In her 2009 New York Times essay "The Naked and Conflicted," Katie Roiphe compares the carnal qualities of the old and new generations of male American writers.
In the horny old cadre of Roth, Updike, and Mailer, Roiphe, though conflicted, sees a certain validity and eventually a "vanished grandeur" in their tumescent writing. Though never not at least somewhat problematic, she locates an honesty to the pompous virility of the ostensibly narrow perspective. "The writers were interested in showing not just the triumphs of sexual conquest, but also its loneliness, its failures of connection."
"In the intervening decades," she writes of time's tolls, "the feminists objected; the public consumed; the novelists themselves were much decorated. And then somewhat to their surprise, the old guard got old." Like the men themselves, the sex in their books became rickety and awkward and rote.
"At this point, one might be thinking: enter the young men, stage right. But our new batch of young or youngish male novelists are not dreaming up Portnoys or Rabbits. The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex." In the work of writers like Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Jonathan Franzen, Roiphe sees an irksome sexual ambivalence, a current of irony that's "too cool for sex", an attitude that could be seen, and maybe is hoped to be seen, as progressive. "Rather than an interest in conquest or consummation, there is an obsessive fascination with trepidation, and with a convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing."
"They are good guys," she says of the comparably-young writers, "sensitive guys, and if their writing is denuded of a certain carnality, if it lacks a sense of possibility, of expansiveness, of the bewildering, transporting effects of physical love, it is because of a certain cultural shutting down, a deep, almost puritanical disapproval of their literary forebears and the shenanigans they lived through."
Roiphe, however, isn't buying it. She perceives a sexism in the work of these "heirs apparent" that is "simply wilier and shrewder and harder to smoke out."
These kids — Wallace especially — viewed the old guard as inherently narcissistic, viewed themselves as above it, but Roiphe suspects that narcissism is "about as common among male novelists as brown eyes in the general public," and this new batch of writers represents "the flowering of a new narcissism: boys too busy gazing at themselves in the mirror to think much about girls, boys lost in the beautiful vanity of 'I was warm and wanted her to be warm,' or the noble purity of being just a tiny bit repelled by the crude advances of the desiring world."
One wouldn't be quick to accuse the hero of Daniel Handler's All The Dirty Parts of narcissism. Seventeen years old, Cole's seemingly too busy thinking about girls, about sex to consider himself at all. The desiring world has advanced and conquered. If he does think about himself, he thinks about how much he thinks about sex. "Let me put it this way," he opens. "This is how much I think about sex. Draw a number line, with zero is, you never think about sex and ten is, it's all you think about, and while you are drawing the line, I am thinking about sex."
Cole's world is rife with triggers. "If you rumple my hair and leave your hand for a minute on my neck. If you sit and put one of your legs up on something even if you're in jeans. If you lick something off your finger. If you put on lipstick. If you rub your own bare arm. If you bend down for any reason to pick something up of the ground. If you talk to me."
While Cole's horny delicacy isn't unique among his peers, the fact that he's actually having sex might set him apart. For his friend Alec, he's as valuable a source of prurient info as internet porn. "Give me the details," Alec demands, immediately frustrated that Cole would tell him about anything other than the "dirty parts" of his exploits. "The sex is the details I mean."
As narrator, Cole aspires to do the same sort of edits for us as he does for Alec. "There are love stories galore, and we all know them. This isn't that. The story I'm typing is all the dirty parts."
As a sexual conquistador, Cole sees himself as honest in his interests and intentions, sees his intercourses as mutually beneficial learning experiences for everyone involved. Sex, for him, is expansive, bewildering, transporting, and if everyone's getting off, what could be the problem? His unsexed — he suspects jealous — friend Kristen breaks the problem to Cole. He's gained a reputation for sleeping around and for not always being a gentleman.
"What's wrong with going out with girls?" the young man wants to know, preparing a convenient, familiar argument for equality. "Go yell at girls, if you think it's wrong."
On account of it being slim, people might miss just how huge Daniel Handler's new novel is, how dexterously it dramatizes the initially confusing, usually tangled, always foundational problems of sex. What may seem regressive at first blush becomes profoundly progressive.
Cole is aware of the concept of consent, for instance, but for him it's an unnuanced survey box that just needs ticking. Any strife before, during, or after sex Cole hopes to clear up with an "Are we okay?" Until it becomes complicated for him — and in All The Dirty Parts it will become complicated — Cole doesn't see why sex should be complicated. Eventually, he has a breakthrough that should be tattooed on the arm of every young man — every person, really — so it's there to refer to in any situation that involves another person. "Put it this way: if you can't see the complication, you're probably it."
By being open and explicit with all the dirty parts, by fully investing in and presenting the confused, stubborn lust of a young man — by presenting the sort of swollen, monomaniacal obsession that would be comfortably at home in Roth or Updike — Handler is able to work through the problematic, wrongheaded aspects of his narrator's priorities. Breaking away from the "too cool for sex" of his coevals, Handler is actually productive and instructive with his unapologetic depictions of "physical love." Rather than hiding behind "convoluted, postfeminist second-guessing," he dramatizes the natural, earned conclusions of the past fifty years of talking through respect and equality. These conversations aren't possible if we don't lead with an honesty about our untoward drives.
Pseudonymously famous as a writer for young people, Handler has expressed a hope that All The Dirty Parts, advertised for adults, finds its way to younger readers. He's ready for this to be a repugnant idea to some. His full conclusion is worth setting out here:
"My new novel portrays a young boy’s emotional, heteroflexible sex life — and I’d like young people to read it. But it’s being published for adults, partly because the guardians of young people’s literature get so easily riled up about sex, preferring to recommend, say, books about teenagers slaughtering one another in a post-apocalyptic landscape, rather than books about kids masturbating at home.
"To which many would say, so what? Don’t we have more important things to worry about than giving sexually explicit literature to young people? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about, say, the rampant misogyny of everyday life, in a nation led by a self-admitted sexual predator?
"Which to me is precisely the point. I believe in the power of literature to connect, to transform, particularly for young minds beginning to explore the world. I want books to be an unlimited resource for young people and their curiosity, not a sphere restricted by how uncomfortable some curiosities make adults feel.
"The books I read as a teenager, sex and all, made me a better boy and then a better man, just as literature continues to make me a better husband, a better father, a better feminist. I want that for my son, and for all my young readers of every gender."