Let’s get one thing out of the way up front — this is not erotica. Despite what the title implies, most of the sex in this book is no more plentiful or explicit than many “regular” novels I’ve read. In more than one instance, the sex relies too much on violence, and unless you get off on that, there is little satisfying material.
By deeming the stories “politically inspired,” I suppose the argument could be made that each story explore the way in which the last Bush administration did seem to get off on violence, and how that encouraged some parts of the country to vocally agree. However, just because the US has been at war since 2001 does not mean I enjoyed reading about it as sexual allegory. Stories like “Escape and Evasion” by Anthony Swofford, in which a solider begins drugging and raping his fellow troops, have little to do with what I would consider erotica. Even within the S&M subset, there is implied consent. “Escape and Evasion” is little more than brutality and mental illness. While short stories deal with those theme all the time, my issue is with its inclusion in this particular book. Rape fantasies are not hot; I don’t care who you are.
The problem is, Elliott’s selections are not compatible with one another. A loose political theme does not a tidy collection make. A funny story about sleeping with Dick Cheney (“Li’l Dickens” by Jerry Stahl) is incongruous with a sexless letter regarding a lesbian breakup ( “Undone” by Daphne Gottlieb).
I did not mean to sodomize Dick Cheney.
I mean, I’m not even gay. Or not usually. But when, to my surprise, I bumped into him — literally — at the counter of Heimler’s Guns and Ammo, in Caspar, something clicked. And I’m not talking about the safety on my Mauser.
— “Li’l Dickens”
The truth is, I was never married. But I have been divorced. Even though all I can correctly say is, “We split up.” If I had said “divorced,” maybe co-workers would have looked at me differently when I crept in late to work, red-eyed and suddenly stumbling, heaving-chested to the bathroom.
“Measure A, B, or Me?” by Alison Tyler and “The Canidate’s Wife” by James Frey are some of the few stories that contain what I would expect from politically-inspired erotica. In “The Canidate’s Wife” is your standard “mysterious woman in a bar” story, but it works quite well. “Measure A, B, or Me?” has a couple working the phones for a Democratic canidate, and they begin to imagine how a split-party household might try to convince the other side to vote their way.
However, my favorite story in the collection is Nick Flynn’s “A Crystal Formed Entirely of Holes.” Set in an alternate late-00s, people discover that they can have “crystals” implanted in their bodies, replacing that particular area of skin. These crystals act as new pleasure centers when touched, and soon people forming addictions to having new holes punched.
A crystal formed entirely of holes. You couldn’t hold it in your hands, but its mass could be measured by how much air it displaced, by the way light passed through it.
While the frisky business is not even all that present, it’s still a damn good story. See, it’s not as though I picked up this book, thinking, “Yes! I’m going to read me some erotica!” No, I had heard of many of the authors and was intrigued by the supposed theme, and I expected to stay more interested. Whether there is lots of flesh or not, I want to be interested. Nick Flynn wrote something interesting.
Look, if a book has “Sex” in the title, I don’t want to be bored. And while I was not always bored, and a couple of the stories were indeed a bit hot, this collection was mostly a miss for me.
Full disclosure: I received this book when I made a donation to The Rumpus, which was founded by Stephen Elliott. I’d like to say I donate purely out of the goodness of my heart, but it’s also hard to resist the siren call of “Hey, here’s [this] if you do!”