In a recent episode of AMC's Mad Men, Don Draper, post-coital with his ex-wife, asks, "Why is sex the definition of being close to someone?" Draper's question sat in the back of my mind as I read both Elizabeth Ellen's Fast Machine (2012) and Clifford Browder's The Pleasuring of Men (2011), books that, albeit in different ways, examine the impermanence of sexual intimacy. For the troubled women and men of Fast Machine, sex is more often than not a detached going-through-the-motions, a way for Ellen's characters to confirm the growing disconnect between them. In The Pleasuring of Men, Browder details a number of sexual encounters large enough to make any romance novelist jealous, none of which last more than a couple of pages. In Browder's novel, sex is both business and game, fleeting and rarely repeated between the same two participants. In terms of story and style, Ellen and Browder don't have a lot in common—Ellen often slips into a rhythm I can only describe as dive bar Lydia Davis (and I mean that as a compliment), where Browder's prose is fussy and rather conventional—yet both authors, along with the fictional Don Draper, ask the same question. Draper callously answers it with the platitude "just because you climb a mountain doesn't mean you love it." Browder and Ellen, however, offer more nuanced responses, arriving at the same conclusion: desire is often more complex than monogamy allows.
Browder's protagonist, a dandy, 1860s prostitute named Tom Vaughan, begins his journey of sexual discovery by discovering "the mysterious link between pleasure and shame," a connection highlighted during his myriad business appointments. Vaughan's clients range from businessmen to scholars to members of the clergy, and all work through a certain shame while being serviced. This plays out differently in each encounter—some involve bondage, others dirty talk. One of the most striking has a priest imploring that "[d]esire is holy." Vaughan works out as many of his issues during these exchanges as his clients, and it's because of months of sexual experimentation that he realizes his true desire—a relationship with a married scholar, Walter Whiting, a man so Byronic he verges on parody. Divorce, for Whiting, isn't an option, so Tom, Whiting, and Whiting's wife are forced to come to terms with an unconventional arrangement, outside of monogamy.
What is perhaps most intriguing here is that in a novel so focused on sex (think: Gang[bang]s of New York), the act itself is often obfuscated, or rendered in euphemism. At least half the story centers on Vaughan's sexual partners, but descriptions of sex are as simple as "He did me," and "We did it two more times." Whiles this calls attention to the transient nature of anonymous sex, combined with frequent use of terminology like "dingus," it sometimes forces the novel into territory more juvenile than the story warrants. Ultimately, Browder is getting at something more complex—the "sadness in the world of pleasure," the hollowness that comes from a society conditioning a person to believe they are incapable of sustaining meaningful relationships.
Ellen's approach to sex also eschews (with few exceptions) explicit description, employing instead a flat detachment. In "And Rin Tin Tin Died in Jean Harlow's Arms," her narrator says, "This is the way it goes when I masturbate to [Joan] Didion. I have trouble getting off." The stories of Fast Machine often circle the idea of sex rather than the act itself, as narrators relate desires unachievable in their current situations. In "Discernible," a married woman fantasizes having an affair, but not leaving her husband. "If she could choose one person to be at her side, it would be her husband," Ellen writes, continuing with "She is glad she did not leave him for the other man." A monogamous marriage cannot accommodate this woman...