By Tom Lynch
Mary Roach’s 2003 book, “Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers, ” left an unexpected mark on me, a recurring creep-out I have, midday, at least once a week. “Stiff” is a sweetly ghoulish, wildly interesting study of death and decomposition, but in one chapter, the author visits a University of Tennessee “Body Farm,” where doctors study expired human bodies in different stages of disintegration in a heavily guarded outdoor field, which Roach essentially describes as a large open plain littered with, you guessed it, the dead. The imagery startles, and one could imagine the horrific smell, and Roach describes having to destroy her clothes after her visit, most memorably her shoes, after she steps in some sort of puddle. For me personally, there hasn’t been a more memorable chapter of nonfiction since.
After “Stiff”’s success, Roach followed with “Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife,” an honest attempt at studying the likelihood that a soul exists (and other things), again finding the odd little corners of obsessive study in which to focus. The subject matter seemed like a natural progression, but, while charmingly written in Roach’s precise, witty style, it lacked the color of her debut, and as a result didn’t perform as well.
What could Roach tackle next? What subject would surely grab readers’ attention? Well, sex, of course.
“Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex,” finds Roach immediately declaring, in the “Foreplay,” that she’s obsessed with her research (though not particularly any specific subject), yet worried that what’s to follow will “mortify” her stepdaughters. In her new investigation, Roach dives headfirst into the study of sexual physiology, sex in a lab, as it were, and the remarkable, inquisitive doctors she finds along the way. She visits Dr. Geng-Long Hsu of Taiwan, a foremost expert on erectile dysfunction who practices his craft on “leftover” male parts he exhumes from hospitals. She finds herself at a sex-toy workshop in San Francisco, a wine-and-cheese party that also happens to display new inventions for sexual pleasure (an elderly woman indulges in some kind of chair. “That sex-machine party was just a wonderful little chunk of San Francisco nightlife,” Roach says.) Roach even has intercourse with her husband, in a lab, for the sake of coital imaging, which, as the chapter’s title implies, is a method of attempting to understand “what’s going on in there.” “You can ejaculate now,” Dr. Deng usefully informs her partner.
While there are limited pop nonfiction books about cadavers, there roughly ten billion about sex, so Roach had the challenge to make “Bonk” unlike any other.
“They all have their own unique challenges,” Roach says of her books’ subject matters, “but this was possibly the most challenging. I think I would have thought about this more [before I really started]. I would’ve called people up, sent emails. When someone studies the physiology of sexual response at a lab, either the subject’s having sex or masturbating, and either way they don’t want anyone in the room. It’s a difficult way to report, being outside of the room, being like, ‘Ok, I pretty much know what’s going on in the room.’ So that was a challenge. With ‘Stiff,’ of course, the subjects were dead, and the people were less concerned with how they felt.”
After years of jetting around the globe studying the dead, death itself and, now, sex and all of its facets, it would be safe to assume nothing shocks Roach anymore. “No, nothing does,” she says. “Nothing really did in either book. It’s a function of me being emotionally sturdy. I think that, when all these things are new to people, you assume people would respond in a certain way, be shocked or revolted, but people really underestimate their ability to walk into a room with sex machines, or a cadaver, and be like, ‘Oh, OK. I’m in a room with a cadaver. This is my reality for the next hour.’”
Her sex-researchers angle was the sharpest way to keep a sex book fresh. “It was very important,” she says, “[having] something fresh always is. Subject areas are so broad, and this was not the case where no one’s written about what I’m writing about. But the angle hasn’t been covered, pretty much no one has done a sex-researchers book. There are books by researchers themselves, but that’s different. There’s a history of sex, a lot of [books on] the evolutionary biology of the penis, the orgasm, a whole book on vaginas—lots of books relate to science and sex, but researchers haven’t been covered, other than Kinsey.”
She concurs that her books’ topics could make some people uncomfortable, but then offers that “They’re interesting topics to everyone. I guess I’m not easily made uncomfortable.” She pauses. “Sex and death. Now that you mention it, yeah… People pigeonholed me as a death writer after ‘Stiff’ and ‘Spook.’ Now they have to re-pigeonhole me. I don’t know what that pigeonhole is. I don’t want to.”
Mary Roach discusses “Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex” April 24 at 57th Street Books, 1301 East 57th, (773)684-1300, at 6pm. Free.