Notes on Raunch

Libidinous readers are doubtlessly familiar with Philip Roth’s liver-lubed onanists, John Updike’s man-boys with their dangling modifiers, and the spank-happy secretaries who populate Mary Gaitskill’s fictional universe. Perhaps you’ve traced the lineage of literary eros back to, well, Eros, as rendered by Aristophanes, Catullus, Ovid and the like. And then pushed forward, making pit stops at all erotic poles: Sade, Lawrence, Bataille, Duras, Salter, Winterson, Acker, and Baker (author of the new “book of raunch” House of Holes). But sex is a tireless subject, infinitely engaging. There’s always more to consider, more to discuss, and ultimately more to have. Below is a list of ten books you may have missed in your ongoing studies of human mating habits. These books explore sex in all its forms and functions: Some are silly, or scary, or heady. And some are just breathlessly horny.

The Blood Oranges by John Hawkes (1970)

This tale of late-sixties spouse-swapping unravels in the mythological region of Illyria (now part of modern Albania), where Shakespeare set his sexy summer blockbuster Twelfth Night. Like Shakespeare, Hawkes is a playful linguist, with an ear for erotic metaphor. The Blood Oranges begins with Cyril, a self-described “sex singer,” explaining that “...the only enemy of mature marriage is monogamy.” By the end of the novel he will be proven wildly wrong, but not before two hundred and fifty pages of poetically documented adultery, in which breasts become “the bursting irises of a young white owl’s wide-open eyes,” and lovers live in “the electrified field of Love’s art.” The players are a “quartet of tall and large-boned lovers” who loiter in sun-soaked paradise with nothing better to do than sexually ravage and emotionally torture each other. Cyril can be a maddeningly myopic narrator, but Hawkes’s velvet prose carries this atmospheric romp. It reads like a sex dream: palpable yet ungraspable, and running across the emotional spectrum with discomfiting speed and ease.

Wifey by Judy Blume (1978)

Yes, the Judy Blume who brought you such YA classics as Are You There God It’s Me Margaret and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing wrote a super-porny novel in the seventies about a bored suburban housewife and her marital transgressions. Sandy is awoken one day (both literally and metaphorically) by a toga-clad motorcyclist in a stars-and-stripes helmet. The man parks in Sandy’s backyard, and then proceeds to masturbate while Sandy watches from her bedroom window. He ejaculates on the twenty-seventh stroke (what detail!), “leaving his stuff on her lawn.” Sandy is fascinated, “not just by the act itself, but by the style. So fast, so hard!” Thus begins an erotic journey that transforms Sandy from a thirty-two-year-old who’s “never to been on top” into a doggy-styling adulterer. This mass-market paperback may tread lightly into Danielle Steele territory, but Blume is the far better writer, and not without a comic sense of irony. The sex tends to be realistically clumsy, and there’s more than a hint of early Roth in this satire of Jewish suburbia, in which the sex-starved “wifey” would rather sit in a porno theater, “dripping wet,” than befriend the boring housewives at “The Club.”

Paradise by Donald Barthelme (1986)

While Paradise may not measure up with Barthelme’s The Dead Father or Sixty Stories (the author himself thought the book unsuccessful), there’s still much to love in this story of desire fulfilled, and its inevitably disappointing aftermath. Three lingerie models move in with divorced, middle-aged Simon, and proceed to pummel him with erotic attention. Simon’s happy for a while, then run-down and disillusioned. Because it’s Barthelme, the comically rendered sex is speckled with quirky details—one woman wears an “Arm the Unemployed” T-shirt while discussing the construction of male fantasy and rubbing Simon’s “ass with her cunt in long swooping motions.” And it’s hard not to fall in love with the adorably dorky Simon, even if you can’t find much sympathy for his “plight.”

The Swimming-Pool Library by Alan Hollinghurst (1988)

Imagine an E.M. Forster novel updated for the early 1980s, with all of Forster’s sublimated homosexuality emerging to the surface like one of Hollinghurst’s sculpted swimmers—with slim trunks barely containing his proud and pythonic erection. This elegy for the sexual sovereignty of pre-AIDS England follows the young, beautiful, and rich William Beckwith as he traverses London’s pickup scene, and also attempts to piece together the life of Lord Charles Nantwich, an eighty-something aristocrat with a haunted past and an impressively healthy libido. Here, the lyric and the vulgar impressively co-exist, often within a single image, as in: “…the hairs in his crack, which I oiled back with my tongue, and sniffed through the dry smell of the talc to his own rectal smell—a soft stench like stale flower-water. His asshole was a clean pale purple, and shone with my saliva.”

The Letters of Mina Harker by Dodie Bellamy (1998)

Here’s the basic concept of this form-defying epistolary novel: Mina Harker—the unsexy secretary of vampire hunter Van Helsing in Dracula—takes possession of contemporary author Dodie Bellamy’s body, and proceeds to write a series of pornographic letters to Bellamy’s real and imaginary lovers. The letters are often beautiful, and always unsparingly graphic. Her clitoris is “slippery as a raw egg,” breasts move like “fat ghosts,” secrets “rattle around my cunt like bones,” and a “cum shot is precise, yet flattened and blurred like a color xerox of a collage.” The book is dotted with the insightful observations of a learned sexpert, like, “People about to come have a lousy sense of humor,” and, “Writing has always been more sexual than sex, the sustained arousal of never getting it quite right.” Though Bellamy teases with various summations and extractable conclusions, The Letters are ultimately irreducible. This isn’t post-coital analysis, but a sustained orgasmic tremor.

Lanzarote by Michel Houellebecq (2003)

Houellebecq is best known his novel, Platform, about the sex tourism industry, and for his controversial remarks about Islam. But at eighty-seven pages, this slim novella—an unofficial prelude to Platform—has less room for the author’s polarizing international politics, though it’s certainly not without fodder for the PC Police. Houellebecq’s bluntly hetero-male worldview is in full effect: “I enjoy watching two women masturbate and lick each other’s pussies; since I have no lesbian friends, it’s a pleasure I am usually denied.” Lucky for our unnamed narrator then, that he meets a couple of “non-exclusive” German lesbians while on vacation in Lanzarote. He wins them over by complimenting their breasts, and inviting them to a nude beach. Improbable orgies ensue (“‘You lick pretty well for a man,’ she said, placing her other hand on my balls”). Analysis: “Germans are weird.” Well that explains it! The book also has room for a subplot involving a mysterious police inspector from Luxemborg and an alien-worshipping cult. It might all sound like a bit of a stretch, but Houllebecq’s indulgence in male fantasy is undercut by an overwhelming sadness; what appears to be hedonism is actually nihilism. On an island filled with disgusting British tourists, and in a world filled with violence in terror, sex is our only refuge, and it’s never quite enough.

Ugly Man by Dennis Cooper (2009)

Though Cooper has written many novels investigating the relationship between sex and violence (see his “George Myles cycle”), the story collection Ugly Man delivers the author’s themes in a highly condensed form. In the imaginative “The Ash Gray Proclamation,” a psychic who may or may not be Osama Bin Laden sodomizes and cannibalizes teenage cadavers. The other stories in this collection come at the same themes from a variety of angles. The most formally interesting, and also the funniest, is “The Anal Retentive Line Editor,” a sort of gay-porn update on Nabakov’s Pale Fire, in which the story arrives via editorial line edits on a piece of porn-mag short fiction. Cooper isn’t for the squeamish, but there’s a commendable bravery in the way he handles even the ugliest behaviors, and how he makes these stories, at their core, about the desire for connection.

We Did Porn: Memoir and Drawings by Zak Smith (2009)

In 2006 Zak Smith wowed the art world with his book, Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. They stuck him in the Whitney Biennial. He hob-knobbed with fancy artist types, and sipped white wine. Then Benny Profane asked to use one of Smith’s paintings in the adult film Barbed Wire Kiss. Smith worked out an arrangement, and was given a small role in the film. Before he knew it, he’d changed his name to Sabbath, and was starring opposite Sasha Grey, Kimberly Kane, and Mandy Morbid in all variety of “indie porn.” This is Smith/Sabbath’s story, told in titillating play-by-play. In lesser hands it could be a disaster, but Smith avoids being either bro-ishly braggy or hiply blasé. He has a healthy combination of thrill and skepticism. And his ultimate point—that the porn world is actually less shallow than the New York art world—is well taken.

Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles (2010)

You’ll have to swim through two hundred-plus pages of Myles’ excellent novel before you get to the really sexy stuff. It’s well worth it. Like the New York School Poets, Myles successfully marries the demotic and the high-poetic, the ironic and the heart-hurtingly sincere. She’s also a comedian, an occasional gossip, and an unsparing social observer. Guiding us from the working-class streets of her Massachussetts childhood, through the poetry scene of 70s/80s downtown NYC, and out to the greenery of a rich friend’s Pennsylvania estate, Myles re-creates the vivid formation of both artist and lesbian. And there are, after the above-mentioned two-hundred-plus pages, some amazing descriptions of vaginas. One is a “Wiggly thing like soup, like a bowl.” It tastes of “piss and fruit,” and Myles feels “plunged into a tropical movie in which light was bathing my head, and her pussy, her cunt, her crotch was a warm smile, and for a moment I lived in her sun.”

Pee on Water by Rachel B. Glaser (2010)

This wildly imaginative debut story collection finds Glaser excelling in a variety of styles, from Borgesian surrealism to Anne Carson-ish essay-poems. But she’s at her best in the near-futuristic, Shteyngartian mode. Take the title story, in which the entirety of world history—from the Big Bang to 2086, when “Scientists are still trying to make pain less painful”—is condensed into seven pages. Anatomical evolution is explained thusly: “The new female monkeys have vaginas more between their legs, less likely to snag on branches. Males try sex with females from the front. Boobs get bigger to remind males what butts feel like.” Or better yet: “The Jon Lennin Xperience,” in which a young man becomes obsessed with a life-like game “Xperience,” to the point where he spurns the advances of an actual girl, so intent is he on bringing Yoko Ono to digital orgasm with his “sensi-gloved” hands. He succeeds by using the button combination for “waving goodbye,” causing Yoko to moan like a “trumpet dying.” Glaser succeeds by re-imagining cybersex as something rather human: heartbreakingly intimate, but only fleetingly fulfilling.