The best literary sex scenes

 

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Sometimes I am asked why I write about sex, a question that reflects the prurience with which the subject is generally treated. Sexual intimacy, one of the great comtháng experiences of human life, is still somehow verboten, phối apart. I write about that which interests me — desire và danger, connections & failures lớn connect — và sex is a pulsing intersection of those interests. It is the parapet from which we can look down & witness the tiny machinations of interaction laid bare, the summit of a volcano, an explosion that offers perspective. Casual or committed, sex is infused with overwhelming vulnerability, which makes it easy to mochồng, even easier to lớn stereotype or avoid, và very, very hard towrite.


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“Sex is a doorway lớn something so powerful và mystical,” David Lynch has said, “but movies usually depict it in a completely flat way.” On this count, literature can be just as bad as cinema. When it comes to lớn turgid prose — all puns intended — the traditionally feminine & maligned genres of erotica and romance have rarely been the book world’s worst offenders. It is literary fiction that has given us our most groan-worthy depictions of coitus & its consequences. From John Updike’s disembodied experience of receiving oral sex, in Couples, from the “floral surfaces of mouth” to lớn Jonathan Franzen’s inexplicable “excited clitoris grew lớn be eight inches long, a protruding pencil of tenderness,” those lauded as Great American Authors reliably function as low-cost birth control. (The Literary reviews, which gives yearly Bad Sex awards, honored Updike for lifetime achievement in2008.)

Despite the stomach-turning, wan, & dull missteps that pepper the literary landscape, when sex in books is good, it is very, very good. Here are eleven works that get this most singular of embodied adventures right — or exactly wrong, depending on yourtastes.


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The Lover by Marguerite Duras, translated by Barbara Bray

Set in 1929 French Indochina — today, Vietnam — Duras’s slyên ổn 1986 novel is based on her own early life, an intricately constructed meditation on colonialism, familial violence, displacement, secrets và lies, & the transcendent honesty of the erotic. When the fifteen-year-old daughter of an impoverished French family meets the scion of a Chinese business empire, they begin a series of secret afternoon assignations in which their selves are laid bare in torrential mutual discovery. “And now once more they are caught together, locked together in terror, & now the terror abates again, & now they succumb lớn it again, amid tears, despair, and happiness.” The consequences of their affair và the impossibility of its consummation in marriage ripple across the rest of both lovers’ lives, far beyond the Mekong Delta ferry station where they firstmeet.


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Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa, translated by Stephen Snyder

This compressed, affecting novella follows the seventeen-year-old protagonist Mari’s hypnotic attraction khổng lồ a mysterious Russian translator whom she first encounters issuing orders khổng lồ a frightened prostitute with whom he is staying at her family’s down-market seaside motel. The odd couple begin meeting for intense, consensual sessions of dominance and submission, during which Mari’s hair is cut, she is beaten, whipped, bound with rope, & her lover chokes her with a scarf — all to her mounting pleasure & increasing independence from her overbearing mother. For Mari, the pleasure of submission opens another world, a hunger “to stay wrapped in this shadow forever.”


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Outline Of My Lover by Douglas Martin

The first novel by a gifted magician of the hybrid form, Douglas’s debut is a dead sexy trawl through the queer universe of early 1990s Athens, Georgia. Alienated from his family & newly arrived at college, a young man finds his way inkhổng lồ the muddy glamour of bars & music venues, seeking in a rochồng star an erotic savior who will redeem và make sense of the torpor & emptiness of his early life. His wish is granted, plunging him into an embodied chamber of deep feeling and the intense mirror of the beloved: “What I can get from hyên must be all I need.” A devastating and elemental consideration of fame, desire, andyouth.


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The Stars At Noon by Denis Johnson

“I was naked, but I suppose that was my armor.” Sometimes sex is currency, disaffected và transactional, but what is a laboring body khổng lồ vì if a sexual encounter punctures its protective sầu carapace? This dilemma that afflicts the troubled protagonist of Johnson’s third novel, an American woman trapped in 1984 Nicaragua, who may be a journadanh mục, spy, prostitute, or perhaps all three. The fraught landscape, in which good và evil are hopelessly intertwined, và only graft & brute self-interest seem to lớn function, is mirrored by the cynical interiority of the novel’s unknowable heroine. When a Brit as inscrutable as she enters the picture, the narrator meets her match & is forced into lớn sincere feeling. Johnson masterfully shows how moments of aperture become deadly liabilities in wars interior và exterior.


Suicide Blonde by Darcey Steinke

Suicide Blonde is the story of Jesse, a sexual explorer in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. In love with an emotionally distant bisexual man và employed as a caretaker for a Boschian figure named Madame Pig, Jesse seeks meaning và stimulation. Her foil is Madison, powerful & beautiful and poisonous, who makes her living granting and denying the fantasies of others. The novel features an unforgettable fisting scene that I’ve sầu never quite been able lớn shake since reading it at age thirteen, and a page for page wealth of surprising, illuminating brutality & original thought about the life of thebody.

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One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa Parente, translated by Lawrence Venuti

Written when the author was a teenager & published in English under the semi-anonymous name “Melissa P.” in 2003, this brief, immersive novel is styled as the diary of a fourteen-year-old Italian girl who glides in a kind of trance from her first sexual experience to increasingly debauched experiments with sadomasochism, group sex, và anonymous encounters with both men & women. Told with a lonely singularity, this is a story of hunger for experience: “I want to feel my heart melt, want to lớn see my icy stalactites shatter và plunge inkhổng lồ a river of passion andbeauty.”


Lost Girls by Alan Moore & Melinda Gebbie

Printed in three handsomely-bound volumes, Lost Girls is a graphic novel loosely structured around a story about The Wizard of Oz’s Dorothy, Alice In Wonderland’s Alice, and Peter Pan’s Wendy encountering each other in an Austrian khách sạn on the eve of World War I. Sexual storytelling, discovery, và a veritable encyclopedia of hijinks ensue. Lost Girls is distinguished by its truly omnivorous approach khổng lồ sexuality — no taboo is left unexplored — as well as by Gebbie’s luminous illustrations. Written over a period of sixteen years, Gebbie and Moore’s work is a true collaboration, with Gebbie’s artwork providing the narrative pushbaông chồng necessary to lớn rein in Moore’s famously verbose style. Lost Girls is a work that accomplishes Gebbie’s thoughtful initial inspiration: “When I was about 10, that was when I first started thinking about sex officially,” she says, “và I thought, ‘There must be a beautiful book somewhere, that will tell me everything I want to know, và it will be beautiful, & everything will be explained, and once I see it, I will know everything there is to lớn know about sex.’ And of course, there was no book. There never has been a book. And I finally got a chance to doone.”


The Vanishing Princess by Jenny Diski

This powerful collection of Diski’s fearless work made her known to lớn a much wider readership — sadly posthumously, as it was published after her untimely death from cancer in April năm nhâm thìn. These stories explore the interior lives of women who discover how little their wild & wondrous selves can be contained by the categories with which others define them. The realms of desire và the beloved take center stage in many of these narratives. The story “Housewife” epitomizes the magic triông chồng Diski plays in many different registers và keys, inviting the reader into lớn the lush và shockingly vivid sexual play between a housewife in her fifties và her clandestine lover — an arrangement salutary to the conventional husbvà who knows nothing of it. Styling each other “Witch” và “Witchfinder,” these lovers create a universe all their own: “ ‘Do you want more?’ you asked. And I begged for your saliva, a river of it. <…> I like you mad, my demented Kentish batwitch. You are with me, in that place (in all the places) where you live sầu inme.”


Excavation by Wendy C. Ortiz

Published by Future Tense Books in 2014, Excavation is the creative sầu nonfiction bildungsroman of Ortiz’s girlhood, the story of her coming-of-age. Center stage is her relationship with the predatory middle school teacher who cultivates her youthful sexuality & desire for attention, và one layer of Excavation is a harrowing story of abuse, invisibility, and emotional turmoil. But the power of Ortiz’s dynamic prose refuses & refigures the tropes of the victim/perpetrator paradigm that so informs the popular understanding of stories lượt thích hers. With unflinching psychological acuity & penetrating intellect, Ortiz recreates the conflicted và vivid phenomenology of her younger self’s nascent desire — & in taking her power baông xã remakes agenre.


What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell

Obsessive, exact, & remarkably elegant, Greenwell’s debut novel is never less than painfully clarion in evoking the irrepressible melancholy & overwhelming ecstasy of a doomed và indelible relationship between two men, an American abroad và the young sex worker with whom he becomes preoccupied. This juxtaposition of desire và wisdom makes What Belongs To You winsomely heartbreaking: “There’s something theatrical in all our embraces, I think, as we weigh our responses against those we perceive sầu or project; always we desire too much or not enough, and compensate accordingly.”


The Unknown University by Roberto lớn Bolaño, translated by Laura Healy

Even the casual reader of Bolaño knows that the late Chilean was a master of sex; from the lights-out fumbling of the teenage protagonists in The Savage Detectives lớn the ready availability of bedroom tears và arguments of 2666, he wrote from the very heart of idiosyncratic encounter. The Unknown University, the omnibus of Bolaño’s poetry, offers straight hits of the pleasures diffused across his fiction, peeks into lớn windows of tenderness, heat, and vivid feeling, as in “ElGreco”:

Sometimes I imagine a dim-litbedroom

A small electric stove A redcurtain

smelling of oldoranges

A huge mattress on thefloor

A girl with long freckledlegs

Face down with her eyesclosed

A long-haired boy kissing herback

His erect coông chồng lodged between herbarely

lifted buttocks And dilations

A very strongsmell

I also imagine theimages

flowering in his head & in hisnose

Wonder in the lover’smoon


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Lisa Locascio’s work has appeared in The Believer, Tin House, n+1, Bookforums, and many other magazines. She is Executive Director of the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. Her novel Open Me is out now by Grove Atlantic.


 

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