The first few chapters of a book are crucial, and Clancy Martin’s Bad Sex opened with chapters that failed to hook me. Or so I thought. Instead of failing to hook me, my negative reaction to the novel came from some deeply rooted issues; my class resentment was flaring up and I wasn’t in the mood for yet another novel about the emotional woes of rich, attractive white folks who travel around the world and spend their days drinking and having sex in gorgeous locations. However, and to my surprise, I kept reading. More than that, I read with genuine curiosity about what would happen to these flawed characters and with something akin to a voyeuristic itch compelling me to keep turning the pages. Ultimately, I ended up really liking what Martin had created, and the surreptitious way he went about it.
Brett, an acclaimed author who has apparently beat the demon of alcoholism, is on a plane to Cancun with plans of checking in on one of many hotel properties she owns with her husband, Paul. There’s a hurricane brewing and Paul remains in Mexico City to take care of his boys from a previous marriage and his elderly father, who is visiting them from the States. While checking her email, Brett finds a message from Eduard, her husband’s banker. The man, whom she vaguely remembers, is also trapped in Cancun and would love to meet for a drink. A few hours later, Brett and her high school friend Sadie meet Eduard at a bar, and he’s nothing like they were expecting. Relatively young, good looking, and suave, Eduard quickly finds a way to get Brett to forget about the life she has back home. What follows is a painful, uncomfortable, sexy, and very entertaining narrative about infidelity, bad decisions, guilt, sex, and Brett’s inability to overcome her destructive behaviors.
With Bad Sex, Martin has created a great short novel about willingly doing the wrong thing and having fun with it despite realizing that the bottom of the precipice is fast approaching. This is a novel about being in the moment and hovering above it while pretending not to have a choice and, much like Andrea Kneeland’s outstanding collection How to Pose for Hustler, consequently complaining about the negative results. Brett likes being with Eduard and drinking, but she also wants the life she had with Paul and the writing career she basically already has but rarely participates in. She has money, good looks, a doting husband, and the kind of career most authors dream about, but instead of enjoying that, she shatters all of it to be with her lover. In a way, it’s hard for the reader to digest her decisions, but the author does a great job of making her rationalizations universal because almost everybody has been in a similar situation when it comes to falling in love with the “wrong” person:
We could talk on the phone for five hours. One morning we started talking at just after eight and didn’t get off the phone until he had to go home at six my time. He asked unexpected questions that made me see everything from a perspective that I had not imagined before. It sounds insincere, but he worried about Paul and the boys. One night, on the phone with him, in the car on the way back from the grocery store, I broke down crying and said, “I’m a terrible wife. I’m not a good person. I’m as bad as everyone says.” He said, “Don’t flatter yourself. You’re no better and no worse than anyone else.”
Martin could’ve easily tried to turn Bad Sex into a literary fiction failure. Instead, he took a straightforward approach and his deadpan delivery and direct prose make the narrative hit hard and fast. The dialogue is believable, the characters are human (and as messed up as real humans can be), and Brett’s inability to cope with the situation she placed herself in is something that walks the line between a tear-jerking drama and a great comedy. Furthermore, the candid, simple approach allowed for brutally honest lines to pop up throughout the narrative and breath a lot of life into the staccato chapters: “Cheating on your husband is a lot like doing cocaine. It’s rarely pleasurable, but try quitting.”
Ultimately, Martin cracks his characters open and exposes their ugly innards to us, but the shiny mess also reflects our own nature in a way that makes judging them both impossible and impossible to resist. The first few chapters give us pretty people living lifestyles that belong in dreams and magazines, but then gifts us the bizarre, almost guilty pleasure of watching them crumble. Brett is at once likeable and reproachable because Paul doesn’t deserve what she does to him. With this simple love triangle, Martin forces us to question a lot of things, including the value of true happiness, adultery as an escape, and the complexities of love when seen from inside a complicated situation:
All these decisions you make for the sake of your lover are little steps you take away from the person you truly love. That’s not to say you don’t love them both, you do. But one has your heart and the other has your attention.
Bad Sex is a taut, fast-paced read about the intricacies of love and the inability to decide and then deal with the consequences of our indecisions/bad decisions. Martin is a master of the candid, brutally honest approach, and his skills are in full swing in this short, humorous, and somewhat gloomy novel.
by Clancy Martin
Tyrant Books; 180 p.