Out of nowhere in Rick Moody’s new novel The Four Fingers of Death, there is a gay sex scene involving two astronauts flying on a rocket ship to Mars. “There was a sharp stabbing sensation, sort of how I imagine it must feel to find your innards impaled on a pike,” Mr. Moody writes. “This was the Big Bang of interplanetary sex.” The scene goes on for almost 10 pages, ending with the line, “The two of us breaststroked around the capsule, attempting to swallow the afterglow of our profane and inadvisable entanglement.”
Most striking about Mr. Moody’s scene is the lack of restraint. Mr. Moody is not alone. Two thousand and ten has been a summer of strange, dirty sex in American fiction. Writers are dealing with the topic in all its awkward, gruesome and (one hopes) lascivious detail. Fictional sex in 2010 is as unhinged as Norman Mailer’s apocalyptic orgasm. Forty years after the old guard’s fictional promiscuity, the mere presence of sex in fiction has long ceased to be interesting. Authors now focus less on the social implications of writing about sex and instead on the thematic possibilities of the act itself.
This summer’s novels run through the entire spectrum of possible intercourse: missionary, ménage à trois, bondage, torture and every variant in between. In all instances, sex is not an aesthetic decoration, a superfluous indulgence or a signal of an author’s bravery; it drives plot and defines character. The scenes are highly stylized in erotic, often gritty language: the 18-year-old performing oral sex on a music executive old enough to be her father in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad; the virile Sam Sheppard’s extra-marital affairs in Adam Ross’s wonderful debut, Mr. Peanut; Benjamin Israelien’s tongue cleaved to the clitoris of a woman impersonating his mother in Joshua Cohen’s Witz. The sex scene, as it becomes more and more pornographic, paradoxically shifts from hormonal to metaphorical. The dirtier the sex, the more essential it is to the story.
Take Bret Easton Ellis, hardly a prude. In Imperial Bedrooms, he writes one of his most troubling depictions of sex, but also his least gratuitous, to the extent that the scene allows us to better understand Clay, his antihero. Clay gives two young prostitutes-a boy and a girl-cupcakes laced with laxatives. “Smeared with shit,” Clay recalls, “I was pushing my fist into the girl and her lips were clinging tightly around my wrist and she seemed to be trying to make sense of me while I stared back at her flatly, my arm sticking out of her, my fist clenching and unclenching.” Far from sex for sex’s sake, Clay is finally enacting the physical violence that he has wanted to perform on his fellow characters since we first met him in 1985’s Less Than Zero.
It is no accident that many of the writers offering the most unreserved representations of sex have expressed anxiety about the state of the novel and of publishing, particularly the increasing digitization and consequent simplification of language. Gary Shteyngart in his excellent Super Sad True Love Story interprets this directly through the juxtaposition of Eunice Park’s Gchat-speak emails with the long form prose of Lenny Abramov’s diary entries, creating what is, essentially, a critique of technology-mediated writing. Lenny’s jarring eloquence-“She must have sensed just how much her youth and freshness meant to me, a man who lived in death’s anteroom and could barely stand the light and heat of his brief sojourn on earth. I licked and licked, breathing in the slight odor of something authentic and human”-is mirrored by Grace’s crude e-chatter-“I met this old, gross guy at a party yesterday and we got really drunk and I sort of let him go down on me.”
If Mr. Shteyngart asserts the threat of technology’s stunted sentence structures to oversimplify language, Jonathan Franzen in Freedom expresses the reverse of the notion. Sexual desire in Freedom is unhinged in emails, phone calls and instant messages, but in practice is often adolescent or tame (“It was fine, having sex with him”). When really pleasurable intercourse occurs, it is as vulgar as the digital version of the act. Patty and Walter, the novel’s central troubled couple, finally throw caution to the wind after two decades of polite lovemaking, but Walter’s newly minted experimentation in bed (actually, on the floor) is prefaced as “the violent actions which, without her consent, would have been a rapist’s.” Still, “instead of her usual demure little sighs of encouragement, she was giving forth large screams.”
Sex in fiction is, more and more, a device through which authors experiment and take risks. A participant in the second highly pornographic scene in Mr. Moody’s book unknowingly sums it up quite succinctly: “Would I be coy about a device that’s all about turning the tables so that what’s wrong is right,” Mr. Moody writes about a decidedly different kind of device, “and what was bottom is now top?”