“Sex is not specific. It is not original. You might think your perversions are all your own, but no,” writes British author Adam Thirlwell in his novel Politics, the story of a misguided London ménage à trois. “Perversions are universal.” Sandwiched between a tryst in a public pool and a squirmingly awkward girl-on-girl fisting scene, Thirlwell’s tidy declaration may seem mildly disingenuous. But anyone with a spam-friendly Hotmail account can attest to the ubiquity of perversions these days, reflected in titles of messages promising stronger, deeper, harder, longer, faster, younger, even younger, and then again younger.
It should be no surprise, then, that Thirlwell and fellow first-time novelist Nic Kelman—whose Girls features anonymous businessmen and their pre-teen paramours—have eschewed the traditional literary debut of introspective short stories in favor of the subject of such e-mails. In these two debuts it becomes apparent that sex, though universal, is like writing: It’s the delivery that counts.
Kelman’s Girls, less a novel than a series of vignettes, is a Details reader’s dark fantasy. In elliptical prose reminiscent of one struggling to recall a dream, Kelman describes men who have mastered the amorality of high-stakes business; who acquire custom-made cars and bespoke suits while exhausting the pliant flesh of wives, girlfriends, and strippers. Fighting both ennui and the perpetual fear of falling, they find redemption—or at least momentary excitement—in young girls.
Lest his prudish readers accuse him of gratuitous pedophilia, Kelman is quick to remind us that such perversity is widespread in a world where the porn industry is more profitable than legitimate films, and the global sex trade grosses more than drugs. He adds further gravitas by pausing to quote long passages from The Iliad, suggesting that in their conquering swagger these men are modern incarnations of Greek archetypes. They are anachronistic warriors, expected to be Achilles in the boardroom and unable to control that conquering impulse in bed.
We have read such object lessons in sexual addiction before in more inventive novels (Martin Amis’s Money, Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho). Despite his tactical defense and literary stylings, Kelman’s novel is simply more titillating than astute. Published electronically, Girls might have been routed to your junk mail folder.
Although Thirlwell’s Politics opens enticingly with a naked young woman in handcuffs, the sexual encounters within are nervous, stuttering affairs. Orgasms, and even arousal, are unreliable quantities for Moshe and his girlfriend Nana as they stumble into a cumbersome threesome with their friend Anjali. None of the characters is particularly thrilled with the arrangement, but each presses on, thinking it makes the others happy. Guided by a congenial narrator, who tracks the characters’ self-conscious decisions and revisions, Politics demonstrates that two is company but three—far from a bohemian bacchanalia—is a knotty political endeavor, full of bedroom lobbying.
The politics of this novel extend well beyond the small pleasures and sacrifices of Moshe and his girls. With delicate maneuvers, Thirlwell relates this contemporary ménage to such hefty matters as Stalinist Russia, the comparative nobility of Václav Havel and Milan Kundera, and even the sexual stamina of André Breton and his fellow Surrealists. It’s a feat of delicious incongruity, but also, as Thirlwell writes, an “act of miniaturisation,” in which he dissects epic moments in history to see the lighter shades of self-interest and selflessness at work (poet Osip Mandelstam capitulating to Soviet police; Kundera abandoning Czechoslovakia to pursue his art). Thirlwell has written a book for our times, one in which sex is a subtle affair, and politics, once so aggrandized, now reflects the intricacies of the bedroom.