It’s not easy getting cucked. Contrary to the consensus online, which sees a cuck in every message board, there are few worthy pretenders to the horns. This is because real cuckoldry is a lifestyle and not a label; as a kink, it involves dedication, relish, and the same hierarchy of passion that might elsewhere distinguish a connoisseur from a minor foodie. True cucks – cucks who are cucks because they get cucked on purpose – practice their own abasement with care. They learn the customary etiquette of betrayal, the techniques for turning an intruder into an invitee. A man who watches his wife have sex with others must be an adept of masculinity’s lowlier registers – pathetic enough for a rival to best him, but not too pathetic as to dip into the danger zone of the incel, who could never marry in the first place. As you can imagine, much finesse is involved.
Darryl, the tragicomic cuckold of Jackie Ess’ eponymous 2021 novel, is a white man in his forties living in Eugene, Oregon. He enjoys well-done hamburgers, prodigious doses of GHB, and watching other men sleep with his wife, Mindy. ‘It’s like seeing a guy hit a hundred home runs at once,’ he says, and the baseball analogy is apt. Under so much of American culture (its sports, its politics, its economy), there exists the startlingly crystalline structure of male competition. Only in cuckoldry, however, do you win when you lose. Observing his wife have sex with Bill, a masculine ideal with pro-union politics, Darryl feels an ‘ecstasy of shame,’ an ‘ocean roar feeling.’ These proclivities suggest a certain generosity of spirit, or at least libido – Darryl’s pleasure exists only in hot tessellation with the pleasure of others. Still, the book begins with its protagonist a little bit morose: ‘How come I can’t be like Bill,’ the cuckold complains. ‘How come I can’t be like Mindy.’ Desire has turned into greed for his wife’s personhood. This is how we know we’re back to the same old conventions of heterosexual marriage.
Darryl goes to a nearby river to overdose. He fails, and after a brief institutionalisation, left unnarrated, the couple hire a villainous, proto-fascist therapist named Clive. Clive drugs Darryl and has sex with Mindy, a programme that only somewhat vexes Darryl. Other characters crowd into the book: there is Kit, a lesbian; Oothoon, a trans poet with ‘something to say about everything’; and Satori and Patrick, who are BDSM practitioners. Each one of them secretes the availability of sex, and even Darryl begins to engage in something non-vicarious. Also, Bill – burly paragon of the homosocial working-class – might actually be gay. In Darryl Ess has achieved something fantastic, smoothing a crinkled marriage into a placemat for transgressive sex of all kinds. It’s not clear who, here, is the butt of the joke: if it’s the middle-aged straight couple, who the kinky and queer are drawn to like moths, or the other way around. The light the moths seek is a slowly dying star: Darryl and Mindy’s boring, traditional marriage, which still seems to exert a pull on all whom it excludes. Like most great literature about marriage, Darryl tells us that the institution is corroding and still strangely compelling. We can’t leave it behind without peeking over our shoulders.
Because Darryl is about sex it is necessarily about ethics, although ‘consent’ – that imprecise, blowsy word – appears not once in the book. Ess is excellent at exploring the implications of her characters’ desires while withholding any easy answers or exits. Her talent lies in refining the flinty ethical considerations that accompany all positions, even those of total weakness. Darryl simultaneously fantasises about LeBron James holding his wife – his ‘NBA rings on the bedside table’ – and wonders at the racism that inflects the cuckoldry community. ‘You wouldn’t believe how people talk on some of the websites. Even calling the guys “bulls” is probably fucked up. But I can’t change everything. “Black bulls.” I don’t know. Is all of this happening because of slavery?’ The concerns proliferate though they remain abortive and directionless, like grounded airplanes. Ultimately, Darryl is grateful to Bill since Bill’s whiteness simplifies the situation. Plus, he is ‘just plain good to work with’.
Perhaps Darryl is already too debased to occupy any high ground, moral or otherwise, or perhaps he’s just safely oblivious to the worst of online discourse, which presides over sexual politics like a set of board game rules. Either way, Darryl’s musings on the ethics of his lifestyle don’t seem indulgent; they are serious rather than self-serious. ‘What happens to guys like me, who are stuck with the old model of masculinity even as we’re totally burned by it?’ Our narrator is smart even when he is whiny – he has accepted that one can’t merely think one’s way out of human hierarchies. Compare his equanimity to another of masculinity’s literary dissidents, the protagonist of Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School (2019). While Adam Gordon, Lerner’s auto fictive proxy, performs cunnilingus on his girlfriend, he agonizes over how he can act in a way that asserts ‘his good difference as poet, proto-feminist… without neutering himself in the process’. Lerner’s protagonist still scrabbles for some stratum of power that can feel both individually and societally acceptable; he hasn’t learned, like Darryl, that such an alignment is impossible – or at least pleasureless.
Where The Topeka School is cynical, smirking at its protagonist’s infinitely whorled angst, Darryl is only ironic. This is not just because ‘irony’ comes from the Ancient Greek eiron, meaning the archetypal self-deprecating man. Northrop Frye, in his seminal The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), gave the simplest definition of the ironic mode when he described it as a work that says less than what it means. It’s this ‘saying less’ that makes irony so rare today, despite online commentators’ frequent professions that we live in irony-pilled times. In truth, all of us are too self-aware to shut up. As critic Christian Lorentzen recently noted in Bookforum – the virtue signalling genre of our contemporary moment – has made it such that no narrator can keep quiet when there’s still more self-justification and self-absolution to attempt. In a dialectic of chattiness, the auto-fiction narrator claims an awareness of their flaws, then an awareness of their impotent awareness. Darryl may be the exception: he comes at everything knowing less than the reader, saying less than the discourse, and the effect is almost theatrical; it is the delicious squirm of knowing, before the actors, what happens next in the play. Announces Darryl: ‘Trans stuff is always a mystery to me.’ And: ‘I’ve been thinking since the election that maybe voting for the Democrats and saying ‘I’m not a political guy’ might not be enough anymore.’ And: ‘Maybe there are cucks who aren’t even men. Is that postmodernism?’ We cannot laugh too freely at Darryl, because he gestures to problems that we ourselves are only sloppily approaching. Though he is sometimes mean about ways of life that he finds unfamiliar, Darryl’s deliberations are refreshing for their orientation towards marvel, rather than purity or certainty. ‘So many different kinds of people in the world!’ Unlike cynicism, irony can prevail only after the appearance of sincerity, which is incidentally how the cuck likes to sign his missives to his friends and rivals: ‘sincerely, Darryl.’
But what does Darryl want? Sometimes, through sex, through nature, he is granted intimations of a compelling beyond, ‘the life inside of life, the protein machine that we’re all cogs in.’ Is this salvation or a cop-out? A disintegration of the self, or an evasion of the absolute singularity of one’s relations, as well as the power differentials that intervene between each, and chafe? Darryl seemingly cannot abide by his helplessness forever: he falls in love with swinger Satori and, in uncucklike fashion, connives alongside Clive to dispatch one of her boyfriends. Somewhat unpredictably, the book ends in a jagged arpeggio of violence.
What lies behind the defiant (yet lowered!) gaze of the cuck is the prospect of a humiliation that cannot be redeemed by the cleansing function of male revenge – an honour killing, or at least a devastating prenup. Darryl’s act of aggression nullifies this promise and his cuckoldry, casting retrospective doubt on the eiron’s childlike innocence. It’s fitting that his partner in this failure is Clive, a 4chan figure with alt-right leanings. The cuck and the troll: each an inverse image of the other. The cuck seeks passivity, but only within scenarios that he can fanatically monitor and arrange (indeed, throughout the book, it is uncertain how much Mindy enjoys her designated role). The troll, meanwhile, loves to aggress while taking cover behind anonymity, which means he can never experience the high of true domination. Cuck and troll are the mirror figures of our era, a power-confused time when people – because they do not trust themselves or others – feel they must cut their passivity with aggression, or vice versa. Ess’ assessment is damning though not cruel or wrong. Darryl wants to experience ‘impersonal, indiscriminate’ love, yet struggles to shrug off his own autonomy enough to do so. Like us, he cannot let go of his need for control. Like us, he refuses both full agency and full accountability.