I don't know why it’s so hard to write well about sex. Is the difficulty in describing how the body, instincts, feelings and thoughts move in simultaneous, seamless and jumbled ways? It’s usually a pretty unself-conscious act, yet to describe it in literature is to drag it into consciousness – but one must keep the mindlessness too. Few can pull it off, and I can’t think of any who do it as intelligently, profoundly and, let’s face it – this matters, arousingly, as Tamara Faith Berger.
I was cautioned by my editor that we couldn’t get too explicit here, so you’ll have to read the book for yourself. Those familiar with Berger’s previous books, The Way of the Whore, and her 2001 debut, Lie With Me, will be familiar with her protagonist: a young woman at once innocent and naturally depraved, intelligent and uncommonly sensitive, reserved, submissive and independent – a classic woman-ravaged type. It’s O in The Story of O, or Justine in the Marquis de Sade’s Justine.
The narrative begins with Myra on vacation in Key West with her siblings and her parents, who are on the cusp of divorce (her father leeringly eyes all the young waitresses). They are watching TV at dusk, and Myra wants to explore the beach. Her mother protests, but Myra doesn’t listen. In her head: “Whatever, Mom, enjoy your dismal world. I’m in Key West. I’m actually here.”
With that, she’s gone, down the rabbit hole. Soon she’ll meet a Tanzanian man, Elijah, a musician and beach bum, and return with him to his apartment where (she becomes more and more aware) “he wanted to do it with me, he wanted me to be like one of those college girls on the beach, bums offered up. But I also knew that something else was going on.”
Her growing awareness of this “something else” unfolds, like a mystery novel, over the next 165 pages. Of course, sex is the ultimate mystery for a young virgin, so the suspense is justified and real. But there’s a mystery even beyond that one. When Myra finally does have sex, in the most contemporary scenario possible (the scene the whole book is leading toward), it suddenly feels like some classic set-up, or like a heart-stopping Pieta – an image that was always there.
Cut into the story are bits of dialogue between Lee (Myra’s newest, coolest friend) and Gayl, Elijah’s girlfriend. Both women are black; Myra is white. Both are politically astute and more worldly than she, and their conversation hovers in some ether above the narration, like a Greek chorus – though they are not a chorus; they disagree about everything. Maybe they’re simply witnesses, not so different from those who watch porn at their computers, but the porn show they’re watching is Myra’s life.
Through their conversation, and Myra’s maturing consciousness (she’s handed great books by her otherwise uninspiring boyfriend, Aaron), we see how sex is more than sex: It’s slavery, it’s economics, it’s the class war. Berger tracks Myra’s first thoughts about race and privilege through her very personal attempt to understand and grow closer to Elijah – a development that marks the dawning of Myra as a writer.
The book is also deeply contemporary: I think never before has the influence of Internet porn been so profoundly woven into the heart of what can also be seen as a coming-of-age novel. There’s a full, working brain inside even the most seemingly oblivious, naked, made-for-porn girl. What is that brain thinking? What does that girl want?
With so much focus in our world on what young female sexuality ideally looks like, it’s a relief to see this portrait of what young female sexuality honestly feels like. Maidenhead is a mesmerizing and important novel, lying somewhere between the wilds of Judy Blume, Girls Gone Wild and Michel Foucault. It’s a thrilling, enlightening and really hot place to be.
Sheila Heti’s most recent novel is How Should a Person Be?