At what point does sexual obsession become sexual addiction? In Francis Levy’s can’t-get-enough novel Erotomania it comes right around page 84 when the story’s compulsive over-extender and the object of his desire start seeing a therapist. Before the clinical appraisal, sex merely dominates the lovers’ time, causing structural damage to their apartment and, post-coitus, leaving them blank, clueless and wanting more. Sound like addiction to you?
Levy’s frank tale of compulsion has earned him comparisons with Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski. But Erotomania seems more like Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1973 film Last Tango In Paris, that hot-buttered, Marlon Brando vehicle of sexual possession that introduced American movie audiences to the back door. Like Bertolucci, Levy focuses on his characters’ overwhelming need no matter how lewd.
Still, Erotomania isn’t all that erotic. The sex scenes are mostly handled in wham-bam fashion, more matter-of-fact than titillating. Detailed descriptions—except for the repeated insertion of a single thrilling finger in a particular orifice or a long golden-shower scene in a busy restaurant restroom—are few. It’s the between-sex thinking, the fixation on body parts and submission that drives readers and the book’s narrator crazy. Unending desire prompts Levy’s narrator James to question everything. It makes him recall a scene in “Wild Kingdom” in which a hyena kills a baby kangaroo. “It was feasting on the kangaroo’s intestines, its mouth covered with blood, even as the creature’s limbs were still moving….was this feasting on each other, like animals on the steppe, the true essence of man…?”
The twist here is hinted at in the book’s subtitle: A Romance. Ultimately, Erotomania’s story is a familiar one: how relationship complicates sex. In its early pages, there is no relationship. Sex is all the lovers have. They don’t talk, they don’t share meals, they don’t even know each other’s names. They just go at it. Moving in with one another makes it worse, especially for the other tenants of their apartment building. It’s not until they begin to seek a traditional relationship—again around page 84—that things get complicated.
We generally consider sexual addiction to be free of romance, practiced in abandon with whomever is willing—or sometimes not—to quench an unending thirst. James is fixated on a single person and, more specifically, a single body part which he discusses in hairy detail. The fact that he doesn’t even bother with his lover’s name, despite repeated meetings, makes it hard for him to find her when they lose track of each other. As a sign of how desperate his obsession is, James reads through the entire phone book just to see if anything will jar his addled memory. Reunited, the lovers again take up their rabbit ways.
It’s easy to see the psychology behind the obsession. James is taught French kissing by his mother who continued to demand sexual favors through his teenage years. Mom dies when James is a freshman in college and he can’t make himself stay in the hospital with her as she does, instead running off to hookers and X-rated movies. After she’s gone, he suffers from impotence. Monica—yes, he finally gets her name—is the product of an abusive father. She makes love, says James, as if she’s going through childbirth.
The sessions with the therapist lead them to other interests, all of which lead to sex. Monica displaces her obsession with an interest in contemporary art. This results in them having sex in public galleries. Chinese food becomes a fixation but not before sex, which frequently keeps the delivery boy waiting outside watching their kung-pao copulation through the window. The other person in their life, James’ cook Bill, is in love with his boss and resentful (thus the takeout). Drinking, television, weight gain and workouts all are tried as stand-ins. Finally, as their lives become more divergent, their relationship solidifies. You might say the sex is pounded out of them.
Levy is a terribly thoughtful writer–too thoughtful at times–letting James ponder his overwhelming needs even as he satisfies them. The writing is direct, satisfyingly dirty and disarmingly personal. Convoluted images–remember the African hyena killing the Australian kangaroo and the reference to the European steppes?—seem to underscore James’ confusion. But, like Erica Jong’s long-ago metaphor of the “zipless fuck” from Fear of Flying, Levy believes in the superiority of sex minus identity. He sees the hypocrisy of romance, contrasting the “Candlelight talks at restaurants whose architecture created the appropriate mood to induce fornication” with the hair pulling and corn holing that follow. Ultimately, he seems to be saying sex, of any kind, at any level, is just sex. You can almost hear that hyena having the last laugh.—Cabbage Rabbit