The Shape of Her by Rowan Somerville - review by Jonathan Beckman

Jonathan Beckman

Hours of Pleasure

Bad Sex Winner 2010

The Shape of Her



‘Impossible.’ Thus spake Martin Amis at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in October: ‘Very few writers have got anywhere with sex.’ Nominees for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award seem to have viewed this long history of failure more as a challenge than an admonition. Andrew Motion, chairman this year of the equally prestigious Man Booker Prize, was disappointed by the lack of action in the novels submitted to him and remarked that ‘the Bad Sex Prize has probably put a lot of people off’. The award was founded in 1993 to discourage poorly written, tasteless and extraneous descriptions of sex in the literary novel (erotic and pornographic fiction does not qualify). Judging by the rickety piles in Literary Review’s offices, many still require deterring.

Tony Blair’s memoir A Journey, though not technically eligible as non-fiction, was this year’s early frontrunner. ‘I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct,’ Blair wrote of things that went bump on the night that John Smith died. The passage is certainly crude (one of the award’s criteria), not least in its projection of voracious masculinity – perhaps to counter all those poodle jibes.

Blair was ultimately squeezed off the shortlist by his sometime praetorian guardsman Alastair Campbell. Campbell has previous: his debut novel, All in the Mind, was nominated for the award in 2008. This year saw the publication of Maya, a tale of ‘one of the world’s biggest movie stars’ who, in the climactic scene, offers herself to a childhood friend:

Her pleasure was now my sole ambition. She brought her mouth back to mine, then tugged on my shoulder, and I was lying on top of her, the outside of my thighs touching the inside of hers. I felt her calves on mine as she locked her legs around me, our tongues danced around each other once more, and she was wriggling beneath me, her hands on my hips, then she was pulling me towards her, directing me to everything I had ever hoped for. I thought the walls were going to fall down as we stroked and screamed our way through hours of pleasure to the union for which my whole life had been a preparation.

The class of 2010 also contains a number of multiple offenders. Craig Raine, Christos Tsiolkas, Rowan Somerville and Annabel Lyon were all nominated for more than one passage. Raine offered up limp humour (‘she kissed his half-cocked cock’), bizarre metaphor (‘Francesca’s fanny was a glorious irrepressible Afro pompon’; ‘the arsehole’s café au lait. Its spicy Lebkuchen taste’) as well as the queasy sensation that he himself was not entirely ungratified:

Steph was a trembling temple slave, kissing the icons in their filthy corners, getting smacked for her trouble. She was literally the underling. But Assia had no real interest in being the dominatrix. She felt miscast and envious of Steph. She might prefer to be degraded, subservient herself. How could she tell? Steph had taken the part. ‘Smack me. Smack me. I’m dirty.’

An overly flamboyant imagination is often at the root of bad sex writing. But in the case of Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap (also longlisted for the Booker Prize), it was repetitiveness that caught the attention of the judges: ‘His lips closed over a stiffening, obliging nipple, then he was sucking it, biting it, till Aisha let out a small whimper of pain and reluctantly he stopped’; ‘He pulled at her nipple, twisting it till she slapped his hand away.’ Cocks are predictably salty; desire is a ‘ravenous animal’ (sound familiar?). The following is indicative of the carelessness of both Tsiolkas’s prose and his metaphysics:

They fucked for ages. When he came he could not help crowing out his rapture and Aisha, laughing, placed her hand across his mouth. He left his softening cock inside her, thrusting gently, whispering he loved her, whispering her name. He heard her gasp, then she was kissing him hard, almost biting his lip. His eyes were still closed, he wanted to stay inside her. He had banished all thoughts of Connie – now that he had come. Not before, he couldn’t before. He had merged them in the fantasy of his exertions, fucking his wife, fucking the girl, all at the same time, their bodies, their c**ts, their skins both one and distinct for him.

Rowan Somerville’s The Shape of Her recounts at length the couplings of two twenty-somethings while summering on a Greek island. There is an uneasy marriage of exhaustive mechanical detail and stretched, often unnecessary simile:

He caught her rhythm, pulling and releasing, cradling and crushing; pushing up through his fingers with each swing, mining up, like an otter through wet sand. Her sounds shifted from moans to grunts, insistent, almost desperate cries from the throat.
He rested his hands on her hips and paused, turning her to him, kissing and climbing his hands up her back, drawing her to his torso and squeezing until he could feel the light give of her ribs. He covered her mouth with his and she sucked at him, the smell of him filling her. He unbuttoned the front of her shirt and pulled it to the side so that her breast was uncovered, her nipple poking out, upturned like the nose of the loveliest nocturnal animal, sniffing in the night. He took it between his lips and sucked the salt from her. He hooked his fingers into her waistband, caught the elastic of her underwear and began pulling down. The knot on her light cotton trousers held fast as the fabric reached the curve of her backside. She twisted from him and stepped back.
‘I want to suck you,’ […] She loosed his trousers, pulled away his underwear and gripped him with fingers tender enough to hold a tiny bird.
As he felt her mouth’s engulfment, he acquiesced, disappointment melting like ice in hot cream.

The judges lost the thread at this point: ‘Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.’

Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic, was nominated for a tenderly rendered phone sex scene marred by a predilection for innuendo: ‘let him go’, ‘he was gripped’ and ‘sucked into’ were all, furiously winking, deployed straightforwardly. And the culmination not so much baffling as ludicrous:

One afternoon, as Connie described it, her excited clitoris grew to be eight inches long, a protruding pencil of tenderness with which she gently parted the lips of his penis and drove herself down to the base of its shaft. Another day, at her urging, Joey described to her the sleek warm neatness of her turds as they slid from her anus and fell into his open mouth, where, since these were only words, they tasted like excellent dark chocolate. 

Perhaps youthful exuberance led to the nomination of the three debut novelists who round off the list. Annabel Lyon’s excellent novelisation of the life of Aristotle, The Golden Mean, showed us the philosopher instructing his wife ‘harder … like grinding meal’ and coming ‘like a monster’. Neel Mukherjee’s A Life Apart includes, alongside an instructive disquisition on the art of cottaging, this cramped encounter in a car:

He starts to moan, ‘Oh, yeah … oh yeah … come on then, come, come, shoot your load…’ the movement of his hand becoming more and more furious. There seems to be a restless animal in his devouring eyes. Ritwik finds his exaggerated porn-speak so ridiculous that he has to make an effort to subdue the laughter bubbling up from inside, it’s in his throat now, it has to be pushed down down, no he can’t let it come out, can’t come out as he comes all over himself, the little opal pools pearlescent on his dark skin even in the darkness inside and around.

Are they opals? Are they pearls? Does it matter?

Finally Mr Peanut by Adam Ross made the rookie error of trying far too hard.

He buried his face into Hannah’s c**t like a wanderer who’d found water in the desert. She tasted like a hot biscuit flavoured with pee. She grabbed his scruff and pulled his face to hers. They kissed, and she took his cock – it felt as thick as a Louisville Slugger – and guided him in. When he exploded – and he exploded quickly – he felt as if his heart had liquefied and then been shot out of him up through her vagina and uterus and her ovaries and up over her diaphragm and somehow down the vena cavity to her heart, his own now coating hers.

Sometimes you should just say it with flowers.

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