This week saw the release of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, which, beside being a truly remarkable book, happens to feature a hilarious scene of masturbation. Despite the fact that it has been dubbed by some “literature’s last taboo,” the onanist impulse crops up more than you’d think in novels, and often makes for some great — or at least greatly amusing — writing. After the jump, a few favorites from literature both classic and contemporary for you to giggle over.
10:04, Ben Lerner
Context: our hero is in a hospital to produce a sperm donation for his best friend. He has been told repeatedly to wash his hands carefully to avoid contaminating the sample and presented with a TV that provides access to several varieties of alphabetically organized porn.
After a few seconds of panicky deliberation, I just pressed play — which started Asian Anal Adventures, even though that’s not at all my thing; not choosing seemed less objectionable somehow than having to express a positive preference among the available categories — and put the remote control and the plastic container down and walked back to the sink and washed my hands. Then I returned to the screen and undid my jeans and was about to get the whole thing going when I realized my pants were even more potentially contaminating: I’d been on the subway for an hour; I couldn’t remember the last time I’d laundered the things. I shuffled back to the sink with my pants and underwear around my ankles and began to worry about how long I was taking, if there was a time limit, if the nurse was going to knock on the door at some point and ask me how it was going or tell me it was the next patient’s turn. I did the shuffle back to the screen and hurriedly donned the headphones, but then it occurred to me: contact with the headphones was no different than contact with the remote control. I thought about putting an end to this increasingly Beckettian drama and just trying to go on, but then I imagined getting the call that the sample wasn’t usable, and so again shuffled — now wearing the headphones, now hearing the shrieks and groans of the adventurers — back to the sink to wash my hands once more. Above the sink there was mercifully no mirror.
How to Build a Girl, Caitlin Moran
While we’re at it, there’s another new book getting a lot of attention for its onanism: Caitlin Moran’s new novel, How to Build a Girl, about which one reviewer wrote, “Moran is in danger of becoming to female masturbation what Keats was to nightingales. [14-year-old protagonist] Johanna is such a female Portnoy you wonder how she manages to get any writing done.” And it’s true: “I am masturbating” is the sixth sentence in this book. But on to the real sign of a lady Portnoy — creativity.
At first, my trust ally in this was the family hairbrush. By day I used it to brush my hair, before cutting my fringe with the big kitchen scissors. And by night I rode the handle of that grooming item like a limitless fuck-pony, doubling its functionalities at a stroke. It was a bit like Bruce Wayne and Batman, in that regard. Bruce Wank. Multi-tasking. Two very separate lives. Always with the disguise. That brave old brush. And Gotham never knew. … Thankfully, around that time I decided to combat my burgeoning underarm odor issues by shoplifting a bottle of Mum roll-on deodorant, and realized on the bus on the way home that it was shaped — astonishingly, usefully, blatantly — like a cheerful, chunky cock. With its pink domed lid and carefully contoured bottle, the thinking behind British teenage girls’ most popular deodorant of the late 1980s was a truth hidden in plain view: Proctor and Gamble were selling adolescent girls Starter Dildos for 79p. Did they know? Of course they knew. They knew — and they were playing mind games with us. For what reason — other than a knowing sadistic streak — would they have named something millions of teenage girls were fapping themselves senseless with “Mum”? It was their way of fucking with our minds. The real test of how horny you were. Are you so desperate that you’d have sex with your Mum? To which my simple answer was — locking the bedroom door and lying on the floor — Yes.
Ulysses, James Joyce
Leopold Bloom watches teenager Gerty MacDowell, who flirts with him from afar, imagining him as some heroic figure. Bloom, on the other hand…
And then a rocket sprang and bang shot blind and O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! They were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft! Then all melted away dewily in the grey air: all was silent. Ah! She glanced at him as she bent forward quickly, a pathetic little glance of piteous protest, of shy reproach under which he coloured like a girl. He was leaning back against the rock behind. Leopold Bloom (for it is he) stands silent, with bowed head before those young guileless eyes. What a brute he had been! At it again? … Mr. Bloom with careful hand recomposed his wet shirt. O Lord that little limping devil. Begins to feel cold and clammy. Aftereffect not pleasant. Still you have to get rid of it someway.
Our Lady of the Flowers, Jean Genet
There’s some argument that this entire book is an implicit masturbation scene, since the narrator tells us he is in prison (Genet was also in prison while writing the book) and telling the stories to, er, amuse himself. As Sartre says in his introduction, this is “the epic of masturbation.” Here is a verse:
But at night! Fear of the guard who may suddenly flick on the light and stick his head through the grating compels me to take sordid precautions lest the rustling of the sheets draw attention to my pleasure; but though my gesture may be less noble, by becoming secret it heightens my pleasure. I dawdle. Beneath the sheet, my right hand stops to caress the absent face, and then the whole body, of the outlaw I have chosen for that evening’s delight. The left hand closes, then arranges its fingers in the form of a hollow organ which tries to resist, then offers itself, opens up, and a vigorous body, a wardrobe, emerges from the wall, advances, and falls upon me, crushes me against my straw mattress, which has already been stained by more than a hundred prisoners, while I think of the happiness into which I sink at a time when God and His angels exist.
Tampa, Alissa Nutting
This book, featuring one of the most twisted and obsessive protagonists I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet, is filled with a wide variety ridiculous examples, so it’s hard to choose. But here’s one selected for brilliance/bizarreness of metaphor:
I tried to take relief in the shower’s warm surge of water. Thinking about the boys I was hours away from meeting, the fruity syrup of body wash I slathered across my breasts seemed to ferment to an intoxicating alcohol in the air. I smiled imagining them breathing the fragrance of the green apple shampoo I worked into my blond locks; despite the chemical bitters its scented foam belied, when one frothing swath of hair slid down against my face I had to force it into my mouth and suck. Soon I felt so dizzy that I had to kneel down on the shower floor; I clumsily extracted the showerhead from its holder and guided it between my legs, the same way one would put on an oxygen mass that dropped from the plane’s ceiling due to an ominous change in cabin pressure, feeling nothing but a frightened hope for survival.
As I Lay Dying, William Faulkner
While we’re on deliberately obtuse masturbation scenes, how about this one, which I like to think of as “wind-assisted masturbation.”
Then I would wait until they all went to sleep so I could lie with my shirt-tail up, hearing them asleep, feeling myself without touching myself, feeling the cool silence blowing upon my parts and wondering if Cash was yonder in the darkness doing it too, had been doing it perhaps for the last two years before I could have wanted to or could have.
The Ask, Sam Lipsyte
Every Sam Lipstye novel I’ve ever read has had at least one excellent masturbation scene. This is one of the more dire and contemplative ones, a father’s masturbatory story.
I clicked onward to Home Aid Ho’s. This was actually part of a larger constellation of niche sites, and I searched some other scenarios until I found the one that catered to my particular deformity. Spreadsheet Spreaders featured men who pleasured their female employers for raises of up to twenty percent. I started to rub myself and, remembering I would have to retrieve Bernie soon, recalled that I’d once done what I was doing with Bernie in the room. He’d been a few months old, and though sex in his vicinity was deemed okay, or, more than okay, beautiful and natural, Maura and I had never covered the masturbation question. Was jerking off in front of your mewler any different than making sweet slow love? I’d always meant to start an anonymous thread about this on one of those parenting resource sites. Things got away from me. Now it was no longer a concern. Bernie was too old. I was too old. It took me a good while to banish this memory, return to the hermetic joys of Spreadsheet Spreaders. I rubbed on valiantly, shot was was doubtless, at my advanced age, some sullen autist into a superannuated tube sock.
Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
Ah, elegant masturbation in little rooms to phallic buildings.
Alas, it was in vain that I implored the dungeon-keep of Roussainville, that I begged it to send out to meet me some daughter of its village, appealing to it as to the sole confidant to whom I had disclosed my earliest desire when, from the top floor of our house at Combray, from the little room that smelt of orris-root, I had peered out and seen nothing but its tower, framed in the square of the half-opened window, while, with the heroic scruples of a traveller setting forth for unknown climes, or of a desperate wretch hesitating on the verge of self-destruction, faint with emotion, I explored, across the bounds of my own experience, an untrodden path which, I believed, might lead me to my death, even—until passion spent itself and left me shuddering among the sprays of flowering currant which, creeping in through the window, tumbled all about my body. In vain I called upon it now. In vain I compressed the whole landscape into my field of vision, draining it with an exhaustive gaze which sought to extract from it a female creature.
Fear of Flying, Erica Jong
Another classic, fingernails and all.
She runs her hands down her belly. Her right forefinger touches the clitoris while the left forefinger goes deep inside her, pretending to be a penis. What does a penis feel, surrounded by those soft, collapsing caves of flesh? Her finger is too small. She puts in two and spreads them. But her nails are too long. They scratch. What if he wakes up? Maybe she wants him to wake up and see how lonely she is. Lonely, lonely, lonely. She moves her fingers to that rhythm, feeling the two inside get creamy and the clitoris get hard and red. Can you feel colors in your finger tips? This is what red feels like. The inner cave feels purple. Royal purple. As if the blood down there were blue. “Who do you think of when you masturbate?” her German analyst asked. “Who do you sink of? I sink therefore I am. She thinks of no one really, and of anyone. Of her analyst and her father. No, not her father. She cannot think of her father. Of a man on train. A man under the bed. A man with no face. His face is blank. His penis has one eye. It weeps. She feels the convulsions of the orgasm suck violently around her fingers. Her hand falls to her side and then she sinks into a dead sleep.
Portnoy’s Complaint, Philip Roth
But of course: the patron saint of literary masturbation is one Alexander Portnoy, who’ll famously put it in just about anything he can find:
At the Saturday afternoon movie I would leave my friends to go off to the candy machine — and wind up in a distant balcony seat, squirting my seed into the empty wrapper from a Mounds bar. On an outing of our family association, I once cored an apple, saw to my astonishment (and with the aid of my obsession) what it looked like, and ran off into the woods to fall upon the orifice of the fruit, pretending that the cool and mealy hole was actually between the legs of that mythical being who always called me Big Boy when she pleaded for what no girl in all recorded history had ever had. “Oh shove it in me, Big Boy,” cried the cored apple that I banged silly on that picnic. “Big Boy, Big Boy, oh give me all you’ve got,” begged the empty milk bottle that I kept hidden in our storage bin in the basement, to drive wild after school with my vaselined upright. “Come, Big Boy, come,” screamed the maddened piece of liver that, in my own insanity, I bought one afternoon at a butcher shop and, believe it or not, violated behind a billboard on the way to a bar mitzvah lesson.