Why are Nicholson Baker’s three erotic novels so unsexy? And what can he learn from Spanish novelist Javier Marías? Lady Chatterley’s Brother examines why sex in some books just sucks, while others can so easily seduce us. It also goes beyond the page, examining why we find some things sexy and others not.
Called “very intelligent” by Javier Marías, this 70-page book includes two long essays of 10,000 words each: one on the leading American writer Nicholson Baker, and one on the major Spanish writer Javier Marías.
The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.
From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong. Drawing on Jean Baudrillard J.G. Ballard, and others, it offers a comprehensive look at sex in Marías’s work.
Collectively, these two essays chart out the history of sex writing in the 20th century: where it came from, where it’s been, and where it’s headed. Our conclusion: Baker’s ever-more-pornographic writing is a turn-off and a dead end; Marías’s ambiguous, sexy seductions predict the future of literary sex.
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From essay #1: “I Know It When I See It: Nicholson Baker’s Sex Trilogy”
Welcome to the heavy petting zoo
What on earth is Nicholson Baker up to? The 54-year-old American author of some eight previous books of fiction and four books of nonfiction, one of which has won the National Book Critics Circle Award and more than one of which has been a national bestseller, has now written his third sex novel—House of Holes. And by sex novel I mean a book that is both about sex and graphically depicts sex, a book that would easily be rated NC-17. And it’s by far his dirtiest book yet. It’s by far the dirtiest book I’ve read all year, all decade, the dirtiest book I’ve read since Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater—that book features, as a main plot device, more than one person masturbating over a lady’s grave, a book about which Martin Amis said, “You toil on, looking for the clean bits.” House of Holes easily outstrips this. It is one long, multi-chaptered, multi-charactered all-stops-pulled, organ-swelling, organ-grinder of a novel. There simply are no clean bits. You’ll either be aroused, shocked, or so bored you’ll start pondering how you and Baker ended up in this hot mess in the first place.
And if you find yourself in this place of bewilderment, you might start wondering how the culture ended up in such a predicament. How did the culture produce and then praise such an artifact? Baker’s book, for all its explicit sex, has not garnered so much as a blush from the literary journalism set. Instead it’s received warm chuckles and long admiring explications in the nation’s major periodicals. Just what is going on and how did we get here?
From essay #2: “Just Do It: Javier Marías’s Sexless Sexuality”
In 1986 Javier Marías published El hombre sentimental (published in English in 2003 as The Man of Feeling), the first novel in his mature period as a writer. Before that, between 1971 and 1978, he published three derivative novels that can be called apprentice works. These three were not necessarily bad books, but they were clearly not Marías speaking in his own voice so much as they were Marías trying on the voices of others. After those books, in 1982, Marías published the still untranslated novel El siglo (“The Century”), something of a predecessor to the mature novels that would follow.
Then in 1986 comes The Man of Feeling, a small classic that lays out the base of Marías’ style and thematic concerns for the productive decades to come. Almost as if he knew he was on to something important with The Man of Feeling, Javier Marías takes a very particular indulgence, something that he has not seen fit to do in any book since: he appends a short afterword to it, explaining to us how to read his book. Although this afterword is unnecessary (Marías’ beautiful, precise prose already tells us everything we need to know), it is nonetheless a splendid distillation of the ideas inherent in that book, and I am happy to have it. It is the most concise and artfully worded statement I have yet encountered from Marías on the nature of love, anticipation, and desire.
The afterword, and the novel that has come before it, make a wonderful rebuke to something that French theorist Jean Baudrillard condemned as “the production and management of all liminal and subliminal pleasures, the micro-processing of desire.” Baudrillard made that statement in a 1979 book titled De la seduction, published as simply Seduction in 1990 in English, and what he’s talking about is an admonishment against all who hail the orgasm. People, he’s saying, don’t you realize that there is a lot more to sexuality than that moment of pleasure that concludes the sexual act? In Seduction, Baudrillard goes so far as to envision a kind of sexuality without orgasm. The book is thus a complete rebuke to pornography, which privileges the “production” of an orgasm more than anything else, and which is wholly contrary to seduction. The book is an almost eerily compelling companion to the sexual subtext Marías explores in his novels, and we will lean on Baudrillard’s book throughout this essay.
But to return to Marías: the afterword to The Man of Feeling is like a distillation of the themes that are enlivened on the book’s pages. In fact, it is a distillation of a very distilled novel—though Man of Feeling features some of Marías’ trademark digressiveness, it is a short and direct book that is necessarily much more straightforward that his later, more gangly novels. The Man of Feeling is really about just one thing . . .