All the Dirty Parts by Daniel Handler is an astonishingly obscene novel

The novel is a kind of plea that we should make our ideas of intimacy from more than porn, but is it more than porn itself?

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“Let me put it this way: this is how much I think about sex. Draw a number line, with zero is, you never think about sex and ten is, it’s all you think about, and while you are drawing the line, I am thinking about sex.” This is our introduction to Cole, high-school horndog and narrator-protagonist of All the Dirty Parts; a Hard-on Caulfield whose life is metered out by the orgasm, both the ones he self-induces with the aid of pornography and the ones he’s assisted in by a cast of willing partners. Well, they seem willing enough to Cole. “I’ve never forced a girl. While we were having sex they all, definitely, wanted it to happen.” It’s an early flinch of defensiveness that has an immediately unsettling follow-up: “Afterwards, though, they felt bad about it sometimes.”

It is an astonishingly obscene novel, thoroughly reversing the usual economy of dirty parts in books. James Herbert’s The Rats, which did the rounds of my school, only offered a few guilty, grubby scenes in its 200 pages of mutant rodent gore. Even an honest-to-goodness bonkbuster from Conran or Cooper would break up the smut with some dynastic plotting or tense equestrianism. But Daniel Handler is writing for our porn-soaked now, and there is nothing, but nothing, but filth here – not a single page where there isn’t a “sticky but happy” mouth or a “girl fierce and moaning all thirsty” to make you angle the book towards you when you’re reading in public so the shame can’t seep out.

Cole probably wouldn’t worry about keeping his reading private. After all, he doesn’t mind settling in with best friend Alec for communal masturbation sessions, and he’s fine with his promiscuity being talked about. When his friend Kristen warns him that he’s “getting a rep” for “going after girls” (“And you don’t treat them like people,” she adds), Cole can dismiss her by privately diagnosing her as a jealous virgin. After all, what harm can a “rep” do to him? One girlfriend, challenging him to understand the female predicament of the double standard, asks Cole to imagine what the guy-word for “slut” is. The guy-word for slut, he tells her, is just “guy”. He thinks this is an answer and not a self-indictment.

You can’t learn everything there is to know from porn, it turns out. “I’m seventeen now, and no real girl has really told me to ejaculate on her face,” says Cole, woefully. Maybe he’d have been better off trading his broadband connection for a copy of The Rats, which would have taught him that sex, while fun, has consequences (the consequence in Herbert being that you are eaten alive by dog-sized rats).

Cole’s happy, hardcore existence is about to founder. He is about to meet Grisaille, who will turn everything in him infernally upside-down and put him where he put the girls before her. “Safe, everyone says about sex. Everyone says everyone should feel safe. I always did, but they never, not quite, I think, I know. My turn, with Grisaille. I can’t always say I like it. But it’s very, don’t-touch-that, hot.”

Handler gives Cole’s internal monologue a loose, pulsing rhythm that suits the febrile heart rate of teenage lust. Sometimes, he’s very funny. A line about Cole and Grisaille trying something which is “not a good way to have sex. And it’s also a bad way to eat hummus” made me wish there’d been room made for more gags. (Under the pen-name Lemony Snicket, Handler is also the author of the blackly comic Series of Unfortunate Events books for children.) What the novel doesn’t offer much of is any scaffolding around the dirty parts. Cole comes, and then he gets his comeuppance, but what we learn about him never goes far beyond the information we were given in the first line: he really, really likes sex.

Other characters are just as slight. Even Grisaille, whose whole purpose is to rebuke Cole’s ignorance of girls’ inner lives, is not much more than a cute contrapasso. The novel knows it, too: “Her name’s not even a real name, Cole,” says Alec. “You know it’s some art technique or whatever.” (Alec is right, grisaille is a monochrome drawing style that mimics sculpture.)

The novel is a kind of plea that we should make our ideas of intimacy from more than porn, but is it more than porn itself? Nabokov loftily defended Lolita from obscenity charges, writing: “‘Pornography’ is not an image plucked out of context; pornography is an attitude and an intention. The tragic and the obscene exclude each other.” Cole’s story is a tragedy. I suspect the hero would still find a way to masturbate over All the Dirty Parts, though. 

All the Dirty Parts
Daniel Handler
Bloomsbury, 144pp, £14.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article appears in the 04 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Young vs Old