“Yes I said yes I will Yes.” In high school, my earthy, fearless friend Lisa—who was two grades ahead of me and already initiated into the world of men and sexuality—had these words stenciled on her bedroom wall. As I learned from her, they constitute the most famous affirmation by a woman in English literature: the rapturous last words of Molly Bloom’s monologue in Ulysses, the modernist masterpiece in which James Joyce defied conventional grammar and syntax in an attempt to represent the human mind in all its chaos, freeing fiction into a new world of possibility. Among the novel’s innovations was that final chapter: its intimacy with a female character’s most private thoughts, feelings, and fantasies, much of which is famously rendered in one amazingly long unpunctuated sentence. Someday, I imagined, I too would ecstatically say yes, yes, yes to a man.
Once I got to college and actually read Ulysses, the novel didn’t offer as clear a model as I had expected. Molly’s soliloquy reflects on the disintegration of her marriage to Leopold Bloom, closing with her memory of accepting his proposal, sixteen years before the novel takes place: “I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.” My professor told us that Molly’s character manifests Joyce’s adoration of his wife, Nora, to whom the novel is a kind of homage, unfolding entirely during the course of the day they first met: June 16, 1904. (The two of them also exchanged some of the dirtiest love letters in literary history.)
But my hopes that Ulysses would illuminate female sexuality were disappointed. One strand of the novel turns on Molly’s frustration with the marriage’s long barrenness: they haven’t had sex since the death of their infant son ten years earlier. She gets just a few crude lines about how she longs to feel her lover’s penis inside her. Meanwhile, when Bloom, under rather seedy circumstances, has an orgasm—he furtively masturbates on the beach while peeping up a girl’s skirt—it’s accompanied by literal fireworks.
When the Irish writer Eimear McBride sat down to write her first novel, she taped above her desk a quote from a letter in which Joyce summed up his literary method: “One great part of every human existence is passed in a state which cannot be rendered sensible by the use of wideawake language, cutanddry grammar and goahead plot.” Reading Ulysses, McBride said later, altered her perceptions of what fiction could do and convinced her that “within the novel lay the greatest freedom I would ever possess.” But as she began to write, she became aware of the limitations on “appropriate modes of expression for female writers” that she had internalized, particularly when it came to sex and violence: a “bizarre prudery, which bore no relation to the way I lived my life.” As Joyce did before her, she would have to find a new form of language to bring the reader closer to experience than standard English allowed—and then claim it for herself as a female writer.
The result was a novel—and now several of them—in which everything filters through a single female character, whose thoughts we experience in a language of unusual immediacy. First came A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which she wrote in six months, at the age of twenty-seven, while working temp jobs. It starts when the unnamed narrator is two and follows her through adolescence into early adulthood, through abuse, incest, and the sickness and death of her beloved younger brother. The combination of difficult subject matter and unconventional style made the novel a hard sell: nine years passed before it was finally picked up by Galley Beggar Press, a tiny publishing outfit run out of a bookstore in Norwich, England, where McBride was living at the time. (Continuing to take chances on unconventional fiction, last year the press published Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, a thousand-page novel made up almost entirely of one sentence, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.1) Published in 2013 with a run of one thousand copies, Girl met with critical rapture and won two of Britain’s most prestigious literary awards, the Goldsmiths Prize and the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction.
McBride followed Girl in 2016 with The Lesser Bohemians, whose protagonist might be seen as a Molly Bloom for our era: an acting student who becomes physically and emotionally involved with an alluring, artistic, damaged man twenty years her senior. A chronicle of a young woman’s sexual awakening, the book is at once a coming-of-age story, an exhumation of the emotional horrors people are capable of inflicting on one another, and a moving testament to the power of love to heal trauma. It unfolds with an emotional and linguistic intensity that made me feel, putting it down, as if the molecules in my brain had been rearranged.
Now comes Strange Hotel, a miniature firecracker of a novel as tightly wound as its predecessor was exuberant. McBride seems to be testing how much can be communicated within a radically restricted structure. A woman visits, alone, a series of nondescript hotel rooms in cities around the world: Avignon, Prague, Oslo, Auckland, Austin. In all but the first, she picks up a man and goes through the motions of a one-night stand, with considerable shame and humiliation. As it turns out, she’s forcing herself to execute an unusual project, the exact nature of which we don’t learn until the final encounter.
In addition to Joyce, McBride’s formal and linguistic forebears might include Hubert Selby Jr. and Helen DeWitt. Her subject matter has shades of Dorothy Allison’s domestic Gothic; Anna Burns and Kristen Roupenian are among her contemporary fellow travelers. But she is distinct from all of them in offering a frank, unsentimental, and serious treatment of women’s sexual experience—and in placing it at the center of her novels. In Girl, McBride’s primary subject is sex and its relation to violence; in Bohemians, it’s sex and love; now, it’s sex and grief. “Art at its best, like sex at its best, is an invitation to God-knows-where. That is why they get along so well,” McBride once wrote in an essay published in The Guardian. “Using sex as a means of exploring the human is what art is for.”
To say that McBride writes experimental novels in stream-of-consciousness style does not capture the wreckage her sentences inflict on the English language. Lines break off mid-phrase, punctuation is percussive, shorthand locutions substitute for exposition. Girl’s stuttering language—analyzed at length by Fintan O’Toole in these pages2—captures the fragmentation of a child imminently threatened with psychic collapse. In Bohemians, the tone is lyrical and exhortatory, befitting the excitement of a young woman in the throes of discovering the world and soaking in experience: “Await await some blousier you and know her day will come.” On the morning after a weekend spent with her lover, she finds herself struggling to “understand again how to cover my bones with my skin,” her ecstatic thoughts somewhere between poetry and nonsense, propelled rhythmically forward:
Walk. Know your way. See the here. Recall the place. Turn the corner. Make and make. But those histories related, settled like stun, open their eyes now. Unfurl their tongues. Begin to exhibit in different lights. They beat in me. Hammer at. Declaim Have your love but remember this All our houses are the same and there is no place now without us in.
Strange Hotel is the first of McBride’s novels to be written in the third person, but it is no less intimately observed. The woman at the center watches herself with the attention of a hunter stalking prey. (She is unnamed, as McBride’s characters often are; McBride has said that she omits names as a way of removing one of the imaginative barriers between reader and characters.) Still, there is something odd about the way her thoughts are presented. We see her up close but also at a remove; it can be hard to work out exactly what she’s up to.
At the start of the novel, she arrives at the Avignon hotel, checks in (“Framed in keys, who is he to me, this arbiter of rooms?”), investigates her surroundings, unzips her bag, worries that her shampoo leaked on her clothes, cringes at the smell of the bathroom. Everything seems ordinary, except for the excruciating self-consciousness with which she performs her actions and the sense that something is going on beneath the surface that she is trying to conceal from herself. “If she didn’t know better,” we are told at one point, “she’d say she had done it on purpose; employed digression as an obstructive.”
She goes out to the balcony for a cigarette and flirts briefly with the man staying in the next room, who is also outside smoking. She is tempted to pick him up but resists: “No other person will be in this room tonight. That is the plan. That is the plan.” Instead, she orders two bottles of white wine from room service and masturbates to porn videos, described with alliterative flourishes that hilariously emphasize their unreality: “Primarily pinkly personnelled pornography…protractedly pursuing previously private perspectives of perfectly pumped penii practically pummelling professionally pruned pudenda.” Afterward, she passes out.
All the woman’s actions are described with minute physicality, but in an analytical language that tamps down even the possibility of feeling, as if she is directly restricting access to emotion. “It’s harder to let the words into her body now or, maybe, out,” she thinks at one point. Something has happened—for now, it is only hinted at—that has set her brain at war with herself and her impulses to remember what she wants to forget:
Is it possible you have somehow not heard myself speak?
To be clear then, enough of this.
Uncooperative though, it continues to maraud and assert its vague right to be heard. Think of. Think of. No I will not.
Though the encounters in Strange Hotel occur at intervals of years, many of the scenes unfold in something like real time: it takes about as long to read the protagonist’s thoughts as it does for the action to take place. (At one point an entire paragraph is devoted to her effort to compose her facial expression.) The novel’s “action” is radically limited, confined to the space of her hotel room or the room of the stranger she picks up. The sex she has with those strangers is at once central and incidental, the encounters designed to foreclose the possibility of attachment:
The paths of people uninterested in mess occasionally, anonymously, intersect, then frequently painlessly, re-separate with neither party suffered to lick up any scraps or tend another’s wounds.
We rarely see her during the act itself; the focus is on the torturous aftermath, when she berates herself for any lapse into emotion.
It’s a striking contrast to The Lesser Bohemians, in which sex is capable of reducing the participants to the depths of depravity but also of lifting them up into the sublime. It is through sex that the narrator and her lover create an intimacy that journeys into love: “The mouth on my breasts then—tickle and strange delight of being seen—surprises me, if not to everything, to something. Like first foot inveigle toward what this could be.” The narrator’s joy in her new experience suffuses her language. She exclaims “haAh” in surprised pleasure during oral sex. There is comedy, as when the man (who is also an actor), at her request, recites the “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech from Richard III while she goes down on him. When she cheats on him, in a miserable threesome, the act transforms her into “a form of thing,” no longer human. But having sex with him awakens her to herself as well as to him, the person she loves:
I, holding on as it rises, the high tide. Him and. live words I can’t make out. Cracking with the. Slam. other. Let each other. Out. Just being together. Being so fucking close. And I feel so much love for him in this moment I can’t imagine ever feeling anything else.
The only orgasm in Strange Hotel is the one the narrator gives herself (“my hand does the strange familiar until my eyes have grown tired of the screen”). It is perhaps the least climactic climax in all of literary sex—she doesn’t even bother to set down her wine glass: “Even buckling forward into its end, I do not spill my wine. Have. Have it. Lose it a little. Lose it entirely. Gone.” Observant readers will already have noticed the most striking thing about the scene: it slips into the first person. For a moment, the narrator takes possession of her experience. But when she awakens—the orgasm having served its soporific purpose—she is comfortably outside herself again.
In her Guardian essay, McBride elaborated her position on the difference between pornography and art, perhaps in a preemptive strike against readers who might tag her work as the former rather than the latter. In addition to being created intentionally to evoke arousal, she wrote, pornography situates sex outside of normal life, presenting it instead as “a hermetically sealed experience bearing no relation to the pasts or inner lives of the performers/characters, nor will it have any consequences for their future.” But in reality—and, she argues, as it ought to be in literature—sex is of the most profound significance in the lives of human beings, a force that determines many of our choices and on which depends a great deal of our happiness and our peace of mind, not to mention (for many of us) our ability to procreate. “The impulse towards and away from” sex, she writes,
sits at the root of enough of the cataclysms that shake and shape our lives as to warrant a far deeper degree of attention than the titillating/slightly embarrassed/deeply embarrassed/hygienically challenged digression from the main event that it’s frequently consigned to.
This is plainly true. So it’s hard to understand why sex in fiction has been largely consigned to writers of romance novels and erotica. Part of the reason, of course, is the social mores that dominated the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: in Flaubert’s time, the rocking of the carriage in which Emma Bovary and Rodolphe consummated their affair was a daring foray into the risqué. But even post-sexual-revolution writers have largely treated sex as a byproduct of existence rather than a mainstay of it, and the ones who have dared to place it centrally have written almost exclusively from a heterosexual male perspective: Philip Roth, John Updike, Nicholson Baker. More recently, novels about homosexual desire have delved into both the depraved and the redemptive aspects of sexual obsession: André Aciman’s Call Me by Your Name, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You and Cleanness. But works by and about women lag behind. In the decades since Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying gave us the phrase “zipless fuck,” only a few female writers have picked up the baton, among them A.L. Kennedy, Mary Gaitskill, and Jeanette Winterson.
I wonder if that’s in part because women have been conditioned out of it. Those of us who came of age after the second wave of feminism—millennials especially—likely had it drilled into us by both our mothers and our fathers that our worth as human beings doesn’t depend on our physical attractiveness or our ability to find a romantic partner. We see sexual obsession as a neurosis to be ashamed of and to overcome, not a state in which to linger joyously or—necessarily—a transit to love. “From September last year, I did nothing else but wait for a man,” the French novelist Annie Ernaux writes in Simple Passion, her fictionalized memoir of an all-consuming affair with a married lover. The statement draws its power from the way it upends our expectations: How could a sophisticated, mature, accomplished woman like Ernaux allow herself to be reduced to such monomaniacal longing? In The Lesser Bohemians, too, all other aspects of the narrator’s life—her friends, her family, the plays she studies and performs—are of secondary importance to her relationship. It’s easy to sympathize with the roommate who tells her, when she’s moping over one of many lovers’ quarrels, to forget about him.
But a person who is deep in the thick of a love affair cannot see beyond it. More than that, the affair becomes the engine that gives life meaning. The narrator of The Lesser Bohemians and her lover metaphorically restore each other to life: the novel does not use their names until they declare their love, as if love itself were naming them. The situation in Strange Hotel is the heartbreaking reverse: a woman who has put sex into a box and shut the lid, opening it only in accordance with carefully set rules, because she exists—it cannot be called “living”—in fear of its power to devastate her. It’s a pathology for which she earns the reader’s pity. The mounting tension of the novel consists in whether she will get past it and allow herself again to enter a state of vulnerability, “having life peeled of its skin.”
In Ulysses, Bloom says that love—“the opposite of hatred”—is “really life.” McBride riffs on this in The Lesser Bohemians during one of those lovers’ quarrels: “The other side of love we’ve arrived at. Not hate. I see it now, and so clearly tonight, that the opposite of love is despair.” In Strange Hotel, in which writing about sex becomes a way of expressing both intimacy and its absence, the opposite of love might be grief, despair’s close cousin, and the novel’s true story is the journey from the bottom of that grief back to love.
Recalling the “shattering” impact of her first encounter with heterosexual sex, Ernaux writes, “It occurred to me that writing should also aim for that—the impression conveyed by sexual intercourse, a feeling of anxiety and stupefaction, a suspension of moral judgment.” McBride’s characters use sex as a weapon, as a form of power, as an instrument to bring about intimacy, as an avoidance technique. If the reader might sometimes wonder at its centrality in their lives—what about the value of autonomy, after all?—that primacy is precisely McBride’s point. For her characters and for her, sex is always a thing to grapple with and to submit to, to marvel at and to honor.