Leon de Kock
There is a strange compulsion when men write about masculinity to phrase it in the dark, the comic: ultimately, the satirical.
Think of Martin Amis – Money, The Information – writing that “Cities at night contain men who cry in their sleep and then say ‘Nothing’,” but extending this tragedy in black irony.
Is it because to confront masculinity in all its contradiction is itself the final immasculine gesture? The one which releases itself the moment it becomes an object of inquiry?
Masculinity – and I say this to the snarling froth-tongued chorus of faraway feminists – has never belonged to men. It has perhaps belonged to something exterior: patriarchy, the Law of the Dead Father. But it drifts through the ages to mark men with a code they did not design.
In Bad Sex, the swarthy Sammy Baptista is inducted into this code on the raw Mayfair streets of the late 1960s. And his promise of sexual trauma (indeed, multiple scarring traumas) is possessed of this masculine comic pathos.
But why this time-travel thrust into his youth?
It starts almost innocently: when a contemporary lover admonishes him for his table manners. And suddenly a reservoir of umbral energy, his shadow-self, is released.
He rushes off to his psychotherapist’s office, the “last resort of the vanquished”, the “theatre of the second guess”, to make sense of this irruption.
We are all familiar with that barbed criticism – here the table manners side-swipe, “you eat like a pig” – because its appearance is deceptive. It marks the existential stand-off between two lovers, when a conversation is leaden with loathsome repressions, each insult and lurching riposte a metaphor of unspoken emotions.
This novel is filled with resonating insight, which ricochets against personal experience: it is illuminative, familiar. And yet its primary episodes are still wrought from hyperbole and excess.
Baptista takes us on a thrilling odyssey into his formative youth – a sleuthing through history to find the source of his modern ailments. It has been remarked that most writers need a wound, physical or spiritual.
Baptista’s confessionals are about searching out that wound; a wound which moulds his masculinity. He narrates these episodes with the fantastic low-slung pugilist-strike of Afrikaans slang. His language is agile, even darkly beautiful.
One of the most affecting episodes takes a place as a young boy in his kitchen. Here his mother trades gossip about his father with her garrulous, corpulent friend Suzy (the vicious descriptions of her demand full-throated, explosive laughter).
For Baptista, his father must have registered the paragon of his aspiration as a gendered being.
So to see these two women slash away at him, reduce him, registers the beginning of a lifelong anxiety about maleness. He discovers a world in which muscle and sinew begin to lose vigour to the tongue.
The former are wearied by age, regret, failure. Gossip, oppositely, is timelessly, inelegantly adaptive, and Baptista trembles at all the men who have fallen foul of its feminine venom.
Throughout his youth he discovers the edges of masculinity and the Mayfair violence that awaits those who cross its thresholds.
We follow him through his boxing matches, lurid encounters with his brother’s sexual appetite, the beginnings of homosexual arousal, even molestation.
Trapped inside his sex, he writes “I knew I wasn’t supposed to be scared, so I pushed the fear back. Deep down.”
This old, flowing fear is a “choke, a lifelong strangle”; the reason he describes himself as “a f**k-up waiting to happen”. Gender politics intrudes deliberately in various passages and guises.
I wouldn’t describe it as a “redress” against decades of powerful feminist texts, because the struggles of men and women occupy vastly different territories of the same continent.
But it is the necessary anguish, the always diminished and laughed-at anguish, always mocked with comparison to other struggles. It is the anguish of the “bad sex”.
And it is as much about the economy of desire as masculinity, because bad sex is also immediately “sex that feels like wrongdoing” – we’ve all brushed its sinister hip, and it is mostly narrated here with a wildly entertaining, sleazy yet observant energy.
His catalogue of personal traumas reaches a hysterical, provocative crescendo with a whore – certain to provoke dinner-table controversy with its racial dynamics.
But it is the final wounding, the final glimpse into how Baptista was made.
Bad Sex – even with its few lulls and hammed-up retellings – is drenched in a cold sweat with that fascinating theme of human existence: the Freudian “return of the repressed”.
How those uneasily swallowed traumas always constitute our every present moment, and their threat of bursting free from our private annals to submerge us.
Leon de Kock has produced a compelling, superbly written novel. It will variously incense and enlighten; but always entertain.
l Chetty is a graduate scholar of critical theory and literature. - Cape Times