Jonathan Amid - 2011-11-01 Untitled Document
Author: Leon de Kock
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As an established academic, critic and acclaimed poet, translator and travel writer Leon De Kock has made a name for himself as a meticulous, opinionated contributor to various social and cultural streams. He is no stranger to controversy, and his first novel, Bad Sex, is a suitably risqué exploration of the current crisis of masculinity.
As boldly and brashly as the lurid title itself, the words bad sex are emblazoned in bright pink lipstick on the top half of an entirely white background, with a well-worn pair of blood-red boxing gloves grouped together in the shape of a heart directly under the word sex. With such a playful opening salvo it should then be unsurprising that the novel holds a broken mirror to the ongoing battle between the sexes, but also to the (carnal) carnage that often comes to define the embodied relationships and layers of “bad sex” between mothers and fathers, men and women, and men and men.
Spoken in a confessional male voice, as Joan Hambidge has noted in her review, Bad Sex is a frame narration that reveals the inner life of Samuel L Baptista / Sam / Sammy Boy. A “self-improved runt from Mayfair”, Sammy is a copywriter with a “fear of settling down”, afraid of being “domesticated”, hell-bent on not being reformed, chewed up and spat out by the fairer sex.
After a steamy relationship with his alluring boss, Sabina Fairbrother, goes sour, Sammy is “delivered unto therapy” after being “born into reality”. His reality check, wake-up call, shock and awe-moment? When Sabina tells him that his table manners “put her right off her food sometimes”.
Sammy takes this as the rapier blow right through his heart of hearts, a careful, pugilistic “volley of damnation” that cuts right through his core. You see, Sammy has always been a little “over-sensitive”, and he interprets the gesture as an act of war, as an unceremonious declaration of his primal essence as a man, a man that “eats like a pig”.
Sammy is then consigned to therapy, “the last resort of the vanquished”, “theatre of the second guess”, a “kind of reverse-reel review of life”, finding a benevolent guide, the “benign, sexy presence of Anna”, whom he “loves” for the fact that she “doesn’t judge him”.
As a wounded male, “impossibly weighted with private knowledge” and with “invisible injuries” writ large, Sammy gets the order to dig deep into his troubled past, to locate in writing and confession the wounds that have made him the man he is (not) today.
What follows is a devastatingly frank odyssey into the damaged psyche of a man beside himself, often reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. “[F]orced to revise everything that had gone before” in order to confront the “full, awful truth”, sexually abused as a child and emotionally battered as a grown man, Sammy must trace the most significant moments of impact in a lifetime’s worth of sucker punches and knockout blows.
Bad Sex is anchored in deep unpleasantness, certainly not conventionally sexy. What it does extremely well is to plunge the reader headlong into an “echo chamber” where the narrative perspective changes ever so subtly, like variations on a central melody in a greater symphony of experience.
Sammy knows that he lives by “the churning gut”, where the groin and brain try to “make a compromise”. De Kock’s account of Sammy’s wounding pulls no punches, and we journey with Sammy to where it all began: Mayfair of the ’60s and ’70s. In this rough-and-ready Johannesburg suburb – home to lower middle-class Afrikaners as well as Lebanese – the people are common, the Saturday night parties are open, men are caught in dead-end jobs for a minimum wage, and women like Sammy’s mother Petunia hold the purse strings, cooking up an endless stream of stories about the locals and their shenanigans with her best friend, Suzy Vermaak.
As an inquisitive “little shrimp” of eleven, with “bak ore” (protruding ears) and insatiable curiosity, Sammy rides a high chair in the kitchen while the obese, sweaty Suzy dishes dirt, cutting men and women to pieces with her vile, puerile presence and penchant for tales of promiscuity and lewd behaviour. When news of Sammy’s father’s affair and his subsequent hiding from an angry boyfriend breaks, Suzy gleefully eviscerates him in front of Sammy, throwing the head of the family into “a stew of shame”.
De Kock’s incredible descriptions of the combination of sheer revulsion and morbid fascination that Sammy the boy feels for Suzy, her legs “Corinthian columns”, give way to an enormously powerful admission from the adult Sammy as to his implication and shame in the character assassination of his father at the kitchen table. Father and son are both “slayed” and “sliced-up”, dissected and disembowelled as men, drawn into an “endless loop of implication and shut-outs”. These crucial moments appear to shape much of Sammy’s adult life as a man “unable to measure up”.
As someone “that always feels outside of the circle” Sammy gradually comes undone in writing, while the novel’s devastatingly intimate and disturbing portrait of childhood and adolescence continues. Sammy’s confessions of (mis)spent youth give us telling snippets from a looping “reel” of his life: his first act of “voyeurism” and sexual exposure when he watches the “snogging” Hennie and Marie at a party; relating his brother’s obsessive masturbation or “spoefing”, almost forcing him to watch, giving us insight into his disgust and admiration. Additionally, Sammy relates his escape from fear and uncertainty into fighting – the “currency of respect and popularity”; boxing at the Mayfair Boxing Club; a diagnosis of petit mal epilepsy and sexual abuse by his physician, Dr Avian, “a choke, a lifelong struggle”; and his later isolation, drug use and homosexual experiences as a student at Wits.
Later on we also hear of the tempestuous affair and later marriage between Sammy and his wife Sofia; the disintegration and final straw in his relationship with Sabina; and his shameful visit to a black prostitute that is arguably the most controversial and least convincing evocation of traumatic incidence in the entire novel.
Without exception these candid recollections are “compellingly horrible”, a phrase used by Sammy himself when he thinks back to moments in his childhood. Sammy learns that his fists cannot protect him from the darkness that lurks in the hearts of men, and that human relationships don’t take place inside a boxing ring with a neutral referee, but are bare-knuckle fist-fights, with participants vulnerable, open to injury.
Rather than just sensing Sammy’s awareness of an inheritance of his father’s powerlessness and entrapment in “emotional primeval mud”, we feel his anguish in our gut. We understand his fear of being a “moffie”, his recognition of the “broken bottle of cowardice” that hovers like a “foul stink”, and we grasp his insistent need to try to “hit back”. We get to grips with his self-loathing, his feelings of “trouble and lamentation”, his justified rage at growing up among people “who seemed to lurch from one act of blind stupidity to the next”.
While reading Bad Sex it is almost impossible not to sympathise with Sammy’s view of men as the “talking wounded”, forced to learn the ropes and box cleverly in a precarious world where men have the power to “put women in their place”. This is while women are the sexual “gatekeepers”, armed with tongues that can cut out men’s hearts and bodies that can turn men’s heads upside down.
De Kock’s brave, unapologetic narrative is utterly compelling as it homes in on the ways that the battle lines are drawn between the sexes. In a power struggle where both women and men are constantly jockeying for position, prepared to fight dirty, Bad Sex reveals a central protagonist in a “constant state of suspension”, agonisingly aware of the precariousness of human relationships and the capillary actions of power at work when affiliation and attachment release like an avalanche, before and after sex.
What are we to make, then, of the deceptive title, which seems at first so tacky and obvious, yet later stands as such an apposite embodiment of the novel in all its vital, contradictory, overflowing libidinal energy?
Keenly attentive to the “new gender deal out there” and “newfangled gender theory”, Bad Sex (or Sammy – you decide) contentiously holds that men “serve the power of beauty”, that they often toe the line after being “pushed into the trap” by women. A charge of misogyny may well be laid at De Kock’s door by female readers who object to the way most women are portrayed in the novel, and particularly the representation of Sabina and Sammy’s ex-wife Sofia, who is close to being caricatured as a manipulative lush who wields sex as a weapon.
With badness as the “wrong kind of lekker”, as moral vacuousness and sexual wrongdoing, and as a kind of delicious dirtiness, Sammy ultimately emerges as someone that recognises himself as a sucker for punishment. He acknowledges both his contempt for sexual politics and his utter complicity in the Byzantine ways in which women have put him under the pump.
Ultimately, Sammy’s most telling gesture is the fact that he embraces the arduous task of looking his shadow self in the eye because of, and not in spite of, the fact that he is asked to do so by a woman. It is a humane and wholesome gesture by De Kock, one that inevitably complicates the denouement of the novel, which I won’t reveal here.
Bad Sex is a wonderful, full-bodied, self-aware knockout. Deliciously irreverent in its shit-stirring, playing with our expectations as to what is in bad taste, Bad Sex uncompromisingly carves open the zero-sum game of want and desire, entanglement and embarrassment.
As a local work it is groundbreaking – not in the sense that it tackles issues of gender, sexuality and masculinity, because Coetzee’s Disgrace, Gerald Kraak’s Ice in the Lungs, Mark Behr’s The Smell of Apples, along with Marlene Van Niekerk’s Triomf, are just a few novels that have already done so, with acuity and intelligence. Rather, De Kock’s novel stands alone in the way that it presents an exuberant fictional voice, a singular perspective and male voice that says “screw it, let’s do it” and proceeds to tell a tale that will piss off as many people as it invigorates for its sheer, unrepentant effulgence in giving many men a voice.
Just as Sammy spills over gender lines, both men and women clearly have the capacity to be the “bad sex”, the “bad gender”. In a world where it is “cool to be just a little down on men”, Bad Sex hits home like a flat, closed fist, targeting first the soft underbelly and then the solar plexus. Methodically dismantling our defences through the awesome powers of guttural language – vicious, visceral, vibrant – De Kock’s novel opens up a much-needed space for further debate and discussion, and its deft footwork will leave open-minded readers mesmerised.