“Once I let go of the slim tethers that tie me to so-called reality and I’m in that VIP room, I’ll be preconscious,” says a character standing on the brink of a lap dance in Francis Levy’s Erotomania: A Romance. “Schopenhauer said that reason was the only way we could resist the demands of the will. I disagree. There is no way. But let’s see.”
What he finds inside—a Comédie-Française alum reciting scenes from Corneille’s Le Cid while on all fours, a champagne-room-wide discussion of Lévi-Strauss’s The Raw and the Cooked—is typical of Levy’s hilariously satirical debut novel: sex, leavened by comedy, shimmying enthusiastically in the echo chamber of a century of writing on the once-taboo subject. Miller, Lawrence, and Genet stop by like proud ancestors, godfathers of modern literature’s pornographic impulse. But it’s a more recent generation of mischievous, deviant writers (Nicholson Baker, Mary Gaitskill) that truly looms large—Erotomania‘s closest predecessor might be Baker’s The Fermata, whose bumbling anti-hero uses his ability to stop time in order to systematically rearrange women’s clothing.
James Moran, a mildly overweight film buff and set designer for itinerant Broadway musicals, is the male half of Levy’s peculiar romance. We meet him mid–existential crisis, ensnared in a sexually incandescent relationship with a woman whose coupling ability is so strong that Moran finds himself unable to recognize her in the aftermath of each of their frequent bouts. “From the day I found myself lying on her bed with what would become the ritual of her nails in my back followed by the gentle prodding of my anus,” Moran confides, “I have been filled with the same sense of wonder. How did I get here?” Like somnambulist bonobos, Moran and his lover seek each other out by pheromones alone; they meet for sex and end up, hours later, wandering the streets, barefoot and separated, pant pockets turned out.
In Moran’s eventual search for the identity of his lover, he suffers more than a few false starts—a futile quest through the phone book leaves Moran talking dirty to a sex-crazed octogenarian, while a look-alike prostitute reminisces about Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as an enticement to sample her wares. Finally, he ID’s his elusive partner; her name, it turns out, is Monica Coole. They quickly move in together and find bliss in a concrete bunker at the edge of town, ordering Chinese food and mating at volumes that recall “dusk on the Zimbabwean veldt.”
Their love is obviously unsustainable, but what follows is a kind of Civilization and Its Discontents parody that drags down Levy’s high-flying narrative—as they begin a process of societal assimilation, each stage makes them less interesting to each other and, not coincidentally, to us. Repressive and sublimating forces include the military (via the lovers’ therapist, Martin Shapiro, “the highest-ranking Jewish marriage counselor in the history of the United States Army”), random street thugs (who beat Moran for looking sexually satisfied), and the museum, all the way through gourmet foods, obesity, exercise, and Oprah. By the end, they don’t fuck at all.
Perhaps Levy’s goal is to redeem his two perverts and make the case for the soft eroticism of daily life, rather than, say, the idealized and impossible jungle mating of his book’s first half. “Our eating and television-watching took on an intensity and variety that rivaled our most passionate sexual episodes,” James muses late in the novel. The ambitious book that once posited that “golden showers are the blowjobs of tomorrow” dissipates into platitudes about TV dinners, and Levy’s biting satire loses its teeth: Monica gets so fat she can’t get off the couch. There’s nothing funny about that.