Winkler by Giles Coren - review by Tom Fleming

Tom Fleming


Bad Sex Winner 2005




This is the thirteenth anniversary of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Its purpose is to gently dissuade writers from filling their novels with redundant, badly written or embarrassing passages of sex for the purposes of selling more books. Just as importantly, it aims to dissuade their publishers from insisting they do so. Fittingly, then, one of the first nominations for this year’s prize was The Olive Readers (Macmillan) by Christine Aziz, which earlier this year won Richard and Judy’s ‘How To Get Published’ competition. This is the scene in which hero and heroine collide:

We made our way to the summerhouse and hid in its shadows. We lay on the cool floor and I twined my legs around Homer’s body, gripping him like a hunter hanging on to its prey. He made love to me with his fingers and I came in the palm of his hand. He stroked my breasts and neck. ‘Don’t wash it away,’ he said. ‘I want to be able to smell you tonight.’

What kind of hunter twines its legs round its prey? Bad sex is often recognisable by such misguided attempts to emphasise protagonists’ animal instincts. But in terms of abusing the natural world, Lobster by Guillaume Lescable (Dedalus) is in a league of its own. The surrealist tale of a lobster on board the Titanic which finds itself helplessly attracted to a human female, the book hinges on the ‘life-changing orgasm’ the fishy amorist gives Angelina as the boat sinks into the icy water:

Lobster swam to her purple feet … and climbed up the inside of the leg as far as the clenched knees. He was amazed at the pleasure he felt in being held in this way. His pincers slipped between the thighs, prising them gently apart. His feelers were just able to reach the satin of the panties. They fluttered, made the labia quiver. Under the shimmering material a hint of life was returning. Angelina’s thighs relaxed. Lobster pulled back his feelers. Tensed and retensed his tail. His strokes were fast and powerful. He was making headway. He sank himself into her warming muscles; his tail did not falter.

Lescable’s book, however, is an extreme example, and will perhaps fail to win owing to its consistent – rather than occasional or egregious – outlandishness. More culpable with respect to unsuspecting wildlife is John Updike. Here is Owen, the hero of his latest novel Villages (Hamish Hamilton), exposing himself to local birdlife:

A flock of crows, six or eight, raucously rasping at one another, thrashed into the top of an oak on the edge of the square of sky. The heavenly invasion made his heart race; he looked down at his prick, silently begging it not to be distracted; his mind fought skidding into crows and woods, babies and Phyllis, and his prick stared back at him with its one eye clouded by a single drop of pure seminal yearning. He felt suspended at the top of an arc. Faye leaned back on the blanket, arranging her legs in an M of receptivity, and he knelt between them like the most abject and craven supplicant who ever exposed his bare ass to the eagle eyes of a bunch of crows.

A multitude of dodgy wildlife similes can also be found in Tarun J Tejpal’s The Alchemy of Desire (Picador). Phrases such as ‘I sucked the eagle wings into my mouth and began to fly’, and ‘she saw him begin to surge and flare like a provoked cobra’ come thick and fast in this, the debut novel from the editor of the hard-hitting Indian news website Tehelka. Tejpal’s interest in anatomy pervades his entertaining novel:

We began to climb peaks and fall off them. We did old things in new ways. And new things in old ways. At times like these we were the work of surrealist masters. Any body part could be joined to any body part. And it would result in a masterpiece. Toe and tongue. Nipple and penis. Finger and the bud. Armpit and mouth. Nose and clitoris. Clavicle and gluteus maximus. Mons venera and phallus indica.

The Last Tango of Labia Minora. Circa 1987.

The Last Tango brings us to Marlon Brando’s Fan-Tan (William Heinemann), co-written with Donald Cammell, which received several nominations. Annie, it must be noted, is in fact a man, Captain Anatole Doultry, a South Seas pirate:

In a moment Annie was on his side, Madame Lai was like a plant growing over him, and her little fist (holding the biggest black pearl) was up his asshole planting the pearl in the most appreciated place.

‘Oh, Lord,’ he cried out. ‘I’m a-comin’!’

She could not answer. It is the one drawback of fellatio as conscientious as hers that it eliminates the chance for small talk and poetry alike. But nothing is exactly perfect in this life, and for Annie Doultry the delicate but firm pressure on his rear parts was in perfect harmony with the eruption of his cock. He came and he came – we are dealing with a hero here. At one point his lover backed away to inspect the unaltered gush of it, like a plumber saying to a customer, ‘Don’t blame me. This water supply will stop when the dam’s empty.’

In Giles Coren’s Winkler (Jonathan Cape), we are not dealing with a hero but with Winkler, the novel’s eponymous anti-hero; however, this frustrated, unpleasant murderer does manage his own moment of swashbuckling glory:

And he came hard in her mouth and his dick jumped around and rattled on her teeth and he blacked out and she took his dick out of her mouth and lifted herself from his face and whipped the pillow away and he gasped and glugged at the air, and he came again so hard that his dick wrenched out of her hand and a shot of it hit him straight in the eye and stung like nothing he’d ever had in there, and he yelled with the pain, but the yell could have been anything, and as she grabbed at his dick, which was leaping around like a shower dropped in an empty bath, she scratched his back deeply with the nails of both hands and he shot three more times, in thick stripes on her chest. Like Zorro.

Big names that look like they’ll miss out this year include Sebastian Faulks, for Human Traces, and Michel Houellebecq for The Possibility of an Island. Faulks will be disappointed to learn he has not won it for a second time, as the long passage of dialogue/foreplay at the end of his novel is utterly harmless; Houellebecq, although ostensibly over-qualified for the prize, in fact writes filth too effectively to be considered. A passage from Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown (Jonathan Cape) was more promising:

‘Let’s, you know, caress each other in five places and kiss in seven ways and make out in nine positions, but let’s not get carried away.’ In reply, Boonyi pulled her phiran and shirt off over her head and stood before him naked except for the little pot of fire hanging low, below her belly, heating further what was already hot. ‘Don’t you treat me like a child,’ she said in a throaty voice that proved she had been unsparing in her drug abuse. ‘You think I went to all this trouble just for a kiddie-style session of lick and suck?’

In Gabriel García Márquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores (reviewed on page 68), sex with a fourteen-year-old virgin is in the nonagenarian narrator’s mind but never comes to fruition:

As I kissed her the heat of her body increased, and it exhaled a wild, untamed fragrance. She responded with new vibrations along every inch of her skin, and on each one I found a distinctive heat, a unique taste, a different moan, and her entire body resonated inside with an arpeggio, and her nipples opened and flowered without being touched.

But there’s nothing kiddie-style about perennial Bad Sex favourite Paul Theroux’s Blinding Light (Hamish Hamilton), whose protagonist is writing an erotic novel, from which comes this:

Her touch was surer and so finely judged that she seemed to feel in the throb of his cock the spasm of his juice rising – knew even before he did that he was about to come. Then he knew, his body began to convulse, and as he cried ‘No’ – because she had let go – she pushed him backward onto the seat and pressed her face down, lapping his cock into her mouth, curling her tongue around it, and the suddenness of it, the snaking of her tongue, the pressure of her lips, the hot grip of her mouth, triggered his orgasm, which was not juice at all but a demon eel thrashing in his loins and swimming swiftly up his cock, one whole creature of live slime fighting the stiffness as it rose and bulged at the tip and darted into her mouth.

Entries are still coming in at this point. The winner will be announced on 1 December at the Bad Sex Party. Other writers under consideration are J M Coetzee, André Brink, David Grossman, and Ben Elton, from whose The First Casualty (Bantam Press) comes this last passage:

Murray was a nurse and used to undressing men; it was not long before she had found what she was looking for and liberated his straining manhood, and then he gasped out loud. The warmth of her mouth on him was almost too much to bear.

‘Oh Jesus. Yes!’ he gasped as her lips and teeth closed savagely around him and he felt the tip of her tongue poking and probing. Then, just when he was beginning to think that he must explode, her mouth was gone and in its place he felt her hands once more and he smelt the unmistakable smell of oiled rubber.

‘Glad this wasn’t hanging on the line to dry when you saw my room,’ he heard her say. ‘I think even I would have been embarrassed.’ She slipped the big thick rubber sheath over him and then pulled him down to her. Kingsley soon discovered that beneath her skirt she was wearing nothing. He felt the thick, luxuriant bush of soft wet hair between her legs and in a moment he was buried inside it.

‘Ooh-la-la!’ she breathed as he smelt the clean aroma of her short bobbed hair and the rain-sodden grass around it. ‘Oooh-la-jolly well-la!’

And so they made love together in the pouring rain, with Nurse Murray emitting a stream of girlish exclamations which seemed to indicate that she was enjoying herself. ‘Gosh’, ‘Golly’ and, as things moved towards a conclusion, even ‘Tally ho!’

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