I was worried for Daniel Handler, after reading his persuasive New York Times op-ed excoriating the publishing industry’s shunning of sex in books targeted at teenagers—and became even more so when I learned the title Lemony Snicket had chosen for his counterpoint: All the Dirty Parts. He’s going to have trouble, I thought, making it dirty enough to live up to all that hype. Spoiler alert: My concern was misplaced.
“She got up and went to the bathroom and came back wearing only my shirt. I was on my back on the bed. She stopped at the edge of the bed and clutched my hair a little. Then she moved so she was on my mouth and just rubbed there. Her moans were so unpretty I knew it was real. She tasted like everything, like a girl, like a person, like a creature. Midway I tried to reach for her and she said no and like this came on my mouth like I wasn’t even there and I, so much, loved it.”
The novel begins by unceremoniously dumping the reader inside the mind and body of a teenager:
“Wish I could explain, how these things feel like seduction, even though I know they aren’t. If you rumple my hair and leave your hand for a minute on my neck. If you sit and put one of your legs up on something even if you’re in jeans. If you lick something off your finger. If you put on lipstick. If you rub your own bare arm. If you bend down for any reason to pick something up off the ground. If you talk to me.”
And throughout, Handler is faithful to his protagonist, capturing in the book’s structure how academics, parents, and even legitimate passions like artistic expression can fade to the fringes of a young person’s consciousness, their focus almost entirely absorbed instead by sex, romance, and friendships.
All the Dirty Parts isn’t just a profile in horniness and loneliness, however. Handler tackles a plethora of important, complex issues like homoeroticism, the impact of pornography on one’s sexual concept (or as a behavioral economist might describe it, “anchoring”), and the fuzzy boundaries of consent. The book’s arguably a little heavy-handed, didactic even, when it comes to gender equality and the slut-stud dichotomy, but that’s certainly a message teenagers can stand to hear repeated.
Most importantly, Handler’s writing soars throughout:
“Abby was always scared of the condoms afterwards. She wouldn’t touch them and she wouldn’t throw them out in her house, in case her snoopy mom brush-cleared the wastebasket. So afterwards we’d walk around the neighborhood with little cloudy bundles, eggs of damp latex all tissued up, so delicate in my hand in my pocket like the baby we were trying to avoid. Nighty-night. Go to sleep in this trashcan outside the sandwich place.”
He manages to lace this quick, absorbing read with both wit (e.g., “Four years ago I think, I thought anal sex just meant you were really particular about it”) and descriptive elegance (e.g., “Right there, on her arm, the sort of beautiful spot like what made pioneers think, let’s put a town here”) all without sacrificing poignancy (e.g., “I miss her, I’m coaching at myself as I trudge toward school, like I missed a bus. Not like a limb, a life, an everything.”).
Read All the Dirty Parts. Allow your teenagers, if you have them, to read All the Dirty Parts (perhaps in conjunction with Peggy Orenstein’s Girls & Sex). Muster the courage to discuss All the Dirty Parts. Each of these actions will fascinate, satisfy, and educate. Like any good novel—and sexual experience—should.