Infrared by Nancy Huston - review by Jonathan Beckman

Jonathan Beckman

Helpless Dollops of Custard

Bad Sex Winner 2012




Were there any books purchased this year that weren’t furnished with sex dungeons, spanking paraphernalia and a hard-bodied, emotionally crippled oligarch, in whom the urge to punish struggles desperately with the urge to dispense health and safety advice about what to do if the nipple clamps have been applied a little too tightly? Fifty Shades of Grey and its accumulated sequels and rip-offs have so vigorously dominated the cultural imagination that many dozens of people nominated E L James for Literary Review’s 20th Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Unfortunately, the award explicitly excludes pornography and erotica, however ineptly attempted.

A flash of a ‘miraculously unguarded vagina’ in A Casual Vacancy, J K Rowling’s breathlessly anticipated first novel for adults, briefly intrigued the judges, though on further examination they found the novel’s chief sex scene – a fumbled encounter between two teenagers – to be tenderly imagined.

More vigour was found in Noughties, Ben Masters’s much-hyped debut about a group of Oxford students having a last night on the town. ‘Abi’s commandeering hand was delving into my pants, kneading balls of dough’, remembers Eliot, the wincing narrator:

My hand dropped from her neck to her breasts. She took it and forced it inside the cup of her bra, lending me her full cushiony swell. With my other hand I traced the Braille of her viscera. She read so differently from Lucy. She became warmer and slick … more fragrant.
We got up from the chair and she led me to her elfin grot, getting amongst the pillows and cool sheets. We trawled each other’s bodies for every inch of history. I dug after what I had always imagined and came up with even more. She stroked my outlines in perfect synchrony until I was febrile in her hands, willingly guided elsewhere.

Some English students never stop reading, even in the sack.

The Quiddity of Will Self by Sam Mills, another debutant, tells the story of a cult devoted to the titular author, who is no stranger to this prize. Its rituals climax with the sexual communion between the initiate and Self:

My fingers trembled downwards, inch by inch, and curled around Our resplendent cock – for I had surrendered it to him and from that day on I would never be able to love another, every ejaculation a metaphor that would belong to him.

oh, yes, oh, yes, oh, Will, oh, yes, oh, semen-bedizened blood-pusillanimous bed onanistic quiddity fulcrating pelvic thrusts smoke thick typewriter’s click-clack-click Will Our Cock is Spent.

Self himself spent the year publicising Umbrella, his modernist pastiche, by advocating stream-of-consciousness as the most accurate means of representing reality. Readers will judge whether they’ve ever had sex quite like that.

A number of veterans of this prize have re-entered the fray. Craig Raine’s The
Divine Comedy
features sexual escapades of Olympic athleticism: ‘And he came. Like a wubbering springboard. His ejaculate jumped the length of her arm. Eight diminishing gouts.’

Nicholas Coleridge’s The Adventuress features a little light flagellation among the aristocracy. The Duke of Shropshire’s instruments of chastisement have a distinguished provenance, cut ‘from a copse of birch trees at Swinley Forest Golf Club’, where he is an ‘honorary member’. He implores the novel’s heroine:

 ‘Whip me with the birch rods, whip me without mercy.’
In seconds, the duke had lowered his trousers and boxers and positioned himself across a leather steamer trunk, emblazoned with the royal arms of Hohenzollern Castle. ‘Give me no quarter,’ he commanded. ‘Lay it on with all your might.’

Tom Wolfe won the award in 2004 for I Am Charlotte Simmons, but the founder’s intention that nominees should be dissuaded from attempting similar scenes in future has had little effect. He returns with Back to Blood, hysterical as ever:

the flood in her loins washed morals, despair, and all other abstract assessments away in a cloud of some sort of divine cologne of his. Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw – all this without a word. But then he began moaning.

Newsnight may have fallen down recently in its reporting of sex scandals, but its economics editor, Paul Mason, enthusiastically compensates in his first novel, Rare Earth, which stars a statue of a horse ‘frozen in the moment of rearing up on its hind legs, revealing what looked like a steel replica of an erect horse penis glinting beneath its belly’. The horse remains surprisingly under-utilised, though this does not stop a hairy Mongolian multimillionaire, whose lover has mounted the horse, ‘thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum, but missing’.

The main protagonist of Nancy Huston’s Infrared takes photographs of her lovers at the moment of climax, though reading her narration makes one wonder whether she should have stuck with pictures:

 oh the sheer ecstasy of lips and tongues on genitals, either simultaneously or in alternation, never will I tire of that silvery fluidity, my sex swimming in joy like a fish in water, my self freed of both self and other, the quivering sensation, the carnal pink palpitation that detaches you from all colour and all flesh, making you see only stars, constellations, milky ways, propelling you bodiless and soulless into undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate.

Nicola Barker stalled at the Man Booker Prize longlist for The Yips. But she went one step further in the Bad Sex Award with this rather confusing transposition of sex into the kitchen:

She smells of almonds, like a plump Bakewell pudding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of warm custard. She steams. He applauds, his tongue hanging out (like a bloodhound espying a raw chop in a cartoon).
She is topped with melted apricot jam. It makes her shine. Beneath that: the spongy gold, the give, the softness. Then still further down, the firmer butteriness of a thin-baked layer of crumbling shortcrust.

Next year, The Great British Bake Off?

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend