Thursday, January 17, 2008

Making Love by Richard Rhodes

Libraries are wonderful places for unexpected discoveries. On the main shelves, there's the presumption that everything is worth reading -- it's what has survived purges over the years, and was bought, after considered thought and perusal of reviews, in the first place. So a book that's battered and old might be particularly special, simply because the librarians have had to make a decision, every year or so when they realize space is getting tight, to keep that specific book.

I found Making Love by pure serendipity -- it was in the case next to the one where I found Larry Miller's Spoiled Rotten America, and I'm not a man who could avoid a quick browse of the sex books when I found myself right in the middle of them. I vaguely remembered it, and Rhodes; he's a Pulitzer Prize-winner, and Making Love was his attempt (back in 1992) to write a modern, honest sexual autobiography. (Though, doing a bit of research after I finished it, what I may have been remembering was Martin Amis's demolition of it in The New York Times Book Review.)

Rhodes had an admirable aim: he wanted to write about his own sexual life with the same honesty as he had written about other topics -- and, since he'd won a Pulitzer, one would expect that his prose will be solid.

But one would be wrong.

In Making Love, Rhodes is a clunky writer in several ways. Amis's review nailed the cliches and hothouse quality of many of Rhodes's descriptions of sex, but he skipped over Rhodes's clinical streak and his unwillingness to use earthy terms where appropriate. (Making Love is a hundred-and-seventy-three page book about fucking in which the word "fuck" never appears.) Rhodes has a tin ear when it comes to sex; he manages to consistently hit the wrong tone, and to do so in one of five or six different ways in rotation. For just one example, he massively overuses the descriptive term "vaginal introitus."

I suspect Rhodes is an obsessive; his explanation of his masturbation routine (which seems to require the whole of an afternoon -- who but a freelance writer has such time?) is the best example of this, with extensive preparations and hours of what doesn't really seem like fun. And Making Love focuses on obsessiveness rather than on sex too much of the time.

Rhodes covers his deflowering in a quick initial chapter, mentions his teenage group-home "situational homosexuality" honestly but doesn't really go into detail in chapter two, and then plunges into adulthood. He mentions that he's had sex with eleven women in his life, but he doesn't run through them, or organize the book chronologically. Instead, we get a few of chapters of thematic meandering (one on the penis, one on an abortion in the '60s, a very long one on porn) to cover most of his adult life (the late '50s through about 1982) and then he gets sucked into the vortex of ESO.

Rhodes was the ghostwriter on a sex book, ESO: Extended Sexual Orgasm, after he browbeat the sex researchers Alan and Donna Brauer into letting him tape their spiel and turn it into a book. He'd attended one of their demonstrations in 1981 -- of a woman supposedly remaining in an orgasmic state for hours -- saw a direct connection to his plateau theory of extreme masturbation, and was instantly intrigued. The ESO phenomenon started slow, but I know from my early days in the business that ESO books were selling like mad by the early '90s, and they don't seem to have entirely died out even now. Rhodes took to ESO like a duck to water, throwing himself completely into its regimen. (ESO is something like the extreme sports version of sex, requiring training and record-keeping; for an obsessive like Rhodes, it was like coming home.) One does wonder what his then-current wife made of this; I don't believe he ever directly mentions her or talks about their sex life together.

The back half of the book is one part extended paean to ESO, with unsexy physical descriptions and clunky pseudo-poetic writing about emotions, and one part love sex letter to his current (as of 1992) inamorata, G_____.

In time-hallowed fashion, G_____ was:
  • two decades younger than Rhodes
  • incredibly physically fit
  • amazingly attractive
  • working in the media (at a radio station), where Rhodes met her in his capacity as Big Cheese touring author
  • amazingly multi-orgasmic and willing to indulge Rhodes in his ESO operations.
Rhodes himself was married at the time, but that didn't last long. The last, long chapter details his relationship with G____ in unarousing detail, culminating when she finally breaks down and tells him that she doesn't want to spend her life counting and timing her orgasms in search of ever-greater heights of ESO. Rhodes briefly sulks, then settles down to a slightly less acrobatic sex life as the curtain falls.

There are at least a dozen novels that are at least as "real" about sex as Making Love and which are much better written. It was a noble experiment, but it was one of those experiments that shatter the test-tubes and leave the lab a mess. There's no real reason to read this book these days, though I will admit it's very short.

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