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Menings | Opinion > Onderhoude | Interviews > English

''It's about the sexy brain'': Leon de Kock talks about Bad Sex


Bibi Slippers - 2011-10-12

Untitled Document

Bad Sex
Leon de Kock
Uitgewer: Umuzi
ISBN: 9781770221642
Prys: R190.95

Hi Leon, and congratulations on the publication of Bad Sex. Great title, by the way. Besides the fact that sex sells (and your protagonist Sammy Baptista is an ad man, after all), why did you choose to call the novel Bad Sex? Do you mind unpacking some of the possible meanings connoted by these two words? I’ve heard you mention at least five possible interpretations of the title, and tentatively explore a sixth ... Can you remember them all?

“Bad sex”: (1) Operationally bad sex with regard to necessary functions, congruencies and performance factors, as in “Sjoe, that was really kak sex”. (2) “Bad sex” as in “DW” sex, or “Dirty Weekend” sex, irresistible to many people for its transgressive charge – the dark, deep, come-on of sexual “wrongdoing”, adultery, that kind of thing – this meaning includes the sense of “dangerously bad (saucy) sex”. (3) “Bad sex” as in morally rotten, abusive sex, such as child molestation. (4) “Bad sex” as in “You guys are the bad sex” – ie the “bad gender”; Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex reminds us that women are also in certain circumstances the “bad sex” or the “bad”, second-rated gender, but the feminist and postfeminist revolutions over the past fifty years have turned that around to a significant extent among cosmopolitans such as the people who typically read LitNet. (5) “Bad sex” can also mean acknowledging or “owning” one’s shadow sexuality, eg the “harlot” or the “Jezebel” in the case of women, and for men the libertine, womaniser or professional “lover”, a voluptuary and sensualist who orients his life towards the pursuit of pleasure for its own sake, simply because it is pleasurable. (6) “Bad sex” also, in the final analysis, alludes to a binary doubling with “good sex”, suggesting the complicity and mutual co-constitution of these two categories, ie “bad sex” is a foil for so-called “good sex” or “morally clean” sex (from a religious or moral point of view; cf Foucault’s The Use of Pleasure: The History of Sexuality Vol 2, on the control of sexual pleasure throughout human history and the “moral problematisation of pleasure”); equally, “good sex”, or “non-bad” sex must, in poststructuralist terms, also be seen, then, as a foil for the construction of a transgressive or illicit quality, the (unconscious?) willing of “wrongness” into being as a constituent of desire.

While we’re on the topic, how are sales going? Is it true that novels sell better than poetry?

Frederik de Jager, Umuzi publisher, says the first (relatively small) print run has almost sold out. That means Bad Sex has already sold about 700 copies. Yes, fiction does sell better than poetry, but non-fiction sells much better than fiction in South Africa. It’s tough to sell fiction in English in this country – the market for English-speaking South Africans is now decisively a global one. As an English-speaking writer in any country in the world you now have to compete directly (in bookshop terms) with Booker Prize shortlisters and Pullitzer winners and fabulous authors from all over the world (including great Australian and British and American and Indian and Caribbean and African novelists – writers like Peter Carey and Tim Winton and David Foster Wallace and Annie Proulx and Paul Theroux and Ian McEwan and Ali Smith and Amitav Ghosh and Earl Lovelace and Chimamanda Adichie, to name a very small number of them), not to mention the scores of brilliant writers translated into English from other languages. The game in English has become very tough, and you have to compete globally if you want more than a few hundred or maybe two thousand local readers. That also changes the way you write – your writing must become more transnational, more globally consumable. This should include strong local flavour reticulated through the global hunger for idiosyncratic local particularities (cf Die Antwoord).

It seems to me like Bad Sex is in many ways a continuation of the themes you were exploring in your two collections of poetry, gone to the edges and Bodyhood, only taken to new extremes. Are there certain themes which are characteristic of your authorship, or have you simply been exploring a set of related interests over the past few years?

I’d prefer to leave this question for literary scholars to explore. I don’t like thinking too explicitly about formal and thematic connections in my work because I’m afraid of losing the “organic” quality of creative syncretism. Certainly, though, there is a preoccupation throughout my writing with being in the body, in the contingent bodily moment of mortality and sensual power – “All poetry is about sex and death,” I tell my undergraduate poetry students; “all poetry finds its place in the agonistic continuum of Eros-Thanatos, the drag and charge and kick and pathos of that condition.” There is a sense in my work of both the felt charge of embodiment (Bodyhood) and the politics of sexual exchange (Bad Sex). I would also urge anyone interested in my work to read some Humberto Maturana on “emotioning” and “languaging” processes emanating from human beings as embodied and positioned physical spheres of feeling-relating, ie “bodyhoods”. (See also my LitNet article on Maturana and “The Body Public"). But there is much more, and this could become a much longer conversation.

At the launch of Bad Sex at the Open Book Festival, Ashraf Jamal referred to the sensuality of your work, as opposed to the “sexlessness” he perceives in English literature in South Africa. Are you deliberately writing in against the grain of this “sexless” literature, or is this sensuality something inherent in your writing?

I hesitate to use the word “deliberate”. All I know is that when I found myself writing this kind of voice into this particular space of human engagement I realised that there wasn’t a lot of it in South African literature. I must say, though, that just about all Nadine Gordimer’s serious fiction deals substantially with sexual leverage between consenting adults, except that her political disposition means she uses the sexual negotiation as a set of signifiers for real-world political orientations. My work declines that gesture, and sees sexual politics as sexual politics, period, situated within the immediate, embodied psycho-sexual-political domain, which I regard as vital for intersubjective human congress. And without good, real, strong intersubjectivity, we’re basically fucked. (We could also discuss JM Coetzee in terms of sexual politics – see especially Disgrace – that would open up a very large area for further discussion.)

Jy het self ’n goeie klap Afrikaans weg, and you’re also a celebrated translator of Afrikaans fiction. I also saw some snippets of Afrikaans all over Bad Sex. Do you think your grasp and knowledge of Afrikaans affects your use of English?

Yes it does. I sometimes find myself thinking in Afrikaans phrases inside my head, in the middle of my fairly rough english (keep the small “e” please), and then I simply write those phrases or words down the way I feel and think them. That’s also the way I talk. I use the Afrikaans just the way it comes out. No italics or special treatment. It’s the language a lot of us speak and understand, nowadays. We don’t need italics any longer.

One theme you and Ashraf kept returning to at the Open Book discussion was that of consciousness, as explored in your novel. I remember Ashraf saying the novel displays “a deep scepticism of consciousness” and that it takes apart the notion of a man or woman in a control room, a person present in him or herself. In the novel, Sammy Baptista seems quite preoccupied with the idea of “losing himself.” Sammy says of his lover’s bedroom: This is a bedroom in which the idea of losing yourself is all too real! Do you think Sammy sees sex as a space where he is completely present, or is this the space where he is relieved of consciousness? Is it a bit of both? And, forgetting Sammy for a moment, how do you see it?

In Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday, near the end, there’s a passage after five hours of neurosurgery in which McEwan’s protagonist reflects that it is only in sex and very intense work (such as five hours of neurosurgery) that he loses himself completely, loses all sense of the oppressive weight and awareness of time and its passing. I go along with that. I also get that from writing (my equivalent of neurosurgery). I can write for hours and completely forget about time. But there’s another angle to this, and that is the illusion that human “consciousness” is about control. I would say, instead, that human consciousness is about damage control. Where does the damage come from? Well, that’s clearly a very big question that we can’t adequately deal with here, except to say it has something to do with libidinal surges short-circuiting the smart-wiring of the super-ego’s alarm system. We might start with something like that as an opening proposition, but one needs a classroom to have that kind of conversation.

In her review of Bodyhood Christy Weyer identifies an “autobiographical tendency” in the book. Having pointed out the fact that the themes in the two books correspond in many ways, would it be wrong to assume that a smidgen of autobiography is also present here? Are there similarities between Sammy and Leon?

In Bad Sex I have written what I call “fabricated memoir”, that is, I have written a memoiristic, confessional narrative within a fictional frame, intentionally blending the categories of fiction and memoir. I want my fiction to read like memoir, and my memoir to read like fiction. Some of the stuff in Bad Sex happened to Leon, and a lot of it, especially the parts I wrote with plenty of (dark) spin (such as the climactic scene near the end), did not happen to Leon. Generally, however, I am not saying which parts are “true” and which parts are not “true”, because it does not matter. What matters is that the novel reads both like a novelised memoir and a memoiristic novel. I want that because it makes the reading experience more gripping, and gives the content a greater sense of experiential authenticity. This is the one common theme in all the feedback I have been receiving (lots of it from writers, especially), namely that Bad Sex reads “like a steam train” (in Corina van der Spoel’s words), that it is “absorbing” and “captivating”. A lot of people tell me they read the book from beginning to end in one or two sittings. I’m very glad about that, just as I’m extremely pleased to hear many people (including the skreeusnaakse humorist Finuala Dowling) say the novel made them laugh out loud, frequently.

I am especially interested in the way Sammy refuses to reform to societal expectations. When I read a Sammy Baptista remark like “Table manners are the last refuge of civilised thugs” I can’t help but detect a bit of Leon there. Is this book you pushing against the edges of what is acceptable and nice to write about? At the launch you were saying that Bad Sex is risking the “yuk”. You wondered out loud how far one could push a topic like this before putting people off. Honestly now: Isn’t there a part of you that actually wants to put people off?

I’m interested in areas of human sexual behaviour that are both a matter for revelling in and a cause for reviling (“the moral problematisation of human pleasure”). What is it that made one person (jokingly) say “yuk” when I (half-jokingly) said at the Kalk Bay launch that the words “bad sex” constituted a “sticky signifier”? There’s an area in our embodied social lives which we both revile and in which we also revel – why? What’s going on there? My fiction increasingly – I’m writing a new work with even more spin on these matters – wants to ask these questions by way of stories about sex “scandals”.

In the first chapter of the book Sammy’s therapist Anna challenges him to write down his story without thinking about it too much, saying, “We won’t be judging it like a literary prize.” At the risk of sounding like a bad therapist, do you think there is some latent fear in you of having your worked judged as literary fiction? Or should this rather be read as a small stab at the literary establishment (of which you form a part)?

That is a play on the double-level narrative situation, in which the narrative both is and isn’t being judged like a literary prize, that is, strictly, by literary critics with unpredictable reading tastes and all manner of personal likes and dislikes in fiction which may influence their “judgement” of your writing. Instead, he’s being asked to write for an accepting, appreciative, sympathetic ear, the ear of the therapist. In one sense, all readers should actually read with such an ear (so it’s a comment on the dangerous caprice of literary critics), and on the other it’s a novelistic mechanism by which to elicit (and foreground the importance and presence of) writing that refuses to reform itself for the sake of critics by complying with whatever imagined PC-isms might be good for current critical reception and the winning of prizes! Non serviam!

Now that we’re on the topic of therapy: it is impossible to read this book without noting the way writing is presented here as a form of therapy, while therapy becomes a form of writing. You write: “[T]ransference only happens when the therapist is a blank slate … and then you write your story on to it.” Was the writing of this novel therapeutic in any way, or will you be returning to your therapist to recover from it? Can you recommend writing as a form of therapy?

I don’t like the idea of writing as a form of therapy. If you need therapy, go see a therapist! But if your therapist asks you to write as a kind of free-writing exercise, then do it. Then therapy may become a form of writing, and that is something I find interesting. Even more interesting is to adopt the idea of therapy as writing for the sake of writing rather than therapy. (“Therapy” can look after itself!) The “blank slate” idea, and the question of what happens in transference, are especially interesting here. The deep structural irony of Bad Sex (and no one has yet seen this or remarked on it) is that Sammy is basically propounding his “unapologetic masculinity” in an impassioned plea for sympathy from a woman, a woman, moreover, with whom he is transferentially “in love”, so in fact there is a deep irony about his claim to “refuse” what he calls “domestication of the male spirit”. And yet there is also a wonderful winsomeness about this refusal, a brave, dying-fall, handsome quality to it.

As an academic, you are in the know about various theories of identity construction and gender roles, and your knowledge is thoroughly ploughed into this new novel. I have heard you speak about negative perceptions of masculinity pervading our society today, and in this book Sammy complains about “the new gender deal” out there, likening the “taming” or “domestication” of men to animal husbandry. Will you tell me a bit more about this “new gender deal.” Is it really all that bad, or is Sammy (Leon?) just being melodramatic?

There’s nothing melodramatic about the sex wars between men and women. They’re going on every minute of every day in millions of confined spaces in which cross-gender and same-gender couples live together and negotiate whose will, style, influence, understanding, decor, politics, culinary preferences and other predispositional alternatives will prevail, or predominate, or blend, and how they will “blend”, in the new melange of “happiness” that we are all constantly assured we can and will get, because we all deserve happiness! That’s the deal in the late-capitalist consumption revolution. Everyone has the inalienable right to shop for what they want, and find it! In all spheres. In the new globalised metropolitan order of the intelligentsia (i.e. discounting the stupid jocks, assorted male abusers and other creeps who queer the pitch for everyone else) the gender deal has swung to such an extent that men no longer have any “automatic” or assumed advantage over women by virtue of their gender alone; in fact women have a distinct “moral high ground” advantage over men, and women often leverage this high-ground advantage in their daily sexual politics, in their inter-gender or inter-partner battles for predispositional influence over their “loved ones”.

In Bad Sex Sammy refers to “the price of sex,” seeing his “taming” at the hands of his lover as an exchange offered in return for the privilege of entering her body. This made me think of something the Afrikaans author Anna M Louw once wrote: “Seks is dinamiet. “n Mens moet van jongs af leer om dit te beheer.” Don’t you think our lives would be less complicated if the economics of sexual exchange were taught like mathematics?

But that’s just the point. It won’t, and can’t be taught like that. It just doesn’t work like that. Anna M. Louw is dead right. Just read her kragtoer of a novel about sex and losing control, Vos. She knew exactly what she was talking about.

While I’ve got you dishing out advice, won’t you humour me by playing therapist for a moment? There’s a poem in gone to the edges which ends with the lines:

hy wonder watter stuwende oerimpuls
dit is wat poes so lekker maklik kan losmaak

van die hart.

In your professional opinion, is it really possible to separate “poes” and “hart.” And if possible, is it advisable?

No, it’s not really possible to separate the two. But that poem makes fun of the way men continue to want to separate the two, and the trouble they get themselves into in order to do so, such as the risks they take, for example, in the poem above, viewing porn on a work server.

In Ashraf Jamal’s opinion, Bad Sex is not a very sexy book, but more about thinking about sex. Do you agree? Was it meant to be sexy? Or is it about the big, beautiful, sexy brain?

It’s not really meant to be sexy as in erotic, but sexy as in using a wholesome male voice and giving that voice its full due. Making it funny and smart and interesting. In that sense it is about the sexy brain, yes – you’re quite right.

At the launch you said that writing is pushing that dark edge of that which you can know and can perceive. What is next for you? Which boundaries are you battering next?

As I indicated earlier, I’m working on a new project of extended, original prose writing. It involves an even more darkly comic take on sexual politics. More than that I shouldn’t say – I’ve said too much already.