Polluted Sex: stories that will challenge, confuse, shock and amuse

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With her form-bending debut collection, Polluted Sex, Irish/Australian Lauren Foley joins a cohort of contemporary authors — including Cathy Sweeney, Claire-Louise Bennett, Eimear McBride — whose work seems dissatisfied with narrative conventions. What happens when we blow them open?

his question is perhaps the hardest to broach, from a writer’s point of view. Blow something open and its insides spill out. A mess is created. One must straighten it out, or not; pull it into shape, or not. Either way, a compelling end result is hard to achieve.

Polluted Sex makes a middling attempt at this feat — its effect is at times satisfying, at times discombobulating.

Many of these stories (if we call them that) have been published in journals, broadsheets and elsewhere, including Hot Rocks, which first appeared in New Irish Writing. Like many of the other stories, Hot Rocks is about lovemaking. Its opening — “Her first boyfriend used to kiss her after coffee and oranges. It was a strange taste. But she got used to it” — sets us up for the strangely calibrated relationship at the story’s centre; its sweet-bitterness, and the subtle insistence that simmers beneath.

The push and pull of lust and disgust; agency and lack of it; desire and impotence are themes that appear throughout the collection.

Hot Rocks makes much of them, because of its carefully rendered physical setting, and because the interior experience of its characters is subsumed in this setting. As they sit on the shore, our protagonist dreams up disasters that would delay doing “it” with her partner. She pictures “the sea rolling in next to the wall and the surf swallowing them up whole and lifting them off their perch. She’d hit a few rocks, crack a few ribs, and maybe break her face a bit too. But it’d be worth it to stop him.”

It’s a descriptive sleight of hand that is sometimes lacking elsewhere in the collection. There are often, as in First Person Possessive, for example, paranoid inner monologues that do little to hold the reader: “You. You. I forgot about you. All week I forgot about you. You.

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“You were always watching her. Always watching her before when I was watching her.” What should be poetical often feels overwrought.

As its title suggests, this collection is about sex. Women have sex with men. Women have sex with women. Sex, the most natural thing in the world, is never really allowed to feel natural.

The act is encumbered with shame, violent impulse, obligation. It is described, as in Before Him, in relentless detail, challenging the prudish reader. Characters step outside themselves, into sex, and then back into themselves, polluted by it. The sex that feels arguably the most natural is not sex as we know it. A woman gets IVF and “[t]he liberation of impregnation [is] better than any sexual pleasure she [has] experienced or [can] even conceive of.”

The collection’s vague arc is that of a girl moving through to womanhood and the rites of passage thereafter. It’s a treacherous trajectory. In Mammy Mary Says, the child narrator receives persistent messaging around “big sin” and the roles of men and women. In Blue, our narrator gets her first period and suffers extreme pain because the illiberal GP won’t prescribe the pill to regulate it. In Purple with Mottled Black, the friends of our protagonist are inadvertently complicit in a boy’s pressuring her to go further sexually than she wishes to.

We see impregnation, child-rearing, miscarriage, the crossing of the Irish Sea for an abortion. A menace hangs over the collection, but this menace is inextricable from love and desire. Often these women don’t, or can’t, “want”, but rather “want to want”.

The collection is at times challenging. Its tone can be hard to read. Is it angry? Fiercely defiant? Bitter? Its approach —full of illustrations, a word axis, repeated phrases, script-like dialogue — can be hard to get to grips with. The feeling is not unlike what a child must feel when being read to for the first time.

There is something there — an inner code — which won’t quite work itself out but is worming into our consciousness. This might also be the collection’s strength. The syntax is infused with patriarchal, religious, colonial and institutional undertones. (The opening story, Penitential Acts, for example, riffs on the Catholic Penitential Act prayer, while The Perfect Flick is told in the deadpan imperative voice of institutional jargon — “ENTER THE INSTITUTION AT EIGHTEEN YEARS AND THREE MONTHS. LEARN TO UNDER-ENUNCIATE YOUR CONSONANTS. START SAYING ‘AITCH’ INSTEAD OF ‘HATE-CH’.)

The collection understands and by turns makes use of the power of subliminal messaging.

Polluted Sex alternately challenges, interests, confuses, humours, shocks, and engages its reader. What art ought to do.

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Polluted Sex by Lauren Foley

Short stories: Polluted Sex by Lauren Foley
Influx Press, 240 pages, paperback €12.30; e-book £4.79

https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/book-reviews/polluted-sex-stories-that-will-challenge-confuse-shock-and-amuse-41692177.html

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