With Bonk issued in paperback this week, one question comes to mind right away: "How come nobody did this before?" It's followed by one perhaps backhandedly complimentary answer: "Maybe it was just waiting for Mary Roach."
For several years, the Oakland author and her editors have been building conversation-worthy best-sellers out of single-word concepts. Before Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, there was Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife; before that came Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. That simple model — a perky monosyllabic title, followed by a pithy elaboration thereof — has been a proven moneymaker in Roach's hands. And so off she goes again, this time peering into Alfred Kinsey's attic, reading up on Marie Bonaparte's clitoral relocation surgeries (not one but two), braving the hunt for Masters and Johnson's storied dick-cam, and poking around among pigs in Denmark, goats in Taiwan, and humans in lab coats everywhere — not to mention joining her husband in what she calls "the 20-Inch High Club" in a researcher's MRI machine.
Roach contemplates orgasmic experiments comparing prostitutes with feminists. She investigates behaviorist John B. Watson's assessment of sexuality as "the thing that causes the most shipwrecks in the happiness of men and women." She evaluates the marriage manuals of the 1930s: "It was a good time to be a woman. They got the vote, they got birth control, and now they had husbands who gave genital kisses and finger friction." She even studies pelvic-floor-muscle exercise videos (narrated with lines like "Notice the lifting of the scrotum") so we don't have to, although some among us should at least have the lifted scrotums to admit that we may kinda want to. Because it's funny.
A lot of it is funny. And not just "those rare shining moments when urology approaches high comedy," as she puts it, but pretty much the entire thoroughly and lucidly reported experience. Spend enough time alone with Bonk — or read it aloud to a loved one — and you might start to think that the funniness, the inevitable absurdity of it all, really is the main point.
That's generally how Roach rolls ("curious" makes for cleaner copy than "sort of weirdly hilarious"), but the sex gives her a lot to work with. At nearly every turn in Bonk, she can't seem to keep from digressing into wisecracking frivolity. She includes asides like "No one should have to see that. It's bad enough you just had to read it." And she gets positively giddy with footnotes, so much so that it almost seems like a nervous tic — a compulsion to achieve the perfect one-liner. Or two- or three- or four-liner. Yes, she misses some bull's-eyes, but she never misses an opportunity. She's like one of those public radio personalities you gradually adore, quickly disdain, eventually denounce, patiently abide, magnanimously forgive, then finally comprehend.
Prudence might be advised, except this is a book about studying sex, remember? There's enough fun being taken out from the outset. At least Roach has the good sense to want to put some back in. Sure, she could have played it straighter. But screw that.