A Brief Introduction to Philosophy (Through a Certain Sex Act)

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It was a Monday night in August at the Bell House in Brooklyn, and Jacqueline Novak was sneaking in a few more dates of her hit one-woman show, “Get On Your Knees.” The 80-minute standup spectacle — which she sometimes must describe, for marketing reasons, as “a highbrow show about blowjobs” — had just ended its second run Off Broadway. A few days later, it would depart on tour. The crowd that night was girls and gays, plus a handful of older Manhattan-types with an air of having read about the show. They’d come for “provocative and superbly articulate material” (The Hollywood Reporter); an “overthinker’s delight” (The New Yorker); “a one-woman oral-sex meditation that’s part-standup, part-poetic treatise” (Vanity Fair).

The bar lights cut out, and the opening slam of “Like a Prayer” came over the P.A. Novak appeared, wearing gray jeans and a gray T-shirt, her hair pulled back in an unfussy ponytail. Her sneakers were unbranded, like a cartoon character’s. She strolled toward the mic in an ordinary way, then paused to offer some notes on her own entrance.

“I think the real reason I struggle with the entrance,” she said, “is because the journey from backstage to a microphone, what it reminds me of, is the journey from someone’s face, down their torso, to their pelvis, to give them a blowjob. The whole way there, in both scenarios, everyone knows what you’re headed to do, but you’re not yet doing the thing, so there’s just this question hanging in the air: Can she do it?”

As Oscar Wilde or Foucault or someone put it: “Everything in the world is about sex, except sex. Sex is about power.” In “G.O.Y.K.,” sex is about everything. For Novak, the blowjob is merely an excuse to shed light on all the matter that surrounds it. It first emerges as an abstract concept, and then as an underlying plot structure, as she recounts her strenuous efforts to perform oral sex for the very first time. Her quest begins in the finished basements of Westchester. She’s ambitious. She wants to achieve her goal, not how someone wants to eat fries, but out of something like wanting to want. She studies the women’s magazines, with their sex tips and their warnings of the extreeeeeeeeme sensitivity of the glans. She absorbs a fear of “biting it off” from a best friend’s older sister’s best friend, who fancies herself a subject-matter expert. These concepts, introduced in the first half, provide a vocabulary for exploring the question: What does it mean to perform this sex act? At first, this is a concrete, anatomical concern, but over time, it becomes more existential: What does it mean to be a mind, within a body, sucking on a body, which in turn contains a mind?

Over the course of the past decade or so, sex comedy has waned in funniness, veering into didacticism, or else, a desire to punish the didactic. “G.O.Y.K.” transcends this paradigm. Though the show could be fairly described as feminist, it resists the fashionable themes of empowerment and relatability. Instead of relying on flaccid tropes — talking with your mouth full, spit/swallow binaries, off-course emissions — Novak’s comedy defamiliarizes, cutting through centuries of heterosexual lore to reveal the raw act as something even more absurd. Her approach is discursive, yet precise — Proust kneeling bedside on the carpet of a dorm. High-low mash-ups come cheap nowadays, but here the jokes converge to form a grander argument. The payoff is delivered in a final climax, as Novak begins talking faster and faster, redeeming tossed-off jokes, resolving trains of thought and delivering the punchline in a dramatic moment of closure. That night the standing ovation felt charged.

Jacqueline Novak backstage at her show in Austin.Credit…Angie Smith for The New York Times

When I bought tickets to “G.O.Y.K.” in its first Off Broadway run, I was relatively certain I would hate it. It was 2019, and I’d begun to feel hung over from a long decade of gorging myself on so-called feminist entertainment products. In 2010, as a high school senior, I entered the feminist blogosphere — an at-the-time vibrant community, which close-read pop culture artifacts, and seemed to suggest that a new deal for women would come by improving mass media. This link between politics and culture felt so elegant. Coming out of the decade of the midriff and the bromance, it also felt like a doomed undertaking, but over the course of the following years, I watched with wide eyes as a new feminist pop culture began to articulate itself within the mainstream.

One dominant theme of this new culture was “sex positivity,” a philosophy born after the porn wars of the 1980s, which argued that all consensual sex was fundamentally healthy. By my college graduation in 2014, a range of exciting new television shows were being advertised as “sex positive,” including “Broad City” (a comedy about college-educated white women having sex in New York City) and “Girls” (a different comedy about college-educated white women having sex in New York City). At first I was delighted to consume this media, and excited to partake in a new empowered future. The stewards of culture seemed excited, too, and soon pop-feminism was disrupting everything, from dating apps and fast fashion to journalism and “Ghostbusters.”

It’s hard to say exactly when commodified faux sex-positivity reached its peak. For me, it felt like 2019, when I went to see “Booksmart,” a bootleg feminist version of the teen sex comedy “Superbad.” I loved this movie in the disordered way that you wind up loving things when you’re not careful what you wish for. At the same time, it exemplified the broken promises inherent in the new feminist mass media. Like other entertainment of its type, “Booksmart” merely papered over the old dynamics of gender with new vocabulary. (One line of gossip captures this tension: “Do you think it’s true that his dad got him a sex worker for his 14th birthday?”) The real letdown was that it didn’t even work. Not only was nobody laughing or learning, but nobody even went home falsely empowered.

With this litany of resentments, I’m not sure how or why I ended up buying tickets to Novak’s show. In light of the cultural moment that produced it, it’s truly astounding that “Get On Your Knees” is not just good, but nuanced and moving. Novak, 39, first got the idea to write about oral sex in a college class where she was tasked with writing about the personal as political. It wasn’t until the late ’10s that she began to turn this germ of an idea into a show. In the years preceding, she had started refining her standup on the open-mic circuit of a new interdisciplinary alt-comedy scene. And it was in this scene that she met the cult comedians Kate Berlant and John Early.

Back then, Early was hosting “Showgasm,” a regular variety show at the genre-blurring theater Ars Nova in New York. Novak recorded her first comedy album, “Quality Notions,” at the venue, and she and Early fell into mock-professional rapport, with him camping as a fastidious director, and her, the starlet, absorbing his notes. Their playacting became actually productive. As Novak finished “G.O.Y.K.” and began to rehearse it for Edinburgh Fringe, she invited Early to give his joking feedback live after two trial shows at Union Hall. Eventually, she’d ask him in earnest to direct the first Off Broadway run at Cherry Lane Theater.

From the beginning, the duo felt conscious of all the ways a one-woman show about sex could go wrong. Early feared becoming grist for what he called the “think piece industrial complex.” “We were always on the lookout for any sort of energy that ever felt like she was saying, ‘Don’t mansplain to me!’” he says. “I’m fine with that kind of coverage if it’s selling tickets, but ‘girl-boss Refinery 29 takedown of men’ — that’s never ever what we wanted it to be.” For Novak, this strain of humor felt too cheap. She didn’t want applause just for being vulnerable or saying something the audience agreed with. “If I get cheers that feel like: ‘Ding! Ding! Ding! That’s the thing we all believe!’ it makes me feel like a politician, or a student-council candidate throwing candy to the crowd.”

Pursuing the subject through long-form standup did not make avoiding this tone easier. It situated “G.O.Y.K.” in the lineage of the one-woman show. This is a genre with a history of hack conventions: the spotlight that signals a shift into memory, the step toward the literal and figurative coat rack to try on the hats of mothers and past lovers. Novak felt wary of these devices, because they disrupt the narrative. She wanted instead to “let the notions lead.” “We wanted to preserve this feeling of Jacqueline working through an argument live in front of you,” Early says. In place of prop trunks and trying on hats, the show merely refines a repertoire of natural gestures: pacing, pausing to rephrase what you just said, fiddling with the microphone cord.

The result of all this effort is not a response to empty girl-boss comedy, but an alternative to it. Novak’s essayistic style leaves room for the kind of ambivalent truths that never resolve into a call to action. She instead relishes in the complex luxury of expressing a whole train of thought from start to finish. In place of empowerment, which implies a half-formed self in need of saving, she’s more interested in dignity, and how the inherently worthy self can square its existence with a very stupid world.

Backstage in Austin.Credit…Angie Smith for The New York Times

Fellatio, especially, is intertwined with certain tendencies of this very stupid world: the “Madonna-whore complex,” imposed domination, the implicit mandate to cater to male comfort. Novak doesn’t try to solve these problems — that isn’t the job of an Off Broadway show — but she does imagine a new path around them. In place of the virtuous teachable moment, she dares to play with the tools of the master’s house, at several points committing misogyny against the penis itself. (“The penis is the one true drama queen: one minute, life of the party; the very next, flopped over and sulking on the fainting couch that is the inner thigh.”) Doomed to lug the female form “like a sack of sex potatoes,” Novak realizes that living in a body — any body, but especially a woman’s — is a fundamentally ungovernable experience. She does not patronize her audience by suggesting we humans can escape this situation. Instead, she takes a perverse interest in her own futile attempts to neutralize the threat.

This thesis is crystallized in a scene where Novak explains her first failed attempt at performing the act. She is 16. Her boyfriend, a grade older, is “laid out on a bed, like a patient etherized upon a table.” She makes her way from his face, down his torso, to his pelvis. Hovering above his extreeeeemely sensitive tip, she realizes an essential problem: Because she has never done this before, she knows it’s going to be bad. This, in itself, she is comfortable with, but she shudders to think of her boyfriend not knowing that she herself knows that it’s bad.

“The problem is that I won’t be able to articulate to the person in that moment that I know that I’m doing it bad because my mouth will be stuffed full of genitals,” she says.

She wishes for a second mouth to narrate.

“One mouth to attempt a blowjob, another mouth to explain.”

Naturally, Novak has a podcast. It’s called “Poog,” and she hosts it with Kate Berlant. The introduction to the show describes it as “an ongoing conversation about wellness” and an expression of the friends’ “naked desire for free products.” (The name is “Goop” spelled backward.) Wellness, a multitrillion-dollar industry, can make almost anything into a product, and so the show has an incredible purview: skin care, hair care, diet and health, but also black mold, Jungian archetypes and the comfort of the lead X-ray apron at the dentist. Novak and Berlant are not easy marks; they know wellness sells a feeling, not results. And to them this feeling, however superficial, is not a frivolous thing to pursue. Where “G.O.Y.K.” imagines a way around the finitude of the body, “Poog” hopes that one might find a way to live within it. “I’m addicted to wellness,” Novak told me. “Or pursuing it tirelessly without arriving.”

We were on our way to Restore Hyper Wellness — a new spa concept with cryotherapy, hyperbaric oxygen chambers and something called “photobiomodulation.” Novak picked me up at the Mount Kisco, N.Y., train station and drove me on a tour of her hometown. There was the old McDonald’s, where, in 1992, she finished her first large fries. There was the new CBD store, where she and her boyfriend, the comedian Chris Laker, recently purchased a legal gray-zone form of THC, hoping to cure her restless leg syndrome. We drove past the husk of her “childhood Borders,” now a big-box store “FOR LEASE,” where she used to get dropped off after school to read self-help books standing in the aisles. Novak is familiar with all the major self-help paradigms (“Awaken the Giant Within”; “The 4-Hour Workweek”), but she also goes in for the headier stuff, like Peter D. Kramer’s “Against Depression.”

Novak and I each had major depressive episodes in our 20s. We bantered back and forth about our S.S.R.I.s, and the looming temptation to go cold turkey in search of the mythical “baseline.” One of Novak’s conversational charms is slipping in and out of the vernacular modes that populate contemporary life: ad speak, online feminist smarm, college-brochure meritocratese. “I’d rather be depressed than have any one of those side effects,” she said, affecting a fake-smart cynic in the ’90s watching a TV commercial for Paxil.

During Novak’s mental-health ordeal, she convalesced at home with her parents, making slow progress on her book, “How to Weep in Public,” which was published by Crown in 2016. In this same period, she went to the Mount Kisco Target almost every day. She described this to me as “my depression Target.” Her depression Target now shares a parking lot with the strip mall that houses Restore Hyper Wellness. Novak was delighted by this concinnity, and even more delighted by the treatments on offer that day at the storefront franchise spa concept.

We were greeted by Jack, perhaps the healthiest-looking man in the world. He walked us past the IV-therapy room and a bank of leg-compression chairs. Novak told him, seeking approval, that she already had her own photobiomodulation, or PBM, device at home, which she’d solicited free via “Poog.” They both agreed the red-light panels were great, and she recommended that Jack check out her podcast — not in a self-promotional way, but rather in the way that a professor might invite a colleague to a conference. As Jack prepared the cryotherapy machine, Novak told me she found it noble that Restore Hyper Wellness mainly advertised the fact of its treatments, as opposed to some kind of specific result. To this day, I have no idea what a cryotherapy machine purports to do. We went there that day to imagine new bodily possibilities; which possibilities didn’t really matter.

Novak en route to her show in Austin.Credit…Angie Smith for The New York Times

Novak suggested that we enter the machine together. We stood at the door, wearing terry-cloth smocks and spa-issued mittens, as Jack explained the process. We’d stay in for 2 minutes and 45 seconds: 15 seconds in a pre-chamber, and the rest in the actual cryo booth. The main chamber, Jack said, had five circulatory fans, the intensity of which he controlled from the outside. The air inside could reach negative 164 degrees. Jack’s goal was to lower our skin temperature to somewhere between 45 and 55 degrees.

“You’re not going to be too easy on us, right?” Novak asked. “I always fear someone is going to go too light on me.”

I have no memory of entering the booth. We were in the pre-chamber, and then we were in the chamber, pacing in a circle, Novak narrating the whole time. As we paced, she delivered a treatise on the subjective experience of time, and how seconds pass slower when there are fewer of them to pass, and if we had longer to stay in the booth, a single second may have felt qualitatively less uncomfortable. I wondered, shivering, if this was true. At some point Jack told us to exit the booth, and there was a scramble as we realized we needed to go out the way we came, and not through some imagined second door. We stumbled back to Earth in a cloud of condensation.

“Forty-one degrees,” Jack said, taking Novak’s temperature with a contactless thermometer. Her face looked rosy-cheeked and blithe, as if she was trying to believe the cryotherapy had worked.

Later that night, I reflected on how Novak had asked me, with uncharacteristic timidity, to enter the booth with her. Obviously, we visited the spa for the sake of my observing her, but still the request felt a little bit too game. The alternative would have been bizarre as well: Novak alone in the chamber, teeth chattering; me watching fully clothed through the glass. The choice to go together, at least, allowed her the dignity of narration. The cryo booth may not obviate the body, but few things allow us to overcome ourselves like externalizing the internal monologue.

Earlier that day over lunch, Novak told me how, at the nadir of her depression, she went for “a literal Rorschach test.” Staring at the ink blots, seeing animal faces and wolves sitting in chairs, and (obviously) vaginas, she found herself overcome by the urge to explain to the doctor that she knew she was taking a psychological test, one in which seeing symmetrical imagery was not just likely, but basically preordained. It was mortifying for her to be observed without the person knowing that she knew she was being observed. A lack of self-awareness, she explained, was “the most embarrassing trait in a person” and “sort of also just the human condition.” This disgrace was practically built into the body.

“The fact that we have a backside that’s like a dead zone” — no eyes, no nose, no other sensory organs — “is humiliating!” she said. “Pathetic!”

Jamie Lauren Keiles is a contributing writer for the magazine. Their last article was about the musician Sam Hunt.

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