THE UNBEARABLES BIG BOOK OF SEX , edited by Ron Kolm, Carol Wierzbicki, Jim Feast, Steve Dalachinsky, Yuko Otomo and Shalom Neuman. Unbearable Books/ Autonomedia. 2011. 640 pps. $18.95.
First, to dispense with the obvious: THE UNBEARABLES BIG BOOK OF SEX is not a stroke book. To be sure, you (or the grubby inner adolescent of you) will find, inevitably, a sprinkling of verifiable “dirty parts” (as a time-saving service, we refer you to pgs. 156, 165, 431 and 485). But savvy readers, looking past the book’s formal category as “erotica,” will surmise that the words “Unbearables” and “sex” appearing in the same title will more than likely yield, for the most part, a bumptuous pageant of squalid missed connections, subliminal-to-outright multigendered abuse, delusional gambits of seduction and, overall, a Cook’s tour of carnal dysfunction in its myriad sordid forms. And, of course, they will be right.
The volume under review is the latest in a series of “big book” anthologies squired by the band of convivial literary incendiaries who call themselves “The Unbearables” — presumably after the classic novel by Milan Kundera. Like the other collections, this one includes several score contributors, many recurring from previous compendia, that include a few marquee names (Delaney, Malanga, Kostelanetz, Litzky), as well as familiar figures from New York’s alternative lit scene and sundry more from God knows where. Entries span most conceivable genres: fiction, memoir, poetry and criticism, as well as a lush center insert of visual art, which seems to favor the porno-collagiste.
(And, speaking of the “p” versus the “e” word, let’s take the opportunity to settle that interminable debate once and for all: “Erotica” is porno you want your girlfriend to look at.)
What there is in these pages that is unabashedly celebratory of the sex act is to be found largely (and perhaps predictably, as these things go) in the poetry section (Anyssa Kim, Dan Waber, Terri Carrion). Elsewhere, mostly in the fiction and memoir selections, the most consistent note is a kind of prolonged stammer in the face of the most primal and confounding of human acts, that rare force — built by nature for literal creation, yet all too often giving birth to vertiginous flameout — putting all too many writers at an exceptional and agonized loss for words.
(Here too there are notable exceptions — viz Steve Cannon, John Farris, Doug Nufer — sicko and funny burlesques that evoke the haute, screwy lyricisms of the classic Olympia Readers and the Grove Press’ Black Cat erotica series.)
By contrast, the Unbearables previous Big Book, The Worst Book I Ever Read, scans like one unbroken, bubbling gabfest. Not hard to reason why. That work, calling on contributors to riff on the worst book they ever read (title says it all), was as much as anything a series of deliberate meditations on the ritual of reading and the book as artifact, a purposefully designed action and object of mediation between gentle reader and the raw hellishness of life as lived, which is exactly why we read them and write them. The result was a license for more-or-less relaxed fun, and even in its darker pages (and, as an Unbearables enterprise, there were plenty of those) it made a more-or-less relaxed, fun book;
Much less so in this collection, a full-body, multiple immersion into exactly that raw hellishness of life as lived, as only the savage caprices of sapien sexuality can make it. See, as near-random examples, Jill Rapaport’s slumming anomie, Penny Arcade’s flaking marriage, Dave Mandl’s low strip club farce, Anne Hanavan’s faux-cop ‘ho troll, L.Z. Hansen’s pervo bomb underneath the trysting couch…
No, not pretty or abundantly sexy, or always eloquent, or even coherent. But, if nothing else, credit THE UNBEARABLES BIG BOOK OF SEX with holding up a creditable mirror to our fucked up erogenous nature. What it loses in prurience it makes up for in an unsparingly illuminative honesty. Are you turned on yet?