Lucy and Todd

Archive for November, 2016|Monthly archive page

Philippe Brenot/Laetitia Coryn–The Story of Sex

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2016 at 10:36 am

What do sexologists know about anything? Doesn’t the very word, sexologist, make your heart sink? The thing is, sex isn’t just about insertions, secretions, emissions, pregnancy, diseases, and having a bit of a giggle. Sex is about life, death, love, sorrow, exultation, memories, the news, the movies, literature, art, music, politics, cigarettes, the whole shebang. Not to mention five thousand years of female subjugation. So mind the gap when you approach passion with dispassion, even for educational purposes.

Sexologist Philippe Brenot’s curiously coy graphic novel on the history of sex from apes to robots (but not sex between apes and robots, luckily) was written with the help of the collaborator and illustrator Laetitia Coryn. Pity her. It’s no small task to draw dozens of cartoony copulations (mainly doggy-style, perhaps denoting a personal preference), mean pictures of old women, and about a million nipples.

Coryn’s funny about the typical Roman citizen’s home, overwhelmed by tintinnabuli and other protective phalluses. She can do you a quick Enlightenment orgy, a pile of Hittite penises, or a fair imitation of Courbet’s famous painting of a vulva. But aside from some sartorial playfulness the visual jokes are almost as lame as the verbal efforts. There’s not enough variety in the layout. Coryn should have gone wild. Instead, all the razzmatazz of sex is laboriously conveyed through panel after panel of drab colours. Pffft!

As for the text, one can only hope Brenot spent no more than an hour writing it. Sly prejudice seeps through his Reader’s Digest level research. Here’s a list of the most dubious assertions. Only humans are capable of love. Apes are male-dominated. Ditto humans, as proven by goings-on in Babylon, the oldest city. Lecherous men did the cave paintings. Motherhood has always ‘immobilized’ women.

There’s more. Brenot claims it was the emergence of love that led to the invention of sexual privacy. He feels the beauty cult is a great thing. Older women, according to him, do not need sex. The Renaissance was ‘a fabulous age of discovery’, all about humanism. The Marquis de Sade was merely a madman. Casanova refused to wear condoms. And how about this shocker? ‘Freud spoke little of sexuality in his works.’

And so it goes on. The G-string was the first form of clothing – how exactly did Brenot verify this? The kiss developed two hundred million years ago yet only reached Japan in the twentieth century. Arranged marriages are never satisfying. And women were liberated not by the vote or increased access to wealth and contraception, but by the bra, the bikini, and plastic surgery.

Merde, but zees is crazy!

Let’s set a few things straight. Animals love: have you ever seen an unadoring dog? And though chimps may endorse male domination, bonobos don’t. Women probably had very powerful positions in society until a mere five thousand years ago. Babylon’s not as old as Mohenjo-Daro, a highly evolved matriarchy (with excellent plumbing!). Throughout most of human history the extended family made childcare more feasible. And Stone Age artists, whether men or women, depicted the female form in a spirit of reverence, not lust.

The porn industry has demonstrated that the urge to have sex in private is highly negotiable. The pressure to be beautiful dismays and degrades women all their days. And don’t you think it’s odd a sexologist, who bravely goes where no man has gone before, has nothing worthwhile to say about the sexuality of post-menopausal women, even if they’re not his scene?

Besides making forays into humanism, the Renaissance is more notable for exporting rape and slaughter and importing the potato, the tomato, and syphilis. De Sade was a revolutionary, as any Frenchman ought to understand. And, although his ‘little fellow’ pleased him less ‘in costume’, Casanova approved of condoms, had quite a collection, and even wrote poems about them.

Freud’s extensive writing on sexuality has enlivened the work of many a psychoanalyst, artist, and stand-up comedian. Bras are actually very uncomfortable, which may be one reason feminists burned them in the ’60s. And as for plastic surgery, from boob jobs to labial trimming this painful, invasive, life-threatening, money-grubbing business is one of the screwiest things our screwy species ever got up to.

Not only factually then but philosophically flawed, Brenot’s effortful attempt at offering us entertaining sex info is also unapologetically Eurocentric and Francophilic. This narrows its scope considerably. Some of the historical figures he names might perplex readers outside France: Robert the Pious, Brantôme and the gallant women, Gabrielle d’Estrées, Agnès Sorel, Charles de Beaumont, the Incroyables and the Merveilleuses.

A few other choice bonbons for you. Until he was forty Henry IV thought his penis was a bone. Rousseau was ‘an inveterate masturbator’. Montaigne was (perhaps) the first to write openly about man love. Everybody in eighteenth-century France was sans culottes. There were no toilets at Versailles. And during Victorian times the French called jam fiture, being embarrassed by the prefix con. (No matter how squeamish the English got about piano legs, they never sank to shortening controversy to roversy!)

Amongst the many promiscuous French writers and artists mentioned, curiously there’s no sign of the most famous French f***er of them all: Georges Simenon. Instead Brenot, who previously published a whole book on masturbation, devotes an ardent chapter to the subject here. He acts like the world’s just been waiting for the all-clear to wank from sexologists. Roger and out.


A version of this review appeared in the National, Nov. 7, 2016

Naomi Alderman–The Power

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 18, 2016 at 10:23 am

Teenage girls all over the world have suddenly developed electro-magnetic powers that can be unleashed on anybody who bugs them. The effect of these electrical jolts ranges from a tingly sensation to scarring, shock, pain, permanent disability, dismemberment and sometimes death. So girls have all the ‘power’ now. Older women soon start zapping too, and thereby move into high office and make millions. It is the end of patriarchy as we know it: almost overnight, women’s tolerance of bullying and sexual harassment sinks to zero, and men start dropping like flies. They now become the world’s cowering victims, servants, slaves and playthings. Men have to adapt swiftly to their new lowly status, and to kinky, often catastrophic, types of sex.

In this viciously topsy-turvy form of female supremacy, it’s men who aren’t allowed to drive cars or own businesses, men who are scared to walk around at night, men who can’t vote. They are the sex objects, reduced to abs, pecs and glutes, and called sluts. They probably multi-task too. Boys dress as girls, to seem more powerful. Obituaries of men focus on the famous women they’ve influenced. And an American TV anchorwoman is encouraged to wear glasses, to give her gravitas, while her much younger male counterpart, an airhead, is only allowed to report on things like apple-bobbing.

There’s a strenuous attempt to see the idea through its various ramifications (though it takes men an awfully long time to think of wearing more rubber). This is no feminist utopia, nor, despite a few amusing switcheroo moments, much of a satire. Power brings out the worst in Alderman’s women. They don’t pause for a second to suckle babies or make art or try living in harmony with nature or any of that soppy matriarchal jazz. All they seem interested in is rampaging, murdering, running drug cartels, appointing themselves pope, prez, queen and goddess, and generally being jerks.

This plot-driven horror fantasy only gets more crude, cruel and icky, providing an unending parade of gang-rape, eyeball destruction, fish electrocution, and many other sadistic forms of torture, including a kind of ritual male castration, equivalent to FGM, and the minutely detailed demise of a man torn limb from limb. Male supremacists, with the help of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, John Knox, Fathers4Justice and a jihadist or two, could not have written a more damning denunciation of female ascendancy than this.

Why did Alderman do it?

She’s got a fun sideline going in illustrations of archaeological finds, and the online misogynistic backlash is wholly believable. But Twitter trolls are just nerds — they’re dull. There’s far too much about religion, and the writing can be shaky: ‘Her face was dry like there was a stopper inside holding it all in.’ Any literary adventurousness cedes to saggy apocalyptic derring-do, with the good guys wandering the woods, using whatever technology they have left in an effort to evade maniacal matriarchs. It’s for kids. By the end of it all, you’d really rather men stayed in charge.


This review appeared in the Spectator on Nov. 5, 2016

Colson Whitehead–Sag Harbor

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 18, 2016 at 10:13 am

The summer of 1985 is a halcyon one for Ben, 15, and his brother Reggie, 14, left alone in the family’s vacation house. The town of Sag Harbor, New York, is the plain face of “the Hamptons”, one of the weirder places on earth. In winter it is bleak potato farms, in summer the desk and playpen of writers, actors and arseholes from the world around: in Ben’s words, “the Hamptonite Undead”, who stop at nothing to satisfy their opulent summery urges.

Strange and brave that a community was founded here by black professionals from the city in the 1930s. “I’ll wager on this,” Ben says, “the sunsets closed the deal for that first generation … my grandparents and their crew … that first generation asked, Can we make it work? Will they allow us to have this? It doesn’t matter what the world says, they answered each other. This place is ours.”

Whitehead proves himself, among many other things, a poet of the American summer and its aspirations. In these cherished, toiled-for houses, Ben and his city friends live summer and adolescence parallel to the rest of the world. The place means everything to their parents, and to them. To let anything, even money worries, “interfere with Sag, your shit was seriously amiss”.

Within days of being left in charge, the two brothers have eaten all the frozen dinners they expected would sustain them. So Reggie throws himself on the mercy of Burger King and Ben gets a job at Jonni Waffle, a wonderful, nauseatingly evoked emporium of American dessert bilge – “the beginning of my exile from decent people”. Yet in Whitehead’s hands this place, reeking of burning sucrose, is the perfect theatre for every anxiety of puberty: monetary, digestive, racial, sexual and criminal.The nostalgia the young have for family things is acutely done: the dependable look of rakes in the basement, or how it feels to gather up your stuff at the chilly end of a day on the beach. And there is a guilty, haunted Ben who looks down on his maturing self from outside, a kid never allowed to forget he goes to a fancy white school – “most of the year it was like I’d been blindfolded and thrown down a well”.

Day to day, Ben broils in the anxiety of any 15-year-old: “The new handshakes were out, shaming me with their permutations and slippery routines. Slam, grip, flutter, snap. Or was it slam, flutter, grip, snap? … Devised in the underground soul laboratories of Harlem, pounded out in the blacker-than-thou sweatshops of the South Bronx, the new handshakes always had me faltering in embarrassment … I had all summer to get it right, unless someone went back to the city and returned with some new variation that spread like a virus, and which my strong dork constitution produced countless antibodies against.” For Ben is a dork. The musical currency in his milieu may be rap, but he listens to the Smiths (as well as alluding to his Dungeons & Dragons past – “a means of perpetuating virginity”).

But this remarkable novel goes far beyond gentle musings on awkward youth. This is Ben on the meaning, to him, of the cataclysmic shift from rap to hip-hop: “Something happened that changed the terms and we went from fighting (I’ll knock that grin off your face) to annihilation (I will wipe you from this Earth). How we got from here to there are the key passages in the history of young black men that no one cares to write. We live it instead.”

In this elegiac, spirited prose there are echoes of Melville, one of the first to write about Sag, and others, too: Thurber’s ability to celebrate a troubled family through satire, and Cheever’s melancholy geography of class. Compared with his own brilliantly stark, insinuating writing in The Colossus of New York, Whitehead’s language here is relaxed and playful, a tribute to youth. But Ben’s take on life is a fond, proud, nervy shout, and a triumph of rueful reason.


This review appeared in the Guardian on May 16, 2009

The Terranauts–T. C. Boyle

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 3, 2016 at 9:42 am

What would happen if you took eight people and sealed them up in a three hundred acre glass terrarium with plants and little pigs and fish and a lot of yams and told them they had to be self-sufficient, even to the point of recycling their own air and water? Would they bend to the task like Stakhanovites and make their employers and their parents and the American public and the press amazed and proud? Or would they fall quickly into factions, attack each other, become severely priapic, steal food and live so close to the bone that their egos protrude? Or would nothing occur at all?

Surprise, surprise: all of this happens in The Terranauts. Especially the nothing part.

Supposedly this is a trial run for establishing a closed ecosystem that could support human life on Mars, although during the course of the experimental two years the terranauts get so fed up with eating tilapia and yams and trying to distil booze out of rubbish, this quickly starts to look like a pretty quaint idea. (The Terranauts is based on a real experiment, ‘Biosphere 2’, which took place in Arizona in the 1990s, but it would have been better fun, socially, to set it in the Bush era—many more pricks to kick against.)

The Terranauts is narrated, turn and turn about, by three of the characters involved in the enterprise, which is run by a Richard Branson/Donald Trump figure, largely as a media phenomenon, but partially in cooperation with NASA. He seems an utter philistine, which is what you would expect, although he asks the crew to perform plays from the theatre of the absurd, like The Skin of Our Teeth, The Bald Soprano and No Exit. But these are Boyle’s conceits of course – this guy’s never heard of Sartre.

Ramsay, the ecologist, is the stud of the outfit. He tries to screw everyone in the organization, and half the women in Arizona, before they ‘go inside’ the habitat. There he presses himself on two of the terranauts, and struts around pontificating unconvincingly about ecosystems and masculinity. His only real scientific interests are girls and cheeseburgers.

Dawn is in charge of the animals. She’s so beautiful and soft-hearted. But dammit she’s a scientist and a terranaut too, so when it falls on her to slaughter the miniature pig she tugs at our heartstrings. Briefly.

Linda, Dawn’s best friend in the project, is on the outside, a support worker. She wasn’t chosen to go inside in this group, but hopes to be in the next team, in two years’ time. Like all these characters, she is surprisingly dumb. She’s also a schemer, a rat and an amazing bore – she’s not locked up in the glasshouse, she’s free, yet all she can think of to do is to drive around southern Arizona getting drunk and flashing her semi-celebrity terranaut status at guys in bars.

Dawn has sex with Ramsay without birth control, very much against the rules—the fragile ecosystem would not be able to handle another human being. She becomes pregnant. Ah, you think, a possibly interesting abortion story—but no.

Whether Boyle is attempting to say something about the kind of shallow egomaniacs that would volunteer for this sort of overblown unscientific hokum, it’s hard to say. The satire is surprisingly limp; you need George Saunders for this kind of drastic, speculative adventure. Boyle doesn’t bother to differentiate the voices of the narrators, which is odd, because usually he’s very agile. After a while you start to feel you’re as low on oxygen as the terranauts.

Reading The Terranauts is something like being sealed in a ‘biome’: it feels like a big responsibility, nothing much happens, and it is no fun at all. In reality, it would be impossible for these people, such as they are, to care for each other, or for us to care about them. And the novel is exactly the same. As Linda says, “They’re fools. Careless, petty, banal people.”

There are crises, in the nature of the familiar crises you get in books and movies about submarines and spacecraft. The characters always come back from the brink. They are seemingly invincible, which is a little hard to believe because they’re all so stupid. Maybe it would work, wrapping up all these half scientists and ducks and yams and starfish in cellophane and putting them in a rocket and sending them to Mars, maybe it’s feasible. But one thing’s for sure: it’s dramatic suicide.


This review appeared in the National on October 16, 2016

Infinite Ground–Martin MacInnes

In Reviews by Lucy and Todd on November 3, 2016 at 9:33 am

Infinite Ground is a very sharp novel about sick politics, corporate infiltration of society, and good old-fashioned paranoia, a cross between Kafka and The Blob. It’s about late capitalism and spooky capitalism. It provides the frisson you get from reading about the Royal Bank of Scotland or the machinations of Essential Edinburgh.

A retired Inspector of police in a Latin American country is asked to investigate the disappearance of Carlos, a young, seemingly responsible office worker, who takes to hanging upside down in his office and then vanishes from a restaurant. Looking into Carlos’s firm, the Inspector finds that some of its workers are actors, hired to make the company look good and to spur on the real employees in terms of poise and drive.

This company, like many, has duplicate office facilities at a remove, in case of disaster or war: ‘He read it as an example of corporate anxiety. Their imagination of the apocalypse was limited and picturesque, affecting a distinct, geometrically precise land segment, allowing civilization to be transported elsewhere, uninterrupted.’ The idea of duplication, a horror genre staple, grows in the novel until neither the Inspector nor the reader can be sure of what is genuine.

The Inspector is assigned an assistant, a brilliant microscopist. She hoovers out of Carlos’s computer keyboard insect wings, jungle soil, and other substances that suggest Carlos doesn’t live only for his job. The Inspector is fascinated by her and for a while they rub along in a lively, almost rom-com exchange between police thinking and scientific metaphor.

In fact, her inventive speculations on micro-organisms exacerbate the Inspector’s growing paranoia, which threatens his investigation. At one point the playful narrative gives over to a fantastic list of what might have happened to Carlos: perhaps he never existed. Perhaps there are fifty or more of him (readers of Stanislaw Lem will enjoy this). Maybe he went walkabout because of food poisoning. Or his mother (she is one of the actresses) made him up.

The Inspector begins to wonder if Carlos was mentally and physically dissolving as a result of contact with some micro-parasite. He even wonders if he himself has contracted the same from his minute examinations of the man’s office. Eventually he decides that Carlos has wandered out of the city and into the forest.

Is the Inspector deranged? Next thing we know, he’s joined a silly tourist group in order to get quickly into the interior. He pays a lot of money, only to be faked out by phony ‘contact’ with ‘tribespeople’. One of them turns out to be the lady who runs the local coffee shop.

Now, strangely, the focus shifts from contingency and conspiracy to a story solely of the Inspector, suddenly alone in the forest, for what reason it’s unclear. (Most of the unexplained elements work here, though occasionally there’s a little too much Twilight Zone.) Is the intention to show him the near impossibility of Carlos remaining alive for long in such a place?

Thoughts of the investigation are abandoned as we watch the Inspector turn into a really icky Robinson Crusoe, eating bugs and worse, trying to keep from losing his marbles as he follows the morning sun. It’s scary: ‘There was less of him and he scouted for parts of the new vegetation reminiscent of his character.’

This novel sends up all kinds of rockets. In its South American atmosphere you will be reminded of Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps. The contemporary social and political unsureness is that of Javier Marias. Its really astute anatomization of employment itself will make you think of Ed Park’s Personal Days. In the biological and jungle horror there’s a lot of Sartre, Conrad and even HP Lovecraft.

Will the Inspector escape the forest? If so, in what condition, and into what world? This section of the novel is a little less satisfying – there’s a Planet of the Apes tedium to it. Earlier there were many exciting explorations of a lot of nasty micro-organisms that sound totally plausible and which are all ranged against us. One in particular takes over bugs’ brains, forces them to march to the sea, and then explodes their heads! You’re left hoping that this isn’t the one that bit this particular policeman.

What is the upshot of all this? You may well find in Infinite Ground’s meditations a sketch of things to come, post Brexit: ‘He took the conviction that this new, insubstantial world couldn’t be happening as proof in fact that it was.’


This review appeared in The Herald August 6, 2016