The Sex Lives of Others

Photo: Christie's Images/Corbis (Hendrick Goltzius's "The Fall of Man")

Robert Olen Butler’s new story collection, Intercourse, is, as its title suggests, totally about doing it. It imagines the thoughts of 50 iconic couples as they knock the proverbial boots, beginning with Adam and Eve copulating on “a patch of earth cleared of thorns and thistles, a little east of Eden,” and ending with Santa Claus blowing off postholiday steam in January 2008 by doing the nasty with an 826-year-old elf in the back room of his workshop. But, as the clinical tone of Butler’s title also suggests, Intercourse is very much not a work of erotica. It tends to ignore messy fluids and crotch-logistics in favor of wordplay and psychological nuance. The book proceeds through twinned vignettes—complementary stream-of-consciousness prose-poems paired across facing pages, with the primal physical act implied in the margins between. (When you close the book, each of the couples gets pressed together.) The entire thing contains, by my count, only one legitimate orgasm—and that probably shouldn’t even qualify, since it involves Richard Nixon masturbating while thinking about his mother.

The keynote of Intercourse is not connection but distraction. Very few of Butler’s characters are what you would call “in the moment.” Many scheme for political gain: Cleopatra, for instance, services “stone-fingered” Marcus Antonius while remembering hot nights with Caesar and plotting the consolidation of her power—“the first thing I will ask of him is that he kill my sister.” Others see sex as redemptive, a chance to heal past abuses. A Mississippi slave sleeps with a fellow slave in order to cancel out her rape at the hands of the Master; the sixteenth-century Italian aristocrat Lucrezia Borgia sees the consummation of her marriage as a way to negate being raped by her father, the pope. Butler’s best vignettes create, in just a handful of lines, surprisingly rich dramatic texture. Mary Magdalene has sex with a Roman centurion under a fig tree on the day she first sees Jesus; she thinks of the mysterious holy stranger as the centurion ponders his first murder, which he committed earlier that day. Leda is insulted that Zeus, as a swan, stopped to eat barley on his way to meet her. Louis XVI hates sleeping with Marie Antoinette, who thinks of Mozart. “I would much prefer,” the king thinks, “to put my member in the forge until it is yellow-hot from the flame and then pound it on an anvil with a hammer.”

Butler, a 63-year-old Vietnam vet and Pulitzer Prize winner, has become, over his long career, increasingly prone to this kind of fictional gimmickry. He wrote one book inspired entirely by outlandish tabloid headlines, another by his own personal collection of vintage postcards. He once wrote a short story during a 34-hour live Webcast. His last book, Severance, tracked the fleeting final thoughts of 62 victims of beheadings, from a caveman named Mud (beheaded by a saber-toothed tiger in 40,000 B.C.) to Nicole Brown Simpson (“decapitated by assailant, 1994”). Intercourse steers a nice middle road—an “inter-course,” literally—between gimmickry and art. It’s both titillating and meaty. Butler has a deep talent for particularizing these mythic sexual encounters; he gives them settings (in a Spanish forest, on the Titanic), dates (Adam and Eve get down “the first day after the new moon of the fourth month of the eighth year after Creation”), and often-witty biographical tags (“Santa Claus, 471, philanthropist”).

As the vignettes accumulate, they cohere into a kind of Spoon River Anthology of getting it on. Characters reappear unexpectedly; events echo. Inga Arvad, a journalist, has sex with both Hitler and JFK, beginning each monologue with the mild shock of “how can this be.” One chapter depicts Helen having sex with Paris at the start of the Trojan War; the next depicts her ten years later, on the boat heading home, in bed with Menelaus. (He thinks, “This is familiar, after a decade, this is too familiar, I should have just let her go.”)

Intercourse is a clever project, in both conception and execution—but occasionally this strength becomes a weakness. Butler sometimes abandons the novelist’s search for psychological truth in favor of cheap jokes. When Nixon’s mother catches him masturbating, he raises his hands over his head and says, “I am not a masturbator”—an easy gag that undermines the book’s more serious ambition. A few of the big names here inspire Butler to trade characterization for caricature, human depth for winky references to catchphrases and clichés. Mozart thinks in musical terms (“treble cleft of breasts,” “trilling laugh”), Picasso in paint (“her skin Yellow Ochre,” the trees “Cobalt Black”), and Lincoln in logs (“she rail-split my log long ago, the products of which were dispatched to erect a fence in some far land and leaving nothing erectable behind”). Freud engages in dream analysis, Milton Berle tells mental one-liners, and Gertrude Stein, bedding Alice B. Toklas, thinks exactly like she writes: “her mustache is her mustache is her mustache.” Jean-Paul Sartre—who, you may be aware, was an existentialist who wrote a novel called Nausea—thinks existential thoughts (“all of it too much, all of it with no reason for being”) and ends with a feeling of nausea: “I think I’m going to be sick.” Such shortcuts downgrade the book from legitimate literature—which it often is—to a secondary stunt, a virtuoso writing-seminar exercise. The less-famous half of a coupling is frequently the better entry: The absence of clichés forces Butler into fresh complexity.

Intercourse’s boldest and most ethically dangerous moments are its portraits of modern politicians, many of whom are, predictably, grotesque. A young JFK, thinking of himself cockily in the third person, ponders renouncing political ambition forever in a moment of ecstatic pre-orgasmic delay. J. Edgar Hoover gets off by fantasizing about (and recording) JFK. RFK compares his performance obsessively with his more dashing brother. (Marilyn Monroe, pointedly, does not.) Joseph McCarthy, in the middle of consummating his new marriage, becomes overwhelmed with paranoia when his wife breaks eye contact.

The book’s stakes, both aesthetic and legal, seem to rise even higher when Butler channels the sex lives of still-living public figures. For one thing, this puts him in direct artistic competition with the massive energy of transatlantic tabloid culture, whose lurid imagination (cigars, dress stains, potty-mouthed royalty) would require a Tolstoy, or at least a Roth, to improve. Butler’s versions, accordingly, all pretty much follow the script. Prince Charles and Princess Di suffer mechanically through their final time together. George W. Bush conducts a belligerent inner argument with liberal journalists (“I will kick your ass unremittlessly”) while a patient Laura mentally redecorates the Lincoln bedroom (“won’t be long—wallpaper wallpaper”). The ballsiest vignette, the “oh, snap” moment that will make you hunch over protectively on the subway and possibly Google the basic legal definition of slander, is Butler’s depiction of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham as striving twentysomething law students: “this had to be done eventually,” Hillary thinks, and goes on to fantasize about sex on the floor of the Oval Office—“I don’t care if that’s the next time we do this, to be honest with myself, but I choose this time and I will choose some others in between because one day we’ll be fucking on the eagle and there’s a soft knock at the door and the secretary knows not to barge in and she says Madame President, the Soviet premier is on the phone.” Although it’s predictable— perhaps even because it’s predictable—the episode feels convincing, and even, in the dusk of our overheated never-ending primary, poignant. Hillary’s dispassionate scheming is right out of central casting, and recalls all the book’s other political lovers, from Eve to Cleopatra to Henry VIII. Butler seems to be telling us that repetition, above all, is the essence of humankind’s perpetual bump and grind. And, in a world in which all the secrets are out, perhaps the greatest art lies in making us blush anew at what we already know.

With its boldface couplings, Intercourse is intensely name-dropping—but not scandalmongering, insists Robert Olen Butler, who knows a thing or two about lost privacy. In 2007, he found himself dragged into tabloid territory when his wife, the novelist Elizabeth Dewberry, left him to become one of Ted Turner’s girlfriends. Gawker posted Butler’s 745-word e-mail detailing the couple’s competition as writers, their failed therapy, and the bit of traveler’s bad luck that spurred Dewberry to dissolve the marriage: “In March, she nearly died from an intestinal blockage in Argentina … that led her further to profoundly question her own identity.”

Intercourse: Stories
By Robert Olen Butler.
Chronicle Books. $22.95.

The Sex Lives of Others