Can't We Just Call It Sex?
Can't We Just Call It Sex?
Dodie Bellamy gets to the “dirty parts” of contemporary fiction.
I once had dinner in a Taoist restaurant with a serious young man. Let’s call him “Rendezvous.” We savored the restaurant’s specialties, sweet and sour “pork” made from deep-fried gluten, roast “duck” made from tofu skins, and stir-fried “chicken” that tasted like it was grown on Mars. All these analogues reminded but never fooled, and our conversation naturally turned to writing and its relationship to the “real thing,” that is, life. I asked him what he thought of Kathy Acker. Rendezvous swallowed a mouthful of slippery but genuine straw mushrooms, then admitted that he reads her books by skipping to the “dirty parts.” I flashed back to when I was ten years old, and in my parents’ bedroom I found a pulp paperback, Lust Campus. I was dying to cruise through those small yellowing pages, but my mother was in the next room. She hardly ever left me alone in the house: I bode my time. Weeks seemed to pass, though in actuality I think it was a few days. Finally, one fateful afternoon, she had errands to run, and decided to leave me home to watch the spaghetti sauce she had simmering on the stove. Opening the screen door she shouted at me, “I’ll be back in an hour or so. Behave yourself.” As soon as the latch clicked I darted into her bedroom. Lust Campus toppled off the bookshelf into my chubby eager little hands. I flipped rapidly through the pages past the tedious exposition until I landed on a sex passage - then sitting cross-legged on the polished oak floor I wallowed in obscenity while the spaghetti sauce burned to a scorched red mass, like lava. I remember a detailed description of taking off a woman’s bra and an orgy where a group of college students were lying on the floor in a circle. Since I was so naive about the birds and the bees this didn’t strike me as kinky, merely as information. All sex was equally arousing and this book was great. Then I heard my mother’s key in the back door - I crammed the paperback in the bookcase and rushed to the living room, sprawled on the couch like nothing had happened. Dropping her purse on the coffee table my mother sniffed at the scorched air. “Dodie, what the hell have you been doing while I was gone?” “Nothin’.”
On my own I never would have thought of applying the Lust Campus approach to Kathy Acker, but Rendezvous seemed so highly motivated I decided to give it a try. Scanning my bookcases I happened upon Empire of the Senseless. Opening the book I discovered that Kathy had inscribed it: “Love, Acker.” Beneath that she’d added, “New Narrative? Can’t we just call it sex?” After recovering from a Jungian pang of synchronicity I began to flip rapidly through the pages with my chubby eager hands. I found plenty of sexual snippets, but extended sex scenes were rare. I thought to myself Rendezvous must be quick to burn. Finally on pages 93-95 I located a passage that’s pretty hot. In it a soldier fucks a whore on a white wolf fur:
I took hold of her thighs. I ran my hands around them. I put my mouth on them. I bent her forward so I could run my hands up and into the ass. Red head backwards, she kissed me on the lips. I had her ass. Dinosaur, who was a stuffed animal, was sitting next to us. Dinosaur was female therefore a prostitute. I could see her cunt. Cherries were sitting on top of her thighs. One of her gigantic paws as if she was a wild cat grazed my knee in affection. The buzzing of a mad bee caught prisoner in the bathroom resounded from tile floor to tile floor. When I managed to get my head up, the red-head rubbed her thighs into the back of my neck.
As the scene progresses, the stuffed animal becomes increasingly animate, competing with the whore for the soldier’s affections:
I laughed at myself and gave her [the whore] what she wanted. I pierced myself through her belly-womb. As her red head rose out of the white fur, her mouth opened: monstrous scarlet. Tiny white shells appeared in that monster sea. ‘My little dead shark. Better than dead fish.’ I whispered to her while I fucked her in the asshole.
Stray sprays of sperm streamed down the stuffed animal’s left leg. Our fucking had made her less fearful for the moment. She actually touched my arm and left her paw there. Then this paw pulled my arm to her monstrous body, lifted it and placed it on her swollen belly. Then she stuck the hand in and squeezed it between her two hot wide thighs. I thought that my hand was going to break.
I had already stopped fucking the whore. I rolled to, almost over, the dinosaur. My soft gluey cock pulsed against her thigh which was made out of sackcloth. She looked at me. She licked my eyelids which looked pale to her. I turned away from the monster, back to the whore.
I tried to imagine getting off on this passage - physically that is. Acker is not whipping us into a frenzy of arousal to the point we forget we’re reading a book. Quite the contrary - the eros in this passage lies not in the sailor’s fucking of woman and toy, but in the writer’s seduction of the reader. Acker is playful, coy, teasing - surprising and tantalizing us with rapidly shifting perspectives. She is a selfish, demanding mistress: she never lets her monstrous sackcloth characters upstage her erotic tropes, never lets us forget we are immersed in Writing, immersed in Her.
This is a model I try to live up to in my own work. Though I’m constantly writing about sex, increasingly what I’m interested in is not sex, but the impossibility of its representation, how physical sensation always eludes language. As Lynne Tillman’s narrator says in Motion Sickness, “The tongue is privileged with information indifferent to words.” My essay/narrative “Days Without Someone” (Poetics Journal 9) explores this tension between experience and text:
… I removed the belt from my robe and tied his wrists to the bedstead - do whatever you want with me, he said, make it hurt he wanted to be pliable, pliable as absence… beyond a few entries in my diary, the gush of a school girl, I never could write about Ryder I was silenced before the undefinable thingness of his lips, his hands, his cock, all the insistent anatomical components…then he left and the words rushed in like vultures, picking away, redefining…
In “Days Without Someone” writing is a vampiric agent that sucks the essence from life and uses it to shapeshift. Despite the narrator’s frantic attempts to do so, Ryder the man is never captured in words, but destroyed by them, replaced by an analogue she barely recognizes.
The writers I find most exciting aren’t searching for descriptive equivalents to sex acts but rather, like Kathy Acker, their writing is a sex act in itself, creating a romance between writer and reader. This romance transcends gender and sexual preference. How else would I feel such an erotic frisson when reading the work of Dennis Cooper and David Wojnarowicz - since the texts of these two gay men in no obvious way mirror my own sexual inclinations or desires. Rather, they extend my range of eros. Long after it was out of print I asked Cooper to autograph my tattered copy of Safe, which in my enthusiastic reading I had marked up, underlined, and written in the margins to the point of obliterating his words. When Dennis opened the book and saw my scrawls, saw me smeared all over him, I felt the melange of thrill and embarrassment I did in Jr. High when Billy found out I had a crush on him. “Dodie,” he said, “You’ve written more in this book than I did.” In a sense I had displaced him out of his own writing project. It made me feel both transgressive and vulnerable. The point I’m sauntering to here is that the reader is not merely a passive recipient of the writer’s sexuality, but an active participant in the romance. The reciprocity between observer and observed is a recurring theme throughout Wojnarowicz’s collection Close to the Knives. I’d like to focus on his apocalyptic tale of desire, “In the Shadow of the American Dream,” where the creativity of erotic perception is dissected:
There is really no difference between memory and sight, fantasy and actual vision. Vision is made of subtle fragmented movements of the eye. These fragmented pieces of the world are turned and pressed into memory before they can register in the brain. Fantasized images are actually made up of millions of disjointed observations collected and collated into the forms and textures of thought. So when I see the workers taking a rest break between the hot metal frames of the vehicles, it doesn’t matter that they are all actually receding miles behind me on the road. I’m already hooked into the play between vision and memory and recoding the filmic exchange between the two so that I’m without a vehicle and I have my hand flung out in a hitchhiking motion and one of the men has stopped his pickup along the stretch of barren road. Now I am seated next to his body in the front seat.
This breaking down of the distinctions between memory, fantasy, and vision creates a fissure in the landscape of this writing, and in this fragmentation of vision Wojnarowicz finds freedom. Cracks are exposed through which he experiences the void, a gravity-free zone where he’s able to jump out of the “preinvented existence” that outlaws his sexuality. With Wojnarowicz we get the sense of a vision so clear it fries him. This fractured transcendence is experienced most fully in the orgasmic scene where Wojnarowicz has sex in a car with a man so huge he seems like a giant:
My eyes are microscopes. My eyes are magnifying lenses. My face is plowing through the head and sensations of this guy’s flesh, through the waves of sweat, and in my head is the buzzing sensation of either insect or atmosphere. I see the hallucinogenic way his pores are magnified and each hair is discernible from the other and the uncircumcised dick is bouncing up against my lips as it’s released from the trousers. The sensation of its thickness pulls against the surface of my tongue and rubs the walls of my throat, burying itself past the gag-reflex and then the slow slide of its withdrawal as a disembodied hand descends against the back of my neck, just barely grazing the hairline of the scalp and in the periphery of vision there’s the steel-blue glaze of the steering wheel and the threads weaving themselves into the fabric of his trousers and the sound of his body bending and the cool sensation of my shirt being pulled up over my back and the shock of his tongue trailing saliva up my back-bone and under my shoulder blades and I am losing the ability to breathe and feeling a dizziness descend, feeling the drift and breeze created by the whirling dervish, using the centrifugal motion of spinning and spinning and spinning to achieve that weightlessness where a polar gravity no longer exists. The sounds of his breath and the echo of body movements I am no longer able to separate. The pressure of the anxiety slips closer in the shape of another vehicle or of the cops arriving, nearing the moment where the soul and the weight of flesh disappears in the fracture of orgasm: the sensation of the soul as a stone skipping across the surface of an abandoned lake, hitting blank spots of consciousness, all the whirl of daily life and civilization spiraling like a noisy funnel into my left ear, everything disintegrating, a hyper-ventilating break through the barriers of time and space and identity. And all of it mixing with the stream of semen drifting over the line of my jaw and collecting in a pool in a pocket created by the back of my neck where it meets his upper thigh and abdomen. I’m tipping over the edge in slow motion. In the moment of orgasm, as I’m losing myself, I become vaguely aware of his hands cradling my skull and his face appearing out of the hot sky leaning in, or else he’s pulling my face close to his and I’m breaking the mental and physical barrier, I’m listening to my soul speak in sign language or barely perceptible whisperings and I’m lost in the idea that at the exact moment of the kill, the owl’s eyes are always closed, and I feel his tongue burning down my throat and the car is in a seizure and he’s smacking me in the throat and the car is in a seizure and he’s smacking me in the face to rouse me from this sleep, leaning in close again like something on the screen of a drive-in movie, his lips forming the whispered sounds, ‘Where are you?’ and had a cop car pulled up in that moment and had I possession of a gun, I’d have not thought twice of opening fire.
The above passage moved young writer Mark Ewert to send one of his own stories to Wojnarowicz. “He’s like a total touchstone for this material,” Mark wrote in a letter, “Or do I mean litmus test - like he’ll know if it’s fake or not - and I am just utterly in love with him, though I’m sure I’m projecting and romanticizing a lot, but not entirely. Not entirely by a long shot.” I know what Mark means because I can’t imagine how anyone reading Close to the Knives could help but fall in love with David Wojnarowicz. In a whirlwind courtship Wojnarowicz oscillates from statistics to rage to heart-wrenching eros. His book fractures the lines: between memoir and high art, fiction and essay, politics and arousal, and even between what’s inside and what’s out. For me, love has always equalled a permeation of boundaries, and Close to the Knives left me shot full of holes, like Swiss cheese. I wrote a shameless fan letter. “Dear David,” it began, “I am simply overwhelmed by the mingling of beauty and terror that makes your book so powerful.” But I’ve felt this way about Dennis Cooper’s writing too. I have these dreams (and I’m a little embarrassed to talk about them), dreams where Dennis appears as a radiant Christ-like figure whose presence fills me with awe and ecstasy. I don’t think these dreams are about Dennis the man, a friend who sits in easy chairs buzzing with bi-coastal gossip. These dreams are about the Dennis I experience in his novels, my fascination with the religious overtones of his sensual knowledge, or more precisely, his mystical pursuit of sensual knowledge.
I met Wojnarowicz on Castro and 18th, in front of the camera shop. It was a brisk Sunday afternoon and he smoked nervously. He seemed a shy, awkward man. He said, “Hi, Dodie” and extended his hand, and I babbled at him, foolish talk, because there are no words to express my desire. My partner, Kevin Killian, asked him to sign a copy of Close to the Knives, a signature which made the book precious to him. To prepare for this essay I wrote all over it - I had to - and it felt like I was committing adultery. Kevin screamed when he saw the book. I was more controlled with his autographed copy of Mona Lisa Overdrive, treating it with kid gloves. But I acted out by complaining in a letter to William Gibson: “Dear William, I managed to read a few chapters of Mona Lisa Overdrive. It’s the hardcover copy that Kevin had you autograph, and he will murder me if I mess it up, so I have to carry it around in a manilla envelope and be neat - I need to go out and get a paperback version I can abuse.” A couple of weeks later a bubble envelope arrived from Vancouver, containing the paperback edition of Gibson’s book. I turned to the title page where he had scrawled in large black letters, “Dodie, get it dirty!”
Kathy Acker, Empire of the Senseless, Picador, London, 1988.
Lynne Tillman, Motion Sickness, Poseidon Press, New York, 1991.
David Wojnarowicz, Close to the Knives, Vintage Books, New York, 1991.