Wednesday Book: We're not so easily shocked

Click to follow
The Independent Culture



AN AEROBICS teacher from New York, with a row of white teeth so perfect they stand as monuments to American dentistry, wants to educate us about our bodies. Her natural genre would be the self-help book or exercise video. But Emily Jenkins, who is nearing 30, has a different mission. In Tongue First, named after her first French kiss, Jenkins is clearly trying to imitate the classic feminist texts that have come before her. Not Lotte Berk and Jane Fonda, but Naomi Wolf and Elizabeth Wurtzel are her role models.

In a series of anecdotes taken almost entirely from her own unremarkable history, Jenkins wants to focus on a contradiction, "how the body is both a prison and a vehicle for adventure". She promises us journeys into realms we have never trespassed into before, "wildest adventures". She promises to take us with her as she experiences strip shows, having her head shaved ("chosen baldness"), being "Rolfed", appearing nude in public and, of course, "fucking as much as possible".

I confess to first flicking excitedly through this slim volume in search of the dirty bits. No luck. The naughtiest thing I could find was a reference to indigestion in relation to underwear. A friend of the author's, like the author herself, dismisses thongs (to my mind the most sensuous item of clothing ever invented) on the grounds that "I feel like my farts can't get out. Something's blocking them!"

And the physical adventures I was so looking forward to all turn out to be things that you pay for, just like aerobic classes. The "wildest adventures" - colonic irrigation, flotation tanks, acupuncture and "Rolfing" (in which your body is "realigned" by painful massage) - are all expensive fads, most of which originate in America. The one thing that links them is not physicality, but cost.

For all her Wurtzel-like lunges into the wilder shores of physical experience, Jenkins can't help but descend into unadulterated consumerism. She gives us far too much detail about the shades of lipstick she likes to wear, conveniently telling us their names in case we want to run to the cosmetic counter and order some for ourselves. She spends several pages agonising over what she is going to wear to a New York publishing party - should it be pale yellow, or a little black number?

She excuses such unremitting self-indulgence with odd splashes of cod sociology. "Make-up is a tool by which we shame, flaunt, and mould our inner landscapes along with our exteriors," she says, after recommending Desire lipstick in "its little phallic tube".

The only really sexy things are those you can buy. There's nothing better at stimulating dirty thoughts than the dollar.

The purpose of this book is not to highlight any contradiction. Not that I would like it any better if it were, as "contradiction" must be the most overused word in any budding author's proposal. The shameless purpose of this book is to titillate and shock. But it feebly fails to do so. The location in which the author took off all her clothes in front of strangers was not Fifth Avenue, but on a nudist beach, where it would have been far more daring to have remained fully clothed. To talk about sex, she tours the shelves of her local bookshop, using this as a limp excuse to quote liberally and paraphrase such daring titles as The Hite Report and The Joy of Sex. Her most erotic outing is to see the Chippendales. No adventurer could be more timid.

Tongue First is classic writing of a sort, but perhaps not the sort the author intends. It has none of the acute analysis or academic authority of her feminist forerunners. Instead, it is a classic of unfocused adolescent ramblings. Only those who have recently voyaged out of puberty link farts and sex - as Jenkins does. And, just like an adolescent, the only subject that really interests the author is herself.

This book may have a sexy title, but it is shockingly anodyne. Despite all attempts to appear otherwise (a tattoo, one session of drug-taking, "chosen baldness"), Emily Jenkins emerges from this coy book as a cross- legged young woman with few insights. However her physical exterior is packaged, inside she is just the girl next door.