Bad Sex is good reading. Atmospheric, turbulent, and fast-paced, it grabs you with its teeth on the very first page and doesn’t let go.
Atmospheric, to be clear, isn’t always a positive quality, especially in a shorter book like this that toes the line between novel and novella. Martin does not, however, waste pages laboriously describing wallpaper or scenery. Instead, he allows quick, broad strokes to create the spaces through which his characters explode, leaving underpants and empty whiskey bottles in their wakes. A few well-placed words go a long way in constructing a world that is somehow both idyllic and volatile.
Opening with the main character flying into a hurricane rather than away from it, the first few pages exemplify how Martin links setting and character. The brewing storm is both literal and metaphorical, for soon she begins an affair that wrecks her marriage, makes her unhappy, and sends her running back to the bar after two years of sobriety. When things are calm, Martin describes pristine beaches and stunningly opulent hotels. When things are rocky, the setting shifts to rainy highways complete with jack-knifed trucks or awkward, showy parties full of awkward, showy people. External pretense points at internal pretense; violence in the landscape aligns with unrest within relationships. In a nice bit of foreshadowing, a moment that could read as sweet or hopeful is made ominous through the presence of armed youths, a detail which fits the location but whose purpose extends beyond mere accuracy. All the atmosphere is in service to plot and character, a feat Martin accomplishes so neatly and tidily that it’s easy to miss how much is really happening.
The clean, brief sentences with perhaps fewer commas than readers are used to seeing these days certainly nod to Hemingway, as do some other elements of this book. Several passages are aphoristic in a way that might call Oscar Wilde to mind if they were more funny and less tragic. Despite those similarities, the unrelenting darkness that runs through the entire thing and onto the final page makes this truly Martin’s own work. The title refers not to intercourse without pleasure but to something that’s pleasurable and negative; something enjoyed in part because of its capacity for destruction.
How seldom it is that we get an entire book about how good it feels to do things that are bad, terrible, and of little to no redemptive value, and yet this too is a part of the human experience. It’s something we can’t exist in the world without seeing, either in others or ourselves. Rarer still, Bad Sex tells its tale unflinchingly, without sentimentality, and without trying to impart moral uplift. It’s not a parable but a play-by-play of one woman smashing her carefully-built equilibrium. It’s smutty without reading like a romance novel (no plunging shafts or quivering loins here!), and it ends with the same uncertainty and dread that haunts most of its pages.
In short, if Paulo Coelho were dead, he’d be spinning in his grave. Instead of selecting it for her book club, Oprah might perhaps ban it from her offices. Buzzfeed has no cute GIFS for this novel. Bad Sex is not the feel-good book of the year, and that’s exactly why you should read it.
Bad Sex by Clancy Martin (Tyrant Books | 9780991360802 | September 15, 2015)