I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe - review by Alan Rafferty

Alan Rafferty

Bad Sex Report 2004

Bad Sex Winner 2004

I Am Charlotte Simmons



Although all the winners of the Bad Sex Award (with the notable exception of Sebastian Faulks in 1998) have accepted the prize with good grace, the enthusiasm of last year’s winner was unprecedented. Aniruddha Bahal flew in from New Delhi specially to collect his statue (presented by Sting), apparently having informed his publishers only after he had checked in that he expected them to pay for his flight. However, the possibility that the prize, now in its twelfth year, may have become desirable has done nothing to alter its purpose, which remains the gentle discouragement of authors from including redundant, embarrassing and clumsily written passages of sexual description in otherwise respectable works of fiction.

That there is still a need for such an award is evident from the passages selected by our judges this year, though several of the authors who received nominations little deserved them. Erica Jong’s Sappho’s Leap (Arcadia) found early support, and includes the curse of a witch upon her faithless lover: ‘Let him smell the juice of my delta even in that far land where he dwells.’ But, since the writing throughout the book, which is furnished with Jong’s own original translations of Sappho’s poetry, is on a level with this (‘he ravished me like a conqueror and fell in love with me like a schoolboy’, etc), the sexual scenes could not be said to be particularly bad, and the novel was passed over.

Also put forward was A N Wilson’s My Name is Legion (Hutchinson). An enjoyable pageant of grotesque characters, this contained nothing to exercise our judges, but did mention that famous description of sex with a certain Tory MP, here referred to as ‘The Fat Man’, as being ‘like having a wardrobe fall on top of you and then feeling that someone had left the little key poking out of the door’. One wonders how The Fat Man would have fared if subjected to the same test as the priapic Mustafa in Moris Farhi’s Young Turk (Saqi Books), the first of our real contenders.

 I am stretched out on a sofa. My beloved is determined to assess my age. She has an infallible method for doing so: the way they ascertain a tree’s age: by counting the rings in its trunk. Consequently, she has my member in her mouth. Her lips are thick with lipstick. Starting from the base of my penis, her mouth ambles upwards. At each half-centimetre, her lips imprint a red ring around the shaft. She continues until she runs out of length. She counts the rings. On this occasion they add up to thirty-six. (An hour ago, the number had been forty-one.) She cuddles up to me. She coos. ‘Thirty-odd rings. What a mature oak in one so young!’

We embrace. She smears her breasts and vagina with rose-petal jam. She squats above my face so that I can imbibe her splendour. She lowers herself on to my mouth and lets me lap up every bit of the rosepetal jam. Then she mounts me and, as she begins to rock, she rubs her breasts all over my face. I am in such ecstasy that I am ready to die. In fact, I want to die, because I know I shall never again find this heaven, the Seventh Heaven.

This sort of thing surely leads to indigestion. Nevertheless, time and again in the novels nominated this year we come across characters having sex who, if not actually eating at the same time, seem to be thinking about food. In The Last Song of Dusk by Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), a cheerful ‘Bollylit’ debut novel and the first of several entries from the subcontinent (generally associated with rather good books about sex), Anuradha and Vardhrnaan are cavorting in the dark.

Was it on the bed that she sat on him, her weasel-like loins clutching and unclutching his lovely, long, louche manhood, as though squeezing an orange for its juice? Or was it on the balcony swing, much later, that he buried his thirsty tongue in those thick pink lips between her legs? She loved most the lusciousness of his buttocks, their dimpled circumference, as though God had created them only so she might puli him farther into herself and then muffle her rapturous pleasure as she had, only a few hours back, muffled her anguish. . . . they had exhausted all the wild beasts lurking in the forests of their flesh.

From juicing oranges to picking mushrooms in André Brink’s Before I Forget (Secker & Warburg), reviewed on p63:

 the mound of her sex . . . was disproportionately – but beautifully – high and rounded, overgrown with a luxuriant mop of long black pubic hair, not crinkly at all, but soft and feathery; and the vulva itself . . . was of unusual plumpness, almost spherical, like a large exotic mushroom in the fork of a tree, a little pleasure dome if ever I’ve seen one, where Alph the sacred river ran down to a tideless sea. No, not tideless. Her tides were convulsive, an ebb and flow that could take you very far, far back, before hurling you out, wildly and triumphantly, on a ribbed and windswept beach without end.

Having corrupted Coleridge, Brink goes on to adapt Shakespeare for his purposes, writing of one character’s vagina: ‘It invited the unfolding, the probing, the discovery from which no traveller returns unchanged.’

And still the fruit and veg keeps coming. Thus, in Nadeem Aslam’s Maps for Lost Lovers (Faber & Faber):

His mouth looked for the oiled berry. Her taste came and went tidally salt and sour in his mouth, as eloquent as weather. When he fell through the sensation and opened his eyes he was surprised to find her there. And he could not hold her close enough. The smell of his armpits was on her shoulders – a flower depositing pollen on a hummingbird’s forehead. They detonated the remains of each other’s orgasms with fingers and tongues, areas of their bodies sticking together with sweat that was like the weak glue that holds segments of an orange together.

‘As eloquent as weather’ is sublime. But this passage left me thankful that Charag and Stella settled for a union with ‘weak glue’ when they could have ended up soldered together like the lovers in this episode in Gregory David Roberts’s Shantaram (Little, Brown):

She breathed in murmurs, guiding me, and I spoke rhythm to her, echoing my needs. Heat joined us, and we enclosed ourselves with touch and taste and perfumed sounds. Reflected on the glass, we were silhouettes, transparent images – mine full of fire from the beach. and hers full of stars. And at last, at the end, those clear reflections of our selves melted, merged, and fused together.

I wish I could speak rhythm. Set in Bombay, Shantaram is supposedly based on Roberts’s experiences there when he was on the run, having escaped from an Australian prison. ‘Shantaram’ apparently means ‘Man of Peace’, and the first two drafts of the book, written after Roberts had been recaptured, were shredded by his guards. Undeterred, he began again: some experiences are worth immortalising.

‘You feel that?’ she mumbled, her teeth clenched and exposed in a grim smile. ‘That’s muscle power, boy. That’s what it is. That’s training and practice, hours of it, months of it. Madame Zhou makes us squat, and squeeze down hard on a pencil, to build up a grip like a fist. I got so fuckin’ good at it, I could write a letter with the goddamn thing . . . What’s the matter with you? Don’t you wanna fuck me? What are you, some kinda faggot?’

A bit brutal for our purposes perhaps, but if you thought she was scary, meet Laura, in Anthony Capella’s The Food of Love (Time Warner Books):

She felt strange and wild. Her body was just a collection of organs. She was blood and plumbing, like any other creature, and there was nothing that was forbidden about any of it. She gnawed on Tomasso ravenously, like an animal plundering a carcass, and when she had had enough of that she swung her leg over him, like a rider swinging into a saddle, and galloped. She was riding naked on a big horse, among a pack of hunting wolves, at night. The flanks of the horse were slippery with foam. She could sense something in the distance, some small animal which was desperately trying to escape the pack, but they were getting closer to it every second. The wolves could sense it, too, and increased their pace. She galloped faster, urging her mount on with little cries and squeezes of her thighs. Closer and closer they got to their quarry. Now there was a jump ahead, a vast wall rushing towards her, but it was too late to stop. She dug her nails in hard and held on for dear life. As she finally took off into the air, she arched her back and shouted. The animal was screaming, too, as the wolves finally caught it and tore it apart, ripping its soft palate open with their sharp teeth, devouring the coratella and the bloody bright red heart…

A carnivore at last. After such bestial confidence, the less certain approach of the narrator of Matt Thorne’s Cherry (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) is rather bathetic.

I still had the brush. I gripped it tightly, even as Cherry embraced me. She was on all fours, with me lying beneath her. I let her hold me, then moved the brush to my crotch, pointing it upwards. I wasn’t sure what I was doing. The kiss had changed the temperature of the moment, altering our interaction from erotic fantasy to sexual intimacy. . . . It was true that in my years without a woman my fantasies had frequently been shaped by material created out of empty anger and pain, and it was in an attempt to legitimise (in the sense of seeking a female response to) this form of frustrated lust that I acted now, bringing my hips up so the tip of the brush handle pressed against Cherry’s labia.

I’m not sure what he was doing either, but seldom has the sexual act required such tortured justification (there is a footnote to this passage which has been omitted here as a kindness to Literary Review readers).

At the time of writing nominations are still coming in for, amongst others, Wendy Perriam (who, as a previous winner, really ought to have learned her lesson), Julian Fellowes, Will Self and Tom Wolfe. The winner will be announced in December at the Bad Sex party.

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