SEPTEMBER 2, 2015
A Piece Of Strange
Sontag once said that great writers are either husbands or lovers. Clancy Martin is both. Here, the novelist, essayist, and philosopher discusses Bad Sex.
Bad Sex is the story of sex that is a bad idea, sex that goes bad, sex that is nonetheless well done. It concerns a love affair that unfolds between a woman named Brett and a man named Eduard in a hotel owned by Brett's husband, Paul, in Central America. In the vertiginous opening pages, Brett is visited by her friend, a psychiatrist named Sadie who has “red hair” and “freckles on the bridge of her nose,” who is “slender with extraordinary legs and excellent posture” and “pretty in a way that made women hate and worship her.” We read this and thought of one of our own favorite redheads, Stephanie LaCava, who was already entranced with Bad Sex and happily agreed to interview the author, Clancy Martin, about writing and intimacy, eros and love, and the “just plain fun” of checking into fancy hotels.
I’m interested in your take on social media. I understand Instagram and Tumblr and use them——too much——myself, but as of late, I’m disenchanted with people being public about intimate moments. Even the posting of a romantic lover seems cheap, in a way. It’s also changed the way we meet lovers in the first place. What do you think?
Clancy Martin: My wife Amie and I met when she interviewed me about my first novel, How To Sell,and then we started chatting over Facebook and then email and the rest is what you’d expect. I think anyway people can communicate is good——and some ways, like Facebook or other social media, let very shy people feel safe about opening up to another person in a less frightening way than even a phone conversation. I know I’m clumsy and scared on the phone and even more so in person. So many of us are like very timid wild animals in that way.
For a long time, I refused to take personal photographs or photographs on vacation because I wanted my memory to do the work——I wanted that intimacy, that privacy, between the two of us who were traveling together or just for me alone. I have to say, I’m with you: we should emphasize the importance of intimacy, not degrade it. So much of love is that it’s just you guys: you and your partner, or you and your family, or you and your closest friends. I think culturally we’ve temporarily forgotten that, because new technologies and five minutes of Facebook fame disorient us, but I also think the pendulum is already swinging back the other way. Who doesn’t feel a bit cheap on Facebook these days? Other than when you’re just touching base. So in a way I think our ability to publicize ourselves may ultimately increase our awareness of the importance, the sacral quality, of privacy and intimacy.
Now, what about the writer? I remember when my oldest daughter was so angry with me about some of the events in Bad Sex, because she recognized them from our personal lives. She called me and said: “I can’t believe you would use our personal lives for material! Those were some of the worst things that ever happened in my life!” Well, yes, it’s true, I’ve used my life and the lives of the people I love for material, and I probably always will. Though in some ways I’m becoming more cautious and guarded over time. I don’t think a writer must be an exhibitionist. But I do think she or he has to be willing to write, as it were, in blood. So it’s hard to know which veins to open. I guess you don’t show things just for the sake of showing. That might be the difference. You show when you think you are showing something that other people might be afraid to show, but that really we all know should be shown? Maybe that’s right? Being brave about scary things? Nevertheless, some things are so sacred to me that I will never write about them in certain ways (like, my children). So it’s a tough one to figure out.
I don’t think a writer must be an exhibitionist.
But I do think she or he has to be willing to write,
as it were, in blood.
I don’t think our intimate relationships should be billboards. I think that is a lot like gigantic weddings. Everything that is precious is made less valuable, less sacred, less revered.
When I started to read Bad Sex, I was reading it as a memoir. Why did you decide to tell it from the woman’s perspective?
Clancy: Yes, it was a memoir. It was the story of one of the most difficult years of my life. I told it fictionally and from a woman’s perspective both to protect myself and to protect some other people, and because I wanted to try to understand it from as many different angles as possible. Making the narrator a woman allowed me to mix up events and roles in ways that I couldn’t in real life. So I could try to see that year through eyes other than my own. Brett is not at all me. She’s also not at all the woman I was involved with during that year. She’s both of us, and someone else altogether. She has her own problems, as well as some of my problems and stories, and also some of the problems and stories of the person I was with at that time.
And that name——a purposeful allusion to Hemingway’s gamine antiheroine in The Sun Also Rises? It’s a rare name for a woman. Of course, also loaded and funny in consideration of Hemingway’s Brett’s relationship to Jake and his impotence.
Clancy: I’ve always been fascinated by Brett from The Sun Also Rises. She’s one of the great female heroes in literature, I think, along with Medea, Clytemnestra, Diotima, Portia, Beatrice, Emma, Molly Bloom, “Lydia Davis” (whoever she is), others. I’m currently writing a novel about Medea, have been for five long years. I have a very strong, very intelligent mother. I’m married to a very strong, very intelligent woman. I’m drawn to these types.
One thing I really like about the book is how fun and quick a read it is, on one hand, and how nuanced and careful it is on the other. I think this is the ultimate goal of the writer now, to make something that’s appealing and enjoyable on different planes. This is a book for at least two kinds of readers. Does that make sense?
Clancy: Well, thank you, yes, that was my goal. I love long books——my favorite two books continue to be Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov, and I just taught Remembrance of Things Past in my Phil Lit class, God help us——but I think the books that somehow sink their talons into me in a really personal way have always been short, tight, fierce. Duras’s The Lover. Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son. The Stranger, very obviously. Hesse’s Siddhartha. Lolita. Play It As It Lays. Speedboat. Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North.
Was the use of the hotel industry within the setting a nod to the idea of transience, and also the notion of 5 à 7, and is this a doubling of the duality inherent in your work? In Love and Lies you write about how Nietzsche is honest——“honest enough to admit that he has to lie in other to create a truthfulness that captures the world as he understands it.” You also discuss how this applies to create art——many of the works that move us most are, in fact, made up.
Clancy: Yes, thank you for noticing. Of course we have this idea about affairs and hotels and the ephemeral bubble of romance and the erotic. So in that way, I thought, of course! That should be their business. A solid husband who is struggling to make the hotel business work, and failing, and a wife who’s having an affair who is literally living in hotels. Perfect. But there’s also the incredible superficiality of hotels, and how you get so weary of them, and how they never feel like home, and how they are a kind of dream you’re always chasing but never catch. I was once shown the room Michael Jackson stayed in at The Oriental in Bangkok when he was hiding out there from his sex charges (we were staying in a suite that was also way out of my price range). What struck me most about it, even though it was enormous and glamorous in it’s way, was that it was… just a big hotel room. I’ve stayed at these ten thousand dollar a night suites in Vegas, and yes, they’re just like the rooms in Get Him To The Greek (2010), but again, they’re also just hotel rooms. And so I wanted to capture some of that, while also acknowledging that of course there is something just plain fun and exciting and even spiritually exhilarating about checking into that fancy hotel.
In the same way, I guess I’ll use the Erich Fromm perspective to say that real, lasting, enduring intimacy and LOVE is antithetical to the power of eros in its mystery. While the sexual gap is bridged by an orgiastic state and coupling, it is short-lived, transient, and then we are left with the mundane made exciting for a moment by this oxytocin-induced state.
Clancy: My dad used to call it the sadness after sex. For me, it changes very much depending on my partner and the nature of the sexual experience. Sometimes there is erotic union, sometimes not. Sometimes there is just intimacy afterwards, sometimes loneliness.
Which is to say, I may divide the erotic and love too neatly in Bad Sex. I don’t think it works that way. I think they are very jumbled together. I think that’s what makes it so complicated and messy. Often we don’t know how we feel. A philosopher I admire says that at any give time we have 84,000 different emotions, and we are consciously aware of about five or ten. I think that’s right. Especially when it comes to sex and love and how they go together.
Joseph Campbell discussed the proclivity of romantics——can I say shallow romantics?——to pitch the woo to the next receptive person when the object of affection shows themselves to be real and flawed and complicated. All of this is wittled down, but still there in Bad Sex. Is that crazy to say? How do you see it?
Clancy: Yes, Joseph Campbell and especially the German Romantics provided a lot of the theory I was trying to explore. Also Erich Fromm. I’m obsessed with that bunch. I think that Campbell and Kierkegaard were right to criticize a shallow, aestheticized, ironized romanticism, an emphasis on “the interesting” or “novelty,” as somehow essential to erotic experience. In my experience, that’s obviously false——for me, at least, great erotic experience comes from ongoing discoveries with one intimate lover. And I hope Brett and Eduard and Paul show that?
I have a friend who used to say:
I need a piece of strange. Really gross, but
we know what he’s talking about.
But at the same time we’d be silly to deny the allure of mystery, of the unknown, of totally uncharted erotic territory——which of course includes undiscovered people. In a genuinely appalling phrase, I have a friend who used to say: “I need a piece of strange.” Yeah, really gross, but we know what he’s talking about.
This is part of Brett’s problem. But I think she learns——as most of us do, over time, as Johannes does by the end of The Diary of The Seducer——that eros is much deeper, much more demanding, much more spiritually resonant, I suppose, than what you can discover through a series of different people. That’s not to say that a single short affair can’t be profound, life-changing. I have another friend who had perhaps the most profound and life-changing affair of all her erotic experiences with a man she never actually had sex with, in the ordinary sense of the phrase.
How did you come to the title Bad Sex? It’s a good one.
Clancy: I wanted to get at the old, familiar, very complicated idea, discussed above, that “good sex” is “bad sex.” I wanted to emphasize the morality of sex——after all, the novel is a love story, about a sad, complicated love triangle. We writers are always trying to defend our ethical independence on aesthetic grounds. Plato called it “at Homer’s time, the already ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy.” Poets say: Beauty! And damn the moral torpedoes. Philosophers say: The truth! And with it we also get The Good. And the Romantics famously say that beauty is truth and truth is beauty, and that’s as far as we’ll get. Well, why I am fascinated with love and sex is that I think they always include all three: The Beautiful, The Good, and The True. And naturally their opposites. So, Bad Sex. I might also have called it True Love. Either way, I hope I managed to capture some of what is so beautiful and morally complicated about eros.
I see Brett as a very selfish woman, in that she doesn’t seem to be very introspective. Sure, she plays the role, moaning about how bad she is, to which Eduard replies no worse than anyone else, but she doesn’t seem to really want to understand what’s happening or even care whether it’s love that she’s after. She has moments when she seems to catch herself, but then kind of tumbles into the whole thing, and her relapse seems to be evidence of someone who’s not interested in sitting with herself and understanding her actions. Is this meant to make the reader feel less sympathetic towards her? Why do you think we are invested in her despite all of this?
Clancy: Well, Brett almost goes home at the beginning of the novel. But then fate catches her and puts her back on the plane. And then, as the storm begins, she increasingly enters a world of escape. And people who are escaping try not to think very far into the future. They also try not to think about what it is that they’re doing or desiring——they avoid what Harry Frankfurt called second-order motivations. They live in a very immediate world——like so many people do for certain periods in their lives, and like so people, such as certain Romantics and other artists, encourage us to do: “Let’s live for today.”
Being human is not as easy as we often like to pretend.
I don’t think we should feel unsympathetic towards Brett, and maybe we shouldn’t feel too much sympathy for her either (although more compassion, wherever it comes from, is probably always good). I think if a reader is, as I hope she or he will be, invested in Brett’s mess, it’s because we see that we’ve been there, or could go there, or love someone who’s been there. Brett’s territory is very, very close, in my opinion and experience, to almost anyone’s adult life. I didn’t think that when I was in my twenties——I thought just the opposite. I judged my father so harshly for the fact that he cheated on my mother. But now, in my forties, I’ve had the chance to talk to a lot more people who’ve told me a lot more love stories….
To answer this in part, what’s powerful about the beginning of Bad Sex is that it portrays very well how human and real it is to fall into an affair. There is no evil intention or premeditated destruction, rather a tumbling into this thing that then goes one of two ways…
Clancy: Yes, I think that can be exactly how it happens, in real life. You don’t want it to happen, you know it shouldn’t happen, you keep planning to stop it from happening…and suddenly you’re in the grisly thick of it. Being human is not as easy as we often like to pretend.
What do you make of the last stanza of William Blake’s The Clod and the Pebble: How do you see it applying to your work?
Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to Its delight;
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a Hell in Heaven’s despite.
Clancy: I first read Blake’s proverbs when I was fifteen and I’ve read them many, many times since. William Blake is one of my heroes. This, as you know, is a proverb of Hell. Blake has the courage, honesty and spiritual insight to tell both sides of the story. This is surely half of the story of love.
There’s also that great Louis CK skit where he tells a suffering friend to enjoy the heartbreak, as it’s something he hasn’t felt in a while. Do you know this one?
Clancy: I don’t, but it’s an incredibly profound insight. Good comedians have to understand human psychology so much better than anyone else. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the greatest Buddhist masters of the twentieth century, teaches the exact same thing: don’t suppress, fight, or even indulge your emotions. Just experience them. There they are——they are really at the very core of human life. So feel them, let them be what they are, if you can enjoy them, all the better, but even if you can’t, let yourself really embrace them all the way down. Then, so this line of thinking goes, you’ll realize you don’t have to suffer. The suffering comes from the attacking or defending.
What do you make of claims that you can’t leave one thing for another thing and not have the past weigh on the eventual outcome of the new love? In Bad Sex, Eduard and Brett worked when neither was single, than collapsed when their love became “real.”
Clancy: A great, very complicated question. I tried to show this with Brett and Eduard, and I don’t think their situation is at all unique to them. I think it’s quite common. Which is just to say that erotic relationships come in many different kinds. We are really foolish to suppose that there are only one or two kinds, or to insist that one kind is the best or most desirable. That would be like insisting there is only one kind of friendship. Love is a lot bigger than that.
Some people in open relationships say that an emotional component is vital, but also believe that one cannot fall in love, or into this ecstatic openness, with more than one person. To me, being in the same kind of love with two people seems like self-deception. What about to you?
Clancy: Oh, come on, ecstatic oneness could be had with more than one person at any given time. We are different people all the time. We are always stupidly trying to pretend that we are simpler than we are, because we like rules, and we like to be able to prescribe what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. “Morality is just the suppressed drive to cruelty,” Bertrand Russell used to say, stealing the line from Nietzsche. You don’t know who you will fall in love with, or why, or if it might happen while you’re also in love with someone else. So yes, I agree, lots and lots of self-deception.
Now, can falling in love with one person and being in love with another have devastating psychological consequences? Depends on the person. I’m not so sure it bothered Eduard. (And maybe I’m being unfair to Eduard.) But for another perspective, ask Brett.
So, what is bad sex?
Clancy: The more willing you are to fall in love and have sex, the better you’ll know. Eventually, you might decide you only want to have good sex. In which case, from my perspective: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine / I keep my eyes wide open all the time … because you’re mine / I walk the line.”
I love the line where Brett recounts flirting with the junkie’s boyfriend, “In a slightly different life, I thought, it might just as well have been this one.” And then, she talks about how she and Eduard were “imitating people at the party the way we liked to.” The latter part calls to mind this moment in a couple’s relationship where it becomes them against everyone else and they pronounce their dislike of outsiders to one another as a means of bonding closer, of feeling more and more like that singular unit. I like how you lay out these universal stages of romance in such a straightforward, easy way that one can almost miss how perceptive each line can be… Back to the former, what did you intend as the meaning? What is Brett thinking?
Clancy: You might have said it better than I can. There’s a funny moment when, at exactly the same time, you both feel like you are more intimate with this other person than with anyone else in the world——and at the very same time, you realize, but couldn’t this person have been almost anyone?! It’s a scary, disorienting, but familiar recognition.
The more I learn about my wife,
the more mysterious she becomes.
For me, it’s a bit like this: I’m so grateful to be married to my wife and to have my three daughters. But I can also understand that divorcing my first wife was a terrible mistake made by an immature, cowardly, craven younger me. Now, I can’t have both of those: either I’m glad I’m divorced so that I can have my wife Amie and my three daughters or I admit the divorce was a mistake and then I don’t get Amie and my three daughters. But both are true: I made a mistake divorcing my first wife, and I also wouldn’t change a thing. That’s being human. Contradictions all the way down——and somehow the contradictions are why life is so hard and so interesting.
Here I want to ask you about a subject that’s related, but not directly. I am interested in how we can apply the uncanny to long-term romance. What do you think of the notion that we have to make the familiar become exotic in order for it to resonate as familiar again…
Clancy: The more I learn about my wife, the more mysterious she becomes. So I think we oscillate between exoticism and familiarity. Also, over time, you change together, and that is also uncanny. It’s a bit like watching your children grow up. In one way you understand them better and better, and in other ways they just become more and more unknown….
I think we have to throw ourselves in and hope for the best. It seems to change all the time, doesn’t it? When you’re in love, erotically? “I don’t care if Monday’s blue / Tuesday’s gray and Wednesday too / Thursday I don’t care about you / it’s Friday, I’m in love.” Isn’t that just the truth? Sometimes it collapses and sometimes it doesn’t. Eduard and Brett were probably doomed from the get go——but I was open to the idea that they might surprise me.
Bad Sex, a Tyrant Book, is available in hardcover and on Kindle on September 15, 2015.