Bad Sex by Leon de Kock, Umuzi, 2011.*
Bad Sex is the story of Sammy / Sam / Samuel L. Baptista, or Sammy-Boy’s search for selfhood. In this extremely absorbing novel, a sort of frame-narrative, the ups and downs of Sammy’s search for self are told in a way that is reminiscent of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Let us be honest now. If feminist and gay writers can open their hearts and publish confessions, then so can men, whether they're straight or macho or bisexual. In this narration, addressed to Sammy’s psychotherapist, one Anna Brink, the life of the main character is narrated. The story is set mainly during Sammy’s youth in Mayfair, Johannesburg, where ordinary – no, actually, common – people, along with the talking ‘I’, spill the beans about Sammy’s wounds, his wounding.
“Liebe dein symptom wie dich selbst”, which means “Thou shalt love thy symptom as thyself”, is the title of a German documentary about Slavoj Žižek’s interpretation of the work of French psychoanalyist Jacques Lacan, and refers to Lacan's view that the wound determines the self. This is precisely the case with Sammy Baptista, whose wounding is gradually uncovered in this often unsettling narrative.
The reader also becomes aware of a smart intertextual play on the idea of “talking therapy” (Lacan’s parlêtres) in which there is a so-called “clean slate” upon which transference can take place. As in the scene in which the main character opens his trousers for the sucking lips of a prostitute, the reader is inducted into the intimate sex stories of the main character, his brother, his boundary-busting family and their visitors, and, last but not least, a molesting doctor.
The story is set in motion by the ending of a relationship. The powerful and therefore castrating female boss and lover, one Sabina Fairbrother (Sabina Spielrein?), a resident of Westcliff Ridge, Johannesburg, has problems with Sammy’s table manners. And so a whole past is “unlocked”. It is a past which includes boxing stories, a scene in which Sammy’s brother masturbates, as well as other transgressions by the brother which psychically wound the first-person narrator. This is a “cock-jocked” novel in which satirical utterances are made about the academy (“The Ideology of Bliss”) and feminist texts such The Women’s Room.
The narration comes into being when the therapist asks the narrator to write up his story, and the reader thus gets the full version of a complex man’s views on sex: power struggles, the fear of women, castration, the Law of the Father, and so on. But not everything is told in lead-heavy Lacanesque (all puns intended!) narration. There are highly amusing stories about the narrator’s youth, in which the mother engages in conversation with a gossip-loving female “aunty”, a woman with whom the young boy has a secretly voyeuristic (one-way) relationship; Springbok radio serials; and so on. The influence of the brother on Sammy’s life also offers sharp commentary on Freud’s notion of family structures and the “return of the repressed”. The young boy’s terrors about the brother’s transgressions, and his own, such as shoplifting, are narrated in a way that is captivatingly good. When the brother enters into an early sexuality, Sammy finds himself in severe conflict:
‘ “Remember Charmaine Lotter?” he says.
‘ “Yes, of course, man!” I blurt out.
‘ “Well, I just fucked her,” he announces. “Fucked her good
and solid. Half an hour ago . . .”
‘I felt an immediate jolt of bitter outrage. Charmaine Lotter! I
was in love with her, Anna! But she’d always seemed so out of
reach. She was a lanky, barefooted girl . . . a year or two older
than me . . . and impossibly pretty, just like her twin sister,
Darlene. They were sandy-haired waifs . . . only just “developed”.
But innocent! And now Nev goes and does this . . . this, with
that disgusting dick of his!
‘I feel angry and outraged, but I also feel kind’ve jealous . . .
and I have to hide all these feelings away, too, otherwise there’d
be further complications . . . Basically, I feel useless and left out.
But still, Nev gives me the horrible details. Tells me the story.
This is his moment. Telling me is his real moment of glory. Rubbing
it in my face. I am his foil. So this is more or less how he
There are many absorbing scenes in this novel: a fight that stops as a result of nausea; the sexual molestation of a young boy in a doctor’s consulting room; ambivalent intimacy with an actress-wife called Sofia van Staden; a homosexual scene in Cape Town.
The novel is written in an enjoyable register of ordinary speech. At one point, we hear about the “moedelose anger” of a character who is made aware, by his therapist, of his wounds. And there is a repeated return to, a yearning for, something or someone capable of understanding.
On p. 133 the father is in Durban:
Like that old Durban joke photograph my father once showed me, where he’d positioned himself behind a board with a painted cartoon on the front, resting his neck and head on the cut-out space as the photographer took the snap. The board showed a ridiculous figure – now transformed into my dad – with just his head sticking out from the inside of a toilet bowl, his hand on the flush handle, ready to pull. The speech bubble read: “Goodbye, cruel world!”
It was the reduction of everything to that level, crude clichés
of Durban-by-the-sea in the 1960s . . . a world of bluster and
corny white jokes . . . a backwater, mealy-mouthed sense of
inferiority before the greater world, those days when people
still saw themselves as colonial small fry, and they resorted to
cheap shots, in low-slung drawls: “Yous wanner get ya picksures
tayken?”, as if they didn’t deserve better and they knew it. This
was the world I thought I had outgrown and outlived.
In spite of the courageous efforts of the main character, who studied at Wits University (making the educated references in the novel acceptable), it remains true that one cannot escape one’s youth. This is a novel that is written with so much frankness that you simply want to express admiration for the text. The approach is spot-on. The characters talk like real people. You can actually hear the Mayfair types.
At the same time, it is an important document of historical record: the apartheid years, servants in back rooms, race issues, prejudice. The book reads fluently. In spite of the pain (and honesty), the narration is lightened with humour.
The frame-narration and the task the psychotherapist gives Sammy, to write the story up, turns the reader into an accomplice. You become part of the story and the healing of the narrator. You spy things out along with him and live through the transgressive arenas of youth along with him. In this psychotherapy chamber, matters get expressed in full, and so any reader who finds it at all offensive should simply put the novel down and stop reading.
Further, the novel is politically incorrect; it launches a debate which some feminists might find offensive. However, the narrator is busy commenting on masculinities and male culture, and on how sensitive men are affected by such a culture. It is precisely such “double talk”, in Koestenbaum’s terms, which makes the novel successful and absorbing.
The analyst/analysand-roles are problematised, with the reader becoming the analyst, but this role is often undermined and the reader is placed in the analysand position, for example as you remember the familiar details, the Toweels, Springbok Radio, the old South Africa and the narrator’s search for identity. In a way, this novel is an answer to Marlene van Niekerk's Triomf, excellently translated by De Kock.
In conclusion, then, a highly complex novel which engages with psychoanalytic views of the self and of wounding. Lacan’s views of the knots in the psyche are especially relevant here. And for women readers, there is perhaps the revelation that being a man goes along with much wrestling with the self, and great terror.
Koestenbaum, Wayne. 1989. Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration. London: Routledge.
Lacan, Jacques. 1988. "The insistence of the letter in the unconscious" in David Lodge (ed.): Modern Criticism and Theory: A Reader. London: Longman.
Longhurst, Derek (ed.) 1989. Gender, Genre and Narrative Pleasure. London: Unwin Hyman.
Malcolm, Janet. 1992. The Purloined Clinic. Selected Writings. London: Papermac.
Noyes, John K. 1997. The Mastery of Submission: Inventions of Masochism. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Ragland, Ellie. 1995. Essays on the Pleasures of Death: From Freud to Lacan. New York: Routledge.
Singer, June. 1997. Androgyny: Towards a New Theory of Sexuality. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema. DVD.
* This review was offered to SLiPnet without prior solicitation, and despite discouragement from SLiP project co-ordinator Leon de Kock on the basis that the review was of his own creative work. Prof Hambidge insisted that she wanted to publish the review on SLiPnet. After discussion among core team members of SLiP, it was decided to run the review. The principle has been adopted that team members of SLiP, many of them writers in the public domain, should not be disqualified from public discussion, either positive or negative in tone, on a literary forum on which they work as long as such discussion, review or other commentary is not solicited from a particular commentator by the writer, or on behalf of the writer.