15 December 2004

Bad sex

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:39 am

The Literary Review‘s annual “Bad Sex in Fiction” prize has been announced, and the winner is Tom Wolfe for I am Charlotte Simmons. Here is an extract:

Hoyt began moving his lips as if he were trying to suck the ice cream off the top of a cone without using his teeth. She tried to make her lips move in sync with his. The next thing she knew, Hoyt had put his hand sort of under her thigh and hoisted her leg up over his thigh. What was she to do? Was this the point she should say, “Stop!”? No, she shouldn’t put it that way. It would be much cooler to say, “No, Hoyt,” in an even voice, the way you would talk to a dog that insists on begging at the table.

Slither slither slither slither went the tongue, but the hand that was what she tried to concentrate on, the hand, since it has the entire terrain of her torso to explore and not just the otorhinolaryngological caverns—oh God, it was not just at the border where the flesh of the breast joins the pectoral sheath of the chest—no, the hand was cupping her entire right—Now! She must say “No, Hoyt” and talk to him like a dog…

…the fingers went under the elastic of the panties moan moan moan moan moan went Hoyt as he slithered slithered slithered slithered and caress caress caress caress went the fingers until they must be only eighths of inches from the border of her pubic hair—what’s that!—Her panties were so wet down… there—the fingers had definitely reached the outer stand of the field of pubic hair and would soon plunge into the wet mess that was waiting right… there—there—

Now, I think Wolfe is clearly putting us on here: his descriptions of sex are deliberately clumsy, heavy-handed, ill-advised—in short, as gleefully bad as real-life college sex can be. And at least it’s readable—unlike many of the other entries, which are unbearably florid, read like instruction manuals, or involve actual cows. So I would say that while Charlotte Simmons may include the best “bad sex” writing, it’s a far cry from the worst sex writing in fiction.

It’s hard to write about sex—but you always want to, you can’t help yourself. You want to be the first person to write well about sex, but of course you’re not, it’s pure hubris, and disastrous as always. My worst ever sex writing was this, from Nomad, which was actually published (parental advisory—duh):

They were kissing. Lips. Teeth. Tongue. Words darted around his head, triggered like the nerves that were firing all over his body. Metallic tang of saliva. Muscles struggling to be free. Fragments, images: everything had become narration. Her mouth detached from his and sank down to his—what? Penis. Prick. Cock. Whang. So many words; a thesaurus. Some guys had pet names for theirs. One-eyed Jack. Old Feller. Clovis….

She sat back on the rug and let her legs fall outward. He knelt on the ground, held her around the thighs and slipped his tongue into the cleft of her—this was even harder. This wasn’t even his: he didn’t know how to name it, couldn’t think about it without a name. Not a vagina, medical, clinical, cold. Too warm for a vagina; too warm and wet. Too definite for abstracts like her womanhood, her sex. Too real. Not a pussy, stupid word, insulting. By no means a steaming damp slice of chocolate love cake. Perhaps a cunt, base word, no beating around the bush: frank, brutal, but at least not coy. Call a cunt a cunt. Break the taboo, diffuse its power. Right on. But these were all his words, English words: she might know them, but privately she would use her own. For something so intimate she would surely think in Finnish, or possibly Swedish, the other official language. She would probably even contemplate him with the same vocabulary, he realised. Sex had no single language. He had been transformed again. What was once his dick had become something else, something he couldn’t even pronounce, bursting with umlauts and double consonants.

It goes on, but I can’t… I mean, you can see what I was trying to do—can’t you? Trying to write about sex while at the same time writing about writing about sex, and how difficult it is… plus, I was like 20. I think I’ve got better since then, and realised what everybody else probably knew all along: being clever won’t get you anywhere, the mechanics aren’t really important, you don’t have to bang on and on, and a quick game is a good game. (This is all about writing, stop being smart.)

14 December 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 2:52 pm

bloodbeach.jpgOnce again, it looks like the comic books were right after all. Scientists have finally worked out how to make dry quicksand, and even concede that it could happen in naturally in deserts and such. Formerly, the only kind of quicksand with any kind of empirical support was the “wet” variety, which is frankly a bit of a disappointment. It’s never very deep, and it’s actually denser than you, so you can easily float in it if you keep your head. Compare this to dry quicksand:

To see how the dry quicksand behaved, the researchers suspended a ping-pong ball partly filled with bronze grains above the pit. They then burnt through the thin rope holding the ball. To their surprise, it disappeared beneath the sand instantaneously. Though the expected splash did not happen, a more dramatic effect was seen. “A straight jet of sand shot violently into the air after about 100 milliseconds,” the team writes in the journal Nature today.

Not only does dry quicksand swallow you whole in a moment, it shoots up a straight geyser of itself, like an evil mineral belch! Now that is some serious sand. I’m definitely going to use this, somehow. You mark my words.

The team behind Blood Beach—which always fascinated me in the video shop but which I never saw—may have been thinking of conventional “wet” quicksand, though it displays many of the properties of dry quicksand (for example, it looks dry). Maybe they were visionaries and seers.

9 December 2004


by Matt Rubinstein at 11:40 am

I think this correction from the New York Times deserves a wider audience. Now that’s a correction worth reading—a far cry from the mealy-mouthed versions we get in our papers, which suggest that nobody was at fault and whoever complained about the mistake was a crybaby or an “elite” anyway:

An editorial published on Saturday about the proposal to build a football stadium on the far West Side of Manhattan suffered from a geographic malapropism in a reference to the New York subway. The line proposed for the East Side is known as the Second Avenue line, not the No. 2 line. The No. 2 line runs up the West Side of Manhattan, as it has for, oh, 100 years. We not only approve of its existence—we applaud it. Some of us even ride it.

8 December 2004

Missy Higgins: lesbian?

by Matt Rubinstein at 10:42 am

missy.jpgFirst let me say that I don’t know and I don’t care. I’m never going to be in a position where it’s going to make any difference; and, let’s face it, in all likelihood neither are you. Maybe you don’t care either. But it seems we’re alone on the Internet: for the second month in a row, the search phrase “missy higgins lesbian” tops the list of search phrases used to get here, edging out even “hilary duffs boobs”, “hilary duffs measurements”, “hilary duffs manslaughter”, and “watermelon connotations”.

I’m not sure how this happened. I have made brief reference to Missy Higgins and also to lesbians. And admittedly I have called attention to the strange popularity of the search term that combines those two subjects. But I’ve never presumed to inquire as to whether, in fact, Missy Higgins is a lesbian—until now. Now, in the interests of attracting more traffic, and of ensuring that everyone who takes the time to visit this site goes away with at least something, let’s have a look at the evidence.

1. Lyrics

Ms Higgins’s ubiquitous smash Scar, which I still like after having heard a lot, contains the following verses (the bridge and chorus are omitted as apparently irrelevant to the question of Ms Higgins’s lesbianism):

He left a card, a bar of soap,
And a scrubbing brush next to a note that said
“Use this, down to your bones.”
And before I knew, I had shiny skin
And it felt easy being clean like him,
I thought “This one knows better than I do.”

So the next one came with a bag of treats,
She smelt like sugar and spoke like the sea.
She told me “Don’t trust them, trust me.”
Then she pulled in my stitches one by one,
Looked at my insides clicking her tongue and said
“This will all have to come undone.”

Now, alert readers will have noticed that the predominant third-person pronoun in the first verse is different from the predominant third-person pronoun in the second verse. The first is a “he”, the second a “she”—and yet both seem by clear implication to have had an intimate relationship with the singer. What is the prurient listener to think?

First, let’s agree that singers don’t always and without exception sing as themselves; sometimes they make stuff up. For example, contemporary meteorological and ballistic records confirm that Mick Jagger was not born in a “crossfire hurricane”; and any decent biography will tell you that he was raised by Joe and Eva Jagger of Dartford, Kent, and not by “a toothless bearded hag” (or even by “two lesbians”). Similarly, Elton John is not in fact a “rocket man” and has never even been to space (though David Bowie might have); and Nick Cave has not murdered nearly as many people as his songs might suggest.

So, while the putative narrator of Scar might be bisexual, or formerly heterosexual but now a committed lesbian, that doesn’t mean Missy Higgins is: she might just be singing as someone who is. She might even be singing as two different people, like in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying or (to a lesser extent) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction—though that might be complicating things unnecessarily.

Of course, novels adopt “fake” narrative voices all the time—nobody thinks that Tom Wolfe really is “Charlotte Simmons”, even though he tells us he is—and songs are much more often seen as at least partly autobiographical, which is why singers usually change all the sexes in cover versions of songs originally sung by people of the opposite sex—unless they’re Tori Amos. But we’re going to have to call this inconclusive.

2. Lesbians on the Loose

The October 2004 edition of this Sydney monthly features an interview with Missy Higgins, in which she talks entirely about subjects related to her music. LOTL often features articles about musicians who are not lesbians, because apparently lesbians are able to enjoy music written and performed by non-lesbians.

3. Some guy on a forum

…reckons he heard an interview with Missy Higgins on a Melbourne radio station in which she did talk about whether she liked men and/or women. However, I didn’t hear the interview, and guys on forums obviously say a lot of things. Some other guy in a newsgroup calls her a “lesbian bitch from St Kilda”, presumably because she wouldn’t sleep with him despite the inexplicable sense of entitlement felt by guys in newsgroups.

I hope this has been helpful for everybody. Next week—Missy Higgins: from St Kilda?

Update: most of the comments on this post have been moved here. They’re well worth reading.

3 December 2004

Polly, Polly, Polly

by Matt Rubinstein at 1:16 pm

pj.jpgI caught PJ Harvey at the Enmore last night and am still kind of reeling, not just from tinnitus. She was awesome beyond words; if you can make it to tonight’s Hordern gig I would certainly recommend it (though it won’t be as good, just because it’s a big tin shed).

Chrissie Hynde’s famous advice to chick rockers includes the following:

Don’t think that sticking your boobs out and trying to look f—able will help. Remember you’re in a rock and roll band. It’s not “f— me,” it’s “f— you”! [Dashes in the original and reprinted for authenticity, not to suggest that it isn’t cool or clever to swear.]

But Polly Jean shows that you don’t always have to decide. The way she sings, and carries on on stage—she’s got this defiant vulnerability, this disdainful need, that’s impossible not to respond to. She even has a song that goes “Fuck fuck fuck you”, which everybody loved. We all loved her—not just because she’s the hottest person ever (apart from you, of course, Loyal Reader) but because she just rocked in every sense. One overheated guy even yelled out “You’re the Pope!” which was kind of weird but perhaps as good a summary as any.

1 December 2004

Turnbull vs Ridgeway

by Matt Rubinstein at 8:52 am

Well, that’s a bit misleading—of course there’s no actual stoush between the new Member for “Blue-Ribbon” Wentworth (and dedicated blogger) and the outgoing Senator for Sydney. But Alan Ramsey has cleverly juxtaposed their fortunes in their respective chambers on Monday. Turnbull’s maiden speech, about waves, ducks, and Lucy, was reported like Princess Di winning Australian Idol. Ridgeway’s attempts to raise some interest in the Aboriginal death in custody and subsequent riot on Palm Island, as an example of the continuing problems between Aborigines and the police, got nowhere. Ramsey says:

In the riot that followed last week’s autopsy report, Palm Island’s 14 police, “fearing for their lives”, fled as rioters torched the police barracks, the jail and the local courthouse. “Special emergency response” police in balaclavas and with “stun” guns flew to Palm Island last Friday and “restored order”. Eighteen Palm Island men appeared in court in Townsville two days ago on various charges, including arson, assault and “going armed to cause fear”.

That day, in Canberra, Malcolm Turnbull made his maiden parliamentary speech and Aden Ridgeway asked his Senate question, while in Brisbane the State Coroner’s office announced a second “independent” autopsy on Doomadgee’s body. You read nothing of this yesterday, though listeners to London’s BBC world service were told of the “17 men and a 14-year-old boy who appeared in court in Australia’s Queensland state, charged in connection with a violent protest on Friday following the death of an Aboriginal man in police custody”.

Today, in the Senate, Ridgeway will give notice seeking an urgency debate on the issue. He might get somewhere if his name was Turnbull.

But surely this is backwards. If Aden Ridgeway’s urgency debate wanted to confirm just how terrific things are in Sydney’s green hills and golden beaches—then he might get somewhere. Sure, Sydney loves Malcolm Turnbull, as long as he’s stuffing teddybears and pandering to dog-owners. But if his maiden speech had touched on the continuing shame of race relations in this country, he might soon find himself exactly where Ridgeway will be next July.