Levitate the Primate
Michael Thomsen (China & Madagascar 2002-05)
Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Ivory Coast 2000-02, Madagascar 2002-03)
I’m prefacing this review of Michael Thomsen’s collection of essays on dating and sex, Levitate the Primate, with the warning that if one is offended, made squeamish, or in any way turned off or hoping to avoid base, explicit, detailed, unguarded, gratuitous, and sometimes simply gross discussions of sex, sexual desire, sexual body parts, sexual love, blowjobs, handjobs, footjobs, rimjobs, assjobs, fucking, sucking, fisting, Matures, creampies, BBWs, married, cuckold, MILFs, trannies, hentai, and bukkake, please do not read this review.
Now that you are all reading along!
When this slender, slick, pink book came across my reviewing desk earlier this week, it rose directly to the top of my long to-do list, and I ended up banging through it in a couple of hurried sessions. At times, I felt like showering just to cleanse myself of the revolting images contained within, at others, like getting up on Craigslist, telling a few strangers that I’m HWP, D/D free, looking for now, and can ho$$$t. Not that I’ve ever done that.
From 2008-2009, Thomsen wrote a “sex and dating blog for Nerve,” and the 100 or so resulting two-to-three page essays are collected here. In fairness, the book is actually quite a bit tamer than I’ve so far made it out to be, and revolves around the sex lives of striving twenty-somethings in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York (one recalls Adam Davies’ masterful, if little read, novel of a decade ago The Frog King). Thomsen himself, a self-described lanky, pasty white guy with no muscle tone, a smallish penis, intermittent erectile dysfunction, and a propensity to premature ejaculation, tends to have his best luck with women when they are really drunk. He writes about his encounters with the same two girlfriends over and over; most of the sex in the book is actually just theoretical. Aside from his sexual ruminations and chronicling his self-abuse techniques-including standing on his head and using ass beads all alone-a running, and somewhat tragic theme is Thomsen’s intense and on-going affair with ‘N,’ an attached woman who callously uses him. Indeed, Thomsen has dedicated the book to her, despite her treating him like dirt.
“She seemed instantly familiar before she even turned around,” he writes of first meeting ‘N,’ cold Catherine to his desperate Heathcliff. “‘Oh,’ I thought to myself as I saw her back and shoulders…. ‘There you are…’ We spent the rest of the day trapped in a rictus of small talk…. ‘There you are,’ I thought. ‘It’s you.’”
Indeed, ‘N’ is so much ‘It’s you’ for Thomsen that he gratefully consumes her sexual table scraps in San Francisco, even as she sets all the rules and lets him know she’ll soon be leaving for NY to live with another man. His unrequited desire for her instigates a long period of self-imposed celibacy; he pines from afar as ‘N’ enters and quits relationships like changing clothes; of course, none of these relationships are with him.
The book is very funny; in between writing about his tortured affair with ‘N,’ Thomsen recounts absurd adventures in Internet dating, porn, anonymous sex, monogamy, love, and catching STDs. His voice is the embarrassed, self-mocking monologue of Conan O’Brien sprinkled with a dash of Woody Allen. Charles Bukowski did this same work grittier, and William Burroughs darker. But Thomsen’s addition to the genre offers a new sort of innocence that is wholly indicative of his cautious, Recession-stunned generation. Thomsen stares at prostitutes, but doesn’t hire them; his idea of doing two women in the same night is to kiss one on a date, then get a phone number from another later in a bar. He comes across as a rather shy, prudish young man who got a job writing about sex, and just as with sex itself, didn’t really know what to do. In many ways, the book tracks his discovery of his sexuality with his need for blogging content urging him to take the occasional risk.
It’s true that Levitate the Primate is not for the squeamish, but all the explicit sex-talk is really just the commercial hook that Nerve needed to attract page views, and that Thomsen needed to get his book published in this terrible age of greatly reduced opportunities for all writers, let alone young ones. In fact, Thomsen talks of growing up in conservative Fresno to Seventh Day Adventists parents with a generally good marriage (one wonders at Thomsen’s family’s feelings about his career) who he clearly loves and admires. He served for four years in the Peace Corps, and writes repeatedly in these pages that his time abroad is his number one topic of discussion. In short, though on its surface Levitate the Primate seems to be all sexual potty mouth, that’s not actually what the book is about. Instead, the book Thomsen is trying to write is about a woman he loves, and who does not-and will not ever-love him back.
“We spent the night at my apartment, woke up to a bright and sunny day and walked back to her old place,” he writes of ‘N’. “I remember walking that path many times over those two months. I was always getting off work late, but I would walk those dirty sidewalks as fast as I could to meet her almost every night of the week…We were quiet that morning….I had known that she was leaving from the beginning. I kissed her and held on for a few seconds. ‘It’s going to be hard to let you go,’ I told her…I don’t know what the weight of my life is worth. I don’t know why I exist or what benefit can come out of it. But I do know who I love…She has dark wavy hair, calluses, dirty fingernails, a Jack Johnson record… She’s been in every story I’ve written…[She's] in the blank spaces between words, the invisible center around which all these little black letters orbit.”
In between the entertaining smut, Thomsen writes potently about the oldest, most basic stuff in the world: desire, passion, hunger, love. Now the only question is, novel or screenplay?
Michael Thomsen (China/Madagascar 2002-2005), has contributed to Slate, ABC World News, The Wall Street Journal, Kill Screen, The New Inquiry, BookForum, Nerve, and The Believer.
Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s (Ivory Coast 2000-2002, Madagascar 2002-2003) latest novel, Mule, is at Warner Bros.