Barrett Hathcock and Scott Esposito - Lady Chatterley's Brother
Why Nicholson Baker Can't Write About Sex, and Why Javier Marías Can
Lady Chatterley's Brother, the first of online periodical, The Quarterly Conversation's, TQC Long Essays, juxtaposes the pornographic smut of Nicholson Baker with the delayed gratification of Spanish writer Javier Marías in an effort to discover what kind of sexualised writing is possible in a world with endless amounts of freely available pornography. It is also a gauntlet thrown in the face of convential (English language) literary criticism, putting forth the challenge that criticism, now that we have ebooks and the endless pages of the internet, can be a participatory event, one in which reviewers and critics can and should engage with one another. Criticism – and reading – must become a dialogue between enthusiastic individuals willing to discuss, argue and understand literature. Lady Chatterley's Brother is an excellent first step in this direction.
Why Nicholson Baker Can't Write About Sex
Nicholson Baker has long been a writer of the very small. His novels, of which there are nine, concern themselves with, variously, and not exclusively, shoelaces, elevators, the relationship of Baker to John Updike, and peanut butter. And, in the case of Vox, The Fermata, and recently published House of Holes, with pornographic, explicit, sex. Barrett Hathcock, who provides the first half of Lady Chatterley's Brother, engages in a rough outline of the course of American (literary) pornographic writing since the country was so heavily affected by the publication of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, before plunging, headfirst, into world of Baker.
House of Holes is presented as “by far [Baker's] dirtiest book yet”. Hathcock is quick to assure us he is a fan of Baker's writing (see, for example, his essay in The Quarterly Conversation's, “From Updike to Baker to Wallace: Under the Brief Shade of the Tuxedo Shop Awning”), but not of his exploration of sex and the use of it in his work. Hathcock asks: What on earth is Nicholson Baker up to?, springboarding from there to an examination of sex-as-written in American culture, particularly as contrasted with the hypersexualised avenues of the internet.
Sex in literature, in the sense of the physical act as described in Updike, Roth, and indeed Baker, is an outgrowth of the sixties culture, which saw traditional boundaries dropped in favour of “showing everything”. The gritty, the physical, became what was “true”, and with that, what needed to be expressed. No more would literature hand-wave away sexual intercourse by discretely ending a chapter or referring in an oblique manner to the dishevelment of clothing and mussing of hair. Instead, writers could focus on endlessly describing the act, with (literally) blow-by-blow enactment. Indeed, Hathcock argues that much of this writing became documentary in nature, with an (increasingly diminished) veil of metaphor and flowery turns of phrases replaced with clinical, functional, almost diagrammatic writing – an IKEA catalogue of body parts and methods for joining them together.
...literature had gone from Lawrence's brazen use of “cunt” to Updike's “cunt's petals” - smut with a high gloss.
Hathcock is quick to note that,
I'm not trying to turn into Old Man Critic here, bemoaning our moral turpitude, but we do lie in a world where an illicit sex tape almost seems like a valid career move
And he's right; I recently reread Rabbit is Rich and Rabbit at Rest and found, at first to my amusement then increasingly, my despair, that, for Updike, there was no “getting past” the sex of the novel and into the meat – it was the meat. Once the sexual mores of a society have overtaken a novelist devoted almost entirely to its explication, what is left of him? Not much, it seems. The later Rabbit novels remain interesting due to their secondary focus on Harry Angstrom as a prism through which to see the decline of America, but now that their smuttiness seems, well, ordinary, it's difficult to see that they will continue as anything other than historical artifacts. By far the most glaring example of this is the first Rabbit book, Rabbit, Run, in which Updike provides the primary female character, Ruth, with an extended monologue concerning oral sex, and how demeaning it was to have the taste of Rabbit in her mouth. Demeaning because it was a violent act? A confrontational act? An aggressive act? No, it was presented as demeaning because it simply was - laughable today and, as it was a primary episode in the novel, makes Rabbit, Run come off, fifty years later, as a drained, limp, unserious thing. One of its primary controversial plot points has become banal and humdrum, which punctures the momentum of the novel and renders it laughable and weak.
It's true that [contemporary authors] don't write about sex in the way that Roth and Updike did. Why should they?
Why should they? Baker doesn't – his writing is different to Roth's, which Hathcock notes is “aggressive”, just as it is distinct from Updike (with his “cunt's petals” or, more politely, his comparison of the interior of a vagina to a ballet slipper). To agonise endlessly on middle-class sexual mores is certainly no longer necessary: that well has been plumbed. Unfortunately, Hathcock finds Baker's writing to be too concerned with the physical at the expense of anything at all. Fermata's sex is described as being “like watching people load stuff into a warehouse”.
Hathcock considers that Baker has taken the sex-as-description literary technique to its terminal point, where it goes beyond any recognisable sex (as noted above, the man with a penis for an arm) and becomes simply the act. House of Holes is the culmination of a half-century of increasingly graphic sex literature, a kind of literature become so explicit that it is instead laughable and fairy-tale like, or perhaps more accurately, science fiction. In Baker's world, sex is reduced to the friction of flesh on flesh which, though it may be a truth of intercourse, isn't the entire truth or even the most interesting truth about it.
I kept looking for an interesting take on our current sex-saturated culture. I kept waiting for one of the characters to have an interesting inner life. I kept waiting to be able to distinguish between the characters. The closes Baker comes to any kind of commentary is when he talks about the AR-24 Recon/Pornsucker ships that go around the country sucking up the porn. What makes the porn bad is never detailed.
Can a book devoted entirely to a separate reality where sexual activity is stripped of all meaning retain its literary value? Hathcock argues persuasively that the answer is no. Baker has gone beyond documentary writing – itself a crutch and no friend to literature – to an asinine plane of sexuality where, because it is the only thing, it is nothing at all. Nobody truly wishes to have as many sexual partners as certain rock stars brag they have had; after a while, a breast is a breast is a breast just as a penis is a penis is a penis.
Perhaps what we need is simply to reassert a line of judgment, to say that certain subjects are currently worth writing about and certain subjects are not, no matter the writer's reputation. This not a judgement of inherent value but instead a recognition that certain patches of novelistic ground have been worn down.
and Why Javier Marías Can
Scott Esposito's essay on Javier Marías examines the ouevre of a writer far less concerned with explicit description of sex, and more with the intrigue of delayed gratification and how it impacts upon desire. For Marías, the half-glimpsed curve of a woman's breast, or the gathering anticipation of a kiss that may or may not come, is far more enticing than the act itself. Esposito writes,
Marías may not necessary understand women, but he gets the spaces around them: he knows quite a bit about why men like women, knows more than most guys about why women like men, and best of all, he's an expert observer of how the genders interact
The many male protagonists of Marías' novels (for they are always male) are, Esposito tells us, loners, but not only that, they are intellectuals, their occupations vaguely related to power and language, and they become, inevitably, involved with one or more women throughout the course of their respective novels. Marías rarely travels beyond the anticipatory into the explicit: Esposito argues that this makes his work more erotic than Baker's. Given that writing is comprised of words and not pixels, or flesh, or video footage, or images, it must eschew the easy gratification of visuals for something more internal, something that is built-up within the mind of the writer and reader. Baker's mistake, as argued by Hathcock, is to attempt to turn his writing into the literary equivalent of a pornographic website; Marías' success is to instead draw out the anticipation of those occasions where one knows sexual interaction might occur, but also that it might not.
Esposito, who among other things, is the editor-in-chief of The Quarterly Conversation, takes as the centre-point of his essay a scene from Marías' trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, in particular a scene that comes near the beginning of the third volume when the narrator, Jacques Deza, finds himself alone, in his bedroom, close to naked, with Pérez Nuix, who has been the object of his desire throughout the work. This fact is immediately worth noting; in Baker's House of Holes, the entire novel is filled with sex from start to finish, whereas in Marías's Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, the author takes 1,000 pages to approach consummation. Esposito argues quite effectively that this heightened sense of anticipation, coupled as it is with Marías' digressive, circumlatory method of engaging with the world, serves as a greater source of eroticism than any number of bared body parts or utilised orifices.
Later, discussing A Heart So White, Eposito notes:
In contrast to pornography, seduction strikes terror into conjugal love because it offers that one thing that conjugal love can never quite get back: that original desire. A Heart So White reveals its grasp of sexuality by attuning us to this constant danger that seduction poses to conjugal love. Its plot inhabits the multitudonous ways that such seduction can seep into the cracks of devoted relationships.
Marías is shown to be an author consciously engaged with creating the authorial image of himself both from within his texts as well as outside; Esposito quotes heavily from not only the novels but also interviews to support his theory that Marías' method of placing desire in his language is a great part of what defines him as a writer. Marías has a tendency in his work to provide enough to entice but not to capture; the reader is instead himself forced to chase the author here or there, become engaged in a kind of cat and mouse with the increasing strands of plot and characterisation. Perhaps the most forceful scene in any of Marías' work I have read comes from the opening of Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, which has the narrator visiting the house of a married woman for dinner, romance, and perhaps sex, when suddenly the woman becomes sicks (from an unspecified illness), and then dies in her bed. This scene, which goes on for fifty-eight pages, offers a compressed view of Marías' greath strengths: the immediately arresting opening:
No one ever expects that they might some day find themselves with a dead women in their arms, a woman whose face they will never see again, but whose name they will remember
which soon shifts to an attempt to understand the woman's final dying thoughts, and how it must feel to be dying so absurdly, with a man you hardly know in your room while your husband is overseas and your child sleeps in a room nearby; Marías' ability to take a single dramatic point of focus as the springboard for any number of digressions into literature, history, the meaning of words and phrases, relationships, love; and his fondness for attempting to get at the nub of things, at the root, to understand not only the perspective of the man in the house but all the perspectives possible: man, woman, husband, child, observer, historical, literary.
And, on top of that, there is something deeply sexual about the scene. Yes, the woman dies, but she dies while in a state of undress, with the clear anticipation of sex on both their minds until, suddenly, it isn't. Marías' narrator often mentions the woman's bra strap, the curve of her body as her skirt rides up or her top shifts higher on her waist. He is aware of her as a person in an immediately physical sense while continuing to engage with what is happening in an intellectual manner. Matters of the intellect and matters of the body cannot be disentangled – once they are, we have pornography. Once they are, we have Baker.
Esposito's examination of Marías as an author and seducer focus primarily on the writer's ability to harness the intense feeling of being on the edge of something coupled with the steady propellant of a plot held firmly in hand. Marías possesses an almost uncanny ability to leave the main thrust of the novel for pages at a time while digressing on any manner of concepts, mirroring the increasing sexual anticipation of his characters with the growing anticipation of the reader.
It comes down to the great contrast – in Baker, we have a man who has written a novel in which one of the characters replaces his arm with a giant penis. In Marías we have a writer who “will tell us just a tiny bit about the gossamer silk that covers [a nipple]”.
Lady Chatterley's Brother
What we have is a dialogue caught in essay-form, the sort of conversation two well-read people might have one night as red wine is poured and the ideas begin to flow. Both Hathcock and Esposito present readings of their respective authors which can easily be followed by a lay-reader; neither are interested in a stuffily academic reading but instead attempt to put forth ideas that might actually be discussed. The essays don't directly engage with the other so much as offer arguments that seek, through the shared prism of sex and desire, to provide interesting and varied readings of well-established authors.
Sex has long become a part of the cultural make-up of television, film and of course literature, but what has perhaps not been adequately examined is the usefulness, purpose and art of sex in literature. Writers who came from the generation of Roth and Updike were able to simply write of the act in order to break barriers but now, fifty years later, something more is required. Lady Chatterley's Brother argues quite forcefully that the path that Baker has taken is the wrong one, though it at first seems the most extreme and permissable. “Everything” is allowed with Baker, which means that anything that does occur has little value. Marías on the other hand at first seems more traditional and staid, willing to approach, but not quite meet, the requirements of sexual intercourse in literature, and yet his method is shown to be more effective in understanding all of the other parts of sex – which is to say, all of the important parts.
And I suppose that is what it comes down to. Eroticism and anticipation are, more often than not, intertwined in a manner which fulfilment is not. Pornography begets orgasm where eroticism (may) beget love and commitment. At the least, it leads to a heightening of self, which a purely physical action cannot achieve. Marías' technique of using anticipation and withholding from his characters and readers allows him to achieve greater feats in literature than just the erotic or the sexual. Baker, on the other hand, in his pornographic novels, can only achieve the pornographic. There is no avenue to a higher level of understanding, no path to greater knowledge or wisdom. With Marías we are opened up to new concepts and are encouraged to see old ideas dressed anew, but with Baker there is only one thing, and it is a small, dirty, poor thing.
I have attempted in this critique of Lady Chatterley's Brother to write less as a reviewer and more as an engaged participant responding to the ideas raised by Hathcock and Esposito. The TQC Long Essays seems, to me, to be a call for a more participatory literary scene in English, one that provides springboards from which an informed, reasoned, intellectual but enjoyable discussion can take place. Lady Chatterley's Brother could be such a springboard, and I hope it is. The two essays contained within are informative and entertaining, and they have avoided the dreaded curse of academic writing. They have been written not only to be argued with, for the reader to agree or disagree, but also to encourage a response. Reviews matter, but so too does an engaged critical apparatus willing to take the criticism of others in an effort to broaden the knowledge and awareness of all.
In the efforts of full disclosure: It should be noted that I have in the past contributed to The Quarterly Conversation. I have tried to prevent this fact from influencing my opinion. The ebook of Lady Chatterley's Brother was purchased by me at full retail price.