Splitsider

Tuesday, September 7th, 2010

Our Bodies, Our Junk: Dr. Ruth it Ain't

Well, this book took me about a week longer than it should have to read. You really should be able to burn through it in a single day. Like many people my age though, I live my entire life in public spaces, and this is no book for that.

First off, the title: Our Bodies, Our Junk. Less-than-savory. Then there's the shaggy nude couple on the front, a winking reference to the line drawings of coital hippies from The Joy of Sex, shielding their groins and peering out at us shamefully from the cover. I couldn’t very well read it in the park or on the subway or at my local coffee shop. I considered, briefly, wrapping the cover in butcher paper, as I did with Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick. But that wouldn’t really have worked either, because Our Bodies, Our Junk is also illustrated, and I can’t imagine anything worse than being caught studying a diagram of sex positions from behind a DIY book jacket.

So I read Our Bodies, Our Junk in necessarily rationed (private) sittings. All the better to relish it with.

It’s an impressive feat to write a guide like this that contains not one unfunny sentence. But Scott Jacobson (The Daily Show), Todd Levin (The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien), Jason Roeder (The Onion), Mike Sacks (McSweeney’s, Vanity Fair), and Ted Travelstead (Esquire) – the members that comprise the fictional Association of the Betterment of Sex – have done just that.

The only-slightly-reined-in riffing is organized by a completist aesthetic, as if composed by a group of detail-obsessed 12-year-old boys in a tree house. The best proof of this might be in the book’s very structure; nothing is left laugh-free. We learn, parenthetically, that Chapter 6, "Fetish, Domination, and Multiple Sexual Partners" was "formerly 'The Sexual Habits of U.S. Senators.'" And the books consulted, as listed in the bibliography, include such titles as: 450 Middle-Aged Women Share Anecdotes About Menopause for Some Reason, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the Opposite Sex but Were Tasered for Asking Previously, and The South Coney Island Beach Diet.

In all seriousness though. Todd Levin cites not only those paragons of canonical, comprehensive humor — Our Dumb Century, America: The Book, The National Lampoon – as stylistic influences, but also The Joy of Sex, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and the work of Masters and Johnson, mostly for their attempt to quantify sexuality. But there are also traces of Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook, the tongue-in-cheek guide to WASPdom. Our Bodies, Our Junk, like The Official Preppy Handbook, seeks to taxonomize by way of specifics, preferring lists, sidebars, chapter breaks, and diagrams over straight text.

But Our Bodies, Our Junk is also a testament to the pervasive influence of Vice Magazine. Like the Do’s and Don’ts of Gavin McInnes’s heyday, the jokes here, if they can even really be called jokes, pivot on the enjambment of carnal crudeness and an innocent, arcane pool of cultural references. The book, an exquisite corpse, relies on the juxtaposition of laughably disparate allusions (uncredited Harrison Ford roles, Quiznos sub varieties, John Keats, a Jewish mother named Mrs. Nussbaum, the Piercing Pagoda).

“Forced Perspective,” tip number three on a list of five tricks for making your penis appear larger, recommends: “By making love before a mural of a foreshortened cityscape, your penis can appear to be the length of a side street or the height of a fifteen-story building.” Next to this list, it should be noted, is a sidebar, titled, “Eugenics and Penis Size.” The sidebars in Our Bodies, Our Junk contain some of the most distilled humor. A few pages later one appears with the header, “The Clitoris, as Variously Described to a Police Sketch Artist.” Some reports: “It was like a Caucasian gumdrop, mid-twenties.” and “I don’t remember too much, because it was pretty dark and I was drunk. I think it was wearing a hoodie, though.”

A good amount of the book’s humor depends upon the sort of untethered thought experiments that improv games are based on, like the Human-Sexual Response Cycle (Revised), which includes 16 stages, some among them: “Wake up in a cold sweat,” “Light snack,” “Search online for jobs not requiring references,” and “Become fan of ‘sex’ on Facebook.” Or, perhaps even better, the speculative fiction that is advised as a method for telling your partner you have an STD: "'My friend Danielle bought her fiancé a sweater he didn’t like, but the store wouldn't take it back. What do you think he should have said?' If your partner offers a rational, understanding response, then gently steer the hypothetical toward the actual situation you’re in: 'What if I were Danielle, you were the fiancé, the sweater were was herpes, and the no-return policy on the sweater was the lack of a cure for herpes…'"

It’s hard to review a book like this; the temptation is to merely draft up a Best-Of list, but even the transcription from book to Word.doc is exhausting. Again, everything is funny. So when the lazy impulse to skim seizes you, all it takes is an absent-minded glance at a single phrase to make you not only slow down but also to go back. You want to underline these quips, read them aloud to friends, possess them. I mean, who would want to miss even the fake galley mark on page 210, the one that reads: "Note: Guys, the woman from the Rite Aid photo lab called and they lost the bull-dyke negatives. Can we reshoot with that locksmith lady?"

Alice Gregory is a writer living in Brooklyn. She Tumbls here and Tweets here.

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