The last thing you expect when you go to Old Orchard Beach in Maine on the long Labour Day weekend is to keep your sanity. The second-last thing you expect, among the tourists, souvenir shops, fried-everything stands and carnival rides, is a book store. But there it is, right on the strip. Granted, it’s full of remaindered books, and you have to dodge the caricaturist parked at the entrance, but it’s a little bit of paradise among the bikinis. Incidentally, if you’re looking for something called Paradise Among the Bikinis, you’re in the wrong kind of store.
But I did find a dirty book. Tucked into the row of fiction was a book by one of my favourite authors, Nicholson Baker. His novel, The Mezzanine, is particularly good. It’s set entirely during a ride up an escalator. Baker writes a type of fiction in which not much physical action takes place, which also describes my daily fitness regimen, by the way. Instead, he goes off on anecdotal tangents and random explorations, which also describes some work meetings I’ve sat through, but that’s enough of that.
Baker also writes smut. Or erotica. Or whatever they’re calling it these days. Porn without pictures, maybe. Whatever; it has a lot of sex in it.
It occurred to me how very little sex there is in most of the books I read, which is probably good because I started giggling when I wrote “little” just now. Characters in the books I read talk about sex or try to have sex and sometimes actually have sex but they never seem to enjoy it. In contemporary literature, sex is often code for “dissatisfaction,” which is fair warning if you ever decide to date a writer.
Every now and then, though, I’ll open a book, usually one of those “romances” aimed primarily at women readers, and I’ll go “Whoa!” That’s also a common safe word, by the way. The thrust of all this (I just said “thrust”) is that there seems to be some kind of double-standard at play regarding what constitutes smut, though I can’t quite put my finger on it. (Stop that!)
Anyway, it’s unusual for me to read a book that’s blatantly about sex. But there in the Old Orchard remaindered books store was Baker’s House of Holes, whose title essentially tells the tale. I’ve heard it described as “sexual magical realism,” but it’s smut. It’s literary, but it’s smut. It’s smutty literature. It’s smuterature.
It was also cheap: five bucks.
The problem was not so much the content but the cover. The cover of the original edition was the graphic equivalent of a plain brown wrapper. This edition, however, featured lurid colours and funhouse letters, imposed on a lewd Pythonesque cartoon of a woman in a… pose.
Well, I couldn’t buy that and have it lying around the house. How do you explain that to kids? How do you explain why the word “of” is placed right there? “Don’t worry, children, it’s literary.” Kids don’t get rationalization. They just see boobies.
It’s the same reason we’ve kept a book of photographs called The Body way up on the very tip-top of our living room bookshelf, out of reach of the kids, unless they really want to get it and roll a chair from the kitchen, but other than that, foolproof! Every now and then we dust it for prints. Who am I kidding: every now and then we dust.
Coincidentally, that’s where we used to keep our Bible. Apparently the top shelf is the place for everything we’re uncomfortable with.
North Americans have a weird attitude towards sex, especially considering that each of us owes our very existence to sex and that sexuality is all around us like never before. The other day our 13-year-old showed my wife what twerking was by calling up a music video by Iggy Azalea, which turned out to be a video that should be placed on the tip-top shelf immediately! It should go right beside our daughter’s memory of her mother and me trying out this twerking business.
In the end, I put back the Baker book. I came to the conclusion that it’s not my kids but me who’s not mature enough to have such a book lying around, and I think this post proves my point. Instead, I bought Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee. It’s not sexy in the least, although a slow man is the way to go, am I right, ladies!