The Office of Gardens and Ponds / Pax by Didier Decoin / John Harvey - review by Michael Delgado

Michael Delgado

Luxurious Desultory Twining

Bad Sex Winner 2019

The Office of Gardens and Ponds / Pax



The ultimate purpose of what is now only the second least reputable literary prize going is to render itself redundant by discouraging poorly written, gratuitous or unnecessary passages of sexual description in fiction. Sadly, the fact that this year’s thicket of smut is as dense as ever shows that the award has not yet fulfilled its objective. Even at the time of writing, nominations continue to stream in, leaving it to our long-suffering judges to keep on hacking through the foliage.

As ever, the judges disagreed over what qualifies as ‘bad sex’. Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein, a zeitgeisty AI-meets-Gothic romp, boasts a cornucopia of zingers, among them this mood-murdering and oddly competitive scene that strays into biology textbook terrain:

You’re wet, he said.
His finger was inside me.
This is…
As it always was, I said.
And this?
The clitoris gets much bigger with testosterone.
Is it sensitive?
I have 8,000 nerves in my clitoris. Your penis gets by on 4,000. Yes, it is sensitive.

Frankissstein would surely take the garland for most baffling title (I would have gone with ‘Sex Machina’), but bad sex tends to involve some kind of diversion in style; the judges found this scene too consistent with the novel’s anarchic tone for it to be seriously considered for nomination.

Another rejected candidate was France’s literary enfant terrible, Michel Houellebecq, whose novel Serotonin is, even by his standards, a veritable Mont Blanc of misogyny. One nauseating scene in particular caught the judges’ attention: ‘Yuzu tugged on the dick of a bull terrier before taking it in her mouth. The bull terrier, which was probably younger, ejaculated in less than a minute before his place was taken by a boxer.’ It’s almost too bad, though, so extreme that it must be read as flirting with the bounds of parody.

One book that did qualify for consideration was Trust Exercise by returning nominee Susan Choi. The judges were stirred by a painful account of teenage sex: ‘He flailed; his dead white hairy limbs appeared impaled on the stem of his unaccountably wrinkly erection which he took in his fist and seemed to squirt redly at her, for he’d yanked back the covering skin.’

John Harvey’s Pax, a novel about Peter Paul Rubens’s visit to London in 1629, contains a catalogue of missteps. First Harvey flogs the concept of cliché to within an inch of its life: ‘She was burning hot and the heat was in him … Her eyes were ravenous. Like his own they were fire and desire.’ Next we witness two characters engaging in some light conceptual bondage (‘“Shall I tie you up?” … “I am tied, in my head”’), before proceeding to some even kinkier insectile role play:

Her long lean arms were spider arms, while her kisses roved and dug.
‘I see it,’ he said. ‘You are the female praying mantis, devouring her mate.’
‘I am. You are. I shall eat every shred of you.’
‘Mouthful by mouthful.’
‘Exactly. Ah. But boy, you taste good.’ She licked her lips, and pulled him close, but now he was clasping too. It was a kind of slow wrestling, they were knitting each other into a loose slipping knot. He was upside down over her, loving her bush and lick-kissing like eating her inner thighs. Till at last they loved fully and later lay back. She did not chatter. Their arms stirred in a luxurious desultory twining.

Whereas Harvey wallows in the moment, other offenders manage to land their sucker punches with remarkable swiftness. Mary Costello’s The River Capture contains a brisk sex scene that starts in the bedroom and ends at the butcher’s:

He clung to her, crying, and then made love to her and went far inside her and she begged him to go deeper and, no longer afraid of injuring her, he went deep in mind and body, among crowded organ cavities, past the contours of her lungs and liver, and, shimmying past her heart, he felt her perfection.

Although previous Bad Sex nominees have included Pulitzer and Booker Prize winners, recipients of France’s most prestigious literary award have been conspicuously absent from this prize’s shortlists – until now. Didier Decoin was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1977 for producing ‘the best and most imaginative prose work of the year’. His latest novel, The Office of Gardens and Ponds, contains some jaw-dropping imaginative contortions, including a description of the female protagonist surreptitiously pleasuring her dead husband:

Miyuki took the opportunity when no-one was looking to place her lips for one last time on the long shaft of his penis, which had grown cold.
The earthy taste surprised her. When he was alive, when it swelled inside Miyuki’s mouth, Katsuro’s penis had tasted of raw fish, of warm young bamboo shoots, and of fresh almonds when she finally released its juices … He used to upset her by the way he silently loomed up behind her and took her by the shoulders, his nails scratching her flesh, his strong breath enveloping her neck, a smell of ripe fruit and poorly tanned leather, his knee pushing against her lower back to open her tunic and expose a portion of naked flesh against which he would then rub his organ as if he were furtively making omelette rolls. He did not derive his pleasure without her, but in front of her, and differently.

‘Differently’ from what, exactly? The judges were left scratching their heads, as if clandestinely preparing scrambled eggs.

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