I'm fascinated with recovery memoirs, drug novels and stories where overcoming addiction takes center stage.
The narrative arc of a recovery story is similar to a romance and it's almost always the same: drinking is fun, being a drunk is hard, addiction is hell.
It doesn't matter if the elusive high in question is heroin, meth or sex. The outcome often feels foreordained.
Everyone hits bottom, but everyone's bottom is different—therein lies the suspense. At what point will the protagonist recognize he or she is trapped in a zero sum game? Will it happen before she loses everything, assuring herself of a chance at recovering that which has been lost? Or will she burn everything to the ground, reaching the point where she physically can't go any further and anyone who has ever loved or respected her will never do so again?
But the funny thing about bottoms is they aren't really bottoms.
Hitting bottom suggests the point where one can't go any lower, like the bottom of a well or the floor of an ocean trench, miles beneath the surface.
With addiction, one can always go lower—even after one has gone into recovery.
Many believe there are two kinds of addicts: those who have had their relapse and those who have it coming.
A relapse sets the recovery clock back to zero, and the addict returns to the beginning of their recovery, going all the way back to rehab if necessary.
The relapse is something that isn't dealt with in druggy novels and boozy books that often because it's inconvenient to the narrative. How can the hero have "changed" and "learned" if they're back at square one before they're halfway done?
Well, that's life and that's where Clancy Martin's Bad Sex takes us.
Brett is a married woman with two kids and a husband who looks after them while she scouts properties in Mexico and abroad that the couple might be interested in buying.
Brett is many things: an investor, a writer, a recovering alcoholic, but is disengaged from these states of being in the world. They occupy her time but bring her neither satisfaction nor happiness.
When the novel opens, a tropical storm has interrupted her travel plans, setting her fall in motion. Momentarily derailed, she invites trouble by arranging to meet Sadie, a notorious party girl, and Eduard, a rakish banker who fancies himself a lady's man. In other words, she is courting a relapse which happens—as it inevitably must—about a third of the way through the book.
"A little past three in the morning, I went to the minibar and poured myself a vodka. It was the first drink I'd taken in two years. I savored it. Then I had several more. They woke me and my spine tingled."
The title is something of a misnomer as the sex in Bad Sex is often very good, charged as it is with the frisson of an affair that takes place in a series of luxury hotels far from home. That the sex is wrong doesn't necessarily make it bad, but who would read a book called Wrong Sex?
Martin's prose is flat, his scope narrow. He is interested in reporting Brett's transgressions with a minimum of editorializing, which lends power to her predicament.
"Cheating on your husband is a lot like doing cocaine. It's rarely pleasurable, but try quitting."
That's addiction in a nutshell.
Martin uses sex as a stand-in for drinking. Despite alcohol's place in our culture, most readers don't understand why addicts do things they know are dumb, dangerous and wrong over and over again. They can't comprehend why someone would keep drinking or snorting or shooting up when doing so costs them everything.
Sex, however, is a different story. Everyone understands that the desire for gratification and the need for restraint are usually at odds with one another. When skillfully done, this tension creates its own pleasure, and Martin is a master at it.
Martin has been fairly open about the fact that Bad Sex was written first as a memoir and then transformed into a novel. He's written candidly about his alcohol addiction and his unconventional recovery in essays published in Harper's and VICE.
While some might regard Bad Sex as an anti-recovery novel, it's actually closer to a moral thriller. I just don't recommend you read it alone in a hotel room.