Among my favorite aspects of Clancy Martin's second novel, "Bad Sex," is that it is not about bad sex; in fact, the sex is relentless, passionate. Rather, it is about all the bad stuff sex — or sexual obsession — can make us do. Narrated by Brett, a recovering alcoholic who betrays her sobriety, and her marriage, for a yearlong affair with her husband's banker Eduard, the book records the spiral, the ripple effect, of transgressive behavior, the way that once we slip the bounds of propriety, it can be ever more difficult to find a passage back.
"Cheating on your husband is a lot like doing cocaine," Brett tells us. "It's rarely pleasurable but try quitting." In the uneasy middle ground of that observation, desire turned to something more consuming, Martin's novel masterfully unfolds.
Brett is a conflicted figure, a writer who can't write, an alcoholic who can't drink, a wife who loves her husband, Paul, and the life they've built with his two young sons from a previous marriage, even as she yearns for escape. She too has been married before; "When I left my first husband for another man," she confides, "it was only because my husband was sad, and the new man was happy. Every time I walked into the room he lit up. The reason your marriage ends can be that simple."
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What Martin is saying is that emotions are fickle but even more that we are never in control of what we do. A smile, one drink too many, a misbegotten business trip, and suddenly, as Joan Didion has written, "[l]ife changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends."
In many ways, such considerations have centered Martin's writing all along. His 2009 novel "How to Sell" was a cynical romp about corruption in the jewelry industry; like "Bad Sex," it explores the aesthetics of deception, a territory in which (conventional) morality has little place.
But it is his nonfiction book "Love and Lies" — published this year — that lays the groundwork for the new novel; there, he excavates the relationship between love and dishonesty, focusing in part on his two failed marriages, the second of which collapsed after he had (wait for it) a yearlong affair. Sound familiar? So be it; as Martin admits in the acknowledgments to "Bad Sex," the novel began as memoir and then was rewritten in fictional form.
On the one hand, this offers a neat sleight of hand, the faithless husband recasting his experience through the filter of a faithless wife. If that were all, however, it would be a literary parlor trick, which is not what Martin has in mind. Rather, he wants to question our assumptions, and his own, about what love means, how it operates, the demands of living for other people and living for ourselves.
"When I'd stopped drinking," Brett reflects, recalling her first night with Eduard, "I'd stopped behaving this way and I thought it was behind me. As I got into bed with him, I was still thinking, this is not the kind of thing that I do. He took the back of my head with one hand, and my throat and the base of my chin with the other. He kissed me."
"Bad Sex" is not shy about its influences; Brett recalls Brett Ashley of "The Sun Also Rises," and Martin adopts something of Hemingway's epigrammatic style. The book unfolds in short sentences, short chapters: 66 of them over fewer than 200 pages. But if "The Sun Also Rises" seeks to portray a culture, a demimonde (the so-called lost generation of expatriates that swarmed Europe in the wake of the Great War), "Bad Sex" operates through a tighter lens.
Although this Brett too is an expat, an American living in Mexico City, traveling through Central America with Eduard for their assignations, she is representative of no one but herself. Her milieu is loneliness, even when she is in bed with Eduard — or, for that matter, with her family.
"I hate those women who hurt you, and want to be your friend," she insists. "But I often wish I could do that. Paul's mother was the master. She could say something nice to you that destroyed you for a week." It's an almost perfect evocation of the tension that drives her, the desire to belong juxtaposed against the necessity of remaining apart.
Ultimately, this leads exactly where we would expect it to; there is no happy ending here. And yet it is impossible to say that, within the drama of her year with Eduard, Brett does not experience a transitory sort of bliss. "The illusions we depended on about love and each other were necessary to keep us going," she acknowledges. "Yes, it all collapsed. But afterwards, I think we both wondered, will I ever have something that good again?"
This is it, the point precisely, that we often find sustenance — salvation even — in doing what we shouldn't, as if in such heightened moments, we confront our truest selves. "I drink," Brett says, "I hurt myself and the people around me, and then I write."
Tyrant Books: 184 pp., $23