Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Coal In Your Lubricated Stocking

Naughty or Nice, by Eric Jerome Dickey, Read by Various, Books on Tape, Inc., 2003

A few years ago I went to see a group of women porn writers who traveled under the group name of Gynomite. The reading illustrated a point I want to be somewhat cautious in making: it is very difficult to read erotica or porn in a non-intimate setting, unpersonally, and have it be effective. Under the right circumstances, with the perfect reader of the most electrifying prose, it is theoretically possible for the work to be arousing publicly, but generally speaking, no. There is a reason why pornography has been so successful online — it requires no public consideration, purchase, or consumption.

Eric Jerome Dickey, apparently a New York Times bestseller, writes very bad erotic fiction. I mention the sales issue because it takes only a million copies sold to hit the NYT list and with a population of going on 300 million, getting .0033 percent of the population to buy your book is less impressive than it sounds. Compounding Dickey’s abominable writing is the grand delusion he is under that he is capable of writing believable female characters. And the cherry on top, so to speak, is that the holiday-themed Naughty or Nice tells three sisters’ tales and each of them has her turn at the mic.

Livvy’s husband Tony has been served with paternity papers from his mistress, so Livvy hooks up with a man she meets online, one who claims to have been betrayed by his wife, and they fuck. Frankie, the oldest sister, advertises online to find a man to fuck. And Tommie, who was last in an abusive relationship, wants to get over it so she can fuck the guy who lives across the street. The McBroom sisters have one thing in mind: fucking. Just in case you didn’t catch that point.

This is a bad book, and I could tell from the first disc that by the last disc I’d be ready to slit my wrists. The obsession with sex the characters have is juvenile. It was the same feeling I had while watching the box set of a season’s worth of episodes of Sex & The City. The constricted worldview, everything refracted through the get your groove on mindset, makes for a tedious and claustrophobic novel. When the book’s characters do consider other topics (Kwanzaa and their dead mother) it is merely an unconvincing gloss on those subjects. When ninety percent of a book is about getting sex, having sex, not having sex, other people’s sex, sex becomes rapidly dull, the erotic equivalent of watching two dogs hump. A good book focusing on sex should use the act like spare punctuation, offsetting it with the rest of the world in order to highlight its attractions.

When Dickey does get down and dirty, it’s curiously not down and dirty. During the sex acts, his language goes so euphemistic describing a “hardness,” a “heat,” a “growth,” and funniest of all “him” or “himself” as though there were a small man down in the pants looking to do a little spelunking. The moment sex is over, the right words just seem to show up on time. In non-coitus moments, such as naked men crossing rooms to dim lights, look out windows, and/or show off their chiseled physiques, suddenly cocks, dicks, and penises are everywhere to be had. His vocabulary for female genitalia is smaller, relegated to “pussy” and “vagina,” the former for the hot parts and the latter for warming up. Personally, I just don't understand “vagina” making the grade for erotica; there’s something so clinical about it.

And the sex scenes are bad with occasional glimpses of the possibility of the existence of a sliver of hotness. On their first date, which ends with them at a hotel, Livvy and her new man, Carpe (his Internet handle), have sex all night after having been out dancing. One small note: sucking toes after lots of dancing = dissssssssguuuuussssssstinnnnng; sucking toes after bath = erotic. I’m sorry, but sweaty toe jam feet are not conducive to a good time for all. Then there was this line as Carpe kissed his way up Livvy’s legs and hips: “This was awesome. He was going to eat his way to China.” Gack! That phrasing has put me off cunnilingus for damn near life.

This first sex scene moves quite eagerly to the man’s orgasm, then Livvy’s considerably later orgasm is relegated to this vague “other side of pleasure” vocabulary. It’s the weakness of men writing women characters that this kind of horrible scribbling acts as a blatant giveaway. “His release? Damn, so hot. Again, leg trembled, back arched, saw a thousand flickering stars, soared on the wings of an angel.” Wrote his name on your notebook? The writing is corny and cliched and demonstrates patently male concerns, such as size: “A woman always hoped a man wore Magnum.” Hmmm. Despite years of women assuring men that Long Dong Silver wasn’t their ideal, men still persist deluding themselves otherwise. Perhaps an author whose surname is diminutive for Dick might have deeper issues here.

Then, most disturbing, when Tommie is over at her neighbor Blue’s house, they kiss for two hours long, interrupted by the waking of Blue’s four-year-old daughter, Monica, who has to go to the bathroom. Tommie takes her, wipes her poopy butt, then as Monica pulls up her panties, Tommie thinks how exciting it will be when Blue does that to her (Tommie) but in reverse, i.e., pulls Tommie’s panties down. Yes, it really is written in that indirect a fashion, as though Dickey on some level understood he was saying something unacceptable.

There may be people whose minds, with the odor of children’s feces still in the air, turn to erotic longings, but generally there are not novels written in which they are sympathetic characters. You usually don't root for them to end up with the single parent character. This is a male writer trying desperately to cram longing into every page of his book despite appropriateness, resemblance to reality, or necessity.

These sisters all are the facets of one man’s personality, badly drawn women (as is usual in men’s fiction depicting women), who act how women act in men’s fantasies. When Livvy and Carpe try getting crazy and going to a stripclub, Livvy ends up having a threesome with Carpe and a stripper named Panther. Right. Because everyone knows the cure for a broken heart is unbridled sexual experimentation. I won’t say such things don’t happen, just that they’re rarer than Dickey would wish.

The bad writing, of course, isn’t just limited to the awkward sexual longings in the toilet and euphemistic hardnesses thrusting into vaginas, there are many other instances that come into play. The McBroom sisters use the term “fugly” often. Frankie says, “fugly, that’s one of our family phrases.” Apart from single words not constituting phrases, per se, let me just tell them that the secret’s out, dearies. Google hits for the word “fugly” count 176,000 and that includes,, and Apparently your “phrase” is catching on.

Then the characters, when they talk dirty talk, refer to this way: “I lost it. Said so many pornographic things.” Something about someone describing what they said as “pornographic” just sounds oddly technical, like using "vagina" in hot sex action. Metaphors are strained like the latex on a Magnum: “My stomach started rocking like the Riverboat Queen in a typhoon with no Dramamine in sight.” Okaaaaay. Unspoken things that people tiptoe around in this novel aren’t merely elephants in the room, they’re “our pink elephants” and they’re never in any rooms to speak of. The actual heavy drinking that precedes these roseate pachyderms doesn’t ever occur, so I wonder where they got that term. Livvy, frustrated at not being able to get her luggage out of the overhead rack on a plane, says that she mutters something “incomprehensible.” Really, even to herself?

Then there are the things that just don’t compute, things that just don’t fit together. Poets hanging out a Starbucks and driving “high end cars.” What kind of poets make enough to drive high end cars? Is there some secret poet magazine club where you’re paid thousands per line? If so, I personally know of two poets who’d be down with that. And Livvy has a distressing tendency to break cell phones in half when she’s upset. I’ve never heard of such actions, but apparently Dickey’s characters know of only one way to handle bad news by cellphone. Ah, to be rich and psychotic.

At the novel’s end, we are treated to this kernel of wisdom attached to pointless pop reference:

I remembered a moment I’d had. It was a while ago when I was watching this movie, Frieda. In it, one of the cynical female characters said that marriage was a happy delusional, that it was about picking who you wanted to irritate the rest of your life. That was bullshit. Mama knew. It was about picking who you wanted to love the rest of your life.

Thank god we got that cleared up. This hard-won wisdom will definitely make things run smoother around my house.

The three readers are of varying levels of good to bad. Tommie is the perhaps the worst read; she reads in that “I have such a breathy voice, don’t I? Don’t you love it? Aren’t I turning you on?” diction despite the fact that her character is supposed to be frightened of sex and men due to an abusive relationship. She also has a tin ear for emotional dialogue. When Tommie tells Blue about a friend of hers, dead from AIDS, she reads his response “Wo-ooowww” like someone just made a good jumpshot rather than a soft “Wow” like someone laid devastating news on you. The reader of Livvy is the best, comfortable in what she’s doing without over-performing it, unselfconscious of her voice. The reader of Frankie inhabits the crude shallowness of this character that makes her grating and bitchy; it’s successful as acting, but it made me cringe every time her turn at narrating came up.

Which brings me back to my original point. As a rule, my guess would be that audio erotica doesn’t work that well. It sounds like it might, the success of phone-sex operations is strong evidence in its favor, but, as I’ve suggested in other reviews, the listening of audiobooks is primarily a semi-public action. You listen while you’re driving or while you’re doing something else; rarely do you sit quite still in one room of your house and listen, concentrating and focused solely on the book. And erotica, like sex, really cries out for your undivided attention.

But not this book.

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