“I‘d always believed that sex masterpieces were the best kind. Better than Bach, the Empire State Building or Marcel Proust,” writes the novelist and memoirist Eve Babitz in her classic of 1960s and 70s LA, Slow Days, Fast Company. Lately it seems as though sex masterpieces may be endangered. More and more we are told that sex is about everything but sex itself. Erotic exchange is a means to moral improvement, suggests the Washington Post columnist Christine Emba in her recent book, Re-Thinking Sex: A Provocation. It is an ethical hazard, warns the New York Times Pundit Michelle Goldberg in a series of pieces against sex positivity. It is a danger to women, writes Louise Perry in her new book, The Case Against the Sexual Revolution. For comments on both the left and the right, sex has become a problem to be solved. It is rarely recognised as a potential masterpiece.
Thankfully, there are still a few sex-artists among us, and they are beginning to assert themselves. One of the most exciting is Lillian Fishman. “My art is fucking,” says Nathan, a character in her extraordinary debut novel, Acts of Service, a work of ferocious moral and sensual intelligence and a masterly defense of sex for its own sake.
Initially, Fishman’s narrator is herself an aspiring ascetic. A young barista adrift in Brooklyn, Eve is concerned by the various evils of modern life — capitalism, sexism, environmental degradation — but remains unsure what, if anything, she can do about them. “My friends and I were raised without real religion and without a comparable ethics of living through which to filter our beliefs and ambitions,” she reports. “We were encouraged to care deeply about the state of our world but our ability to affect it personally was very much in doubt.” What Eve can control is her own wayward desire, or so she is committed to believing. She belongs to a set “to whom queerness meant a specific type of ethical awareness”, and lesbianism arises in her life “like a faith”. Her girlfriend, Romi, represents her ideal. A doctor of withering virtuousness, Romi is “so preoccupied with her vocation that she [is] immune to beauty. The concept [hasn’t] occurred to her outside an introductory art-history course.”
Eve tries to be grateful that Romi doesn’t love her for her body – she knows that to be appreciated for her looks is to be objectified, and she knows that she should not enjoy objectification – but, in fact, she is disappointed. Privately, she nurses a persistent fantasy in which she is “naked, lined up in a row of twenty girls, a hundred girls, as many naked girls as would fit inside the room.” Contemplating this line of women is a man who is “nondescript, symbolic. I would never actually fuck him. After about thirty seconds he point[s] without equivocating, at me.” It is because she hungers to be admired for her raw physicality that, one night, Eve locks herself in Romi’s bathroom and posts her nudes online. When a woman messages her requesting a meeting, she is delighted despite herself to have been chosen “for no reason but my beauty, as though that were enough”. Soon, she finds herself sucked into an intrigue with an unnerving couple. By day, they work together at a family wealth fund, but by night, they are artists: Olivia paints, and Nathan’s art, as we know, is sex.
From the beginning, Eve reminds herself that she shouldn’t, shouldn’t, shouldn’t: shouldn’t betray Romi, shouldn’t submit to her illicit desires, shouldn’t harbor illicit desires at all. She shouldn’t relish Nathan and Olivia’s unrepentant delight in her physique: “Vanity is such a sin in women, so obviously, grotesquely shameful, that when people loved my body they usually told me in a tone implying that the very acknowledgment, in any but the most tender postcoital context, was trivial and degrading.” She shouldn’t tolerate Nathan and Olivia’s workplace affair (particularly because Nathan is Olivia’s boss). She shouldn’t enjoy Nathan’s domineering tendencies, which are, in the lexicon of the ethical system she is trying so hard to abide by, “problematic”. Most of all, she shouldn’t indulge her recalcitrant attraction to men at all. She has spent
a lot of time talking myself out of the things I liked so that I could be a different, better kind of person. Over the previous decade I had talked myself all the way from an attraction to women into a political commitment to lesbianism, and all the way from a general pleasure in the indulgence of life and into a bitter shame towards all the things I used to enjoy – Charm and harmless deceits, intrigues, vanity, pretty women, good dancers, cab rides and coffees out, men who whistled when I passed, remarks that made me blush.
Olivia and Nathan – but especially Nathan – threaten to upend all Eve’s careful efforts at self-improvement, yet she cannot deny that sex with them has rendered her “newly vast” days, that she understands at last “the use for which my body had been made.”
At first glance, it seems as though Acts of Service stages a contest between Eve’s sensuality and her scruples. Desire is quite literally put on trial when Nathan is accused of workplace harassment and Eve is called on to give evidence. But, in fact, Fishman’s elegant novel ventures an alternative sexual ethic, one unconstrained by conventions but nonetheless fiercely attentive to what we owe one another. Nathan, not only an artist but also a philosopher, explains: “The only way to fail, to fuck, badly, is to know what you want and to extract it from another person.” Eros demands that we muster the courage to be challenged and changed by one another.
It also demands generosity, and Fishman is clear that what is so sanctifying about Eve’s sex with Nathan is that he has no obligations to her – that she receives pleasure from him as a sheer superfluity, as a gift. After sex with Nathan, Olivia always thanks him. When Eve asks her why, she replies: “I was so grateful … Grateful to be pushed like that. I feel such intense gratitude.”
His, of course, is the titular act of service, and with him Eve is “humbled by the vastness and the wonder of my certainty, a blunted version of which I had felt two decades earlier while sitting beside my father in a church pew” . She decides to be honest during the hearing. Her gratitude to Nathan, she explains truthfully, is beyond what can be codified or legally anatomised. It is, as Fishman writes of Olivia’s love for Nathan, “deeper than the disallowed”. The implication is as bold as it is urgent: it is that sex, unncumbered by romance or obligation, is itself sufficient to move and remake us. In an age of resurgent puritanism, Acts of Service is a rare and much-needed sex masterpiece.