Daniel Handler appears in conversation with Sherman Alexie tonight at Temple De Hirsch Sinai. Here's the beginning of his new novel, All the Dirty Parts:
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.
That should give you an idea of what Dirty is about: it's basically Portnoy's Complaint meets Muppet Babies. The high concept is that it's a teen sex comedy with everything removed except for — wait for it — all the dirty parts. Handler tells the story from the perspective of a sex-obsessed teenage boy named Cole. Cole sleeps around a lot, until he falls for the girl of his dreams — a woman who is just about as horny as he is.
Dirty is a return to form for Handler: his very first novel, The Basic Eight, was about precocious teenagers, and Dirty feels like it could takes place in the same universe. It's a kissing (and probably humping) cousin, with a huge family resemblance: like Basic, Dirty is funny and maddening and cute and boundlessly charming. Unfortunately, like Basic, Dirty feels like a good novel with something important scooped out, but I'll be damned if I can explain what that "something important" is.
Handler has my vote for the American Novelist with the Greatest Unfulfilled Potential. Aside from his Lemony Snicket books, he has never published a book that entirely worked for me — either the premise is too overpowering, or Handler lacks the follow-through to make the book a cohesive experience, or the book simply fails to leave a lasting impression. Unfortunately, Dirty demonstrates all three of these failings at the same time. It's slight — more a novella than a novel, really — and monotonous and it doesn't really build to much of anything.
We just spin around in Cole's brain for a while in Dirty, and we never really arrive anywhere. And before you go and blame the smutty nature of the book for its inconclusive nature, you should know that Nicholson Baker wrote not one but two erotic novels — Vox and The Fermata — that demonstrate true depth of character and significant change. Sex can be transformative (for good or ill,) but Cole doesn't seem to be willing or able to make that transformation. Because of that, Dirty never quite achieves the climax it seems to desperately want.