JUNE 11, 2018
WE ALL HAVE our hang-ups about sex, and here’s one that troubles a lot of writers: the more explicit the depiction, the less sexy it gets. We understand — and are constantly reminded in literature, film, medical journals, health pamphlets, and online porn — that sex is potent, primordial, a vital motivator of human interaction, the wellspring of our species, and the driving force behind many of the stories we tell. Yet, like a vampire, it seems to shy away from the daylight.
Make it too literal, and sex becomes mechanical, dehumanizing, embarrassing. Throw it into the plot of a novel or feature film, and it risks holding up the action instead of advancing it, cheapening the story instead of enriching it. We’ve all read our fill of crisp, cream-colored sheets, pert breasts, and thrusting members; there’s a reason bad sex writing has turned into a spectator sport all its own.
Often, the story seems to be reaching for a crowning breakthrough experience, some ennobling human moment, but what we’re given is more like a pair of zebras humping at the zoo. Even when handled competently, sex on the page risks being a drag or a letdown. Strip the characters and the act itself naked, and we’re liable to ask, like the heroine of Stendhal’s unfinished final novel Lamiel after she has unceremoniously given up her virginity, “That’s it? There isn’t anything else?”
True sexiness thrives on suggestion, not explicitness, on what we imagine, not what we see. So says the received wisdom, anyway. More than a century after Freud, more than half a century after the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, the consensus seems to be that sex in literature is best tackled obliquely, if it is to be tackled at all. Make it funny, or humiliating, or transgressive, or self-consciously voyeuristic, or even a little political — maybe a combination of these. Do what the Marquis de Sade did in his time, or Henry Miller in his, or Philip Roth in Portnoy’s Complaint, or Mary Gaitskill in Bad Behavior.
To tackle the subject head-on, to celebrate the act of human coitus, is a task best left to poets, perhaps because poetry is suggestive by nature and can content itself with a single moment, a knot of fleeting feelings. Paul Éluard wrote sexy poems. So did e.e. cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Richard Brautigan, and Adrienne Rich. It takes a brave, and technically accomplished, prose writer to match their achievements with a full-length erotic novel that succeeds on its own terms while also making itself heard against the contemporary background noise of Pornhub and Fifty Shades of Grey.
That is precisely what the Anglo-American writer Allegra Huston has set out to do in her debut novel, Say My Name. Huston is an accomplished stylist, a screenwriter and former book editor who published a remarkable memoir, Love Child: A Memoir of Family Lost and Found (2009), about being the accidental daughter of Hollywood royalty — she was adopted by John Huston, the Oscar-winning film director — and the secret love-child of a British aristocrat. She has constructed her fictional tale less as the meeting of two minds and bodies (though there is also that) than as a woman’s emotional and physical reawakening after half a lifetime trapped within both a stale marriage and the limits of her own perception about who she is and what she ought to be.
The book is suffused with sensual feeling from the very first page, as Eve Federman, the protagonist, finds a beautiful but broken stringed instrument in a junk store and feels a visceral connection she cannot bear to break. The instrument is one of those impossible literary objects that requires a leap of faith on the part of the reader more than a literal reimagining of what it looks like. It is hundreds of years old, oddly shaped — like a viola da gamba but with a hint of Oriental mystery — and ornately decorated, with carvings that include a cherub’s face and vine-like tendrils dotted with jasmine flowers.
Eve is a garden designer, so she knows her flowers and their scents. (“It was the jasmine — secretive, blooming in darkness — that seduced her,” Huston writes.) The instrument also connects her with Micajah, a professional musician on the cusp of success with an unconventional rock band. They meet by chance on the streets of New York while he is out walking with his father, an old college friend of Eve’s. Micajah offers to help get the instrument restored, a pretext they use to rendezvous at a swanky private club on the Upper East Side where they play a breathtakingly sensuous game of backgammon on a board of unabashed luxury. Then, as they say, things get interesting.
Eve is 48 and keenly aware of both her aging body and the dead-end toward which her life has been heading. Micajah is 20 years her junior, beautiful and soulful beyond his years. In other hands, we could be wading into How Stella Got Her Groove Back territory. But Huston is interested in a whole lot more than an older woman getting it on with a hot younger guy. Eve is intelligent but finds herself at a loss to understand the trajectory of events before she has surrendered to them. She knows she needs to reckon with who she is, with what it means, as an empowered woman, to step out of the wreckage of a failed marriage into the arms of a man with whom there can be no meaningful future. After the meeting at the club, Eve sleeps. Huston writes, “[T]he sleep of the dead — not because she was sated from sex, but because she was emotionally exhausted by the assaults of the truth.”
Throughout, Huston constructs a delicate and compelling edifice of images, symbols, and motifs — flowers, scents, music, games, the act of artistic creation — that feed into and off each other. All of these fuel the couple’s sexual desire and are in themselves wildly, polymorphously suggestive. Huston describes the touch of a human hand on a musical instrument like a sexual act and, conversely, describes sex like the handling of a beautiful instrument.
Here is Eve allowing herself to be seduced by Micajah for the first time: “She thinks, this should not be happening. This is not my world. But it is: his tongue is running down the cords of her neck, digging into the hollows of her collarbones.” And here is Yann, an instrument restorer, inspecting her viola d’amore, as she comes to call it, with its wooden back bashed in: “His fingers slip inside the hollow. Then he buries his face in the gash, as if searching for a sign of life.”
It takes a writer of great assuredness to keep this pattern of suggestive imagery from collapsing into a succession of snigger-worthy double entendres. As if to accentuate the difference, Huston includes a scene of a work meeting at which a potential client of Eve’s, a New Jersey town council member, catches a glimpse of a dirty text from Micajah on her cell phone and splutters with laughter as he riffs about the gravel “getting laid […] on a bed of something.” The awkward comedy, which shakes Eve but does not unmoor her, only underscores Huston’s mastery of tone.
The sex scenes work in large part because they too build on the imagery that she has so carefully layered into the overall narrative. Huston is frank but does not dwell on details of anatomy — not for her D. H. Lawrence’s insistence on cocks and cunts and lovers “coming to their crisis.” Rather, she describes the most intimate moments between Eve and Micajah in terms of fire (“the blaze of him etching a path of fire inside her”), because a fire is exactly what the relationship is lighting. The sex scenes are a catalyst, and Micajah’s fire makes everything sexy, whether it’s sculpting clay, or the smell of Yann’s workshop, or tulips, which become “curvy and bulbous, with flaring petals that promise more.” Even things that disgust Eve become irresistibly sensuous: the bodily noises her husband makes in the bathroom, or the memory of a client who once forced a kiss on her with lips that she recalls as prehensile, like a camel’s.
There are aspects of Say My Name that tip into the realm of unabashed romantic fantasy: a vertiginously dramatic backdrop to Eve’s first sexual encounter with Micajah, a love song that becomes an overnight worldwide hit, a trip to Venice in full-on Grand Tour style. These elements stick out in what is otherwise a tightly disciplined narrative. Still, the point is made: there are worlds Eve could have inhabited, vistas she could have conquered, had she not squandered so much of her life as a discontented New Jersey housewife.
To Eve’s credit, she is exhilarated, not depressed, by this realization. She makes her magical musical instrument whole and, in the process, performs a similar magic on herself: she knows all along what she has with Micajah and what she does not, and she ends in a place that feels perfectly calibrated, for her and for the reader, as a woman at peace, having experienced “love without expectations or explanations, relying neither on the past nor the future.” The ultimate power of Huston’s book lies in her insight that love and happy endings do not have to depend on one another to coexist.