The 1953 Fasquelle Editeur edition of Le Surmale by Alfred Jarry
There’s good sex and there’s bad sex. And then there’s weird sex—a Freudian purgatory that somehow neither stimulates the libido nor inhibits it. In art and life, we’re inclined to seek out pleasure to combat unpleasant reality. The sex in these books is too odd or awkward or off-kilter for that. I return to it to remember that little makes us feel more exposed, vulnerable, and humiliatingly human than taking off your clothes with another person—or alien, statue, vegetable, or disembodied arm.
The opening love scene of this baroque, dystopian behemoth takes the possibility of sex as a transformative experience and literalizes it: As a young man makes love to a woman, she slowly morphs into a tree, eventually crushing his forehead—not to mention his ego—with her branches. From there, our disoriented protagonist, a bisexual poet and urban flaneur, hitchhikes his way into the city in a vertiginous daze. Later scenes are equally violent, but the characters’ actions don’t seem mindlessly brutal so much as symptomatic of post-apocalypse intimacy issues.
Is a hole ever just a hole? That is the premise of this Bacchanalian sex comedy, which takes the idea of a “hole” and dilates the hell out of it. Subtitled “A Book of Raunch,” the novel’s nearly every page offers a new and unusual sexual adventure. Often it reads as a parody of porn’s wandering eye. Behold a scene in which a woman finds a sculptress boring a drill into the behinds of carved women, fingers the sculpture, and is sucked through a portal into the House of Holes, the main staging ground for Baker’s utopian, orgiastic fantasies. There’s also a disembodied arm that goes around pleasuring women, and a man who has been surgically altered to be able to “think” with his spine and crotch. Amid the bathetic histrionics, Holes asserts a striking degree of tender, if debauched, humanity.
Harriet, the acerbic, cynical, and mean-spirited narrator of After Claude, spits out misanthropic one-liners at anyone unlucky enough to cross her path. The sexual weirdness arises when she checks into the Hotel Chelsea and meets a Jim Jones figure looking to enlighten her tortured soul. What transpires is an act of self-sabotaging sexual coercion that leaves the anti-heroine dazed and humiliated by her own blindness, and reminds us how closely stupidity can follow on the heels of intelligence.
There’s not much plot in this novel by avant-garde theater-of-the-absurdist Alfred Jarry. A reflection of both the limitations and the excesses of man, the Supermale is able, among many other exceptional qualities, to climax more than eighty times in a row in exhaustive, exhausting sessions of lovemaking. The work follows the tenets of Jarry’s “pataphysics” (a sort of science of productive uselessness), proposing the body as a site of hyperbolic possibility in which to explore art, science and philosophy. To wit: In one scene, a hungry sex slave makes a loaf out of tears and saliva.
This short-story collection is set apart from its weird-sex bedfellows by its register of pathos. In “The Sister,” one man seduces another by pretending to have a sister to set him up with. The drugging and mutual masturbation that follow would be creepy if the tone weren’t so empathetic. In “The Moves,” a father teaches his daughter how to manually pleasure a woman. Again, the setup is unsettling, but not played for shock value or used as an opportunity for moralizing. July writes about sex with tender curiosity, as though she were a child watching her parents do it through a cracked door and trying to imagine how all the parts, and all the emotions, fit together or don’t.
This prescient novel is in effect one long weird-sex scene, in which the main character, Vaughan, re-stages fatal celebrity car crashes for erotic spectacle, transforming personal and public trauma into opportunities for arousal. An allegorical take on the ways technology plays super-ego to our id, Crash illustrates capitalism’s dehumanizing effects. In an era when we call our iPhones “sexy” and see LiLo smashing her Benz as news, the conceit of getting off on car accidents seems not speculative but unsettlingly realistic.
On premise alone, this short story about a woman and an alien screwing in a lifeboat merits mention on any number of offbeat indexes. Consisting mostly of ambiguous “Ins and Outs” covered in cilia and slime, the alien is a consciousnessless, rapacious sex-toy. But to fixate on the mechanics of the act would be to ignore the story’s emotional truth. “She measures time by bruises she gives herself,” Johnson says of the nameless protagonist, and for a minute we forget there’s an alien involved—or rather, we remember that every beloved can turn into a stranger with a familiar face.
Vanessa Roveto is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.