A Surprisingly Sexy (and Brainy) Book About Desire

Reading between the lines.
June 7 2013 12:00 PM

“Afterwards, We Are Ashes”

Why is it so difficult to write about desire?

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But sex is what Angel uses to claim her body, to become more of a body, not less (after good sex, she writes: “I could feel my organs, their ripeness, their contentment”). Sex consecrates. When Angel’s lover masturbates onto her—on “my breasts, my belly, my neck”—she writes, “I love this. The sudden wet coolness on me. The smell: summer rain on cement. Fresh, open windows.”

Unmastered is a smart rejoinder to the idea that pleasure has nothing to teach us. Pleasure—everyday tenderness; ordinary, domestic lovemaking—teaches Angel everything; it washes away her defensive asceticism, her lazy dichotomies. She leaps out of depression and into insight. Where things seemed so established—between men and women, say, brutes and victims—she encounters shifting sands. “I lock him into his masculinity,” she writes of her lover, amused. “I am anxious to protect it, for it pains me, it pains my femininity, to see it fragmented.” Gender becomes a game, a mutually agreed upon madness, a source of strength, a drag, a turn-on. She presents these paradoxes, but never resolves them. Why would she? Paradoxes make things agreeably sticky for her. In bed, she tells her lover what she likes: “I spoke dreamily of how I loved his big frame towering over me during sex; how much I loved his powerful arms around my neck while he came into me from behind; how I loved feeling the strength of him as he fucked me—yes, as he fucked me, because—let’s not be coy or disingenuous—that is definitely what was happening.” He asks, “You’re not really a feminist, are you?” She laughs. She doesn’t tell him why.

Correction, June 7, 2013: This review originally misstated the first name of the book's author. Her name is Katherine Angel, not Elizabeth.

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Unmastered: A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell by Katherine Angel. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Parul Sehgal is an editor at the New York Times Book Review.