Cheeky worlds

Dec 31, 2008 at 12:00 am

Behind the Bedroom Door
Edited by Paula Derrow

Delacorte Press
334 pp., $25

If you're looking for stories that sizzle like one of those erotica collections you place next to the penis cake at a bachelorette party, don't read this book. Magazine editor Paula Derrow has put together a collection of essays by 26 accomplished women writers. And they aren't about sex lives, but rather lives with sex (or without sex) in them.

In "Turning the Other Cheek," novelist and journalist Deanna Kizis gives a graphic account of fucking a former boyfriend with a borrowed strap-on. But as she plans the night of taboo sex, she knows he's getting ready to dump her. "... I thought, if I use it on him, I can't lose. If he liked it, I'd be the woman who made his sexual dreams come true, ex be damned. If he dumped me, I'd still be the girl who fucked him up the ass, which had its own appealing ring."

Pari Chang looks back on her near-abstinent pregnancy when — to her husband's mind — her body had become "too sacred to fuck." In "Sex with a (Much) Younger Man," writer and poet Elizabeth Cohen has much more than electrifying sex with a free-spirited artist who's 16 years her junior. She marries him, has a daughter with him, and stays with him through a miscarriage, marital conflicts, and his life-threatening heart attack. They still find ways to get it on in the end, even when he's on medication that prevents him from achieving an erection.

Other essays in the book tackle drugs, molestation, porn, sex toys and S&M, never sensationalizing or escaping into fantasy. These writers draw bravely from memory and real life where we're often oblivious to the forces and circumstances that put us within fucking distance of one another. Their stories are as sad and vulnerable as they are provocative — a baring of naughty bits and transgressions, but most notably, hearts. —Norene Smith

The Gone-Away World
By Nick Harkaway

500 pp., $25.95

Readers of a certain age and above are familiar with the chilling, kill-'em-all concept of mutually assured destruction: the idea that if one nation armed with nuclear warheads attacked another, the resulting domino-effect would effectively render our world uninhabitable, assuming anyone or anything survived the fiery, man-made cataclysm. A horrific possibility to contemplate, yes? But what if worse weapons existed? Bombs, say, that effectively erased matter but left a void in its stead that cracked open a gateway for an other-dimensional substance that rendered our mental and nocturnal terrors real.

Wonder no longer, because The Gone-Away World does that for you. This debut doorstopper — 500 pages deep — from UK author Nick Harkaway follows a team of ex-Special Operations soldiers-turned-drivers-for-hire as they navigate this ruined world of half-formed monsters, mythical creatures, soldiers beamed in from bygone battlefields, and a long length of pipe emitting a spray that creates a zone of sustained reality. This isn't the grim post-apocalyptic Hades of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, though; Harkaway's tale is blackly comedic and lighthearted enough that the full weight of the titular catastrophe doesn't quite register. Twenty expository, overdescriptive pages pass, then the writer yanks us back in time to the unnamed narrator's youth to reveal how everything came apart. That's a long, winding highway that encompasses every story genre from buddy-movie tropes to undergrad activist hoo-hah to espionage thriller to Manhattan Project moment to martial arts flick winks, but — until World turns into a variation on Fight Club — the unlikely journey is more fun than the fucked-beyond-fucked destination and a denouement that feels cruelly perfunctory. Which is fine, actually. Harkaway's quicksilver tongue-through-cheek prose — post-David Foster Wallace, post-Dave Eggers, tastily postmodern — is the primary reason why. Passages like this one are monuments in and of themselves: "I wear skintight black PVC and white foundation and I glower and mourn the death of Byron in the back of the bar. From there I discover punk, and briefly have no hair at all, then am mistaken for a fascist by a group of businessmen who proceed to celebrate my bravery and drink my health, and driven by this horror I grow it out again." —Raymond Cummings