Pleasure and the Text

In 2009, after his show “Sade for Sade’s Sake,” Paul Chan took a hiatus from making art. He used his time away to found Badlands Unlimited, a press that has since published Saddam Hussein’s On Democracy, Calvin Tomkins’s interviews with Duchamp, dozens of artist e-books, a “digital group show” called “How to Download a Boyfriend,” and one engraved sandstone. In 2015, Badlands started putting out erotica under the imprint New Lovers. “Art is what I do now to pass the time while editing erotic fiction,” Chan told the Paris Review. He says he was inspired to launch New Lovers by Olympia Press, which funded the publication of novels by Nabokov and Beckett with smut money. (Not counting the New Lovers books, a third of Badlands’ output is by Chan.) The books have uniform covers, with white text against a purple background, and at thirteen dollars a pop are priced to collect. The New Lovers authors—there are nine to date—are mostly drafted from the art world, although they include a few fiction writers and one scholar of the occult. None have published erotica before, and all of them are women.

If it’s clear why a young woman would sign on to write a Paul Chan–branded erotic novel—it’s a cannyish career move, and fun enough, if you’re game—it’s less clear why anyone would read one. Chan has no avant-garde pretensions. “I’m not sure I know what literature is,” he has said, “but I’m pretty sure we’re not publishing it.” Hilda Hilst these are not. I’d like to know the numbers: How many people have heard about the New Lovers books, how many people saw the first three exhibited at the Guggenheim, how many people buy them to display them on their bookshelves, and how many people have actually read them? How many people even know where to buy one? (At the ninety-nine-cent store in Chinatown below the Badlands office. Or online, of course.) Chan insists that Badlands is a business, not an art project, but an art-world knowingness permeates the series. If genre fiction is supposed to naively reproduce ideologies, baldly laying bare fantasies about gender, sex, and power, genre fiction produced by the art world has a mirrored effect: Even when it’s not trying to “transcend” genre, it’s still trying to “do something” with the form, because it’s written by and for people who probably wouldn’t buy a drugstore romance novel.

Many of the New Lovers authors fill their books with backstories, epiphanies, psychologizing. This is too bad. If I wanted character development, I’d read George Eliot. (Besides, any ungrammatical dreck you dredge up from your Google searches has psychology—the bored housewife; the curious coed.) The books are most interesting when they get weird. The first title, How to Train Your Virgin by Wednesday Black, concerns the efforts of the queen of an otherwordly kingdom populated by minotaurs and centaurs to obtain the consent of her human sexual conscripts, whom she beds in a dreamspace between Earth and her realm. It’s gross (there’s a character called “Inside Out Man”), but imaginative. Lex Brown’s My Wet Hot Drone Summer is the most topical. It takes place in the future and involves a righteous African American attorney, police violence, climate change, surveillance technology, a horny redhead, a bisexual cyborg, and an electromagnetic dildo. It comes closest to honoring the directive of the series: to “explore the complexities bedeviling contemporary life, culture, and art today.”

The newest lover, no. 9, Larissa Pham’s Fantasian, is a bildungsroman set at Yale University in which an Asian American student falls for her doppelgänger, ditches her rich white girlfriend, discards her identity, and has a three-way with hot twins named Alexei and Dmitri. Conversations revolve around summer internships at Vanity Fair (who can afford them), exhibitions at the Getty (Richard Avedon), and language (it’s “a dark vessel”). The narrator and the double, whose name is Dolores, bond over the feeling of being “POC sidequest” and the difficulties of fitting in.“Alexei thinks that just because he grew up poor he gets to lecture me about privilege,” says Dolores, as she does the narrator’s makeup. “When, like, hello, he’s a white guy getting a Yale degree! He’s gonna be just fine. Sorry I went to private school, but it’s not like I ever get to opt out of my body.”

Brandi Twilley, Bed on Fire, 2016, oil on canvas, 32 × 56". Courtesy the artist.
Brandi Twilley, Bed on Fire, 2016, oil on canvas, 32 × 56". Courtesy the artist.

A few pages later, the narrator—she’s unnamed, something Pham has said she “stole” from A Sport and a Pastime—confesses a secret to the reader. “I’ve always wanted to lose myself.” The problem is how to lose yourself without opting out of your body, which comes to a head when—surprise!—the narrator fucks Dolores, which is like fucking herself in a mirror, mirrors being Fantasian’s key motif. Dolores, you see, is writing a paper on Lacan. “His mirror stuff, it’s really interesting,” she explains while she and the narrator hole up in a bathroom to escape a bad party. “According to Lacan, when the child sees his own reflection in a mirror, he finally understands that his collection of turbulent gestures coalesce into a unified self. . . . A mirror, it draws a line around all those things. It gives you a form to hold on to, a thing to call your own.”

Sounds sexy, although the point of the mirror stage is that the unified self reflected in the mirror is a fiction. It’s not that the child sees who he “really” is in the mirror; it’s that he sees who he isn’t. There’s something cute about Dolores’s misreading a theory of misrecognition, and maybe that’s Pham’s point—in the end, the image of Dolores the narrator saw in the mirror proves illusory—but I was too distracted by all the heavy breathing about “turbulent gestures” to figure it out. Some will find the phrase “sparkling clit” embarrassing; for me, undergrads getting off on Lacan is worse. Sometimes the New Lovers books make fun of their own knowingness, as in Andrea McGinty’s God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name, when the narrator wonders, of a philosophy made trendy by the art world, “What the hell is speculative realism anyway?” Here Pham seems in earnest. I assume there are readers for whom all the talk is a turn-on—for whom the book’s heady atmosphere is part of its seduction. To those readers, I say: Have fun!

Is there a difference between reading summaries of the New Lovers books and reading the books themselves? There should be. Erotica is sensation fiction—inert language on the page evokes a physiological response. The relationship is a mimetic one. Description depends on a balance between cliché and specificity, abstract or base language and literary language. If it’s too clichéd, all “hard cocks” and “wet pussies,” it’s boring and oppressive; if it’s too eccentric, it’s jarring, and a little nauseating. (I don’t think I’ll ever get over Cara Benedetto, in Burning Blue, referring to female genitalia as “shark jaw.”) Pham strikes a balance. Her writing, especially the parts that aren’t about sex, is sodden with similes, but they actually evoke. “Her olive-complexioned shoulders emerge, smooth and hard as wood.” “She’s gone, her denim jacket hanging stiffly from the coatrack like an empty chrysalis.”

Our heroines find themselves in another bathroom, one more crowded than the last. Dmitri and Alexei are crammed in there, and so is that bubblegum-pink poster for Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure from Dia:Beacon—a free printout that the staff of Dia keeps replenished in a stack in the basement. Anyone who visits the museum can pick one up. This one is “thumbtacked above the toilet and crinkled with age, and I read it as Dmitri cuts fat white lines for each of us on a plastic hand mirror next to the sink. Consider the parts of your back which press against the wall; press hard and feel how the front and back of your body press together.” Body Pressure, an artwork without an original, is a clever way of signaling Fantasian’s interest in a world of infinite multiples and copies. It’s also the ultimate in-the-know reference, connecting the characters in Fantasian to the readers of Fantasian—we’re all the kind of people who take weekend trips to Dia:Beacon.

Erotic prose attempts to do the impossible—to fully describe the sexual act, to give it some kind of linguistic plenitude. The fantasy of erotica is the fantasy of satiation—of orgasms so shattering that they leave a person drained, exhausted, satisfied, done. In its desire for plenitude erotica has something in common with realism itself, which aspires to a complete description of the world. What makes Fantasian smarter than most erotica is that it doesn’t try to convince you that these orgasms are The Best Orgasms of All Time. It’s not that interested in impressing you with brute acrobatics. And instead of la petite mort, it ends with actual, literal death—three of them. After the ménage à twins, the narrator douses the bed in gasoline and lights a cigarette. It’s an auto-da-fé of rage.

My Wet Hot Drone Summer also comes to a violent end. Mia, the lawyer, beats and zip-ties the villain who’s been interfering in her case. Then the cyborg Wes attempts to rape Mia. Her friend Eva saves her by ramming the electromagnetic dildo in Wes’s ass, which gives him a seizure. Mia then beats Wes’s dick with her fists, and crushes it underfoot. She drags him into the hallway, where he lies on the floor, convulsing. All that’s left in the room is “a few drops of blood remaining as proof of what happened.” But that’s still not the most shocking thing that happens in the New Lovers series. In Burning Blue, the narrator is going through . . . menopause.

Christine Smallwood writes the New Books column for Harper’s Magazine.