How to Train your Virgin by Wednesday Black; We Love Lucy by Lilith West; God, I Don't Even Know Your Name by Andrea McGinty
by Tess Edmonson
In the spring, Badlands Unlimited, a publishing house founded by artist Paul Chan in 2010, released three new titles of erotic fiction in print and as e-books as part of a new series titled New Lovers. All volumes are written by previously unpublished authors and average about 120 pages. The first in the series, How To Train Your Virgin, by the pseudonymous Wednesday Black, takes place in a fictional landscape separated from our own by human dream space. Its queen is the book’s narrator.
There, physical laws depart from our own (the populace is immortal, and we see the bodies of its members slip mercurially between chosen and natural forms) but the organic elements that make up the book’s visual register are nonetheless recognizable: dogs, birds, eggs, trees, flowers, fields. There is a vine girl (“a willow tree made female flesh”) and a vine man (“a hoary chap with face almost entirely occluded by the vines that grow from his skin. His body is shaggy with tendrils and leaves, and at the base, the thick genitals are petrified erect”); a “Baby Garden” where trees bear “orbs made up of curled fetuses of all species—fairies and nixies and gnomes, winged piglets, bearded unicorns, toothpick-haired unicorns”; a ghost woman with a leopard’s head and an “athlete’s body” that’s “Amazonian in its hardness”; and a centaur, whose species is described as “loyal creatures, being made of the stallion’s lust and the man’s intelligence and deliberation.” And there are others. As you can imagine, these bodies are all introduced in order for them to have sex with each other. And remarkably, despite their radical structural deviation from human bodies, they somehow fall under the very human hegemony of penis-in-vagina, mutually orgasmic sex.
The novel’s plot is motivated by the narrator queen’s desire to sabotage an affair her husband, the king, is on course to pursue. The targets of his affection are two human virgins – one male, one female – and the queen tries desperately to reach them before he can, in order to take their respective virginities and, in turn, nullify their appeal. Normally, she can reach the humans during their dreamtime, though with M – the girl – her attempts are “stymied by tinctures for depression, anxiety, suffering,” which prevent uninvited nighttime visitors. Peter – the boy – “does not take pills of forgetfulness” but rather dreams nightly of his memories of an unplaced war zone where “rockets crash, women shriek under the rapine attention of beings of clotted ash and fury,” and this trauma keeps the queen at bay. However, she manages to reach the virgins when they are vulnerable – Peter when he is sick, M when under the influence of MDMA.
The prose is peppered with structural and lexical anachronisms in the vein of “I run from the Hall and through the moors to the borderlands where the Realm gives way to a sandy, bemisted void.” It has the same effect as listening to characters in fantasy movies and television shows set in ancient or alternative worlds who uniformly have British accents and a formal syntax: that someone is awkwardly trying to affect aristocratic class or status through their proximity to history and archaic usage. It seems that even in fantasy, there’s a limit to what can be imagined.
Lilith Wes’ We Love Lucy is a bit more straightforward in its ambitions. On the night of her 30th birthday, a young woman plans to have dinner and then go to a club with her best friend Nicholas, a gay man with whom she shares an emotional connection so strong that she describes their meeting as “falling in love,” and his partner, James, who she assumes, by grace of his relationship to Nicholas, is gay. Instead they end up in a threesome, and the rest of the book is mostly dedicated to descriptions of them fucking in different permutations: first Nicholas and James while Lucy watches; then all three together; then James and Lucy; and lastly, all three again. The book ends – spoiler alert –in double penetration. “My heart ached,” Lucy narrates. “I’d never felt so full.”
James, Lucy discovers, is bisexual – a perfect bridge between her and Nicholas’ previously incompatible sexual desires. For Lucy it’s the fantasy MMF relationship she never knew she wanted: she’s able to act on the romantic dynamic of her mutually supportive partnership with her gay best friend, while being attracted to the alpha male confidence – including some mild domination – of James, an experienced lover of women. This book is the most conventional of the three. Typical to a lot of mainstream female-narrated romance and erotica, it contains, early on, a kind of tepid description of the protagonist’s body, by which readers are meant to understand that she’s hot even if she doesn’t see herself that way: “I checked my phone for the time. They should be here soon, I thought, heading to the bathroom for one last check on the hair. It was behaving; long and loose like I normally wear it, the soft brown end resting between my shoulder blades. The sheer black fitted blouse hugged my small breasts and tapered down over the ample hips that are my birthright.”
Just as the difference between the first and second books in the series was the second’s increased resemblance to actual lived sexual experience, the third book – even just the fact of it taking place in the art world and that its characters have realistically poor communications skills – is likely more identifiable for Badlands’ readership. In Andrea McGinty’s God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name, a female protagonist, Eve, an American artist freshly out of rehab, tours Europe in search of respite from professional and social pressures, time to devote to her studio practice, and dick. To find the latter, she uses Bangly, a smartphone app. While one might hope that Bangly could set into motion some previously unimagined potential for sexual-social media, it’s clearly just a fictional off-brand
Tinder, facilitating sexts and hookups between globally triangulated, networked adults: “She was in thigh-high stockings, running down the streets of Vienna. She had a hookup app and a growing sense of self worth.”
There’s vaguely an overarching narrative but it’s mostly organized around a series of sexual conquests: we see Eve sleep with a Finnish curator in London; fly to Finland to participate in a remote artist’s residency outside of Espoo; travel to Helsinki to hook up with someone she met on Bangly; return to the residency to sleep with its director; take a teaching position in Munich; simultaneously fuck both a new Bangly stranger and the curator of a prominent Austrian Kunsthalle in one of its bathroom stalls; go to London with the intention of fucking the first Finnish curator only to ultimately reject him in a display of strength and self-knowledge; and then finally, have oral sex with someone she meets swimming in her London hotel’s rooftop pool while mumbling to herself the novel’s eponymous line.
Between hookups, the art-world specific elements of the narrative are by turns funny, as in Eve’s stream-of-consciousness insertions in the texts – “Are illusions worth having if they make you feel okay in the world?/Would he ever try anal?/Is sex different in Europe?/Why are men who are so good at eating pussy so bad at making coffee?/What the hell is speculative realism anyway?” – and kind of boring. Her “lowest point” is a “debilitating depression that led to erratic and self-destructive acts, like snorting coke off her gallery dealer’s cock. It wasn’t even a special occasion. It was a Tuesday.” Though this is maybe not inaccurate to the experience of certain players in the art world, it’s just too lame of a stereotype to merit parroting.
But stereotypes are endemic, and perhaps central, to mainstream erotica – sexual fantasy and a subject’s interiority do not make easy bedfellows when a text is meant to titillate rather than challenge, experiment or critique. And perhaps this is where the work of the New Lovers series gets confusing. Chan cites Olympia Press, a Parisian imprint established in 1953, as a model for Badlands. Olympia published erotic pulp fiction in order to support more radical literary endeavours, including, famously, works by Burroughs, Becket, and Nabokov. And in this model, New Lovers, I guess, is meant to be the pulp. If the books aren’t transgressive, it’s because they’re not supposed to be. If they read like a lot of self-published erotica on the Internet, it’s by design.
Chan is quick to point out, too, that Badlands’ publishers are amateurs. In an interview with ArtNews, he says that “the nice thing about what we do is we have no idea what we’re doing” and “we thought we’d give it a go” and “we’re certainly not erotic-fiction editors” and “we don’t read erotic fiction, none of us did – I barely have time to read menus at this point.”1 Just as the New Lovers series sees these publishers producing works in a genre about which they know little, all three novels rely on elements of the unknown on which to focus their subjects’ desire – perhaps all sexual fantasy does to a certain extent. It’s most obvious in How To Train Your Virgin, where we witness sex between literal aliens; We Love Lucy incorporates a straight female fetishization of gay male sex; and God, I Don’t Even Know Your Name positions its protagonist as a sort of American sexual explorer on the Continent. While sex is necessarily a potent point from which to chart discrepancies between American and European cultures, one gets the impression that McGinty uses the word “Finnish” to mean either exotic or unknowable, or deploys it in constructions as maladroit as “He could no longer hold it back and erupted like a glorious Finnish geyser”… are there geysers in Finland? A quick Google search says no.