Ten Books That Slouch Toward the Total Pain of Desire
Johanna Hedva Recommends Esther Yi, Javier Marias, and More
My favorite writing, to read and to make, is about the abjection of desire. In books, I want sex that’s needy, greedy, lonely, pathetically succumbent to the allness of nothingness, sad, icky, and bad. I want all the ways that fucking can be fucked up. Many standards of this sort—Kathy Acker, Samuel R. Delaney, Mary Gaitskill, Dennis Cooper—aroused the writing of my own novel, Your Love Is Not Good.
My novel is about an artist who wants to belong but, because she’s an artist, she doesn’t. It’s about the parasitism of desire, where the boundaries of a self are marked, if they exist at all. It’s about power, which means it’s about not having power. It’s about sex, money, and clothes, which means it’s about how ethics are performed under capitalism. It has a lot of kink, which means it’s about revulsion, which means it’s about beauty.
Below is a list of the books full of desire that slyly seeped into the blood of my book and have stayed there since. They are less about the brutality of abject sex and more about the dejected surrender of very wet want and all the different ways we yield to it.
Y/N by Esther Yi
Everything about this debut novel is a fuck yes. My favorite moment is when an avatar of the protagonist approaches the object of her desire in disguise and says: “I already know I would endure unjustifiable pain for you.” To which he replies, “Then let’s do something together.”
A Heart So White by Javier Marias (translated by Margaret Jill Costa)
This book wrecked my heart, and sometimes I would try and definitely fail to make my novel get close to what Marias did. The scene where the protagonist’s friend requests that he film her genitals so she can send the VHS tape to someone she’s met through a mail-dating service, and he does with gentle attention and care, is devastating.
Corregidora by Gayl Jones
A perfect, brutal universe of a novel that made me feel repulsed both by sex itself and how we still need it even when it’s terrible and has damaged us beyond repair.
Cursed Bunny by Bora Chung (translated by Anton Hur)
Specifically the story “Reunion,” where two strangers find each other because they happen to be the only ones who can see a particular ghost. He wants her to tie him up—because this is what his mother used to do to him when he saw ghosts as a child—and she does. These scenes get bound up with intergenerational trauma from WWII, and it becomes a story about how we are always bound, restrained, tied up, to that which not everyone can see but which we acutely know is there. Some of the most tender scenes that I’ve ever read about what our desperate loneliness makes us reach for that we can’t have.
Basic Black with Pearls by Helen Weinzweig
A feminist, psychological-interior, spy novel, it ends up being about the mindfuck of wanting a man to desire you the way you want him to and he doesn’t. The final abjection of the protagonist is one of the most disturbing sex scenes I’ve ever read, where she is simply a voyeur watching her ex-husband use his new wife for his weekly, unfeeling, mundane ten minutes of sexual intercourse. There is a sentence about him mindlessly pinning her leg beneath his that is superbly revolting.
Margery Kempe by Robert Glück
About how once we experience ecstasy we get really needy for more. Made me realize the obvious: that Jesus is the greediest, wimpiest, bossiest bottom.
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek (translated by Joachim Neugroschel)
Of course this had to be on here. Also, the final scene of the film—Isabelle Huppert’s exquisitely wretched face as she stabs herself shallowly in the heart—is my favorite gif on the internet.
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann (translated by Philip Boehm)
Bachman blows my mind. More than the content—although the content of this book is rather epically degraded—it’s what Bachmann does with form, syntax, and grammar that is so perverted and profound. Her sentences are the ontological opposite of dry.
X by Davey Davis
My book had already gone to press when I read this which is probably a good thing because I would have just blatantly stolen everything from it. This way, it took me for everything I have, and how lucky am I to be so scoured out.
The House of the Sleeping Beauties by Yasunari Kawabata (translated by Edward Seidensticker)
I can think of no greater vulnerability than sleep; to sleep next to someone feels like exposing the weakest parts of us in a place of near-total softness and surrender. This book brings close that feeling of the barest intimacy, and it is also very creepy. An old man regularly visits a brothel where young girls are drugged into deep sleep and he spends the night next to them; inspecting their naked bodies; thinking about age, sex, memory, his daughters, and lost time; while outside there are different kinds of rain. The epiphanies that come to him are small and beautiful: “Why, among all animals, in the long course of the world, had the breasts of the human female alone become beautiful?” “The aged have death, and the young have love, and death comes once, and love comes over and over again.”
Your Love Is Not Good by Johanna Hedva is available from And Other Stories.