An Intimate Warby Kavish Chetty / 03.11.2010
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to write about sex: fucking and making lurve. In all my years of erotic literary indulgence, from hypertrophic cocks in pornographic blogs to Jean-Paul Sartre’s neuroses about the “the slimy”, I have never seen anyone, writing seriously on the act, emerge with triumphal prose. Writing on sex becomes clogged up in so much private sensory experience – I’ve seen quick sentences that glittered alluringly, but for the most part, it’s all been kind of awkward. ‘Fucking’ you can write about, because there’s room for agile and comic images. Martin Amis says, “Sex is hard to write about because you lose the universal and succumb to the particular. We all have our different favourites. Good sex is impossible to write about. Lawrence and Updike have given it their all, and the result is still uneasy and unsure. It may be that good sex is something fiction just can’t do – like dreams. Most of the sex in my novels is absolutely disastrous. Sex can be funny, but not very sexy.”
But ‘making lurve’ – that laughable phrase dished out by intact undergraduates – has not, cannot, be written about with any success. The result always reads like diary entries from your first time: highly private, embarrassing prose that’s so obsessed with itself – it becomes sodden, soggy; effusively soppy – just dragged down by the emotional and sensory weight of the object it tries to capture, the image and feeling it tries to turn into word. It has never been elegantly done, and those who have tried have left behind a wake of gauche orgasms and sticky bodily fluids that rouge cheeks with their lameness. But many have tried – Anaïs Nin writes in her preface to Delta of Venus, “[writing about sex needs] emotion, hunger, desire, lust, whims, caprices, personal ties, deeper relationships that change its colour, flavour, rhythms, intensities… only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.” – and then she goes on to write functional stories about Hungarian men rubbing their cocks up against little girls while pretending to show them a magic trick, and a blonde boy getting gang-raped by his peers and weeping: hardly all that erotic.
Then you have dear John Updike, lavished with the Literary Review’s ‘Bad Sex in Fiction Award’ enough times to be bequeathed the honour of their Lifetime Achievement Award. Even our most celebrated artists are not inoculated from the desire to make a word from an image that cannot be transmuted. Sex (and food, while I’m at it) belong to private sensual faculties.
This fat prologue is demonstrated in practice by Donvé Lee’s new book, An Intimate War (published by Jacana). Now, my credentials are not exactly ship-shape here: I’m 22, and this novel appears to be written as vicarious sexual catharsis for middle-aged women who haven’t bucked their hips to any victory in recent memory: it’s kind of cloaked clit-lit in exceedingly fancy language. Ms. Lee can write, certainly, but she over-writes (I’ve been plenty guilty of this myself) – the paragraphs blur into this impressionistic, indeed painterly, prose. It’s a taste thing – I find it doesn’t captivate and it doesn’t feel like a novel; what it feels like is a collection of thoughts and images strung together to make a narrative, that never quite has the pull of a fuller-feeling work.
But this leads me to my main gripe with the book. It’s written like this: “It takes me months before I find the word for that aura of restlessness that emanates from you at social gatherings. You’re eloquent and insightful. You listen as well as you talk. But your voice is tight and a bit too bright and there’s a tautness to your limbs as if you’re constantly primed for escape.” The whole novel is written like this, and it sounds painfully private; it has an almost Caligulan sense for being concerned with itself, as if this novel is a memoir of a fractured romance past, and writing it is a release of repressed or passive-aggressive energies for the author. She’s writing it to someone, the ‘you’, and that you isn’t the reader. Feels like reading someone’s diaries, a diary of universal experience (perhaps – if middle age love is anything like what’s described in this book, it’s an emotional apocalypse, an ‘intimate war’) chronicling the dissolution of a marriage and its aftermath.
Sex permeates this novel – even when it isn’t happening explicitly, it’s there, its humming in the details, its aching for consummation; each sentence is pregnant with subliminal urge [I want to fuck you]. But when it does happen, its ‘making lurve’ sex, sex taken too seriously, sex that ‘succumbs to the personal’, sex that’s ‘uneasy and unsure’, the kind of sex that can’t be written about.
And so, for all these reasons, I don’t consider this to be much of a novel. Perhaps it’s a moving portrait of failed union that’ll act as cheaper psychotherapy for lusty, frustrated housewives. But the occasional glimmer of a really strong sentence (and I reiterate, Donvé Lee can write) can’t make up for all the cringing of body and sensibility that goes along with it.