A great book (as fantasy author Kelly Link puts it) “[lights] up the readerly brain and the writerly nerves.” A great book (I say) kindles magic fire in the imagination and sets the heart and mind ablaze. A great book does what the best drugs are supposed to do; liberates consciousness from the conventional, opens up new worlds; flings wide the doors of perception (and, yes, the reference to Aldous Huxley and Jim Morrison is intentional); sets an unapologetic match to everything you ever thought you knew about reading, about writing, about dreaming, about life itself.
British author Jonathan Kemp’s twentysix is a great book.
The twenty-six very-short stories in this debut solo collection of m/m erotica are ostensibly arranged, as the title suggests, like a child’s alphabet, but with decidedly mature literary ambitions, and an undeniably grownup sexual sensibility. The language is beyond impressive, though Kemp consciously expends a great deal of it to lament the very inadequacies of language, the impotence of mere words confronting the sublime nexus of thought and sensation, as in this passage from S:
There are places only the night knows, places only shadows can show us. The city wears a different face when darkness falls, a face I prefer. I walk the occluded streets looking for something, looking for something, looking for something. A knowledge of the shadow that eats away at logic, creating patterns far brighter than I can bear; patterns that burn at the temperature of wanting. It traces its way through my veins, this wanting, finding solace only when I fall and feast . . . This map I draw with the tip of my tongue takes refuge in a book of dreams. Forgive me for not having the words to describe it, this place in which I dwell. I have tried, I have tried. I have drenched myself in words and sensations, seeking a way to make them speak to one another. This is all I have to offer.
The body wants what it wants. The chaos of the body’s wants—as we know— will never surrender itself to language, can never succumb to reason, even if, even if, even if it wanted to—which it never will.
Yet, Kemp is keenly aware of the limitations society itself imposes on language, and, by extension, on the expression of genuine emotion, muting the honest, full-throated cry of passion, love, lust, desire, joy:
In this society I live in, everyone dreams of being able to speak like this. But it really isn’t possible to speak like this in our society. If sexuality has a voice, it has yet to find it.
Sex happens easily here. These pages teem with a deliciously explicit, celebratory sensuality, restless and unregretted. There’s a frank earthiness to Kemp’s descriptions. His characters are mostly urban, working class blokes, cruising dirty streets and cheap dives in search of connection, perpetually longing (as Freddy Mercury sang) to break free.
When he is naked I notice something I had not seen in the club. Now, in the grey daylight that breaks through the white sheet hung up against the window, I can see the letters standing out in legible scars across his hairless chest. D-E-N-I-A-L. For the briefest moment I love this wounded man/boy in whose eyes I see the recognisable burn of drugs and sex and hunger. He shines with a lost need, a lonely, greedy, fucked-up cock-sure need and we fall against each other and onto that grimy mattress. We lie head to toe, feeding on each other’s cocks. I occupy every last space available for this experience, I inhabit this feeling of pleasure, wanting it never to end. And that word, DENIAL, plays across the black expanse of my consciousness, repeats and repeats like a broken record, and I want to know what it means, why is it there, who did it to him, or did he do it to himself?
Though the narrator may at times seem to channel Bataille and Barthes as he reflects on broad and lofty themes, he does not look away from the seamier vision of life as actually lived, embracing it in all its pungant banality and deep fractal chaos. Sometimes it seems possible to choke on this wild surfeit of language, this sumptuous banquet of experience, as one might gag while joyously deep throating a magnificent cock.
I am giving birth to pleasure, to submission, to the destruction of my ‘self’; I am enabling the body to fragment, and the fragments to circle around the central column of a destabilised subjectivity, like gulls riding a thermal. I am coaxing that tricky little muscle to do something it doesn’t want to do. I am dominating myself, sodomising myself, raping my body’s own desire for unity, storming the citadel of my sovereignty with the battering ram of madness.
Jonathan Kemp’s twentysix is emphatically, ardently, passionately recommended!