The Sextine Chapel
by Hervé Le Tellier
Dalkey Archive Press, 2011
104 pages / $14.95 Buy from Dalkey Archive Press
The Sextine Chapel, a book about the sexual interlocutions of 13 males and 13 females, stands upon the mathematical bedrock of Oulipo. The algorithm: (A)nna has sex with (B)en who has sex with (C)hloe who has sex with (D)ennis all the way until (Z)ach has sex with (A)nna who then skips six letters to (H)arry who skips another six to (O)riane and so on until, in close, (P)hilippe is having sex with (A)nna finishing the corporal turntable. Each hook-up is a paragraph on a page. Not everyone has sex with everyone else, but sayings are passed and settings repeated, creating a finite kaleidoscope of vagina and penis inside of which these strangers are connected.
The Sextine Chapel is a bawdy take on the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo (on his back like a good feminist) painted 12 alternating prophets and sibyls around the famous finger-pointing ceiling centerpiece. Tellier inverts the Catholic prudishness to create a holy place of sex, a public confessional, but without the rigueur. We have gospel verses from Bataille, Twain, Vian, Foucault, Hiro. We have varying levels of faith in the orgasm. We have grace and redemption and satisfaction. But we also have 78 stories of ladies and gents maneuvering body parts cheekily referred to as “lick[ing] her listless, tongu[ing] her tweeter, nibbl[ing] her nub, and suck[ing] her sweetness.” Tellier is never too far from humor or word play.
The structure of repeating heterosexual coitus wears you out. You learn pieces of information about the characters, but not enough within the median 100 word tales to keep names and faces aligned. 78 is a lot of sex stories. Your mind starts to wander, you forget who has already fucked whom, and you start to gloss over words like buttocks. But that’s exactly like having a large number of sexual partners. Depending on frequency, sexual partners own memory estate up until the next best lay, unless particularly heavy in the love department. And inversely, as a lover, there is a powerful urge to be remembered as the best when you’re screwing a lot of people.
Movement figures importantly in the work. Couples eating each other out in moving buses, in elevators, while driving a motorcycle. The movement of the stories themselves is cyclical if you could make a circle from straight lines. Sex is movement, albeit a more or less routine movement. But the key lingual difference is that routine does not mean monotonous. So although these stories verge on the monotonous, they become a routine, both familiar and pleasure filled. Unless you’re gay, because this book is way too hetero.