31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 2: “More Sex” by Lynne Tillman

May 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Someday This Will Be Funny

Someday_This_Will_Be_FunnyFirst there is the matter of the title. “More Sex.” Is it a directive? A plea? A comparison? A bald description of the story’s contents? Arguably, it could be all these things simultaneously, a testament to the implicative nature of Tillman’s language, which appears unadorned but is loaded with multiple layers of significance and connotation. Simultaneously direct and expansive, the title of Tillman’s story, like all good titles, lays the groundwork and prepares the reader for what follows.

What follows is, likewise, deceptively simple, at once inviting and resisting summary. Consisting of a single paragraph and clocking in at just under three pages, “More Sex” is a testament to what a highly skilled writer can accomplish in a very concentrated space, using straightforward diction.

The plotless story features an unnamed woman in New York City meditating about the men she wants to have sex with. There are many of these, we are told in the opening line, “some days more men than other days, though she’d already had sex with many men.” The fantasy men she imagines having sex with are mostly movie stars, because the regular men of the neighbourhood are easily available and always willing. The woman goes to the movies to augment what she considers her limited sexual imagination: “There was usually sex in the movies she saw, sometimes lots of it, if it was unrated or X-rated, and sometimes there was soft-core porn-like sex in movies, in so-called love scenes, which activated her dormant, lackluster, or empty fantasy life.”

The key word here is “so-called.” Tillman’s brief story is an examination of authenticity and artifice in human relationships. The woman in the story fantasizes about sex with famous movie actors, especially those who appear to be good lovers onscreen. At the same time, she recognizes that these men are all acting, and extrapolates this idea to other men who play a part in order to score or to appear different or more virile in the throes of passion. “Actual people do act when having sex,” the woman muses, although she claims to be unsure what motivates them or what they hope to accomplish by doing so. “It wasn’t only faking orgasms, which women were said to do to make men feel better or just to get them to stop, since they really weren’t having any pleasure anyway.” As with “so-called,” the conditional phrase “were said to do” lends this sentence another level of implication. Are we to extrapolate that Tillman’s protagonist is making an assumption about other women, never having faked an orgasm herself? She claims to have had plenty of sex: was all of it good? Does she always climax, or does she just not feel the need to pretend when she doesn’t? To what extent is she, also, putting on a performance?

The notion of women faking orgasms also touches on gender distinctions in the area of sexual congress, something that the woman questions when she recalls a study she read in the science section of the New York Times. The study claimed that men think about sex every seven minutes. Deciding to put this to the test, the woman sets a timer to go off every seven minutes over a period of five hours; whenever the timer goes off, she will think about sex. This, she discovers, is not as easy as it sounds. Once every seven minutes turns out to be very frequent, and the woman professes bafflement at what to think about, and how:

Every seven minutes was hard, she didn’t know how men did it, because she didn’t have that kind of imagination, and also she didn’t know for how long men thought about sex every seven minutes. And what did they think up? Their penis entering a woman’s vagina, if they were heterosexual, while she’s moaning, Fuck me, fuck me hard and was it always the same?

Her own inability to create a variety of images or scenarios is a handicap, or so she thinks, although she admits it may be that some men are simply that unimaginative when it comes to sex. At the same time, there is a constant elision between fantasy (what to think about) and reality (the regimen of a timer that goes off every seven minutes). When it comes to sex, at least for Tillman’s nameless protagonist, these two things are inseparable. She fantasizes about David Caruso on NYPD Blue, until she discovers that he is said to be an egomaniac in real life, a revelation that effectively kills her desire. She has no interest in imagining sex with George Clooney, Ralph Fiennes, or “even McDreamy in Grey’s Anatomy,” because she considers them “too common.” Variety and difference are key to a fulfilling sex life, as far as the story’s protagonist is concerned. What she perceives to be her limited ability to conjure polymorphous sexual scenarios in her head is the major stumbling block to her fulfillment. For this anonymous everywoman, the greatest impediment to good sex is boredom.

Fifty shades of bestsellerdom

April 16, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

SECRETI put together some thoughts about the recent erotic bestsellers S.E.C.R.E.T. and Fifty Shades of Grey for The Walrus; the piece is now online. What most interests me about these books is the extent to which they endorse traditional notions of romantic love and an unquestioning acceptance of the capitalist ethos:

Both Fifty Shades of Grey and S.E.C.R.E.T. constitute what novelist Barbara Taylor Bradford identified as “very modern romantic fairytale[s].” The trajectory of S.E.C.R.E.T. involves the heroine, Cassie Robichaud, awakening to the notion that she should not feel ashamed of her carnal desires. As independent women continue to be castigated with such epithets as “loose” or “slut,” this is a powerful message. But far from being progressive, Cassie arrives at her epiphany by way of the same makeover motif celebrated in Pretty Woman and Disney movies, coming out of her shell when she is outfitted for a charity auction in a pink dress, makeup, and glittering pumps, then later decked out in fishnets and a bustier for a burlesque show. “What needs are being tickled in us when the princess dream has not died by the age of 35? ” asks Tamara Faith Berger, quite reasonably, in her recent review of the novel for the National Post.

Berger goes on to bemoan the book’s apolitical aspect, but this seems like a misreading. S.E.C.R.E.T., far from being apolitical – and even more than Fifty Shades – displays a highly conservative world view, first evident in the heroine’s sexual encounters. Cassie becomes utterly flustered at the notion of being intimate with another woman, and the sole lesbian character is only allowed a brief walk-on before fading into the background. The novel’s couplings present a narrow window on human sexuality: the most esoteric encounter involves an instance of anal sex described so coyly it is as though it were being viewed through a thick layer of gauze.

I should make clear the distinction between kink – which is at the heart of the BDSM-inflected Fifty Shades of Grey – and subversion, which to my mind involves a more persistent, pervasive interrogation of conventional ideas and assumptions. It is the political, consumerist aspect of these novels that interests me at least as much as – if not more than – their sex scenes.