The Sex Lives of Others

Intercourse080602_560 Sam Anderson reviews Robert Olen Butler’s Intercourse, in NY Magazine:

Robert Olen Butler’s new story collection, Intercourse, is, as its title suggests, totally about doing it. It imagines the thoughts of 50 iconic couples as they knock the proverbial boots, beginning with Adam and Eve copulating on “a patch of earth cleared of thorns and thistles, a little east of Eden,” and ending with Santa Claus blowing off postholiday steam in January 2008 by doing the nasty with an 826-year-old elf in the back room of his workshop. But, as the clinical tone of Butler’s title also suggests, Intercourse is very much not a work of erotica. It tends to ignore messy fluids and crotch-logistics in favor of wordplay and psychological nuance. The book proceeds through twinned vignettes—complementary stream-of-consciousness prose-poems paired across facing pages, with the primal physical act implied in the margins between. (When you close the book, each of the couples gets pressed together.) The entire thing contains, by my count, only one legitimate orgasm—and that probably shouldn’t even qualify, since it involves Richard Nixon masturbating while thinking about his mother.

The keynote of Intercourse is not connection but distraction. Very few of Butler’s characters are what you would call “in the moment.” Many scheme for political gain: Cleopatra, for instance, services “stone-fingered” Marcus Antonius while remembering hot nights with Caesar and plotting the consolidation of her power—“the first thing I will ask of him is that he kill my sister.” Others see sex as redemptive, a chance to heal past abuses. A Mississippi slave sleeps with a fellow slave in order to cancel out her rape at the hands of the Master; the sixteenth-century Italian aristocrat Lucrezia Borgia sees the consummation of her marriage as a way to negate being raped by her father, the pope. Butler’s best vignettes create, in just a handful of lines, surprisingly rich dramatic texture. Mary Magdalene has sex with a Roman centurion under a fig tree on the day she first sees Jesus; she thinks of the mysterious holy stranger as the centurion ponders his first murder, which he committed earlier that day. Leda is insulted that Zeus, as a swan, stopped to eat barley on his way to meet her. Louis XVI hates sleeping with Marie Antoinette, who thinks of Mozart. “I would much prefer,” the king thinks, “to put my member in the forge until it is yellow-hot from the flame and then pound it on an anvil with a hammer.”

[H/t: Ruchira Paul]