Two generations after sexual liberation, young people are having less sex than ever and nobody really knows why. Unprecedented forms of copulation and fantasy proliferate, from kink culture to polyamory and sex robots to OnlyFans, though their precise impact seems ambiguous. On the lighter end, Zoomers jokingly rebuke public displays of arousal by telling offenders to go to “horny jail.” On the heavier side, the culture wars are haunted by all manner of psychosexual phantoms. Fucking has become complicated, in other words, or maybe just complex in new ways—either way, good fodder for the aspiring writer. So how has it been handled in contemporary literature?
The vast majority of new writing barely touches on the new sexual problems at all, but there are notable exceptions in a new genre we might call “State of the Bedroom” stories. Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” published in the New Yorker in 2017, and Tony Tulathimutte’s “The Feminist,” published in n+1 in 2019, were both viral successes which, like the “problem novels” of the nineteenth century or the newspaper plays of the Great Depression, ripped their topic from the headlines (ambiguous consent, incels) and crafted a story around it. (Another comparison might be science fiction based on a quirky, speculative premise: instead of a world built around Yelp For People, it’ll be something like “What if an incel, but woke?”) Usually the characters and plot points are variations on archetypes from the media coverage that inspired them; they assume a certain familiarity with the political positions it’s possible to take on the matter; the tone veers from the knowing to the melodramatic; and the ending contains something not unlike a moral.
Enter Alejandro Varela. An accomplished emerging queer author who recently published a story in Harper’s about cruising for men at the United Nations, Varela may seem here to have produced another dispatch on the State of the Bedroom—in this case, from the point of view of a thirtysomething gay Latino who makes an unexpected new connection but has been burnt in a past interracial relationship, leaving him increasingly skeptical of “integrated love.” But Varela’s trademark style is a campy, sophisticated, multilayered irony which sweetens the narrator’s bitter and perhaps over-sophisticated attitudes toward sex with a graceful and humanizing wit. Things don’t go quite as we or the characters expect. And Varela doesn’t ever give us the comfort of escaping the fundamental ambiguity at the heart of the story.
We’re not, we regret to say, in the business of providing anyone with morals, nor could we even if we tried. But a story like Varela’s reminds us of something that’s probably more important as far as literature is concerned. A work of art doesn’t need to shy away from the problems of its age, indeed can grow stronger by confronting them head on—but only if it is absolutely honest to experience.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alejandro Varela is a writer based in New York. He did his graduate studies in public health and began writing full-time five years ago, after first trying to write a screenplay and ending up with a short story instead. He has most recently published stories in Harper’s and the Boston Review, and he has two books, The People Who Report More Stress and The Town of Babylon, forthcoming from Astra House in 2022 and 2023 respectively. A few years ago, reflecting on his influences for the journal Apogee, he looked back on the white male writers he read in school, after discovering Fanon, Le Guin, Césaire, Morrison and Arenas later in life. “Before that,” he recalled, “I’d never given any thought to the bibliography of my formative years. To what extent had it constructed (or obstructed) my worldview? And what about the views and opinions that I had of myself? Did I ever really have anything in common with Holden Caulfield?”