In a story titled “The Anthropology of Sex,” a 37-year-old woman broods over a long-ago affair with her literature professor — the man’s wife happened to be 37 at the time — and commemorates the guilty event by imagining that her own husband is having an affair. This sounds like a recipe for a stilted literary outing, but in writer Martha McPhee’s hands, the layers of the story slide together effortlessly like sheets of silk. Still, it’s not an erotic story, and not at all what one would expect to find in a collection called Do Me.
Taken together, the stories in Do Me: Tales of Sex & Love from Tin House, are surprisingly dour, and the decision to collect them under a title that suggests a celebratory romp between the sheets is a bit puzzling. Instead, this anthology seems to want to remind us that not all sex is sexy.
A few of the stories feel self-consciously literary and picaresque: In Carol Anshaw’s “Touch and Go,” a woman watches herself conduct a joyless lesbian affair with her mother’s gerontologist; in Alison Grillo’s “Phone Sex in Milwaukee,” a sportswriter watches himself conduct a telephone relationship from various hotel rooms while on the road with the Celtics. Both stories are airless and angst-filled, and don’t seem to be about sex or love so much as they are about ego dystonia.
Other pieces in this collection are unconstructed and offhand, not really stories so much as untethered essays. Michael Lowenthal’s “You Don’t See the Other Person Looking Back,” an account of a gay cruise for the blind, and Tin House editor-at-large Elissa Schappell’s “Sex and the Single Squirrel,” about a visit to a convention for animal-costume fetishists, both read like notes for a work yet to be written.
Thankfully, Do Me also includes some gems from the impressive roster of contributors Tin House has amassed in its 10 years of publishing. Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser’s “The Room in the Attic” is a marvelously creepy gothic tale, Jane Eyre for teenage boys. Denis Johnson’s “Xmas in Las Vegas” is a bleak yet oddly cheerful story about an errant husband’s encounter with a call girl. Elizabeth Tallent’s “Eros 101” is so closely observed that it achieves a kind of literary ecstasy: “The corner of the Beloved’s mouth has an unwarranted tendency to break Clio’s heart. … Suppose everyone were capable of disarming everyone else thus, by the merest turn of a head, by the flicker of an eyelid or the premonition of a smile, then all relations would be grounded in wonder, then everyone would be taken hostage by the immensity of what it is possible to feel.”
Occasionally, sex and love make an actual appearance. In Jim Lewis’ “Hang the Moon,” a 21-year-old musician new to fame (possibly Elvis) takes a girl out on a late-night date to an amusement park, a ride through the tunnel of love, where he is surprised by her eagerness to please. The golden-tongued narrator, looking back on the events from later in life, tells the story with a charged, languid nostalgia: “… every day was huge, and every dollar was a kiss on the mouth.” The memory itself and the telling of it unfold as an incantation, an attempt to reel a spent life back in and catch hold of its essence, its loveliness. This is indeed how we remember sex.
The idea of treating American politics as subject matter for erotica tickles the funny bone more than it does any other organ. And Sex for America: Politically Inspired Erotica, edited by novelist, activist and political writer Stephen Elliott, succeeds best where it is ribald and edgy.
The opening salvo, Jerry Stahl’s “L’il Dickens,” is a gleeful fantasy in which a hapless narrator finds himself seduced in the back room of a gun shop by a randy Dick Cheney: “He was overweight, and grunting, and no doubt capable of having me disappeared with a single phone call. But, God, he was sexy.” It works because Stahl takes so much delight in the wallow — his Cheney is oddly charming, and so over the top that the caricature transcends mere meanness. (Editor’s note: “L’il Dickens” first appeared in L.A. Weekly, and can be read here.)
More than one writer here reinterprets our political system as a perverted theme park. “I think everybody agrees that sexual congress with presidents just helps regular folks let off steam, as it also alleviates stress and resentment about politics in general,” argues the transgendered narrator in Rick Moody’s “Notes on Redevelopment.” In “The True Republic,” Steve Almond imagines a new economy: “With the crude almost gone and the aquifers sucked dry, porn had become the last, best resort for most citizens.”
Nick Flynn’s story, “A Crystal Formed Entirely of Holes,” takes a sci-fi conceit worthy of J.G. Ballard and uses it to go somewhere surprisingly poetic. A new military technology converts gunshot wounds by turning them into “organs,” i.e., orifices, which are discovered to have a sexual function. But Flynn follows the thread much further than the obvious commingling of sex and violence on the battlefield, and arrives in a few short pages at a vision of lost identity that is unexpectedly spiritual: “You could see the sky through her forehead, the stars through her palm. She wanted each hole to shoot clean through to the other side, she wanted to shoot through to the other side.”
Also reaching for more than the money shot is Charlie Anders’ “Transfixed, Helpless and Out of Control: Election Night 2004,” which processes Bush’s second-term win through a BDSM scene. The self-described “queer” narrator picks up a young woman in a bar — preying on her despondency over the election outcome.
“I feel the need to rescue her from all this, to replace her mental anguish with another type of pain,” the narrator says. The beating and sodomizing that ensue are cathartic for both parties, as the narrator taunts the girl with a litany of Republican administration evils, while making her beg for more: “Hate crimes will become public policy. ‘Oh yes, please, yes!’ Bible study will be mandatory. ‘Please, yes, please don’t stop!’” It is as if Anders is teasing us with the prurience of our own political obsessions.
Interestingly, the most common threads in this collection are BDSM and sci-fi, representing oppression and apocalypse, respectively. It makes one wonder what a collection of political erotica assembled at the twilight of a liberal administration might look like — can there even be such a thing, or does fantastic sex belong naturally to the disenfranchised? One can only hope that Elliott will have the opportunity to undertake such a project eight years from now, so that we may find out.
DO ME: TALES OF SEX & LOVE FROM TIN HOUSE | Tin House Books | 352 pages | $19 softcover
SEX FOR AMERICA: POLITICALLY INSPIRED EROTICA | Edited by Stephen Elliott | Harper Perennial | 288 pages | $14 softcover