How can you illustrate sexual pleasure without showing the act of sex? How can you fall in love with someone that you have never met?
This double conundrum is addressed by a cartoon novel about virtual love in the internet age which appeared online in France this week.
The website of Le Monde, France’s most serious newspaper, has startled its readers by serialising a graphic novel (or adult comic book) about a 21st-century love affair.
A young man and a young woman become friends through the internet communications site, Skype. They start to have remote sex without meeting.
The novel – witty and beautifully drawn – illustrates their sexual pleasure in an abstract, dream-like way. The two authors say they wanted to avoid any suspicion of pornography or even eroticism.
A series of surreal drawings – in which the couple plunge naked off a giant obelisk and swing on trapezes holding sharp weapons – is meant to portray how sex feels, rather than how it looks.
Readers of the Le Monde site have been divided in their response. Some have dismissed the first chapter published this week as “over-intellectualised” or “badly drawn”. Others say that they cannot wait for the next three chapters.
In France, the comic book, or Bande Dessinée, is regarded as an art form. Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot, the authors of “La Technique du périnée” (The perineum technique) already have a reputation for pushing the genre beyond its traditional boundaries. Readers were encouraged to slash their previous book to pieces.
Their new book, serialised in Le Monde, begins with a surreal sex sequence. After several pages, the reader discovers that the couple are not plunging from an obelisk into a pool of water. They are sitting in their respective homes in front of their laptop computers and masturbating.
As the story progresses, the young man asks to meet the young woman in person. She refuses, saying, perhaps jokingly, that she fears that he will cut her into pieces. Eventually – like a coy damsel in a medieval tale – she sets him a mission or task.
If he manages to have remote sex with her on Skype for four months without ejaculating, she will have dinner with him. The young man therefore attempts to learn the perineum technique of the book’s title – a method of male muscular control allegedly permitting limitless sexual pleasure.
Florent Ruppert, one of the authors, said: “It’s an entirely traditional story in its structure. We wanted to talk about what was changing about the way we live, notably because of the internet, by means of a story about sexuality.
“We didn’t want to show sex scenes because it would have looked like porn. So we transfigured the sexual acts. We wanted to talk about sexuality without distracting the reader, without giving them the desire to have sex themselves.”
The first chapter of the book rocketed to the second-most read spot on Le Monde’s site (the most read news site in France, especially popular with the political and intellectual classes). Reader’s comments were mixed. “It’s very pretentious,” said one reader, using a rude French word for pretentious. Another said the art-work was “simplistic” and that the dialogues “lacked finesse”. But one described this as “just cheap snobbery” and the book as extraordinary, and another said: “I love it… I can’t wait for the next episodes.”
“La Technique du perinee”, by Florent Ruppert and Jérôme Mulot, coloured by Isabelle Merlet, will be pushlished by Aire Libre on 9 May priced €20.50 (£17). The first chapter can be found on the paid-for part of Lemonde.fr