Pity the poor fund managers at the Man Group. Not only has their share price tumbled this year more quickly than News International’s reputation, but the prizes that they sponsor have been submerged in controversy. First, the Man Booker International Prize garlanded Philip Roth, only for one of the judges to announce belatedly that reading Roth’s oeuvre was about as enjoyable as asphyxiation through face-sitting. Then, so many literary grandees and friends of Alan Hollinghurst were outraged that Alan Hollinghurst had failed to make the Booker Prize shortlist that they established the rebel ‘Literature Prize’, specifically to honour future novels by Alan Hollinghurst.
Literary Review is delighted – though not surprised – to report that no one has dared challenge the pre-eminence of the Bad Sex Award. It beneficently hovers over the world of letters, offering guidance to the inexperienced and chastisement to those who should know better. Now in its nineteenth year, its purpose is ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it. The prize is not intended to cover pornographic or expressly erotic literature.’
Two writers regularly touted for the Nobel Prize in Literature are in the vanguard of this year’s nominees. The genial surrealist Haruki Murakami, in the course of his gargantuan three-volume novel 1Q84 (Harvill Secker), was struck by the observation that ‘A freshly made ear and a freshly made vagina look very much alike’. Anatomical confusion on this scale can be disastrous for any relationship, but it was ‘freshly made’ that caught the judges’ jaded eyes. From when are we measuring this? Birth? In the womb? Conception? At which point all body parts look pretty much identical.
Péter Nádas is one of the greats of modern Hungarian fiction. His new novel, Parallel Stories (Jonathan Cape), is 1,200 pages long, was eighteen years in the making, and has been hailed as a new War and Peace. Tolstoy devoted 150 pages of his masterpiece to describing a day’s hunting; Nádas expends an even greater amount of energy and paper on cottaging and arse-licking (and not in the metaphorical sense). Spoilt for choice, the judges lighted upon one character ‘splashing about with his overhardened, aching cock as in a bottomless swamp of dead fish and yellow lilies in bloom’. Our man hopes ‘to make discoveries about a woman via the qualities of her cavities’; in fact, he finds himself the hero of a psychomachia twixt Eros and Thanatos, doing ‘violence to the instinct of reproduction and [handing] it over to finality, to beautiful death’.
Freud bullied his way into David Guterson’s adaptation of the Oedipus myth, Ed King (Bloomsbury), which includes a lengthy description of mother–son bonding that Sophocles had seen fit to leave offstage:
So she took him by the wrist and moved the base of his hand into her pubic hair until his middle fingertip settled on the no-man’s-land between her ‘front parlor’ and ‘back door’ (those were the quaint, prudish terms of her girlhood), she got him on the node between neighboring needs (both of which had been explored by johns who almost never tarried).
It’s hard to work out what is more excruciating, Guterson’s jarring language – we’re later treated to ‘membrum virile’, ‘skin flute’ and ‘family jewels’ – or his naive belief that a sprinkling of inverted commas is sufficient to ironise his euphemisms.
Rain-soaked melancholy may well be the contemporary Irish novel’s default ambience. Sebastian Barry in On Canaan’s Side (Faber & Faber) struggles to keep the squall out of the bedroom:
We were lying side by side one Sunday morning and with one accord, without real thought, with the simple instinct of ordinary human creatures, we turned to each other and gently kissed, then fiercely, like wakening beasts, and before we knew where we were, like a sudden walking storm down the lake that we had witnessed in the deeper weather, we seemed to go out into a stormy gear, we clutched at each other, we got rid of our damned clothes, and clung, and he was in me then, and we were happy, happy, young, in that room by the water, and the poetry that is available to anyone was available to us at last.
About halfway through it becomes momentarily unclear whether the couple concerned actually think that intercourse ought to be conducted in oilskins and galoshes. Protective headgear, however, would have made the sex in Stephen King’s 11.22.63 (Hodder & Stoughton) a little less painful: ‘She was wearing jeans. The fabric whispered under my palm. She leaned back and her head bonked on the door.’
Apocalyptic sex is particularly in vogue this year. Dori Ostermiller’s Outside the Ordinary World (Mira) delivers on its title’s promise: ‘He’s whispering something into my hair and I’m listening but not, noting instead the inner geography – landmasses have altered. The planets have come unmoored, just like in the Last Days. They will surely fall.’
In The Final Testament of the Holy Bible by James Frey (John Murray), the second coming of Jesus is given a whole new meaning:
And he kept moving, real slow, and moving real deep inside, and it built until I saw it and felt it. It was love, and joy, and pleasure, and every part of my body sang some song I had never heard but was the prettiest, most beautiful song ever, and it was blinding and pure and my brain went the whitest white ever, and I saw infinity, forever and ever, I saw infinity, and even understood it, and understood everything else in the world, all the hate and rage and death and passion and jealousy and murder, and none of them even mattered. I felt one hundred percent secure. I felt nothing bad. I saw the past and future.
I think this is a description of an orgasm – but it could equally be severe concussion.
At the other end of the historical spectrum Jean M Auel’s The Land of Painted Caves (Hodder & Stoughton) features some Cro-Magnon rumpy-pumpy: ‘She felt delicious jolts of pleasure race through her. It had been a long time since they had taken time to explore the Mother’s Gift of Pleasure.’
Two of this year’s authors were nominated for previous releases. Christos Tsiolkas treats us in Dead Europe (Atlantic, published in Australia in 2005 and this year in the UK) to a heady olfactory distillation: ‘She smelt of farting and diarrhoea, shitting and pissing, burping, bile and vomit. I forced my tongue into this churning compost. Her blood was calling me.’ Simon Van Booy’s Everything Beautiful Began After (Beautiful Books) manages to make sex seem as sensuous as a crash course of Sartrean existentialism: ‘She swirled in the currents below her life, where her sense of self was revealed as arbitrary, extraneous – so easily washed away by the force of a singular intent.’ Chris Adrian, in The Great Night (Granta Books), competes on the hysterical incomprehensibility front:
he came, standing, with both hands thrown high up over his head and his lady lifted to the stars on his impossibly stiff, impossibly eloquent cock. He came and came and came and fell backward, as if through a mile of air or a lifetime, to land on the soft grass with a noise like his name, feeling like he was saying his name properly for the first time because for the first time he knew who he was and what he was all about and what he really wanted, which was precisely this.
Lee Child’s latest blockbuster The Affair (Bantam Press) offers a seduction scene that achieves a prose-poetry all of its own:
Then it was time. We started tenderly. Long and slow, long and slow. Deep and easy. She flushed and gasped. So did I. Long and slow.
Then faster and harder.
Then we were panting.
Faster, harder, faster, harder.
‘Wait,’ she said.
‘Wait, wait,’ she said. ‘Not now. Not yet. Slow down.’
Long and slow, long and slow.
‘OK,’ she said, ‘OK. Now. Now. Now!’
Faster and harder.
Faster, harder, faster, harder.
The room began to shake.
Should Child’s literary star ever fade, it sounds like he would be the perfect contestant for Strictly Come Dancing.