Md. novelist Manil Suri wins award for a bad sex scene

December 4, 2013

In a climactic moment Tuesday night, Maryland mathematician Manil Suri won the Bad Sex Award for his novel “The City of Devi.”

The prize is given each year by Britain’s Literary Review to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.”

That’s enough to cause any author performance anxiety, but the contest is actually a lot of fun. Some of the most celebrated writers in the world have won the Bad Sex Award, including John Updike, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. (Pornographic and erotic books are excluded from consideration.)

Joan Collins, the patron saint of bad sex, presented the prize at a ceremony in London. Alas, Suri, a mathematics professor at University of Maryland-Baltimore County, was not there to have his triumph consummated.

Even being nominated tickled him. Winning was a shock. “I suppose one can never predict what buttons one might press when one writes about sex,” he says. “But I feel a real sense of exhilaration at this award — it’s great that readers will now have the chance to decide for themselves.”

“The City of Devi,” Suri’s third novel, tells the story of a woman named Sarita looking for her husband during a nuclear crisis in India. The Bad Sex judges were particularly aroused by a ménage à trois that ends with this passage:

“Surely supernovas explode that instant, somewhere, in some galaxy. The hut vanishes, and with it the sea and the sands — only [his] body, locked with mine, remains. We streak like superheroes past suns and solar systems, we dive through shoals of quarks and atomic nuclei. In celebration of our breakthrough fourth star, statisticians the world over rejoice.”

Although he took the award in good spirits, Suri pushes back a bit at the judges’ mockery:

“For me, a sex scene only works if it’s truly embedded in the context of the larger novel,” he says. “For instance, the passage extracted for the award makes little sense without reading the story up to that point. Why would Sarita hark to supernova and quarks and atoms? No, it’s not to play up the cosmic significance of the act, as some have claimed. Why does she refer to superheroes? And what is the mysterious — and as it turns out, somewhat comedic — fourth star that statisticians worldwide are supposed to rejoice over? All these elements have been layered in precise ways through the novel, with the idea that they’ll come together here — to show how Sarita is not only discovering [her husband], but also, with a touch of self-irony, herself. That’s what this scene is really about, much more than the actual sex.

“But I’m getting too professorial,” he says, “a ghastly trait, especially in the bubbly context of this award.”

If Suri has any regrets, it’s only that he missed the ceremony. “I could have air-kissed Joan Collins.”

How many experts in partial differential equations can say that?

On Saturday at 4 p.m., Manil Suri will talk about the mythological motifs in his novels at the Sackler Gallery, 1050 Independence Ave. SW, Washington.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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