Of Love and Lies: Bad Sex by Clancy Martin
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
We all do it, and we do it all the time. I bet you’ve thought about it very recently, at least. Talking about it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but really it’s nothing worth being ashamed of… most of the time. You do it because it enhances the quality of your life, but if you’re reckless, if you’re immoderate, it’ll ruin you. And here’s the hard dark fact: It’s so prodigiously addictive that it underpins every relationship you have ever had, every single one, especially the romantic kind. It’s always there, in all your interactions with all other people, lurking in the penumbra of every word you speak, whether you like it or not — whether you know it or not.
Lying. This is Clancy Martin’s great subject, our harmless fibs and elaborate fabrications, and what might result from this sort of moral corrosion.
Martin — whose daytime gig is as a philosophy professor at the University of Missouri — might be America’s preeminent surveyor of deception, charting all its ecstatic peaks and ethical cliffs. He’s a consistently limpid, agile writer whose philosophical essays throw light on the nature of dissimulation in all its forms, and whose memoirs reveal him to be an expert practitioner of lying himself. But Martin’s confessional nonfiction, while captivating in an insalubrious way, often reads as more self-aggrandizing than self-examining, and his essayistic nonfiction, while thoughtful, loses the vivacity that distinguishes the rest of Martin’s writing, his lurid recounting of flimflammery, dipsomania, and sexual adventures. It is in Martin’s best work — his novels — where he uses the freedom fiction gives to most complicatedly conjoin his metaphysics of lying with his physics of it. His soul-sucker of a debut, How to Sell, was a bleak and funny coming-of-age tale, a semiautobiographical jewelry industry exposé, and one of the sleaziest books you can come across that seriously engages with the work of Kant and Aristotle. It is perceptive, delectably profane, and damn difficult to put down. Bad Sex is his second novel. It’s even better than the first.
At a glance, Bad Sex’s structure looks somewhat simplistic: sixty-six staccato chapters, no more than a couple pages apiece. Martin’s language throughout is straightforward and unaffected, seemingly averse to lyricism, somewhere between In Our Time and Shoplifting from American Apparel. The back cover promises a “loosely autobiographical” novel — i.e., a novel. In fact, it’s very old school at its essence, a classic shopping-and-fucking novel (emphasis on the latter). Adultery tales of this sort have been around just about as long as the novel form itself.
Our narrator, Brett, is a wife nearing middle age, an absent stepmother, a recovering — and relapsing — alcoholic, a procrastinating writer, and, like all of us, a liar. Just as Martin’s terse writing seems like it might owe a debt to Hemingway, his main character’s name recalls another drunken, mannishly-named expatriate, the ravenous Brett Ashley from The Sun Also Rises, now sans Papa’s icky chauvinism. The book is Brett’s account of a yearlong tryst in Central America with her husband’s banker. She narrates mostly in a linear fashion, but dotted throughout are brief moments of temporal liquidity that gesture toward a life larger than just a fling.
Excerpts of Bad Sex have been floating around for a while, here at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, over at Tao Lin’s Muumuu House, and in the pages of a slick edition of The Milan Review. It had been going by the title Travels in Central America, and I first suspected, cynically, that this new name was purely a Tyrant Books marketing hook. They’re known for pushing literature that’s a little darker, a little edgier (and sometimes, as in the case of Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life or Eugene Martin’s Firework, a lot better) than the mainstream. But in fact Bad Sex is a much superior title.
The sex depicted is not bad in the conventional sense of the term. It’s not low quality; rather, it is violent, exhibitionistic, surreptitious, and in one brief, icily frank instance, it is rape. At its best, the sex in Bad Sex is self-destructive. Much of the time it is plainly immoral. This is meaningful, as Martin has said before, in a 2009 interview on KCRW’s bookworm, that he believes the writer is “a moral figure in the public life.” Martin’s no busybody, not a finger-wagger, but he does engage meaningfully with moral questions. Why do we lie? How do we lie?
Martin, with Brett as his vehicle, uses Bad Sex to not merely to dish on a scandal (though there’s no shortage of dishing, the pleasures of which are not to be ignored), but also to reflect on the antinomic nature of romance:
But then I sensed the need, again, for pretense, if I wanted to be attractive to him, if I wanted to be loved in return.
Before Cancun I had told him that everything would be alright with me, again, if I could swim in the ocean with him and see the sun on his skin. When I was sober, this seemed both impossible and true.
I said, “Do you know the most beautiful thing about this flower?”
“You told me but say it again.”
“It has so many petals that it can’t open unless ants chew through the casing.”
The illusions we depended on about love and each other were necessary to keep us going.
Brett emphasizes that lies form the bedrock of relationships. Love is a good thing, but it is fundamentally tainted by deception and self-deception, which are love’s necessary (if not sufficient) conditions.
You cannot love unless you lie.
But it’s the truth — whatever that may be — that Brett longs for. “I drink,” Brett tells us, “I hurt myself and the people around me, and then I write,” and after that you start to see all those little chapters as the frayed bits of what’s left of her life, and you start to suspect that the writing is affectless because she is too emotionally sapped — or too honest, finally — to effect an affect. Her writing, in its unsparing honesty, is Brett’s method of accounting her moral debts.
Then again, Bad Sex is fiction, and it’s significant that we’re clued into the book’s “loosely autobiographical” nature. Autobiography doesn’t tell us the truth in the strictest sense. The author, no matter how fast he runs in the opposite direction of bias’ appearance, the subjectivity of his point-of-view is inescapable. But what autobiography lacks in truth-telling, it makes up for in honesty. Brett’s drunken recollections are honest in their haziness; her self-examination is honest in its self-doubt. “The truth is, I don’t know why I said it, Brett says. But Brett is, significantly, not a real person. She is a facade created by Clancy Martin. Her achievement in honesty is Martin’s achievement in dissemblance. Bad Sex is a book about deception, and, in its proudly “loose” relationship with reality, in how it conceals its philosophical concerns by prioritizing sordid gossip, in its very nature as a work of fiction, Bad Sex is an act of deception itself. Is it the same sort of deception that Martin/Brett talks about throughout the book, the kind that helps facilitate a human connection — this time between Martin and his readers? Or is it smokescreen to conceal the actual events of Martin’s life?
I’m not sure, to be honest. It might be both, but that might be a cheap answer on my part. What I do know is that Bad Sex gives us a familiar story told in commonplace language, presenting itself as nothing more than good, seedy escapism. Yet Martin manages to elegantly imbue his simple little book with complex insights and layers of meaning. That is the novel’s chief pleasure: knowing it should be so bad, but finding it so, so good.
by Clancy Martin