Beautiful World, Where Are you: Part Two

The Part That Is About Sex

By Sally Rooney

ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS

I have a rule.

I call it The Ayn Rand Rule, and I came up it with years ago, after reading ‘Atlas Shrugged’. ‘Atlas Shrugged’, in case you are not familiar, is a pretty bad novel about a woman named Dagny Taggart who runs a railroad company. The book is mostly about how Dagny Taggart and other visionary business leaders are forever being stymied by the forces of consensus mediocrity. These forces cannot stand the truly excellent in their midst and are trying, by any means necessary, to basically ruin everything for everybody. However, if you have read ‘Atlas Shrugged’, you will probably remember that Dagny Taggart, who looks suspiciously like Ayn Rand herself, also spends a significant amount of time having rough sex with several tall, dark, and handsome leaders of the business community.

The out-of-context intensity of these sex scenes, Taggart’s resemblance to Rand, and the juxtaposition with the otherwise totally monotonous moralizing of ‘Atlas Shrugged’, was both poignant and absurd. That Taggart was Rand’s avatar was obvious, but what was also clear from the too-fully-imagined quality of the sex itself was that the whole thing was Rand’s personal fantasy. It felt as though she could not help but write herself into her own polemic novel in a weird, transparent sort of sexy fan-fiction.

Now, ‘Atlas Shrugged’ is quite bad, so honestly the sexy interludes are kind of the high point. But, because those scenes are so obviously Rand’s sexual fantasies, they pull you out of the flow of the story and remind you of the author herself. It is as though she had scattered naked pictures of herself throughout the book: more than you probably wanted to know.

Hence The Ayn Rand Rule: I (the Reader) should not be able to tell what gets you (the Author) off just from reading your novel. Sex is fine, but the sex should belong to the story; when the sex is clearly about what you enjoy, when I can tell just from reading it that this is your thing, you have violated the rule.

Now, I realize that I am doing Sally Rooney a huge injustice by writing about her and Ayn Rand in the same post. I feel quite sincerely bad: Rooney is entirely too good an author to have to suffer juxtaposition with Ayn Rand. I feel bad enough about it, in fact, that I wrote a whole other post about ‘Beautiful World’ last week, where I tried to keep the discussion dignified and adult and Ayn Rand-free.

But I needed to describe the Ayn Rand Rule here because, I’m sorry to say, I think Sally Rooney has broken it.

Now, one of the things that is a little tricky about the Ayn Rand Rule is that you can never really be sure that an author has broken it. You may be quite convinced that your author is getting her jollies writing a sex scene, but, unless you actually have sex with the author, you’ll never know for sure. Therefore, Rule violations are always suspected, never proven. So, yes, technically, I cannot say for sure that Sally Rooney has broken the rule, but I think that she has (technically, I can’t even be sure that Ayn Rand violated the Ayn Rand Rule, but I can live with that).

Let me show you what I mean. Here is one of the offending passages from ‘Beautiful World, Where Are You’, Rooney’s latest:

“He leaned over then and kissed her. Her head against the armrest, his tongue wet in her mouth. Passively she let him undress her, watching his hands unbutton her skirt and roll down her underwear. Reaching up under her knee, he lifted her left leg over the back of the sofa and moved her other foot down onto the floor, so her legs were spread wide open, and she was shivering. Ah, you’re being very good, he said. Shaking her head, she let out a kind of nervous laugh. Lightly with his fingers he touched her, not penetrating her yet, and she pressed her hips down into the couch and closed her eyes. He put a finger inside her then and she exhaled. Good girl, he murmured. Just relax. Gently then he pressed another finger inside her and she cried out, a high ragged cry. Shh, he said. You’re being so good. She was shaking her head again, her mouth open. If you keep talking to me like that I’m going to come, she told him. He was smiling, looking down at her. In a minute, he said. Not yet.” (p. 162)

This type of benignly patriarchal sex, this whimpering ‘Good Girl’ sex, appears several times throughout the book. It is very consistent, and very specific. And since Rooney’s writing is spare, the intensity of these scenes stands out. In some way that is hard to define, Rooney’s characters are more immediate, more tangible, when they are having this kind of sex than they are when they are fighting, talking, emoting, or having other kinds of sex. This is the most vivid they get.

Which automatically suggests an Ayn Rand Rule violation. When sex scenes are the most vivid part of a novel, that’s usually because they are the part which has been most thoroughly imagined by the author. And when the sex in question is distinctive in some way, it feels as though the author has devoted more time to imagining that particular sex than was strictly required by the needs of the work.

OK, so, fine, who cares?

Sally Rooney

I care. Frankly, I care because it makes me uncomfortable.

Now, I’m not uncomfortable with sex in novels. On the contrary, I love sex in novels: I seek it out, in the same way I seek out movies with nudity, because it’s sexy. But when the sex feels more salient than the rest of the work, when it vibrates on a different intensity than the rest of the novel, when I start to feel that the sex is personal for the author, I stop being able to focus on the story and start feeling intruded on by the writer.

It is a minor sin, all things considered. Authors are usually more vivid when describing their personal experiences, that’s normal, and sex, which often intense in life, is usually also intense in fiction. And, while sex has featured heavily in all of Rooney’s novels, this is the first time she’s given me that unpleasant feeling of learning too much, and I am not inclined to hold it against her.

But, it is also going to be one the things I remember mostly clearly about this work. It was absolutely the thing I most wanted to write about. I wrote two posts on ‘Beautiful World’ because I believed that it, and Rooney, deserved more discussion than just an analysis of some sex scenes, but the sex scenes really affected my experience of the book.

That’s the real risk of violating the Ayn Rand Rule: you can completely change the way the book is experienced by the reader. What should be experienced as a work of fiction suddenly swerves and starts to feel like a sexual disclosure by the author. If that’s the intention, it’s all well and good, but in most cases, it’s probably not what the author really wanted. And, at least for me, it’s not what the reader wanted, either.

The Inheritance Trilogy

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The Broken Kingdom

The Kingdom of Gods

By N.K. Jemison

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Did you read ‘The Broken Earth‘ novels? Did you love them? Do you want to read more books exactly like that, only 25% less good and waaaaay sexier?

Then have I got the books for you! Let me introduce you to ‘The Inheritance Trilogy‘, which are just like the ‘Broken Earth’ novels if N.K. Jemison spent slightly less time world-building and a lot more time describing what it might be like to have sex with a god (spoiler alert: it’s great, if you survive).

The Inheritance Trilogy‘ is a trio of novels (and an appended novella, which I am basically going to ignore) set in a world where the gods walk among mortals. Originally, there were two gods: Itempas, god of light, and Nahadoth, god of darkness. Then, out of the Maelstrom, was born Enefu, goddess of life, and the Three built the world, populating it with humanity and various godlings. However, one day Itempas grew jealous of the love between Nahadoth and Enefu – he struck Enefu down, and imprisoned Nahadoth and all of his offspring who defended him. He gave control of the chains binding these gods to a mortal family who supported him, the Arameri, who now govern the Thousand Kingdoms.

The three novels of this trilogy follow the events of this world: the freeing of the bound gods and the humbling of Itempas, the discovery of demons (human offspring of gods and mortals), and the downfall of the Arameri. Each novel takes a different protagonist, but the cast of immortals remains largely the same.

And before I go any further, let me say this: I know that my introduction was a little unfair. N.K. Jemison is a monster of imagination, and she hasn’t actually skimped on the world-building in ‘The Inheritance Trilogy‘. There is more originality on any single page of these books than most authors will produce in a lifetime of effort, and I flew through them the way you only do when you’re in the hands of a master of plot.

But they truly aren’t as good as ‘The Broken Earth Trilogy‘. Which, whatever: the ‘Broken Earth’ books are maybe the best fantasy books I’ve read in…a decade? They were magnificent, so “less good than” ‘Broken Earth’ isn’t really a condemnation – most books are less good than ‘Broken Earth’, in my opinion. But, as of right now, these two trilogies are the only two things I’ve read by Jemison, and, yeah, the ‘Inheritance’ books are less good.

And they are sexier. A lot sexier. Which doesn’t make them bad, certainly, and Lord knows I love sexy reading as much as the next reader (actually, if we’re being honest, I probably love sexy reading a lot more than most readers of the Literature section, but a lot less than most readers of Sci Fi/Fantasy). But every reader has a line where sexy becomes silly, and, for me, the sex in ‘The Inheritance Trilogy‘ just stomped past that line.

“Hands seized me.

I do not say his hands because there were too many of them, gripping my arms and grasping my hips and tangling in my hair…

Then we fed each other’s hunger. Wherever I wanted to be touched, he touched; I don’t know how he knew. Whenever I touched him, there was a delay. I would cup emptiness before it became a smooth muscled arm. I would wrap my legs around nothing and only then find hips settled there, taut with ready energy. In this way I shaped him, making him suit my fantasies; in this way he chose to be shaped. When heavy, thick warmth pushed into me, I had no idea whether this was a penis or some entirely different phallus that only gods possessed. I suspect the latter, since no mere penis can fill a woman’s body the way he filled mine. Size had nothing to do with it. This time he let me scream.” (p. 301)

I’m sorry, I know we’re all supposed to be very mature about sex and everything, but this is ludicrous. “No mere penis…”, come on now. And the quote I have selected above is the restrained part – I have spared you all the the section where the narrator is driven skyward in sexual bliss and touches the fabric of the universe.

And, OK, I don’t want to get too hung up on the sex, because really these are super fun books set in a super interesting world where super absorbing problems are playing out, and that’s what really matters, but the sex stuff is a problem for me! Because it’s bad, it’s over-written, it’s too breathy and intense.

And it violates my Ayn Rand Rule.

The Ayn Rand Rule is named, obviously, for the nutball author of ‘Atlas Shrugged’. If you have heard of ‘Atlas Shrugged’, you will probably have heard that it is a long, libertarian screed. What you may not have heard is that the short, feisty, Ayn Rand-esque main character spends a lot of the book getting absolutely railed by tall, dark, handsome captains of industry. And what you don’t know unless you’ve actually subjected yourself to that endless nightmare of a book is that those fantastical sexual interludes are obviously and mortifyingly about Ayn Rand. She’s clearly writing her own fantasies, and it’s repellently prurient: too personal, like peering through a window into her brain while she masturbates.

So, the Ayn Rand Rule: never give your reader a reason to suspect that the sex scenes you write are about you (looking at you, Jonathan Franzen). It’s too much information, it takes them out of the story and draws their attention to you. And sentences like, “No mere penis can fill a woman’s body the way he filled mine” violate the Ayn Rand Rule. When I read that sentence, I’m not thinking about N.K. Jemison’s novel – I’m thinking about how N.K. Jemison’s partner felt when they read that sentence (inadequate, surely).

N.K. Jemison

I know that it’s stupid to object to an engrossing trilogy of fantasy novels because the sex is silly. It certainly feels like an injustice to N.K. Jemison, who I admire and whose work I genuinely love. And, though deeply, deeply ridiculous (no innuendo intended), the sex wouldn’t keep me from recommending these books to anyone who loves a good fantasy novel – they are a great read.

But this is my space to talk about books, and the truth is that the thing I will remember best about ‘The Inheritance Trilogy‘ isn’t the plot, and it isn’t the characters, and it isn’t the beautiful, well-drawn world.

It’s the phrase, “No mere penis”.