Cinnamon-heart red, cloying and empty: that would be most offerings published around Valentine’s Day, the most corporate, angst-inducing holiday of the year. Every February sees the arrival of brassy books on how to date, mate, marry and not die alone. Trite and outdated, much of the genre fails to speak to the nuance of people’s intimate lives, whether they’re single or partnered.
Mercifully, three new books bring more cerebral, electrifying writing on human relationships this month. Anonymous Sex sees 27 acclaimed writers charting intimacies of every shade: casual, marital, adulterous, youthful, aging, obsessed, resigned. The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale rewrites the script on the baggage people accrue from their exes. And Close Again mines how this pandemic cratered the spontaneous and meaningful encounters we used to have with strangers. All hew to real life, serving as antidotes to the saccharine stuff of the season.
Hillary Jordan and Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, editors of the anthology Anonymous Sex, wanted erotic literature that “makes you see sex in a new way, as only great writing can.”
The contributors’ list boasts winners of the Pulitzer, Booker and Giller prizes and National Book Award. Authors include Louise Erdrich, Jason Reynolds, Jeet Thayil, Chigozie Obioma, Rebecca Makkai, Mary-Louise Parker, Paul Theroux and Souvankham Thammavongsa. No names are attached to any of the short stories, a secrecy contract that allowed for more openness in the writing, according to the editors. The result is vivid, transporting sex.
In Altitude Sickness, erotic vignettes are set within airports, planes, turbulence and traffic. The story opens with frequent flyer Alice, who comes to life on airplanes far away from her home and husband: “It was only then, in the air, that her senses returned and she knew her own appetites.”
This Kind shows infidelity on the ground. At night a wife pretends to run errands, instead meeting her lover, a baker. Driving home afterward, she picks stray poppy and sesame seeds from her jean seams and concocts three cover stories by the time she reaches her front door.
Portraits of co-habitating couples are unsparing. Posseeblay shows “real married sex, microscopically reported” – the husband preoccupied with an imminent school pickup, his wife with a custard sponge cake she’s supposed to bake for a christening. “All day was the efficient hum of family plans. Quick kiss. Quick message. Pick up and drop off. … Praise for feeding the cat. Praise for cleared dishes. Even sex was kind and efficient,” writes the author of This Kind. This is mating in captivity, as couples’ therapist Esther Perel termed it.
LVIII Times a Year delivers the collection’s funniest, wince-inducing writing, about a sexless marriage. A wife is observed through the eyes of a husband, who enters a tiny corncob emoji into his laptop journal on the rare days they have sex: “It is less obvious than the contused eggplant.”
Beyond the conjugal bed, stranger intimacies punctuate the collection. A shark attack is rendered sensual in Woman Eaten By Shark Drawn to her Gold Byzantine Ring. The sci-fi Asphodel is set in an afterlife synthetically manufactured by a corporation. Protagonist Adeline redesigns her own body with duplicate nipples, clitorises and a green penis, then sets to copulating with “pleasure-giving moss.”
There are whiffs of Harlequin romance: Vis à Vis 1953 features a stranger on a train who acts out the sexual fantasies that women write down in his journal – an implausible, appealing plot line. Other scenarios feel ridiculously academic: a DIY porn clip unleashed at a history conference; a couple engaged in foreplay while discussing the finer points of violin concertos. At rare points, the sex reads like entries to the Literary Review’s annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award: “She claws his buttocks more deeply into the clenched slop of her sex,” and the like.
The collection’s most meta entry is I Don’t Miss You. The writer mocks the erotic genre: “a few tired titillations,” “a few juicy similes” – “buttocks like a plum tomato … no a Carolina peach.” She uses her short story to vent at an ex, who happens to be another author in the anthology (truth or fiction, it’s for them to know). “Love is newness,” the author tells her ex. “Love is fascination, discovering each other’s forgotten corners – and we can’t do that again for the first time, can we?”
The final story, Partita, moves eloquently through one woman’s lifetime of intimacy – backward from her empty-nester years, through the domestic phases with small children, to her college days, “books and thoughts and conversations that light her mind on fire. Drinking in the bars and dancing in the streets. Late-night walks and taxi rides and falling in love and out again.” Back further to a first crush at summer camp: “How does anyone survive intact with all this yearning?” the author asks.
The question surfaces in Haley McGee’s memoir The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale: Finding the Formula for the Cost of Love, a social experiment about the value of our past entanglements – the growth and the damage.
In debt, McGee decides to host a yard sale of gifts from her eight ex-boyfriends. There is a vintage Olympia Splendid 66 typewriter (never used); a “Free Spirit” 10-speed ladies bicycle; a ukulele; a sapphire necklace given on her 19th birthday. McGee consults a mathematician for a formula pricing out these “talismans of invested time and emotion that ultimately did not pay off.” The project morphs into a theatre piece; McGee, a Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., actor wrote and performed in a solo show that serves as the basis for this book.
The objects’ monetary value gets complicated. There are the relationships to consider, their duration, intensity, “ratio of fun to misery,” quality of sex, how hard each made her laugh, how much she cried, who broke up with who, whether they’re still friends. And in hindsight, the life lessons learned, the practical skills picked up, the baggage departed with.
McGee’s process is perfectionist, if not manic. She pores over diary entries, e-mails, social-media messages and bank statements – painful relics most throw away. Using charts, graphs, formulas and ledgers, she tries to tabulate her lot in love, money and career prospects. Quickly, the math gets depressing. McGee counts that 6 per cent of her life by age 19 has been wasted wishing she was out of her second relationship.
At times, the enumeration becomes tedious and navel-gazing, speaking to the romantic agony that dominates our 20s and early 30s. “Heartbroken and newly in love people are the most tiresome company,” McGee writes. “Their situation consumes them so entirely.”
More illuminating are McGee’s interviews with her exes. The men tell her things she missed or blocked out. Some express deep remorse, a satisfying thing to behold. The interviews offer McGee a rare window into her exes’ current lives: a wife making lasagna in the background on a video call; infant twins asleep in a crib. Her favourite question is what the relationship gave each man; this is a gentler, more mature lens on exes. The idea here is that no one teaches us how to break up well.
McGee’s writing is smart, punchy and natural. She is brutally candid about the way women are privately. Preparing for a night out, McGee writes, “I don’t pluck my nipples or alter my pubic hair. I need obstacles in place to ensure I don’t sleep with my date.”
There is wisdom here beyond her 30s. Dignity, McGee’s mother advises when she chases men who don’t respect her: “Go where you’re wanted.” Single, the author admits what she actually misses is “being a person who has a person.” Her friend, Fi, perfectly distills how people fail to see their own relationships clearly: “The lines are clear when you’re at a distance, and up close it’s pointillism.”
McGee asks incisive questions about our unions, past, present and future. “Shouldn’t the success of a relationship be measured on a scale of healing versus wounding? Instead of how long it lasts? Or whether or not you own property together?”
Beyond romantic love, Ella Frances Sanders’s slim, illustrated book Close Again catalogues the smaller, more spontaneous encounters gone extinct in the pandemic. Sanders, a writer and artist, describes it as “collection of longing, and of hope.”
What have we lost? Standing next to strangers in galleries, museums, libraries and bookstores, sitting side by side in a darkened cinema. Handshaking (“usually awkward”), stopping on the street to give tourists directions, kneeling down to pick up something a stranger has dropped. Once taken for granted, these gestures feel inappropriate in the era of droplets, aerosols, viral loads and distancing.
There are meditations on random collisions people don’t appreciate until they’re in them: sheltering in a doorway with others caught in a sudden downpour. “It is difficult not to have the sense that you know a stranger in this moment,” Sanders writes. On consoling crying strangers in the street, the author says, “This does not happen enough because people are not sure what to say.” The illustration here is moving, a shopper holding a canvas tote, the other hand placed on the shoulder of a sobbing, red-faced figure.
Close Again feels like a pandemic version of Kio Stark’s 2016 book When Strangers Meet: How People You Don’t Know Can Transform You, about the empathy that sprouts from these chance encounters.
After two years of stilted life in a global pandemic, Sanders’s reminders startle; we’re starting to forget the way we used to be out in the world. “I suspect,” she writes, “this time will be felt, like a leftover bruise, for longer than we might imagine.”
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