In Sheila Heti's new novel, Pure Colour, sexual metaphor is invoked regularly as the protagonist, a woman in mourning, fashions a personal theology. Below, the author of How Should a Person Be? offers a critical survey of sex in American literature.
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934).
Henry Miller is perhaps the most joyous and exuberant American writer of the 20th century. His books are filled with a lust not just for sex, but for life, freedom, escape, and the city. Tropic of Cancer, first published in the U.S. in 1961, is his utterly strange and messy masterpiece. Buy it here.
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin (1956).
This is one of the most moving novels I have ever read, and the sexuality in it is furtive, tender, filled with confusion and guilt and self-loathing, and a sense of twilight. It's concerned with being lost in one's own self, and the beauty of another. Buy it here.
Corregidora by Gayl Jones (1975).
Gayl Jones was a primary inspiration for Toni Morrison. Her shadowy novel Corregidora is about a female singer searching for beauty and wholeness, having been hurt by a lover and hobbled by a whole lineage of women whose lives were ruined by the man who enslaved and impregnated them. The book is plotted like a beautiful, tear-filled song. But it here.
Lightning Rods by Helen DeWitt (2011).
This is the funniest book on the list — a satire on heterosexuality, capitalism, and the entrepreneurial spirit, in which attempts to fix the world only make it worse. The protagonist comes up with a bizarre and unlikely idea for how to reduce sexual harassment in the workplace, only to end up enshrining it. Buy it here.
Cleanness by Garth Greenwell (2020).
Cleanness tells of an American expat living and teaching in Sofia, Bulgaria. The depictions of gay sex and love in this book are so various, and are exquisitely rendered in beautiful sentences. This book contains one of my favorite sex scenes ever — involving nothing more than kissing. Buy it here.
Acts of Service by Lillian Fishman (2022).
This brilliant debut novel, which will be published in May, is about a woman in a committed relationship with her girlfriend who finds herself drawn into a secret affair with a man and his girlfriend. The experience twists her ideas about her own desires, safety, love, what trust is, and where one can find it. Buy it here.
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