopped, as Brett is, by other women asking what’s wrong. So what? Brett is a woman I don’t know. The problem is that she is also, to the end, a woman Martin doesn’t know.

“It was characteristic of us,” says Brett of her and Eduard, “that we assigned to [strangers] the motivations and desires we suspected in each other.” That is exactly the process by which memoir becomes fiction and Martin’s perspective becomes Brett’s, but it isn’t the wholeprocess. Fiction should also make strangers familiar enough that their actions surprise you, yet as Bad Sex teeters toward our antiheroine’s laughable suicide attempt—albeit a seriously pretty one, the way it’s rendered—it’s hard to keep hoping for wonder. (The final lines restore to the proceedings, with a different sense of “wonder,” a bracing irony: “Yes, it all collapsed. But afterwards, I think we both wondered, will I ever have something that good again?”)

Bad Sex is fun, sometimes great fun. If there is a character Brett reminds me of, it’s Alice (Nicole Kidman) in the last Stanley Kubrick picture, Eyes Wide Shut (1999). When her husband suggests that women aren’t wired to cheat, Alice laughs and laughs, then tells him about the time she made eye contact with a naval officer and fell in lust. Says Alice, “I thought if he wanted me, even if it was only for one night, I was ready to give up everything: you, [our child], my whole fucking future.”

The difference between Alice and Brett, which gives Alice’s speech its menacing, unconquerable heat, is that Alice never found out if the officer wanted her, if she would have to give up everything. Marriage is a thriller, which Kubrick innately understood. Since recent time has multiplied opportunities for unfaithfulness and dulled the accompanying stigma, for women, too, it is truer than ever that in closed marriages, to paraphrase the critic Lawrence Alloway on film, suspense is nothing happening. It is to Martin’s credit that though the plot of Bad Sex decimates such suspense, the story gives us—especially in the middle, when karma brings jealousy into the mix—a series of nasty little thrills, while keeping satisfaction out of reach.

Sarah Nicole Prickett is a writer in New York and the editor in chief of Adult.