Noy Holland, author of the new novel, Bird, which PW called "fascinating" and "powerful," tackles one of the most difficult subjects in writing.
There are so many ways to feel about sex, in life, and as many ways to feel about it in fiction. Long before we begin, we’ve begun—we’ve been birthed, after all, and nursed, if we’re lucky, and know so well, in infancy, in early life, the gift of intimacy between humans, the deep need to be touched, to be held. Infancy, intimacy: these are, to simply listen, almost the same word. Sexual, sensual: another pair, another confluence. I want to talk first about this confluence, and briefly about works of fiction in which the sexual is present as life force, verdant and eruptive, but not explicit.
I’m neither scholar nor expert, but I’m inclined to take a leap that lands me here: All good fiction has an erotic charge. You don’t have to write like Henry Miller to be sexy. There are certain writers and passages of writing it feels like going to church to read and I mean the church of rocks and trees and dripping breasts and bloody crucifixes, all. The place of the sacred. The work feels sacred. It proceeds in a condition of tremulous restraint, barely contained, unhelpable. It feels perilous; nothing is hoarded. No one is resting up for the next time, the next bright chance to bed down. Virginia Woolf is like this for me and Joy Williams and Melanie Rae Thon. James Welch’s Winter in the Blood; Sam Michel’s Strange Cowboy. Horacio Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness; Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. There is the soaring passage at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead”—the falling faintly, the faintly falling, the ecstasy of this; there are the amazed and plaintive stresses of James Agee’s “Now is the night one blue dew”—a transformation of the world of mass and volume into pure transcendent feeling. There is W.G. Sebald’s rapturous account of emergent moths in Austerlitz, the painful delirium of Tillie Olsen’s “Tell Me a Riddle;” the vision that brings the narrator of Denis Johnson’s “Work” to stumble forth and cry out: “Where are my women now, with their sweet wet words and ways, and the miraculous balls of hail popping in a green translucence in the yards?”
I’m not thinking of cheap innuendo here but of the mutable shapes rapture takes, of variations on the gem-like flame.
Sex is of course varied, on the page as in life, in more ways than I can count here. There still appears to be something illicit about writing sex, and this is fine by me, good news to me, a crier from another corner who calls on the writer to be aware. Make it count. Make it weird and tender and private. Let it be flimsy if it is flimsy, perfunctory, crass. Let it be ravenous, drunk on the void, the wild desire to be flung back into dust and dream and tatter. A lot of sex happens in the line space in fiction—the door closes, and the rest is suggestion. Or it happens in a few lines—not because the sex is cursory, but because—as with a lover who rolls off and wants an assessment: How’d you like that, honey?—too much can readily be said. There is sloppy sex and sex that has been too much practiced. It becomes trivial; it’s glib. Sometimes it lacks imagination or is too much imagined and maybe because writers are shy of it, sex can be dreck on the page. I remember coming across the word “disconnected,” in a story, as in, “They disconnected.” This was the conclusion of a scene in which intimacy was the claim, even rapture. The language of trains uncoupling is sexier than this. Give me the transgression, I thought, the goop and gore—anything but what makes the body less body than machine.
So much is sexy, if we’re paying attention. It’s charged and makes you glad to live. The drowse of a bee in a buttercup. The way elephants stand together, touching. Song of the meadowlark, song of the thrush—well, I find these things sexy. Mark Rothko, Francesco Clemente. Most of modern dance and one silent film, the sexiest silent film ever, a sex scene in which only a hand is shown—the woman’s, pale as a lily, pulsing. The severe contraction of the visual frame on the extremity of the hand strikes me as a courageous and instructive choice, another less-is-more lesson, more proof of the radiant force sex can have, sensation firing in the body’s far reaches.
I think fearlessness is key. I think of Lynn Tillman’s slim volume Weird Fucks, of Eileen Myles’ quip about the blocky-figure-in-a-dress by which we are supposed to think WOMEN: that triangle, that--“What is that, my twat?” Myles says. I think of Christine Schutt’s exquisite Prosperous Friends and much of James Salter’s work, particularly the roving eye of A Sport and a Pastime. It is September and it is luminous and sex has the glow of the holy; it feels fiery, exultant, an affirmation of the hunger to live.
The hunger to live in my debut novel, Bird, finds its clearest expression in Bird’s children—the fact of them and their unruly love and Bird’s consuming love for them. One baby, two men in the house, and one of them is three feet tall. They’re all vying for Bird’s attention in the old animal way. “If I got a gun and shot him, Mama, would it just be me and you?” her boys asks.
Bird packs her boy off to school and, home with the baby, sinks into the indulgence of memory. Much of what she remembers is sex. Mickey and sex with Mickey, sex that is like a narcotic and a ritualized dance with death. They—what is the word? Fornicate? Surely this is the reigning f word—ugly, ugly, designed to make people never want to do it. Bird and Mickey fuck. They do a lot of fucking—in beds and on floors and in moving vans, in amusement parks and boulder fields. They are a little ravenous. Goody for them. They are young, and they’re in love, and Bird is grieving for her dead mother. Sex is in part a catharsis of this grief, a tumult of sorrow and joy. The line grows very slight for Bird and Mickey between wanting to die or live.
They live. They give in to a perilous boundlessness and prevail. The gift of Mickey is a gift Bird keeps living, and sexuality, sensuality, is the charge.
My approach to writing sex varied in Bird—the act happens between lines or compressed into a few lines or sometimes the scene is expansive—not Proust describing asparagus, but somewhat patient and attentive to detail. I am frank, at times, and not squeamish, I think; I think squeamishness makes us lonely. In one moment in a boulder field among rags of snow and shadows, Bird watches a beetle cross her feet, Mickey’s shadow merged with hers behind her, and merged with the shadow of the boulder Bird is standing up against. The beetle recalls for me the pale hand of the silent movie, the eye for the tiny, plus a cinematic sweep.
Bird becomes pregnant, no surprise, and after some months they lose the baby. They make their way to the ER, where a doctor “scrapes the mother in Bird out.”
“Scrape” is a brutal word here. I recognize this. I know that readers can feel punished by language like this and that many writers elect to avoid it. I have my reasons. It is not rudeness or the want to shock that motivate me to speak plainly, but a desire to accept what is. I admire Rubens, but I’m closer to Lucien Freud. I want to render the body precisely. I want the strength not to turn from the spectacle of other people’s suffering, their wild and freakish joys. The strength not to gloss. Not to shame. Losing a baby is grievous and messy. If we turn away from the fullness of this—in life and on the page—we damage the person living through it. She remains unseen. By erasing and refusing the experience, we erase and refuse her.