I’m always a little apprehensive when asked to review self-published books. Don’t get me wrong: indy books are often fantastic, and in a world where only five major publishing houses rule the market, independent and self publishing is necessary. This is particularly true for transgressive titles, and let’s face it: most queer writing isn’t intended to be mainstream.
Yet navigating the vast library of self-published works is a taxing journey for readers. One must slog through a veritable thicket of typos and grammatical errors, plot holes and unrelatable characters, narcissistic autobiographies and uninspiring erotica. But often the persistent reader finds merit in an otherwise overlooked title.
Rory Aiken’s Hypersexual is an exploration of a category of people “…who want/need/have sex, of some kind, almost every single day, every time [they] can, often multiple times with multiple different partners per day, every week, every month, and every year of our lives.”
Sometimes a medical condition, sometimes an identity, the protagonist’s relationship to hypersexuality vacillates between burden and joy. His hypersexuality leads him to both euphoria and despair as he explores the very boundaries of sex and sexuality. His incredible sex drive borders on desperation, and jeopardizes his autonomy and safety on more than one occasion. As he navigates the relentless drive to find new and interesting sexual experiences to satiate his lust, he’s met with misunderstanding and prejudice at every turn. But he persists, explaining that for hypersexuals, “…sex is not an addiction, it is a sustenance.”
This struggle of misunderstanding harkens back to the early queer literature of the 1900s and particularly the lesbian pulp fiction of the 1950s. While reading Hypersexual, I was at times reminded of The Well of Loneliness and other early works that depict queer sexualities as inevitably tragic. It seems that Rory’s hypersexuality is an internal struggle, destined to a catastrophic end.
The impending sense of disaster the reader feels throughout the book is a salient reminder that while gay and lesbian fiction and film (and even the occasional trans or bisexual character) is no longer always depicted as inexorably doomed, less mainstream sexualities still fall victim to the inevitabilities of intolerance. That is, hypersexuality isn’t accepted, so hypersexual characters are condemned to live in the shadows of society, their lives replete with tragedy.
Hypersexual does not fall victim to most of the usual pitfalls of self-published books. The mechanics are fairly crisp, and the characters are generally likable. Fitting for a novel that defies sexuality norms, Aiken pushes boundaries when it comes to rhetoric, switching back and forth between novel and critical essay.
Yet, some challenges cannot be ignored. Aiken clearly has an important idea, but he falters with the challenge of making his message succinct. Commonly (mis)attributed to a great number of famous folks (Twain, Churchill, Pascal, to name a few), the quote, “If I had more time, I would have written less” is applicable here. Great length is often the mistake of the first-time author, and while Stephen King can get away with publishing hefty tomes, the average author cannot. I say this to nearly all aspiring writers who approach me: if you tell the story in half the time, you’ll have twice the impact.
While Aiken experiences his own challenges as a new author, he also issues a challenge to readers. Hypersexual demands more of readers than most non-academic titles, in that it asks the reader to reflect on their own biases around sexual norms and conventions.
It’s difficult for the casual reader to want to sit with their own discomfort and examine their prejudices around sexuality, but I would encourage readers to ask why they are uncomfortable or disturbed, and to reflect on what their discomfort says not just about their own views, but also about society at large. Aiken explores and pushes back on ideas of deviancy in a way many writers would be too afraid to attempt.
Part erotica, part social commentary, the book is as sexually explicit as you’d expect a novel about hypersexuality to be. The accounts of the protagonist’s sexual encounters are often graphic and occasionally disturbing. The frankness with which Aiken describes sex and sexuality is refreshing, but this same blasé attitude can leave the reader feeling jarred and uncomfortable.
In the thorns of discomfort we also find beauty. Aiken includes a candid exploration of the sexual abuse Rory endures both as an adult and as a child. When he questions how the sexual abuse he endured as a child influenced his relationship to sex and sexuality, his words are particularly powerful: “In my case, pedophilia and incest are so intertwined into my sexual origins the braid of them feels like my own spinal column.”
Due to the sexual nature of this book, Hypersexual isn’t for everyone. But if you, like Rory, have struggled with the isolation and silence around hypersexuality, you may find yourself reflected in these pages. Even if one does not relate to the woes of hypersexuality, the right reader will accept the challenge that Aiken issues to confront one’s preconceptions around the politics of sexual acceptability, and gain insight into a community that is rarely discussed.
Ultimately, in a world where sexual representation caters to heterosexism and monosexism, Hypersexual is candidly refreshing. After all, what Aiken wants is a world that will, “[e]mbrace us, and give us a culturally acknowledged, safe, accessible, and an honorable place to be hypersexual.”
If you are looking for a read that will challenge norms, challenge conventions, and challenge you as the reader, Aiken delivers.
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Reviewer: E.L. Axford is an angry, Roller Derby DykeTM who would prefer to keep her identity a mystery before her online persona gets her real-world persona into more trouble than she can handle. When she’s not angry (which is rarely) she enjoys drinking loose-leaf tea.