Think you can tell the difference between a sex scene written by Candace Bushnell and one by John Cheever? Not when they’re lying next to each other. In this deadpan cento, Dana Carroll diverts the naughty bits from dozens of novels into four chapters (the Sisyphean “Foreplay,” “Sex,” and “Orgasm,” the haunting “Afterwards”) in order to relate the epic boudoir odyssey of Frank and Ramona. (Carroll restricts the editorial tweaks to nominal and past-tense standardization.) Passages from highbrow provocations (Delta of Venus) and recent “serious” fare (Cold Mountain) grind along, butt-cheek by jowl, with the sweatier moments from forgotten curiosa like Francesca’s Party and To Tame a Texan. (Note to Oprah: “Dana Carroll” is the alter ego of artists Dan Rose and Mary Lydecker.)
This sounds more fun in theory than practice, but as Frank and Ramona continually conjoin, via juxtapositions seamless or startling, On Sex‘s loopy (in both senses of the word) atmosphere makes for weirdly compelling reading. One of many climaxes mashes up William Styron (first sentence), Gay Talese (second), and a Harlequin romance (third): “Certainly in the grief of that moment she was not supposed to giggle, but she did. Frank was ecstatic, and as he came he heard her sigh, felt her movements quicken, and he could hardly believe what was happening in his life. She writhed against the soft sheets as he showed once again that he had a talented tongue and wasn’t afraid to use it.” Ringers like Portnoy’s Complaint guarantee humor, but the best yuks are had upon stumbling on a somber absurdity from, say, Memoirs of a Geisha: “Finally, the homeless eel marked its territory, she supposed.” Finally!