Katerina by James Frey - review by Frank Brinkley

Frank Brinkley

Fifty Shades of Frey

Bad Sex Winner 2018




As the nights draw in, the Bad Sex in Fiction Award judges rise wearily from their beds and set about sifting through the worst passages of sexual description in the year’s novels. The brief remains the same: to highlight the poorly written, gratuitous or downright redundant. The hallmarks of ‘bad sex’, such as they are, tend to be an overreliance on hyperbole, a resort to florid language and a certain anatomical confusion (or, in certain cases, anatomical wishful thinking). Here follows a selection of the year’s judging, though at the time of writing, entries are still coming in.

First, some also-rans. William Boyd’s Love is Blind, for instance, came close with lines such as ‘Brodie hauled down his trousers and drawers, his erection craning free.’ Brodie, the novel’s protagonist, somewhat implausibly drops his spectacles more or less every time he kisses his inamorata. Nevertheless the judges felt that these flustered fumblings were in keeping with Brodie’s character; they could even forgive Boyd making the book’s title literal by rendering his hero blind at the crucial moment of love.

Meanwhile, Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, a retelling of the events of The Iliad from Briseis’s point of view as a captive of the Greeks, showed similar signs of the sort of egregious writing the judges are on red alert for. One sentence caught the eye: ‘I slid down the bed and took his cock in my mouth, shlurping away as if I’d just discovered a particularly juicy pear.’ ‘Shlurping’ is a little onomatopoeic for comfort, but the scene ends too swiftly to merit serious consideration for the award.

Luke Tredget’s Kismet, however, proved ripe for selection. The judges were struck by this particular flight of fancy during a sustained description of the act:

She suddenly thinks of her idea for a theme park of human consumption, and wonders if it would be possible to represent the totality of someone’s sex life in an installation. A water fountain where the liquid looks like semen, representing the totality of a lifetime’s ejaculate? Or maybe one of those fairground electric chairs, only powered by the energy of five thousand orgasms? She shuffles her head closer to his cock, close enough to smell her own residue, and then takes it in her mouth, with the vague idea of cleaning it.

The scene provoked debate among the judges: was this an intentional juxtaposition of the celebratory and the sanitary, or an unfortunate clash of registers? It was also, regrettably, reminiscent of the flights of fancy one might encounter in the novels of that serial Bad Sex nominee, Haruki Murakami.

No one out-Murakamis the man himself, however, and this year he is once again under consideration, this time for Killing Commendatore. One dream sequence begins with Murakami’s familiar exactitude: ‘I slipped my erect penis inside. Or, from another angle, that part of her actively swallowed my penis, immersing it in what felt like warm butter.’ Next, the timeworn riverine simile is deployed: ‘My desire raged like a river through a broken dam, carrying me along.’ The eventual climax seems to provoke not pleasure but medical emergency: ‘My ejaculation was violent, and repeated. Again and again, semen poured from me, overflowing her vagina, turning the sheets sticky.’

James Frey gained a measure of notoriety in 2003 after A Million Little Pieces, his ‘memoir’, turned out to be not quite factual. Here, Katerina, a ‘novel’, is about a young man who moves to Paris to become a writer. He meets the titular Katerina, who proceeds in short order to seduce him and, despite his repeated exclamations of amazement, have her way with him in the toilets of the bar:

She leans forward and softly kisses my neck.
Kisses my ear.
Yes, I want to play.
I’m hard, I want, she knows I want.
You’re a cute boy, Jay.
Softly kisses my lips.
Thank you.
You still writing that dumb book?
I put my hands up her skirt.
Run the tips of my fingers along the insides of her thighs.
You were right.
Around her ass.
Yes, I was.
We both move toward each other kissing deeply slowly heavily, lips and tongues, her hands are immediately in my pants, I lift her off the ground set her on the sink tear off her thong. She says now I ask her if she has a condom she says now, Jay, now.
I step between her legs.
Move inside her.
She’s tight and wet, leans back against the mirror.
Deeper inside her.
Tight and wet.
She moans pulls my face to hers kisses me. I start moving inside her, slow hard and deep, her hands gripping the sides of the sink, my hands on her shoulders, we’re looking into each other’s eyes pale green and light brown like cocoa.
Do you like my pussy, Jay?
Does your cock feel good in my pussy?
Pale green.
Do you love my pussy?
Tell me.
Tell me you love my pussy.
I love your pussy.
Hands gripping.
Tell me how good your cock feels inside me.
Feels so good inside you.

On and on the scene proceeds, an exercise that left the judges needing a hot cocoa and a long lie down.                                      

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