Zadie Smith’s writing about sex in her novel, “NW” is astounding in how dry, airless, and perfunctory it is. I venture that it so bad that its badness has to have been calculated. I haven’t read any of her other novels so I will hold on to this thesis, even as I wade through the dismal prose in the novel’s sexual set-pieces.

Anaïs Nin, in her essay, “Eroticism in Women,” (from her collection: In Favour of a Sensitive Man and Other Essays), says,

One point is established, that the erotic writings of men do not satisfy women, that it is time we write our own, that there is a difference in erotic needs, fantasies, and attitudes. Explicit barracks or clinical language is not exciting to most women. When Henry Miller’s first books came out, I predicted women would like them. I thought they would like the honest assertion of desire which was in danger of disappearing in a puritan culture. But they did not respond to the aggressive and brutal language. (p. 7)

Anaïs Nin is talking, not merely about erotica, but about the depictions of sexuality in literature on which men, and their certain style, had (and perhaps, still have) a monopoly. Her contention, which is worth remembering, is that when women have adopted the male-style of sex-writing it has always been a profound mistake.

In NW, thus far, I count three scenes that are key because of their intense and explicitly sexual content. Excerpt:

§28. Rabbit

On the eve of her sixteenth birthday a gift was left for Keisha Blake, outside the flat in the corridor. The wrapping showed a repeating butterfly pattern. The card, unsigned, read UNWRAP IN PRIVATE, but the slant of the p and the pointy w told her it was the hand of her good friend Leah Hanwell. She retreated to the bath-room. A vibrator, neon pink with revolving beads in its gigantic tip. Keisha sat on the closed lid of the toilet and made some strategic calculations. Wrapping the dildo in a towel, she hid it in the room she shared with Cheryl, then took the box and wrapping paper down to the courtyard to the public bins by the parking bays. The following Saturday morning she began approximating the early signs of a cold, and on Sunday claimed a severe cough and stomach ache. Her mother pressed her tongue down with a fork and said it was a shame, Pastor Akinwande was going to talk on the topic of Abraham and Isaac. From the balcony Keisha Blake watched her family walk to church, not without regret: she was sincerely interested in the topic of Abraham and Isaac.

§29. Rabbit, Run

But she had also privately decided she was a different kind of believer from her mother, and could survive the occasional anthropological adventure into sin. She returned inside and raided an alarm clock and calculator for their batteries. She did not employ any mood lighting or soft music or scented candles. She did not take off her clothes. Three minutes later she’d established several things previously unknown to her: what a vaginal orgasm was; the difference between a clitoral and a vaginal orgasm, and the existence of a viscous material, made from her body, that she had, afterward, to rinse out of the ridges along the vibrator’s shaft, in the little sink in the corner of the room. She had the dildo only for a couple of weeks but in that time used it regularly, sometimes as much as several times a day, often without washing afterward, and always in this business-like way, as if delegating a task to somebody else.

Zadie Smith writes of a teenager’s self-managed sexual awakening as though Marguerite Duras’ novel, “The Lover” never happened. Duras’ book is one in which the sexual self-awareness of a girl through the ages of eleven to sixteen is described in a way that is mesmerising in its illumination of the cavernous inner areas of young desire. Duras’ book, published in 1989 is a sort of contrapuntal reading of Nabokov’s “Lolita” (published in 1955). In Lolita we glimpse the terrifying incomprehensibility of female sexuality (in the guise, for most of the book, of a teenage girl, a “demon child”) through a middle-aged man’s eyes. In Duras’ book we get mostly the same story but from the perspective of a precocious girl-child. There are similarities throughout, in the rhythms of the two stories and importantly, towards the ends of the stories: In the same way that Humbert shows up at his long-lost love’s door many years after he had misused and abused her, the lover (also a much older man) shows up at the beloved’s door many years after they have separated and he has married. (The latter ending however bears a stronger resemblance to the one in Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” if it had a happy ending instead of the frustrating and dissatisfactory but ultimately appropriate one that it does have.) Duras has set the bar high but she has also — to mix metaphors — paved the way towards a meaningful discussion of the sexuality of teenage girls. She has done the ground-work, the heavy-work, the messy-work, of dissecting the young, female sexual mind. There is hardly an excuse for Zadie not to have attempted to carry off the above scene with a bit more felicity and awareness. The scene sounds almost masculine in its superficial haste. The haste in this scene is symptomatic of the next two scenes in the book. It’s instructive to consider Duras in The Lover:

Ever since he’d been infatuated with her body the girl had stopped being incommoded by it, by its thinness…The lover from Cholon is so accustomed to the adolescence of the white girl, he’s lost. The pleasure he takes in her every evening has absorbed all this time, all his life. He scarcely speaks to her any more. Perhaps he thinks she won’t understand any longer what he’d say about her, about the love he never knew before and of which he can’t speak. Perhaps he realises they never have spoken to each other, except when they cry out to each other in the bedroom in the evening. Yes, I think he didn’t know, he realises he didn’t know. (p. 99)

In the second of the sex scenes in NW, two lovers, Felix and Annie, toxic to each other — and Felix trying to convince himself to get away from her, having just told Annie that he has committed himself to another — have sex atop the roof of her building. She has been sunbathing but the arrival of a scandalised family makes her don a bathing suit. Excerpt:

Annie lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and exhaled it through her nose. “Life’s not a video game, Felix—there aren’t a certain number of points that send you to the next level. There isn’t actually any next level. The bad news is everybody dies at the end. Game over.” The few clouds left in the sky were shunting toward Trafalgar. Felix looked up at them with what he hoped was a spiritual look upon his face. “Well, that’s your opinion, innit. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion.”

“Mine, Nietzsche’s, Sartre’s, a lot of people. Felix, darling, I appreciate you coming here for this ‘serious talk’ and sharing your thoughts about God, but I’m quite bored of talking now and personally I’d really like to know: are we going to fuck today or not?”

She pulled playfully at his leg. He tried to get up, but she started kissing up his ankles and he soon sunk back down on his knees. It was a defeat, and he blamed her. He got her by the shoulders, not gently, and together they scrabbled to the edge of the wall, where they told themselves they couldn’t be seen. He had a handful of her hair tight in his fist, and tried to land a harsh kiss but she had the knack of turning every malevolent stroke into passion. They fit together. They always had. But what was the point of fitting in this way and no other? He felt her hands on his shoulders, pushing him lower, and soon he was level with her appendix scar. She lifted her arse. He grabbed it with both hands and put his face in her crotch. Fourteen when Lloyd first explained that to eat a woman was unhygienic, a humiliation. Only at gunpoint, that was his father’s opinion, and even then only if every last hair has been removed. Annie was the first time. Years of conditioning broken in an afternoon. He wondered what Lloyd might think of him now, with his nose nestled in so much abundant straight hair, and this strange taste in his mouth.

“If it’s in the way, just take it out!”

He grabbed the mouse-tail between his teeth and pulled. It came out easily. He left it like a dead thing, red on the white deck. He turned back to her and dug in with his tongue. He looked like he was frantically tunnelling somewhere and hoping to reach the other side. She tasted of iron, and when he came up for air five minutes later he imagined a ring of blood around his mouth. In fact there was only a speck; she kissed it away. The rest was quick. They were old lovers and had their familiar positions. On their knees, looking out over town, they came swiftly to reliably pleasurable, reliably separate, conclusions, that were yet somehow an anticlimax when compared to those five minutes, five minutes ago, when it had seemed possible to climb inside another person, head first, and disappear entirely. Afterward he lay on top of her feeling the unpleasant, sweaty closeness, wondering when it would be polite to move. He did not wait very long. He rolled over onto his back. She swept her hair to one side and put her head on his chest. They watched a police helicopter pass by on its way to Covent Garden.

By this point, it is clear what Zadie Smith is aiming for: She wants to shock us, to scandalise us, for us to say, “My God, a teenager with a giant dildo! A man earning his red-wings! This is intense stuff!”. For the next scene, a preamble is unnecessary. Excerpt:

§ 182. Love in the ruins

The door opened and the young men re-emerged in only their Calvin Kleins, one black pair, one white, like two featherweights in a boxing ring. No older than 20. They got out a laptop. The idea appeared to be like roulette. You click and a human being appears, in real time. Click again. Click again. Eighty percent of the time they got a penis. The rest were quiet girls playing with their hair, groups of students who wanted to talk, shaven-headed thugs standing in front of their national flags. On the rare occasions it was a girl they would at once started typing: GET YOUR TITS OUT. Natalie asked them: boys, why are we doing this? You’ve got the real thing right here. But they kept on with the Internet. It seemed to Natalie that they were stalling for time. Or maybe they couldn’t do anything without the Net somewhere in the mix. You try it, Keisha, you try it, see who you get. Natalie sat at the laptop. She got a lonely boy in Israel who typed YOU NICE and took out his penis. You like being watched Keisha? Do you like it? We’ll leave it there, on the dresser. How d’you want it Keisha? Just tell us and we’ll do it. Anything. And still Natalie Blake knew she was in no danger. Just do what you want, said Natalie Blake.

But neither of them could really manage it at all, and soon they blamed each other. It’s him! It’s cos I’m looking at him, man. He’s messing with my groove. Don’t listen to him he ain’t got no groove. They were satisfied to play about like teenagers. Natalie became very impatient. She was not a teenager anymore. She knew what she was doing. She did not feel she had to wait around hoping to be penetrated. She could envelop. She could hold. She could release. She sat the boy in the black Calvins on the edge of bed, rolled his foreskin down, got on him, advised him not to touch her or otherwise move unless she said so. A narrow cock but not ugly. He said: you’re quite strong-minded innit Keisha. Know what you want and that. They say that about sistas don’t they? And to this, Natalie Blake replied: I really couldn’t give a fuck what they say. She could see the boy had no useful rhythm—it was better for both of them if he simply stayed still. She ground down on to him. Rocked. Finished very quickly, though not as quickly as his circumcised friend on the other side of the bed who gave a little groan, spurted dribblingly into his own hand and disappeared into the bathroom. Dinesh you little chief. Come back in here. Um. This is a bit weird. Where’s he gone?

Just you and me. You come already, yeah? Fair enough. You know what I don’t think I’m gonna get there right at the moment Keisha. I feel a bit hot and bothered right now if I’m honest. She released him. The boy flopped out of her, much reduced. She tucked it back in his pants. She started putting her clothes back on. The other one re-emerged from the loo looking sheepish. She had a spliff left over from Camden, and together they smoked it. She tried to get them to tell her something, anything, about the people who lived in this house but they wouldn’t be distracted from what they called their “chirpsing.” We should worship this girl man. Sista, are you ready to be worshipped? You’re a goddess in my eyes. All night long baby. Till you’re gonna be begging me to stop. Till six in the morning. Dinesh, man, I gotta be at work at eight.

Zadie Smith writes of a mature woman who has a threesome with two teenage boys, and as with her previous sexual set-pieces she pornographises and vulgarises, hurrying to write away and write off the scenes. She does not linger over the moment or tell us anything that is truly revelatory of the woman’s experience. In a another chapter she writes,

When he finally allowed Keisha Blake to have sex with him it turned out to be a technical transition. She learned nothing new about Rodney’s body, or Rodney, only a lot of facts about condoms: their relative efficacy, the thickness of rubber, the right moment—the safest moment—to remove them afterward.

Which is precisely the impression one gets of Zadie’s sex-writing: We learn nothing new about women’s bodies, or women, only a lot of droll facts about the mechanics of sex. (The contrast between what Keisha learns of her body as compared to what she learns of her boyfriend’s body is clear: sex, as a way of conveying information or engendering intimacy, is dead, Zadie seems to say.)

The threesome is strongly reminiscent of the classic Mexican film, Y Tu Mamá También (“And Your Mother Too”, Alfonso Cuarón, 2001). The resemblance is so strong, in fact, that I think that Zadie Smith was well aware of exactly what and who she was referencing (She wrote a book, Autograph Man which, I gather, is all about her displaying her ability to be as hectic and encyclopedic in her knowledge as Pynchon and as well-versed in pop culture and cinema as David Foster Wallace1). In Mamá También, a woman in her late twenties discovers that she is soon to die of cancer and decides to take a road-trip, in an attempt to enjoy life, separate and different from what her life has been until then. She gets together with two teenage boys and thus the adventure begins. What makes Mama También so powerful is how non-pornographic the very graphic sex is. The scenes are not modular, there is deep introspection in the way they are drawn. The absurdities and fumblings of teenage boys facing an older woman, which Zadie quickly summarises here, are comprehensively depicted and detailed in the film. The woman’s frustrations, assertions, and needs are artfully presented. We get, instead of mere titillation or forgettable sexual minutiae, a substantial character study and a meaningful interrogation of sexuality. So comprehensive is it, that anything less involving immediately looks cliché, as is Zadie Smith’s circumspect scene.

She presents what she imagines are shocking tableaux: a sixteen year old with a Jack Rabbit dildo contriving to arrange for time to be home alone, to test it and her sexual machinery out; a man performing cunnilingus on a girl who is at the tail end of her period; a middle-aged woman having sex with two strange teenage boys. After presenting what I imagine she thinks are edgy scenes, she works quickly to move on, writing in “clinical language,” whipping out anatomical detail, using clichés and tropes that are by now so familiar to anyone (everyone?) that they are completely drained of affect, and their presence on the page beggars belief.

Zadie Smith seems caught, somewhat, between wanting to be daring, and at the same time, being shackled by a baffling, but understandable probity: the girl with the dildo is sixteen, no younger; the man ostensibly feasts on a bloody vulva but there is only a speck of blood — no bloody immersion here; the boys are teenagers but Zadie is careful to note that they are of age. Her instincts tend towards propriety and perhaps that explains why she seems completely uncomfortable and inept when writing about venturesome sexual activity. (This rectitude, and the conflict it causes within her is exemplified by her recent essay on “Joy”. It is a bizarre essay that gets more troubling the more one reads it: She confesses to substantial drug use in her youth – wistfully recalling the feelings of profound joy which she now forces herself to discount. She hints at having to work to sustain interest in her marriage – writing of how the advice in Women’s Magazines about “shared interests” helps. She talks of having few pleasures in daily life but not once in her truncated list of pleasures does she mention or allude to sex. The essay is a sort of mid-life crisis confessional, a coming-to-terms with marital bleakness and existential despair, a diary entry of unfulfilled need. In closing the essay we get what might be the justification for an affair because, “[t]he end of a pleasure brings no great harm to anyone, after all,” or a vindication of her wanting to end her marriage because like other mere pleasures, “[it] can always be replaced with another of more or less equal worth,” or, most likely, the essay is merely much self-indulgent ado about nothing at all.)

The scenes involving the vibrator are titled Rabbit and Rabbit, Run, allusions to John Updike and his Rabbit series of novels; Updike, that wonderful “penis with a thesaurus,” a man who I think of as the master of written cunnilingus. In NW, Felix and a menstruating Anna have sex on a roof-top, in the sun, and we get Zadie’s lazy constructions of “frantically tunnelling,” and the quite pathetic, “she tasted of iron.” This scene is written in the shadow of Updike’s great scene from Couples, and Zadie Smith had to be aware of this: she alluded to Updike previously but the dildo was more referential of Philip Roth (remember that neon green dildo?) than Updike. The roof-top, sun-lit cunnilingus, with the “clouds shunting toward Trafalgar,” however, is very much Updike. In Couples, a married Georgene and her lover, Piet, have sex outdoors, in the sun. Like Anna who asks, “are we going to fuck today or not?” Georgene is decisive and dominant and says, “Let’s make it outdoors for a change.” From Couples, we get an immortal series of paragraphs, lines, and images. The prosody threatens to overshadow any pleasure we might get from imagining the actual sex. The entire scene is worth reprinting:

The sliding glass door led off the sun deck through a playroom into their big bedroom, a room adorned with Chinese lanterns and African masks and carved animal horns from several countries. Their house, a gambrel-roof late-Victorian, with gingerbread eaves and brackets, scrolling lightning rods, undulate shingling, zinc spouting, and a roof of rose slates in graduated ranks, was furnished in a style of cheerful bastardy-hulking black Spanish chests, Chippendale highboys veneered in contrasting fruitwoods flaking bit by bit, nondescript slab-and-tube modern, souvenir-shop colonial, Hitchcock chairs with missing rungs, art nouveau rockers, Japanese prints, giant corduroy pillows, Philippine carpets woven of rush rosettes. Unbreakable as a brothel, it was a good house for a party. Through his illicit morning visits Piet came to know these rooms in another light, as rooms children lived in and left littered with breakfast crumbs as they fled down the driveway to the school bus, the Globe still spread open to the funnies on the floor. Gradually the furniture—the antic lamps, the staring masks—learned to greet him, the sometimes man of the house. Proprietorially he would lie on the Thornes’ king-size double bed, his bare toes not touching the footboard, while Georgene had her preparatory shower. Curiously he would finger and skim through Thorne’s bedside shelf—Henry Miller in tattered Paris editions, Sigmund Freud in Modern Library, Our Lady of the Flowers and Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure fresh from Grove Press, inspirational psychology by the Menningers, a dove-gray handbook on hypnosis,Psychopathia Sexualis in text-book format, a delicately tinted and stiff-paged album smuggled from Kyoto, the poems of Sappho as published by Peter Pauper, the unexpurgated Arabian Nights in two boxed volumes, works by Theodor Reik and Wilhelm Reich, various tawdry paper-backs. Then Georgene would come in steaming from the bath-room, a purple towel turbaned around her head.

She surprised him by answering, “Let’s make it outdoors for a change.”

Piet felt he was still being chastised. “Won’t we embarrass God?”

‘Haven’t you heard, God’s a woman? Nothing embarrasses Her.” She pulled the elastic of his underpants toward her, eased it down and around. Her gaze became complacent. A cloud passingly blotted the sun. Sensing and fearing a witness, Piet looked upward and was awed as if by something inexplicable by the unperturbed onward motion of the fleet of bluebellied clouds, ships with a single destination. The little eclipsing cloud burned gold in its tendrilous masts and stern. A cannon discharge of iridescence, and it passed. Passed on safely above him. Sun was renewed in bold shafts on the cracked April earth, the sodden autumnal leaves, the new shoots coral in the birches and mustard on the larch boughs, the dropped needles drying, the tar-paper, their discarded clothes. Between the frilled holes her underpants wore a tender honey stain. Between her breasts the sweat was scintillant and salt. He encircled her, fingered and licked her willing slipping tips, the pip within the slit, wisps. Sun and spittle set a cloudy froth on her pubic hair: Piet pictured a kitten learning to drink milk from a saucer. He hurried, seeking her forgiveness, for his love of her, on the verge of discharge, had taken a shadow, had become regretful, foregone. He parted her straight thighs and took her with the simplicity she allowed. A lip of resistance, then an easeful deepness, a slipping by steps. His widening entry slowly startled her eyes. For fear of finding her surrendered face plain, he closed his lids. The whispering of boughs filtered upon them. Distant saws rasped. The breeze teased his squeezing buttocks; he was bothered by hearing birds behind him, Thorne’s hired choir, spying. “Oh, sweet. Oh so sweet,” Georgene said. Piet dared peek and saw her rapt lids veined with broken purple and a small saliva bubble welling at one corner of her lips. He suffered a dizzying impression of waste. Though thudding, his heart went mournful. He bit her shoulder, smooth as an orange in sun, and traveled along a muffled parabola whose red warm walls she was and at whose end she also waited. Her face snapped sideways; drenched feathers pulled his tip; oh. So good a girl, to be there for him, no matter how he fumbled, to find her way by herself. In her strange space he leaped, and leaped again. She said, “Oh.” Lavender she lay in his shadow, the corners of her lips flecked. Politely Piet asked her, “Swing?”

“Dollink. Dunt esk.”

“I was sort of poor. I’m not used to this outdoor living.”

Georgene shrugged under him. Her throat and shoulders were slick. A speck of black construction dust, granular tar from his hair, adhered to her cheek. “You were you. I love you. I love you inside me.”

Piet wanted to weep, to drop fat tears onto her deflated breasts. “Did I feel big enough?”

She laughed, displaying perfect teeth, a dentist’s wife. “No,” she said. “You felt shrimpy.” Seeing him ready, in his dilated suspended state, to believe it, she explained solemnly, “You hurt me, you know. I ache afterwards.” (pp. 53-55)

From Updike we get “Piet pictured a kitten learning to drink milk from a saucer.” From Zadie, all we get is “[s]he tasted of iron,” which every man and woman already probably knows about the taste of menstrual flow. But the laziness of that writing is not merely in her enlisting the use of a commonplace; that line also indicates that Zadie wasn’t bothered to know (or doesn’t want us to know she knows) what eating a woman on her period actually might taste and feel like: the shocking variability in texture, taste, consistency, not just from one woman to another but even of a single woman, from one month to another. She doesn’t just elide these things, she intentionally avoids the particular descriptive detail that would take her depiction out of the realm of meaningless porn and into the realm of reality and truth. Zadie had an opportunity to reclaim cunnilingus from Updike but instead she confounds and demeans her own efforts . Her sex-prose is simply so damn pedestrian.

Perhaps, though, Mrs. Smith is attempting to depict the logical end to the writing that has been done by “the Great Male Narcissists”.2 Perhaps, simultaneously, she is sketching what happens to sex when all the world is awash in porn, when our desire is mediated through pornography, which in turn is mediated by technology: We get a performance of sex, and a writing of sex, which occurs, “several times a day…and always in this business-like way, as if delegating a task to somebody else.” There’s strong evidence that this is her aim: Towards the end of her novel, when Natalie gets together with the boys who placed a Craigslist-style offer of sex to which she responded, the boys are obsessed with using Chat-Roulette (which, in the real world, rose, alongside its teenage inventor, to worldwide fame, then infamy, and finally obscurity, between 2010 and 2012). The boys are fixated watching their screen where a display of random people are connected to the carousel of the self-same service.

On the rare occasions it was a girl they would at once started typing: GET YOUR TITS OUT. Natalie asked them: boys, why are we doing this? You’ve got the real thing right here. But they kept on with the Internet…Or maybe they couldn’t do anything without the Net somewhere in the mix.

Maybe that is it: Perpetually tethered to the Internet, our desire is shaped by it, irretrievable funnelled into it, reduced through it, and we get a reality of sex that is as formulaic, reductive, derivative, and as devoid of anything substantively interior or innovatively exterior as the sex is in NW. Foucault, after all, did declare that perhaps the West has not invented any new perversions.3 Barret Hathcock in an essay on Nicholson Baker, observes that, “[f]or literature about sex after Updike, porn is about the only direction to take, which is why we shouldn’t go there.” 4 Not only does the real sex suffer, but also the writing of sex, which becomes the mass of detritus that Zadie hath wrought. We get a world impoverished because one in which the nuanced, incisive, and revolutionary sex writing in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook is no longer influential. One of the most memorable out of many memorable parts of Lessing’s book reads as follows:

The night after I wrote it[my love for him], Saul did not come down into my room to sleep. There was no explanation, he simply did not come. He nodded, cool and stiff, and went upstairs. I lay awake and thought of how, when a woman begins making love with a new man, a creature is born in her, of emotional and sexual responses, that grows in its own laws, its own logic. That creature in me was snubbed by Saul’s quietly going up to bed, so that I could see it quiver, and then fold itself up and begin to shrink. Next morning, we had coffee, and I looked across the table at him (he was extraordinary white and tense-looking) and I realised that if I said to him, Why didn’t you come to my room last night, why didn’t you make some kind of explanation for not coming, he would frown and go hostile.

Later that day he came into my room and made love to me. It wasn’t real love-making. He had decided he would make love. The creature inside me who is the woman in love was not implicated, refused to be lied to.

If Zadie Smith’s goal was to mimic the Hollywood style of creating modular sex-scenes, scenes that add nothing meaningful to the narrative except watered-down titillation, that seem to cater only to directors’ need to see ever younger girls naked, and that fulfil some imagined flesh-on-screen quota, then she has succeeded brilliantly. If instead, she was attempting to write herself out of the parochial puritanical ideology of sex-as-depravity, sex-as-sin (as a feminist would), or if she was merely trying to write about the sex act in itself, then I would like to be among those to retroactively nominate Zadie for The Bad Sex Award.

Anaïs Nin’s view of puritanical ideology as it motivates sex in literature is that it subverts the very aims a woman has when writing about sex because it puts desire on the other side of morality, depicting desire as something that has only a deleterious effect on human life. Andrea Dworkin too has this view, though slightly more radical: Women are capable of internalising their own oppression; the puritanical ideology internalised by a woman is reflected in a woman writing of sex as dirt, as degrading, as a act of hate perpetrated by men and abetted by the complicit woman. Zadie’s writing of sex doesn’t seem to offer a way beyond these traditional limitations. Women in NW are brought low by sex, in the act of it they acknowledge something base about themselves, and in the aftermath, they are treated by men as low things, a perception they seem, and in turn Zadie seems, to have internalised. Alternatively, as in the case of the sixteen year old masturbatrix, her sexuality is functional, physical, mechanical, and not much else. Masturbation doesn’t have to be depicted as edifying but even the staunchest Catholic will impute some spiritual content to it (It imperils the soul, the priest will say). A feminine sexuality would have to surely be something other than merely clinical or at least be depicted in something other than staid prose.

After Natalie has sex with the two boys, her husband discovers the betrayal. She runs away from home and there is a suggestion in the text that she has sex with some other guy (Nathan) in a park (it might as well be in the street, but it’s inHampstead Heath) in the rain, and presumably, mud, so that in a sense, “Love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement.” She immediately wants to be left alone (Incidentally, that the writing is sexually oblique probably makes it the best sex scene in the book). She envisions “a sudden and total rapture”, a decisive course of action that would restart her existence and allow her to break with her past, but it’s merely velleity, and proceeds to an ambiguous impotence (The kind of ending that Saul Bellow made popular). A cursory reading would suggest that sex, at this point is at its most meaningless and futile (a lesson, again, that the GMNs have hammered into us for decades), which points back to the earlier scenes and raises the question, why did the writing — the very prose — of the sex have to be invested with this selfsame abjection?


  1. The novel, which is set in a fictional North London suburb and in New York, bears the impress of American writers like Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace, clever, nervy exhibitionists, IQs-with-i-Books, guys who, as Smith has put it, ‘know things’, writers with a gift for speedy cultural analysis, whose prose is choppy with interruption. The Autograph Man may indeed be the nearest that a contemporary British writer has come to sounding like a contemporary American; the result is disturbingly mutant. (“Fundametally Goyish” by James Wood in The London Review of Books Vol. 24 No.19)

  2. As David Foster Wallace labelled them. 
  3. Michael Foucault, A History of Sexuality I 
  4. “I Know It When I See It” in Lady Chatterley’s Brother by Scott Esposito and Barret Hatchock, 2012 

[Reposted from here]

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