Bleak sex has become a cultural shorthand for a particular kind of female restlessness – proof of an unmoored heart. Consider the disaffected heroines of Lisa Taddeo’s Animal (2021) and Jessie Tu’s A Lonely Girl Is a Dangerous Thing (2020); Raven Leilani’s Luster (2020) and Madeleine Watts’s The Inland Sea (2020); Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times (2020) and Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation (2021) – not to mention the collected works of Sally Rooney (TLS passim). Sex is an existential barometer for these literary millennials.
Ella Baxter’s debut novel, New Animal, begins with a hook-up so listless that its Australian heroine, Amelia, feigns a yawn to pass the time: “We both watched patiently as he prodded my vagina with his hangnailed finger, and we took turns sighing mid-thrust.” Amelia is a cosmetic mortician, awed by the quiet beauty of the dead (“they are so emptied of worry. Everything tense or unlikable is gone”). But grief is contagious. By day, she works at the family funeral home in coastal New South Wales, painting life on to lifeless faces; by night, she trawls Tinder in search of masochistic sex: “I need to be mashed across the bed like a sheet of slate”.
Amelia is in bed with a stranger when she learns that her mother has taken a fatal tumble down the stairs. Panicked by the collision of life and work, she dodges the funeral, escapes to her father’s bolthole in regional Tasmania, and swipes right on a bullwhip-wielding sadist. “I’m going to have a wonderfully shocking time”, she declares, as the pair make their way to a local fetish club at which nobody seems to care much about consent. The experience sends our young mortician on a blundering quest into kink. She buys herself a rubber horsehead, urinates on a war veteran, and talks sham feminism with a domme called Vlad the Impaler, all the while nursing her “mother-shaped wound”.
Women are so often cajoled into laughing at sexually ghoulish “jokes” lest they be labeled frigid and humourless. The comic set pieces in New Animal provoke a similar discomfort, and a gnawing question: if this is satire, what – or who – is the target? Baxter treats the BDSM community as a punchline: it is a sticky-floored realm of rabbit-suited gimps, “sexual parkour”, and human brokenness. And, true to trope, Amelia is as flippant as she is raw, quipping her way through an on-stage assault, and treating those around her as extras in her grief-wracked vaudeville. “Interesting to note my spiraling in real time”, she declares. “Strange to bear witness.”
Imogen Crimp’s A Very Nice Girl is another unraveling, narrated from the moral high ground of hindsight, but in lavish slow-motion. Where Baxter offers farce, Crimp walls. The budding opera singer Anna croons at a London jazz bar to pay the rent. She knows her way around a chat-up line, but when the forty-something Max snubs her, she is hooked. Max is a banker, as these Teflon-hearted men so often are – a pinstriped shorthand for patriarchy. He has an expense account and an antiseptic penthouse, and he takes Anna out for swanky dinners during which he makes her feel gauche. “The way he spoke to me felt perversely good”, she tells us, “even though it hurts, like when you scratch a mosquito bite so hard it bleeds.”
Max isn’t keen on the grotty jazz club, and starts paying Anna to skip work. The ease with which he parts with money makes her ambitions seem both frivolous and exhausting; as her debts mount, she struggles to sing. “You seem to second-guess everything you do these days”, a friend worries. “It’s like he’s taking the person you were and rubbing bits of you out.” But the stories Anna knows of love are stories of women extinguished by passion: Musetta, Zerlina, Rusalka, Manon – a canon of erasure. Anna’s impotence begins to feel like a perverse kind of choice. “There was power”, she says, reflecting on the disintegration of her career, “in taking a sledgehammer to the thing I loved.” As sex with Max becomes bruising and cruel, Anna submits. “I let him touch whatever part of me he wanted. There was excitement in that, in knowing I would do anything.”
A Very Nice Girl reworks Jean Rhys’s novel Voyage in the Dark (1934): the tale of a chorus girl and her volatile patron. How frighteningly easy it is to transpose that story; how tenacious – and tenaciously gendered – our scripts of romantic power remain. “I imagined unpacking, laying out and arranging the strands of my little life in front of him”, Anna daydreams. “What would he find pretty? What would he want to buy?” But where Rhys leaves her heroine destitute, Crimp ultimately leaves hers empowered.
A Very Nice Girl is not a doomed love story so much as a self-love story. The same is true, quite adamantly, of New Animal, which ends in a rhapsody of self-care. The metaphors are blunt in these twin tales of becoming: in the funeral home, Amelia puts a woman in pieces back together; as Anna’s voice is honed in her opera lessons, she feels as if she’s being “unpicked and resewn”. Such didactic arcs are missing from Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucksthe cult American author’s reissued novella of 1982. Weird Fucks is now hailed as prophetic, the unsung urtext of female restlessness. Certainly, many of the hallmarks of the trope are here: the glib, adrift narrator; the raucously unerotic sex; the simmering sexual violence; the parade of feckless men. There is the lover whose heart “made it hard for him to be honest”; the one with “eyes of sadist blue”; the one who is remembered as “big cock, small mouth”. We encounter a baker’s dozen of doomed entanglements. But there is no self-actualization here: just an inescapable mess. “I found myself falling in love again”, Tillman writes. “It is safer to stay indoors.”
What’s palpable about Weird Fucks is what’s absent from New Animal and A Very Nice Girl: pleasure. Tillman writes with gleeful horniness and a sense of caper. Perhaps it is a nihilistic levity: when there is no way out, you have no choice but to grin. And while there is staggering violence in Tillman’s book (her narrator is raped), when a consensual lover grows “I’d like to kill you with my cock”, he is the appalling exception, not the rule. Forty years on, these misogynist literary fucks are no longer weird, they’re ordinary. “It has been remarked upon that recent writing about sex by, in the main, young women tends towards the qualid, abject and confrontational”, the Irish novelist Niamh Campbell recently remarked in the Guardian (February 14, 2022). “I can tell you that this is partly down to the fact that app-based erotic culture in the metropolises of late capitalism really can be squalid, abject and confrontational.” Against this backdrop of sexual gamification, incel culture and #MeToo anguish, it is easy to understand the comfort of tales of detached self-sufficiency and chaste escape.
Yet, like so many of their contemporaries, Baxter and Crimp use sex as both a provocation and a pathology. They dare us to slut shame, then finally pull back and save their heroines from themselves. Sex, on this view, is a trial that must be endured on the way to wholeness: an instrument of rupture before the inevitable repair. Amelia coaxes her Tinder bedmates into snarling, “I will absolutely ruin you”; Max bores into Anna like he is “trying to get at something right in the heart of me, and to eradicate it completely.” Abject sex is a salve for a wound that won’t heal. It is not until Amelia repudiates kink – quite literally flees from it – that she is able to find solace. “Sometimes you need to feel another person’s weight,” she explains, “before you can feel your own.” (Tillman’s narrator carries no such moral burden about sex: “this is an act I know with or without feeling.”)
New Animal and A Very Nice Girl modern cartoon sex in all its Tindered cruelty and cervical malaise. Four contracts after Weird Fucks, their squelching frankness still feels radical, but it is easy to mistake candor for transgression. There is something sharply conservative at play in all this obliterative fucking: not only the message that damaged women have damaged sex, and empty women have empty sex, but that whole women – healed women – aren’t sexually hungry or playful. Quite unlike the world explored by Lynne Tillman, the only sensuality in Ella Baxter and Imogen Crimp’s novels – the only unfraught pleasure – is work. This erotics of productivity is a neoliberal morality tale. But there is also an older story lurking underneath it all, insidious and cruelly internalized: it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman, possessed of sexual reckoning, must be in want of a reckoning.
Beejay Silcox is an Australian writer and critic
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