Flavors of Freak

March 7, 2021   •   By R. A. Frumkin

Kink

R. O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell

“IT’S A LARGE WORLD,” Garth Greenwell writes in “Gospodar” (his story in the new anthology Kink, co-edited by Greenwell and R. O. Kwon), “we’re never as solitary as we think, as unique or unprecedented, what we feel has always already been felt, again and again, without beginning or end.”


Such is the spirit of Kink, which is less a collection of stories than a journey through the spectra of human sexuality and erotica. The book isn’t intended to titillate readers so much as it is to keep them company, to reassure them that someone somewhere has been their exact flavor of freak. While most erotica seeks to plunge the reader into a kind of fantasy that’s rarely attainable, Kink trucks in what’s real — the (syringes of) blood, the sweat(-soaked leather), and the (grateful) tears of kinky sex, the sex that average people use to navigate the dynamics of power, desire, and play. The collection is distinguished by its accessibility: from the bondage expert to the innocently curious, there’s something in Kink for everyone.


Having dabbled in the world of kinky fiction myself, I was happy to see that Kink is more than a gathering of scene-specific erotica. Many of the works in this collection are discrete and compelling quanta of fiction: kink is not the point of these stories but rather a means of exploring complex, troubling, and at times very messy ends. In Brandon Taylor’s “Oh, Youth,” a third-for-hire finds himself in over his head with his patrician summer employers. There’s much to admire in the deftness with which Taylor blends the sexual and the platonically social: Grisha, the young protagonist, spends the story drifting through a dinner party in a cloud of aggression and anomie, an outsider-pet forced to meet needs that are never his own. The reader is haunted not just by how Grisha is treated in the moment, but by how he will be treated in the future: what’s his place in the world, or at least, what does he intend it to be?


In Larissa Pham’s “Trust,” a couple escapes to the countryside, bound up (literally and figuratively) in the slipperiness of a dominant-submissive relationship. The protagonist must trust her boyfriend, whom she barely knows, to take care of her needs, both sexual and emotional, and Pham lets us witness the dissolution and reconstruction of that trust, over and over again, as relief is dangled and then snatched away by a writer fully in control of her subject matter. Like Pham, Chris Kraus explores trust in her “Emotional Technologies,” a story that braids her experience as a submissive with a more vanilla narrative about making it in the Los Angeles art world, spiced with the kind of cultural criticism that pervades Kraus’s work. (If you like “Emotional Technologies,” you’ll love her 1997 novel I Love Dick.) Kraus must trust her dominant partner — a man whom she can barely see or speak to — and she revels in the joy of kink’s manufactured intimacy, as well as in the pleasing fact that Michel Foucault dabbled in BDSM himself.


Even when Kink gives us graphic sex scenes, it doesn’t fail to deliver on its story lines. In Alexander Chee’s “Best Friendster Date Ever,” two young men who barely know each other lose themselves in a bondage scene so intimate and intense that they can barely stand to interact with each other afterward. The story evokes the weird loneliness that happens after extreme closeness, the risk of baring oneself (and one’s perversions) to someone you barely know. At the same time, however, Chee demonstrates how much easier intimacy-without-intimacy is to make happen than intimacy-with-intimacy: the better you know someone, in other words, the higher the stakes of your relationship, the harder it is to reveal the deepest and strangest things about yourself.


Anonymity is a kink in its own right. The same idea pervades Melissa Febos’s “The Cure,” in which a lesbian lamenting the lack of dateable women in New York City decides to hook up with an old college friend. He’s a kind of plaything, a muscular dork “with incongruent features,” a receding hairline, “and a pretty cock.” The lesbian, who remains nameless, initiates a dominant-submissive dynamic using just a glass of water — I’ll leave you to imagine how — resulting in a final scene that’s both delicious and devastating in its explosiveness. As in Chee’s “Best Friendster Date Ever,” the detachment of the two actors makes the scene all the hotter.


Many forms of kink are a kind of controlled violence, a manner of exposing one’s partner to the idea of risk without actually risking anything. In this exposure lies love, which is exactly the concept at the heart of R. O. Kwon’s funny and touching “Safeword,” the story of a repressed Christian couple forced to dive into the world of kink because of the wife’s as-yet-unexplored proclivities. Ultimately, the story is about more than making fun of the husband’s normie squeamishness: it’s about compassion and fear and figuring oneself out, all topics that Kwon handles with care and precision. In Roxane Gay’s “Reach,” the genderfluid half of a couple desperately in love describes how they torment their willing partner. The story is perhaps among the most romantic in the collection, as Gay explores with infectious energy the many facets of topping, as well as the ferocity of the power bottom who refuses to give up the fight. The way the couple wrestles for domination translates, in the language of kink, into mutual respect and unremitting passion. Perhaps the most surprising and delightful of these love stories was Vanessa Clark’s “Mirror, Mirror,” which explores a tender encounter between a trans sex worker and an earnest and worshipful Wall Street client. Clark investigates the mise en abyme of lust and loneliness with true depth: the joy of the scene lies not just in the actors’ mutual pleasure, but in their discovery of each other as human beings caught in the act of being human.


The jewels in the diadem of Kink are Garth Greenwell’s “Gospodar” and Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror.” In the former, the protagonist must navigate the dynamics of a BDSM scene corrupted by real violence. In the latter, a young woman is held under the spell of a Gothic vaudevillian whose unhappiness leads to their mutual undoing. Like many stories in the collection, “Gospodar” and “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror” explore kink as an expression of queerness, but these two stories thematize that queerness in unexpected ways. We see not just queerness qua queerness, but also the possibility of abuse in queer relationships, manipulation and power and dominion, the kind of stuff that typically gets swept under the rug in idealized conversations about same-sex relationships. Both Greenwell and Machado have written extensively about these things elsewhere, and they’re no less sharp writing about them in Kink.


Kink is a collection worthy of a read not just for its steaminess but also for what it has to say about why people want what they want and the lengths they’re willing to go to get it. There’s pleasure and pain and fear and euphoria. There’s suspension, both of disbelief and bodies. Some readers may be surprised, some may be bewildered, but all will be pleased by what they find between the covers.


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R. A. Frumkin is an assistant professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University and the author of the critically acclaimed novel The Comedown (2018).