Jonathan Beckman

Like Crystal Ladybirds

Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award is now 21 years old, making it one of the more venerable literary prizes around. How we long to slump back in a cosy pair of slippers, with a mug of Ovaltine and a cheroot, having rendered ourselves redundant by deterring prospective novelists – as was this prize’s original intent – from attempting any crude, badly written or perfunctory passages of sexual description (explicitly erotic or pornographic novels have prizes of their own). Sadly, ours is one of those trials of Hades, like pushing a boulder up a hill or being an England football fan, in which hope is repeatedly coshed by reality.

The judges this year flirted briefly with Bridget Jones, whose return between the covers, in Bridget Jones: Mad about The Boy, was one of the most keenly anticipated books of the year. ‘It was like being in heaven, or other, similar paradise’ did not smack of either great originality or good grammar, but the endearing self-deprecation elsewhere – ‘he picked me up in his arms, as if I was as light as feather, which I am not, unless it was a very heavy feather, maybe from a giant prehistoric dinosaur-type bird’ – ruled it out of the running.

More promising was a scene from Motherland by another distinguished British writer, William Nicholson, which managed to brush up against every available cliché – ‘Larry feels tremors of dangerous delight run down his cock’ – as it reached for ecstasy and grasped something second-hand:

 His cock is in her now, gripped by sweet warmth, and he knows he can’t restrain himself any longer. His desire is in total control of his being, and it seeks explosive release.
‘I can’t,’ he says, ‘I can’t—’
‘Do it, Lawrence,’ she says. ‘Do it. Do it.’
He thrusts deep into her and pulls back and thrusts again, and the moment comes, and he half-faints with the intense pleasure of it. He feels the pulsing release spread from his cock to every part of his body.

Unlike the Nobel, this prize does not discriminate against those who have passed on. Norman Mailer won the award posthumously in 2007. House of Earth, written by Woody Guthrie in 1947 and published only in 2013, 47 years after the folk singer’s death, includes an extraordinary sex scene that lasts for several pages and betrays a man whose greatest love affair is with parallel clauses:

And inwardly she caressed, touched, petted, and fondled, squeezed, the whole length and all of the sides of the penis. And this caused her to work and to move and to roll and to breathe hard, to forget her name, her own self completely. She felt her organs fondle, and she felt them squeeze, suck, gently, easily, softly, smoothly, wet, damp slick …

And so on, through the thesaurus.

In Secrecy, a thriller set in 17th-century Florence, Rupert Thomson appears to have wandered through the bedroom and into a market:

Mauve and yellow flowers filled the blank screen of my eyelids, the petals loosening and drifting downwards on to smooth grey stone. I kissed the soft bristles in the hollow of her armpit, then I kissed the smaller hollow of her clavicle. I moved up to her mouth, which smelled of ripe melon. Not the wound-red Tuscan watermelon, but the pale-green variety I had bought in Naples once, and which had grown, so I was told, on the wild coast of Barbaria.

Flavour is also much on the mind of the protagonist of Jonathan Grimwood’s The Last Banquet, a chef in 18th-century France:

You know the peasant saying? If you can’t imagine how neighbouring vineyards can produce such different wines put one finger in your woman’s quim and another up her arse, then taste both and stop asking stupid questions… My fingers found both vineyards. At the front, she tasted salt as anchovy and as delicious. At the rear, bitter like chocolate and smelling strangely of tobacco. My tongue explored each and she shivered at one and giggled with embarrassment at the other.

The gastronomy gets more molecular in Matthew Reynolds’s The World Was All Before Them, which moves awkwardly between an MRI scan and Saturday Night Fever:

she stirred and her breath became a moan as endorphinergic and morphinergic mechanisms spluttered into life … arteries dilate and tissue swells, and all the beautifully adapted and various receptor neurones fire in happy harmony making brain cells iridesce and swirl and jive.

My Education by Susan Choi draws on those reliable geological metaphors, tidal swell and tectonic shift, in its efforts to convey ‘this tormenting, self-heightened pleasure’, which

surged outward and outward again, like an ocean-floor tremor, while the voice I have never imagined was bellowing harshly oh GOD, oh GOD OHGODOHGOD! – and it was then that Martha finally flung herself onto my shore, and through violent sobs kissed me, as if … she’d been born out of me in those hours, bodied forth by titanic orgasm.

The protagonist of Eric Reinhardt’s The Victoria System is building an enormous tower – which might be symbolic – while conducting an affair with a demanding and successful corporate executive, so glamorous that even her sweat shines ‘like crystal ladybirds’. The rest of her, though,

was like a deep nocturnal forest that I strode through without knowing where I was going, through woodland, amid ferns, under tall shivering trees, far from any path. There were noises, puddles, odours, dampness, shapes that vanished, treetops overhanging our bodies.

Only the most intrepid of explorers are advised to hack through the rest.

Finally, Manil Suri, in The City of Devi, went intergalactic in his attempt to convey what an orgasm is actually like:

Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands – only Karun’s body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.

Houston, we have a problem.

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