“Kinsey wanted Dellenback to film his own staff. There are three ways to read that sentence, all of them true.”
If you’re the kind of person who would like to know the story of how researchers discovered that electrical dick machines can stimulate knee orgasms in paralysed people, oh boy, do I have a book for you.
To give you an idea of the tone of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, here are a selection of chapter titles:
- Dating the Penis-Camera: Can a Woman Find Happiness with a Machine? [Spoiler: Yes!]
- Re-Member Me: Transplants, Implants, and Other Penises of Last Resort
- The Upsuck Chronicles: Does Orgasm Boost Fertility, and What Do Pigs Know About It?
This is a hilarious chronicle of science, and the ridiculous lengths some people will go to figure out the most efficient way their bits can fit in people/objects. After Bonk you’ll come away with ridiculous stories, an appreciation for Roach’s sense of humour and renewed gratefulness for puns. This thing is almost annoyingly funny. I kept sniggering, but really, really didn’t want strangers sitting near me on the train to ask me what I was reading. “Oh no, it’s not like that, it’s funny, I promise. Why are you moving seats? There’s no pictures!”
Mary Roach, for our entertainment and knowledge, performed the following acts during her research: measured the length between her clitoris and urethra; observed penile surgery in person, during which metal shafts were inserted right up a man’s shaft; had sex with her husband inside a confining magnetic tube so that researchers could see what people look like inside during the beast with two backs. She then managed to make my most prominent impressions of her as a person ‘shrewd, hard-working and extremely funny’, instead of ‘the woman who was really into weird sex stuff’. She worked too hard for me not to recommend this enthusiastically.
“But there are no absolutes in human misery and things can always get worse.”
Imagine William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury crossed with It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia and you have something close to Suttree. One main character is a brooding rebel who has rejected his family’s wealth and lives on a river catching fish, spending his time drinking heavily and living painfully. Another fucks watermelons.
This is an outrageous and astounding novel. Seemingly aimless, true, but if you stick with it you’ll love how it can both amuse and devastate you.
A good way to approach this is as if it’s the adult equivalent of Huckleberry Finn, a series of loosely connected short stories that make up a greater whole. You follow a vagrant named Suttree as he travels through the underbelly of filth-encrusted Knoxville, Tennessee. There is no obvious plot, merely life in all its banality and wonder in a harsh place where angry, drunken homeless men maraud the streets and life can “always get worse.”
The writing is great, but McCarthy has most stunning prose of anyone alive so that can be taken for granted with him at this point.
I tend to keep a few simple notes while I’m reading a novel so I can keep track of moments or themes that strike me as particularly important or interesting. Despite the fact that, as mentioned above, Suttree is essentially plot-less, I had almost three times as much written when finishing than I normally do. Part of that is probably length, as this is a hefty book, but this also speaks to just how rich in detail and subtext it is. You could re-read each page and find a fascinating detail you missed the first time round. With a great mixture of the profound and the hilariously crude, this was a fitting and satisfying book for me to finish my reading of McCarthy on.
Still, it didn’t fully hook me until quite late in the story. I needed to get used to the strange, drifting narrative. Let Suttree wash over you like cold water: adjust, be patient. You’ll be rewarded. There’s something great lurking beneath the murky surface.