Monday, May 12, 2008

Hot and Bothered

by Marcus Sakey

I recently got turned on by Philip Roth.

I don't mean "turned on to"; I've been a fan of his for fifteen years, though in a sort of laissez-faire, read a novel every other year sort of way. I mean "turned on by."

And as is often the case, the scene that got me wasn't really that overtly erotic. It's from THE HUMAN STAIN, and it's a scene in which a woman dances naked for her much older lover. There are moments in the book that are more blatantly sexual, but there was something about this that just killed me. They're talking while she's dancing, and she's telling him that there is nothing beyond this moment, that it's a mistake to bring other things to it, the weight of love and expectation, the questions of what you should and shouldn't be and want, anything beyond the sheer joy of the moment and the animal recognition of one another:

"You want to know why am I in this world? What is it about? It's about this. It's about, You're here, and I'll do it for you. It's about not thinking you're someone else somewhere else. You're a woman and you're in bed with your husband, and you're not fucking for fucking, you're not fucking to come, you're fucking because you're in bed with your husband and it's the right thing to do. You're a man and you're with your wife and you're fucking her, but you're thinking you want to be fucking the post office janitor. Okay--you know what? You're with the janitor."

He says softly, with a laugh, "And that proves the existence of God."

"If that doesn't, nothing does."

"Keep dancing," he says.

There's more, lots more, and it builds in a steady rhythm that just slayed me. In a novel that's about the judgment of others, especially when it comes to racial identity and sexual mores, a private scene between two people creating their own reality becomes startling erotic.

But I find that's often the case. The passages that turn me on are rarely a play-by-play of what's happening, a description of nipples or sweat or flinging hair. It's usually something unexpected, something that suggests the whole larger arena of sexuality, that brings the personal stake into it.

That said, I'm also a sucker for a straight-out sex scene where the language pays homage to the rhythm of passion. My friend John Hart does that beautifully in this passage from THE KING OF LIES:

"I heard distant sound and recognized my name; it burned in my ear. Then I felt her tongue cool it. Her lips moved over me--my eyes, my neck, my face. Her hands found the back of my head and they pulled my lips back to hers. I tasted plums, kissed her harder, and she weakened against me. I picked her up, felt her legs around me. Then more motion and we were inside, up the stairs and onto the bed that knew so well the force of our passion. Clothes evaporated, as if burned away by flesh too hot to bear them. My mouth found her breasts, the hard, ready nipples, and the sort plane of her stomach. I tasted all of her. The dew of her sweat, the deep cleft of her, her legs like velvet bands across my ears. Her fingers clawed at my hair, tangled, and she pulled me up, said words I couldn't possibly understand. She took me in her roughened palm and led me into her. My head rocked back. She was heat, fire; she cried my name again, but I was beyond response, lost and desperate never to be found."

Phew. Guess I shoulda put up a parental warning. Kids, stop reading this two paragraphs ago.

Anyway. How do you like your sex? Do you like to be right in the moment, reading the details, or would you rather step back, and see the larger picture? Somewhere in the middle? Who does it just right for you?

What turns you on?


Libby said...

Hey, Marcus. Great post.

Someone once bought me one of those cheesy plates with sayings on them. This one said, "She liked her men like her cocktails, neat but with a twist." That kind of sums up sex in books for me. I like the more or less straightforward physical descriptions but what really turns me on is the one twisted detail that either sends shivers and thrills and heat through me... or completely changes the thrust (so to speak) of the passage.


Kevin Guilfoile said...

Describing sex is incredibly hard to do, and an untold number of great writers have embarrassed themselves trying. I think it's because sex is such a singular experience that it defies metaphor. Once you start saying that sex is "like" something else, anyone who's ever had sex is apt to say "well, no it's not..." and it takes you out of the story. There are exceptions but nearly every lengthy, graphic depiction of sex pulls me out of the narrative and I become conscious of a person sitting at a computer trying to think about what sex is like. The writer intrudes.

Of course sex in good fiction is rarely about sex. Like in life, sex in fiction almost always has a subtext and your Roth passage is a brilliant example of it. The writer is almost always better off exploring that instead of the mechanics.

If there is no subtext you're left describing sex for people who have had it, which isn't necessary, or describing it for people who haven't, which is impossible.

Barbara D'Amato said...

These are probably the hardest scenes to get right. And a lot of the sex scenes in books are not very convincing. Good issue, Marcus.

Dana King said...

Tagging along with Kevin here...
Sex in fiction, especially in crime fiction, HAS to be about the subtext, because otherwise the story stops moving forward while they have sex.

Think about it. (At least those who have already had sex too many times to count accurately.) You're reading and a sex scene breaks out. Unless it's telling you somehting else about the characters, or it's REALLY well written (which is rare), isn't your mind already moving ahead? (Been there, done that, what happens next, why is he fooling around with her now when the Mob is hot on his trail...)

guyot said...

uh... excuse me for a moment.

Cameron Hughes said...

Joe R. Lansdale does really great, frank, sex scenes. Its all about the moment with them.

Barry Eisler did a great sex scene in the recent Requiem for an Assassin, where coming from the murder of a totally innocent guy, Rain tries to convince his lover that he is a killer and he does not deserve to have her. It turns into a great scene of give and take as she convinces him he's worthy of her and he's trying to bury his remorse. This is later echoed when he calls her right before a (neccessary ) hit and tells her he's going to need her to pull him out of the darkness.