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Our Flash of Inspiration this month is ‘Oral Sex’ by Ian Shine a dark and complex story with many psychological layers.
A short story can grab your attention for any number of reasons. The lyricism of the language, the vividness of the setting, the voice of the character.
Sometimes though, it is the subject matter itself which gives you a jolt – a little shockwave of excitement or unease that keeps you reading.
In the case of ‘Oral Sex’ the very title has the reader paying attention.
When I first read this piece I will admit I wasn’t sure what to think of it. The sexual tension, the unsatisfied desire, the strange fetishes that keep the couple together, I didn’t quite know what to make of them.
And yet … I kept on returning to it. Why?
I think, primarily the answer is, the voice.The straight talking narrative is punchy and masculine and it definitely helps (this) female reader enter the mind-set of the main character.The directness of the tone made me believe I was privy to some confessional or an intimate heart- to-heart down the pub and it was this which drew me in.
There is a nice contrast between the straightforward tone of the narrator and the quirkiness of the couple’s sexual problems – and their solutions to these problems.
As a reader, I expected these problems to provoke their downfall in the end – the unconsummated relationship bringing about their separation. So when the narrative takes a different turn, and it is precisely these problems which seem to bind the two to one another, I was surprised.
But I was also a curious as to the dynamic in the relationship and, in particular, the way in which the violent incident in the bus seems to both stimulate and traumatise the woman.
There is a grey area with regard to her reaction. First she moans and then she screams. The violence is both attracting and repelling – a turn of events that is quite subversive in many ways. The fact that we are not confronted with a black and white portrayal of what is good or bad acceptable or unacceptable, forces us to think about how this makes us feel.
Are we okay with this or does it make us uncomfortable?
But there is a glimmer of something there in the end – the couple holding hands (albeit with gloves on) offering the promise of physical contact at some distant point in time.
A short and thought provoking little story.
Interview With Ian Shine
Jen: I was drawn to the voice in this piece and enjoyed the contrast of this simple telling of things with the complex ideas which are being dealt with. Is this a common theme in your writing?
Ian: I suppose so. The themes are certainly common to my writing: love, sex, and how they both have the capacity to be the most fantastic things and the most terrible; to make life worth living and make you feel like dying. I’m trying to gather enough stories on the themes contained in “Oral Sex” to get a whole book together. I’m slowly getting there.
One of the first stories I had published was about a guy who contracts gonorrhoea from the woman he loses his virginity to, but doesn’t want to cure himself because she dies on her way home that same evening and the disease is all he has left of her. That wasn’t written in such a simple way, as it riffed on the style of an online medical dictionary, but I suppose the majority of my stories go for a more “minimal” voice.
I take a lot of inspiration from the film director Robert Bresson, who said: “One doesn’t create by adding, but by taking away.” His films give you so little, in terms of emotion, yet that somehow makes them more resonant. I think a lot of books lay things on a bit too thick. I’m reading “The God of Small Things” at the moment, and it just feels like it’s trying so hard to impress me with how much history, sensation and imagery it can pack into every page. There’s no room left for me in the book. With Bresson, and film in general, I’m jealous of the ability it has, like a painting, to not guide the viewer, but to just lump something down in front of them and let them bathe in it, make of it whatever they want. I find a lot of writing is like an annoying tour guide, trying to point everything out, whereas film can be just pure destination.
Jen: Where did these characters come from? They’re quite unique.
Ian: I remember writing this story pretty quickly on my lunch hour one day. Someone at work had been discussing a “disappointing” one-night stand, and I starting thinking about how when people talk about sex, there’s never much of a grey area; that it’s purely about whether there’s an orgasm or not. But you know, it’s possible to have good sex without that, and without actually having sex, if, at the risk of sounding corny, there’s that profound connection between the people involved; the kind of connection I think my characters have, and I think this is what they come to realise.
The ending comes from something I experienced while living in Russia with my wife. After spending the five months or so of winter wrapped up in coats and gloves, I remember when spring arrived and we were walking somewhere and held hands, and we were both sort of shocked by being able to feel each other’s skin, rather than their gloves. It’s strange how holding hands is such an intimate act in a way, but is only really done in public places. The same with hugging; it’s not seen as being intimate in the same way as sex, but when it’s with someone who means something to you, who perhaps you haven’t seen for a long time, it can carry a lot of weight.
Jen: Sex and violence are not topics I see broached all that often in the short stories I receive? Why do you think that is and why did you decide to write about them?
Ian: I’d call it love, sex and violence, rather than just sex and violence. I can’t say I initially “decided” to write about these things; when I started writing, I just got down the stuff that came into my head, and after a while I realised the same themes kept ending up on the page, so I then made a more conscious decision to stick with them and work towards a collection.
It doesn’t exactly stem from personal experience, as I’ve been happily married for nearly 10 years, but I guess I’ve known a lot of people who’ve been in, what appear to me at least, to be odd relationships: really unhappy, harmful, traumatic or whatever, full of tension and really unnatural, but these people keep ending up being drawn to each other, because even though they make one another unhappy, they’re also able to make each other happier than anyone else. Having an imperfect and flawed kind of love is better than having no love at all; love is nothing more than finding the one idiot who’s prepared to put up with your imperfections.
About 18 months ago I totally wrecked my back lifting something far too heavy. Immediately after I did it, I was in the most intense pain I can ever remember experiencing, but at the same time I couldn’t stop laughing. While I was lying on my back recovering over the next week or so, I did a bit of Googling and found out that the pain and pleasure sensors, or the brain circuits that react to pain and pleasure, are basically the same, or really close together or something. I’m not razor sharp on the details, but the essence behind it is basically life, and love, in a nutshell. You let someone into your life, they light up your pleasure sensors, but by the same virtue, they’re the only ones with the power to trigger your pain sensors. I think it’s true for everyone that the biggest arguments we’ve ever had have been with the people we love the most. If you’re indifferent to someone, it’s pretty difficult for them to do anything to hurt you. It’s like how most murderers kill family members or close friends. People don’t really get that worked up about anyone else.
As for why these areas aren’t often broached in short stories, I don’t know. It could be because it’s easy to make a bad job of it: you can either make it overdramatic, or into a laughable string of suggestive adjectives and verbs. But then that’s true of everything people write about. Maybe things like the Bad Sex Award and Fifty Shades have given the whole area a stigma, and people want to steer clear. Maybe it’s too close to home, too embarrassing, or not seen as literary enough.
Jen: I have read this story many times trying to figure out the relationship dynamic between the couple – who is frustrating who? Who is in control? Sometimes I think the woman has the upper-hand and other times the man. What do you think is going on between them?
Ian: I don’t think anyone has the upper hand or is frustrating the other. I think they just like each other enough to be prepared to put up with some bad times.
Jen: Finally, you’ve read what we think about ‘Oral Sex’. What is it you like about this story?
Ian: I like the bad title, and hope the story totally overturns the expectations the reader has a result of that title. It sounds so crude when you just dump it there: “Oral sex”. It’s quite cold, because we normally say “blow job” or use some other slang to refer to it; “Oral sex” sounds very textbook, as if we’re going to undertake a technical analysis of it, and I sort of see the story of a mini technical analysis of this relationship.
I also think oral sex can be a lot more intimate than penetrative sex, and I hope the story reflects that a bit. The characters don’t do “normal” sex; they do something better.
Other than that, I just like it when people find something worth holding on to in life, despite all the imperfections around them. Good things are hard to lay your hands on. Keats was the first literary figure I really latched on to. I think he basically nailed it with “Ode on Melancholy”: “And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips/Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,/Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips.”
One day, I’m sure my protagonists will hug, and it will be great; better than any sex. But they’ll have a lot of grief along the way, and afterwards.