This beautifully produced little book is about sex.

It is not about sex in a way that puts it at any risk of being nominated for the ludicrous Bad Sex Award that acknowledges the clumsiness of some novelists when they feel the need to join their characters between the sheets. Nor is it anything to do with the sort of erotic fantasy that made 50 Shades Of Grey a Kindle hit. In fact, it takes time to ridicule people who find diversion in the paraphernalia of manacles, whips and chains and have fake dungeons in their garage instead of a car and a lawnmower.

Doubtless such folk would retort that McEwen's way with sex is "vanilla", but more of us might regard it as adult, realistic and recognisable (even when it is dealing with the juvenilia of real life) – and remark that vanilla is surely the gold standard for ice-cream. As much, if not rather more, to the point is that it is beautifully written and extremely funny. The conceit of these six narratives of sexual relationships is that they are titled after the six simple machines that demonstrate mechanical power – the lever, the wheel, the screw, the wedge, the pulley and the inclined plane. The discrepancy the more numerate reader will have picked up on between the title and the number of tales is explained (sort of) by the debatable distinction between the wedge and the inclined plane as a mechanical device. McEwen may not be 100% serious about this, but he is fastidious about the extended metaphor of the book.

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Pulley begins with the words: "Got to raise something heavy here." By which time we are well in on the joke, as well as the ones about the actress and bishop and the narrator hoist by his own petard. Screw does not eschew the obvious, but it is also a stream of consciousness that embraces being screwed up and being screwed, in every sense, as well as the manufacture of the actual objects for fixings. Wedge clads the object of its affection in appropriate footwear even as it documents the dividing agents being forced into the relationship. Wheel proves highly informative about the mechanisms of early merry-go-rounds. The opening tale, Lever, plunges straight in, examining the physical and mental tumescence of a narrator fascinated by his own apparatus, and the very mechanics of fornication.

Perhaps that makes McEwen's writing sound cold, when it is anything but. There is a palpable affection for his characters, even when they are plainly misguided, obsessive or barking (up the wrong tree). Names are important, and sometimes particularly in their absence ("girlfriend") or their masking of a true identity. It is never just the description of carnal activity that is explicit – the appetite for self-deception can be every bit as seductive as the appetite for sex.

It is tempting to draw conclusions about the author's own self-awareness in some of the clarity of the analysis in all this, but there is no hard evidence for that, really. I fancy, nonetheless, that there is more than an element of autobiography in the closing meditation on "inclination".

Elsewhere, the voices of the stories and the sharp, concise portraits of the characters are as much of a delight and McEwen, as readers of any of his work will know, has a remarkable gift for the startlingly original and yet instantly comprehensible descriptive phrase. I have been squirrelling away some of these phrases for future use. I hope to use them to impress women. You'll have guessed why.

Todd McEwen

CB Editions, £8.99

The 5 Simple Machines