(Please welcome a new Litkicks writer, Willa A. Cmiel, who recently graduated from New York University, lives in Brooklyn, and runs a pop culture/literary blog called Look Out Now — Levi)
Everyone’s got an amusing, self-deprecating tale of failure. After all, quirks and idiosyncrasies solidify our status as mortals and determine us sure-fire constituents of the human condition. If not prone to journalistic tendencies, these inescapable tales of woe and wonderment might go undistinguished, as they are par for the course. In order to grow, we must make mistakes and then learn to fix them. Rinse and repeat, rinse and repeat. So, when exactly do your personal oddities translate to a published memoir? When is such a quest for personal development relevant to the rest of the world, or at least the rest of the book-reading population? In the case of Mara Altman and her new memoir Thanks for Coming: One Young Woman’s Quest for an Orgasm, the answer seems to be “When you’re already a journalist”. Too often it is not a question of relevancy, but one of means.
Mara Altman is twenty-six and has never had an orgasm. She’s had boyfriends and sex, and her parents were hippies. But she can’t figure out why she’s never experienced that momentous “O”. Altman, who attended Columbia University’s Journalism School and wrote for the Village Voice under the wing of former editor David Blum, is media-savvy; journalism is what she knows. It is only natural, therefore, that Altman, in researching her memoir, spoke to every living expert on the female orgasm, as well as some not-so-experts. Altman, though, is too thorough and too journalistic for her own good. Rather than just getting on with it — because it’s not that hard, objectively, to have an orgasm — she seeks out tirelessly a new expert, therapist, or researcher with every chapter. Her determination is impressive and her prose, if overly precious, is cohesive and clever. But there is something constantly hanging me up. To be frank, it’s just not that hard, objectively, to have an orgasm.
During her search, Altman gets her toes sucked at a foot fetish party, visits an S&M basement, an orgasm ranch, air-humps God in Israel, forgets completely about human-to-human sex, and makes routine visits to the vegan-muffin-man at the Union Square Greenmarket for yogi-like advice. Her book is overflowing with conflicting advice from such a plethora of sources, including Zola, a “pussy professional,” and Eric, Altman’s hotter-than-Hercules “sacred whore” who is obligingly the un-monogamous boyfriend of the “Mother of Masturbation” (and impetus of the sexiest and most amusing passages in the book). The state of free-world female sexuality might be a stirring talking point, but why then trivialize it with such an overabundance of facts? (Not to mention an even more overabundant collection of cutesy nicknames for female genitalia). Since Altman under this format could not possibly hope to probe at a greater truth, what exactly is she doing? Is Thanks for Coming supposed to be funny? Cute? Helpful?
In reality, Altman exploits herself. She takes comfort in her naivete and her awkward ignorance, playing up the role of the career-driven, hardworking-thus-sexually-repressed female. After all, a man who couldn’t orgasm wouldn’t get an advance, he’d get a prescription and a hard dose of alienation. And for most of the book, Altman gets caught up in her own gimmick. This natural journalist is so exhaustive that it is difficult to remember what she is trying to achieve. Is it an orgasm or a book deal? If the answer is “book deal” — an event which, fittingly, is often understood as the climax of a writerly vocation — then Altman’s memoir is a fallacy and her sexual “issue” a gimmick. Altman’s orgasmlessness is her own funny, self-deprecating tale of failure, of which each of us have in one mortal form or another. It’s like a fill-in-the-blanks and Thanks for Coming is Altman’s version of this life-sized Mad Libs.
On Amazon.com, for example, Thanks for Coming is coupled with a book called Take Your Shirt Off and Cry: A Memoir of Near-Fame Experiences. In this case, a young woman discusses her failure at making it in Hollywood, although she certainly has a few close calls. She is intelligent, well-trained from her “glory days at NYU’s theater program”, and oh-so-hardworking. By all accounts she should be successful by now. But dammit she’s still failing! And it’s funny! Sound familiar? Like self-help books and fad diets, the gimmick memoir is a child born of market-driven publishers, many now floundering, more than ready to fit any proposal they can into an already distinguished, even mildly successful, cookie-cutter mold.
This memoir, of course, is not truly about the search for an orgasm. If it were, the book would have been one third shorter. When she finally comes, Altman can’t figure out why she isn’t satisfied. As a result, she begins a search for … herself. “For Mara,” reads the back cover, “orgasm was connected to a part of her that no vibrator could reach.” Well, Ms. Altman, join the club. At this point, the purposelessness of such tireless research reveals itself. It’s no wonder Altman is desensitized: these sex experts have jobs that rely on their ability to objectively examine the female orgasm without those emotions from which the rest of the world can’t separate or don’t care to. It surely isn’t news that most women and many men equate, confound, or enmesh sex and emotions. Whether Altman’s shortcomings can be pinned upon upbringing, societal repression, or the pressures faced by ambitious females in New York, an isolating city where vaginas already have the majority, it’s difficult to say. Altman tries to. The question is, do you care? After all, it’s not that hard, objectively, to have an orgasm.