(New York, NY: Tyrant Books, 2015)
Clancy Martin’s Bad Sex is not just a novel about bad decisions. It’s about all the ways a human being can unravel, one loose thread leading to another, and then another, until nothing but loose threads remain. From a random meeting in a bar to a long-term and passionate affair, our narrator Brett finds her happy, successful life coming undone in just the same way.
Bad Sex is not the kind of book you idly leaf through. I sat down with about an hour to spare, and ended up taking the whole afternoon to finish it. Not in the way you might voraciously devour a page-turner, but in the patient, unfaltering pattern that inevitable events tend to unfold in. One page led to another, and each time I told myself there would be only one page more. It’s a similar mentality that sends Brett sliding deeper and deeper back into depression and alcoholism, a hard-hitting story of someone hitting rock bottom hard.
The titular sex is certainly ‘bad’, but in its consequences rather than its execution. For Brett, being with Eduard is much like her alcoholism; she keeps it a secret and she knows it’s a bad idea, but in the end it feels too good for her to walk away. Her downfall is a convincing portrayal of self-destruction; the novel doesn’t flinch at its character’s darkest corners, at the dirty details of their compulsions or the secret, awful hilarity that springs up in between.
Though incredibly poignant and even painful at times, it also had me laughing out loud. “I remembered when Paul and I first met, I thought his soul-destroying cock meant we were supposed to be together,” Brett observes. She’s a character very much aware of the ridiculousness of her situation, the dark humor of a life falling apart at the seams. She looks at her own motivations with the practiced eye of someone well-used to self-analyzing and not liking what she finds. There’s a hint of self-hated in her narration that at times swells to a full-blown storm. It’s written as someone who is completely self-aware of their own failings, but unable to stop themselves from making the mistakes they know they have to make.
The novel is as bleak as it is irreverent, turning to serious issues with the kind of wit that cuts straight through all the stereotypes about addiction and into the complicated reality beneath. What is left is not a complimentary portrait of Brett at all. In some ways, she is almost enamored with her own undoing; she comments, “Often while walking to the library, or shopping in Palanco, the woman I didn’t know pulled me aside on the street to ask: ‘Is everything alright? Can I help?’ I enjoyed that.”
The knowledge of how badly she’s hurting herself seems to hold a certain power for Brett. And as a writer, her alcoholism and self-destructive behavior are also tied up with her creative process. The worse she gets, the more her writing reflects it: “I sent them to my agent and she placed them immediately. She wrote, ‘Whatever it is you’re doing, don’t stop.’” It’s a fascinating look at the ways in which a creative person hurts herself in the name of making better art, and how the world rewards her for it even as it ultimately condemns her.
There’s something inevitable about the story, a sense that every choice Brett makes could only ever have one outcome. Her piercing description of marriage and affairs is one example:
All these decisions you make for the sake of your lover are little steps you take away from the person you truly love. That’s not to say you don’t love them both, you do. But one has your heart and the other has your attention. Then, after many little steps, you turn around he’s so far away that you think, well, he’s too far away now. We’ve gone.
Tender, quietly anguished realizations such as these are made in between bouts of secret drinking and lies on the telephone, flashes of self-awareness while Brett decides to risk one more meeting with Eduard. Her stubborn refusal to help herself is as compelling as it is tragic. But Brett is not the hero of a tragedy. All the bad things that happen to her happen because she lets them, or because she actively chooses to make them happen. There’s no stopping her. She can’t stop herself.
The language of the novel reflects Brett’s struggle perfectly. Parsed into short chapters, the prose is sparse, brief, and often brutal; it does not flinch. Cruelly insightful, the language embodies Brett’s shame and compulsions as keenly as if we feel them ourselves. At times it seems every word is barbed. Though fairly short, the novel is hefty with the weight of things left unsaid: the secrets characters keep from each other, the unspoken desires that never find a voice. In its starkness and absence, a deep sense of unfulfilled longing arises. Even with its tightly wound prose, the book is incredibly intimate. It shows the vulnerability that always arises in the most hardened people, the total emotional abandon Brett shows in her alcoholic blackouts, the tenderness in the most unlikely moments that ultimately hurt all the more.
In the end, it’s not a story about love. It’s a story about relationships, and the ways in which we hurt others and then turn around and hurt ourselves. It’s self-destructive and euphoric, sometimes all at once. The writing combines harsh reality with sudden aching beauty, moments of happiness captured in the midst of a crisis that Brett struggles towards, reaching back for them even as she pushes them further away.
While trying to repair her marriage with her husband Paul, she draws his attention to one of the peonies he’s given her as a reminder of the flowers in her wedding bouquet. “It has so many petals that it can’t open unless ants chew through the casing,” she tells him. It’s a striking metaphor for beauty arising out of ugliness. But if the events of the novel are followed by an ultimate blooming, we as the readers don’t get to know—all we see of Brett’s life is the ants.
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Amelia Fisher is a writer and recent graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University, living in Virginia and aspiring to Portland.