Every fall Britain’s Literary Review announces, to much amusement, the finalists for its Bad Sex in Fiction Award, a parade of sex scenes rife with awkward similes (“he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of warm custard”), overworked prose (“his bulbous salutation extenuating its excitement”), and groan-worthy dialogue (“Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.”) Literary fashions come and go, but bad sex scenes are forever: There will always be so many ways they can go wrong, from E. L. James’s gee-willikers narration to Henry Miller’s macho peacocking. But though it’s easy enough to identify a bad sex scene — we know it when we read it — the prize dodges the better question: What makes for a good one?
André Aciman’s fourth novel, Enigma Variations, is one attempt at an answer, a sublime series of portraits of one man’s sexual history. It’s not exactly an erotic novel. There aren’t many sex scenes per se, and the bad-sex scholars at the Literary Review (I imagine them wearing lab coats, reading novels as if through a one-way mirror) might put one scene featuring the word “Englishmuffined” into contention for the 2017 class. But Aciman writes tremendous lust scenes — moments where the erotic power of a man or a woman is so strong it reshapes its well-educated but heedless hero.
That would be Paul, whom we first meet in his early twenties, visiting the Italian seaside village where he spent summers with his family and where he first fell hard for another man. He recalls himself at twelve, gazing at the muscular carpenter who “wasn’t wearing a shirt, just an apron, with his chest ever so visible.” Paul volunteers to assist the object of his admiration, and the metaphors of the workspace are plain but gentle, fitting for a young man’s awakening — we’re made well aware of wood’s grain, its strength, its capacity to bend. But Paul, like Aciman, also sees a kind of intellectual empowerment in this erotic pining despite his adolescent embarrassments (suffice to say a rag doused in paint thinner is a poor masturbation aid): “I too would be a grown man with hands like his, wearing glasses like his, letting a glint of mirth and mischief radiate through my features to tell the world I was an expert at something and a very, very good man.”
In this, the first of five scenes, there are echoes of Aciman’s exquisite 2007 novel, Call Me by Your Name, another study of gay adolescent romance in a small Italian town, a braid of erotic and intellectual coming-of-age stories. Enigma Variations lets the story grow up: By extending Paul’s story into late middle age, Aciman reveals the variety of forms these passages into maturity can take. And by deliberately dampening the golden-lit aura of the Italian scenes over time, he reveals aging’s sexual downsides; what feels like erotic epiphany in adolescence can be just dumb caddishness at forty-two. When spies his girlfriend canoodling with a man at a restaurant, he at once fumes (“I’m not so easily conned”) and sublimates his anger into lust toward Manfred, the man he eyes at a Central Park tennis club (“who comes out gleaming from the shower room every morning and who knows I’m looking because he is so hung”).
Neither mode is noble, but it has the energy of any good erotic writing — blood pumping, attention focused. (Stylistically, Aciman’s prose recalls Updike and Bellow, were either interested in homoeroticism.) His most effective approach is in a section that concerns Manfred directly — written as it is in second person, it flatters not just his attractiveness but ours. “You” are the lust object, the source of pleasure. (“Even if I can’t ever touch you, just looking at you makes me happy.”) You are the one who’s sick of small talk. And you are the one charmed by this Proustian riff on loneliness:
What if each of us at this very table is a monsoon-ravaged island trying to look its best, with all of our coconut trees bending to the winds till hopelessness breaks our back and you can hear each one crash, and still we’ll keep our spirited good cheer and add a lilting sprint to our gait on the way to the office every morning, because we’re each waiting for someone’s voice to tear us out of our bleak and battered husk and say, Follow me, Brother, follow me.
The fractured structure of Enigma Variations is key to the novel’s strength — the book is built on variations on a theme, not a familiar arc of love-gone-wrong or happily-ever-after. This leads to some contrivances, like the section about the woman Paul tumbles into bed with once every four years — a riff on Nietzsche’s concept of a “star friend,” an enemy you keep at a distance. (High-end literary references are rarely far away here; Paul first met this leap-year lover in college while working on translating Animal Farm into ancient Greek, and they make much of Ethan Frome.) But the push-me-pull-you relationship is also a surprisingly tender way to explore the idea of “relief [and] its terrible partner, indifference, which is the impulse to let go before we’ve even begun reaching for what we crave.”
But if Enigma Variations avoids the familiar pat ending, it still provokes the familiar questions most stories about love and sex do. What fate do we want for a philandering, restless man like this? Comeuppance? Settling down? Aciman’s response is an elegant dodge: He makes Paul both horny and needy, gentlemanly and witty, but after he’s twelve he’s never tormented. He thinks a lot about love and sex, but is never carried away by it: “Perhaps love is never meant to peak. It staggers in the foothills before starting uphill and then lurches down again.” It’s a melancholy sentiment, but one of the few true ones from a man who has a hard time telling the truth. And it’s a sentiment that, as Enigma Variations shows, encompasses multiple subtle shifts. There’s something here for everyone, along with the appealing notion that everybody can be encompassed by this book’s particular someone.