I’m not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick’s books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick’s ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year’s time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis’ music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick’s portraits of Elvis’ supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis’ mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
Hookup culture is destroying relationships and intimacy, Nancy Jo Sales declared in a 2015 Vanity Fair article. She quoted everyone from banking bros who bragged about their numbers of Tinder conquests, to social scientists who believe hookup culture is as revolutionary as the introduction of marriage 10,000 years ago. But what if you aren’t hooking up? Where do you fit in?
Emma Rathbone asks these questions in her second novel, Losing It. Her protagonist, Julia Greenfield, is a directionless 26-year-old fixated on the fact that she’s still a virgin. Not for lack of interest, but misplaced optimism — she declines a high school boyfriend’s request to have sex in a pool, assuming she could “afford to decline, if only to make the next proposition all the more delicious.” Except the next proposition never comes, and as the years pass Julia’s fear of having to tell men she’s a virgin consumes her and ruins any chance she has of sex. When her parents suggest she spend the summer with her maiden aunt Vivienne in Durham, North Carolina, Julia decides this will be her opportunity to lose “it.” A new girl in town during a hot North Carolina summer seems like the perfect scenario, but awkward Julia self-sabotages: taking a boring office job where everyone is old and married; going on online dates with misogynists; and learning that Vivienne is a 58-year-old virgin, Julia’s own worst nightmare. As she writes, “That was the problem — to want something so badly was to jam yourself into the wrong places, gum up the works, send clanging vibrations into the cosmos. But how can you step back and affect nonchalance?”
We’re supposed to be rooting for Julia, but just as Julia concludes that there is something “too much” about Vivienne’s personality that prevented her from pairing up, there is something likewise lacking in Julia’s that keeps her single. She picks bad lovers, says the wrong thing, and completely misjudges any romantic moment to tragicomic effect. It’s a testament to Rathbone’s writing that we still find Julia sympathetic even as it becomes clearer that Julia’s own poor decision-making is part of the issue. She is an anti-hero of her own story, solely because of a fluke of sexual chemistry and opportunity. As a middle-class, well-educated, heterosexual white woman, Julia should’ve had dozens of opportunities to have sex, but she is a statistical anomaly, who doesn’t quite fit in with the hook-up generation of her peers, or with the self-declared spinster Gen-Xers before her.
If there is a poster girl for sex-positive millennials, it’s Lena Dunham. In the 2012 pilot of her HBO show Girls, we see Dunham’s character engaged in bad couch sex with her not-quite boyfriend. This was her sexually liberated battle cry, that millennial women were hooking up and not ashamed of it. Dunham’s own writings have followed suit, with much of her essay collection, Not that Kind of Girl, devoted to her own sexual experiences in college and beyond. In “Take My Virginity (No, Really, Take It),” Dunham writes about being “the oldest virgin in town” (with “town” being Oberlin college) as a college sophomore; already, virginity is a burden that must jettisoned to fit in with the anything-goes sexuality of her liberal arts school and her later career.
This freewheeling upper-middle-class millennial archetype appears frequently in fiction, too. Adelle Waldman explores the male perspective in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (a book Dunham also praised), in which the titular protagonist sleeps with his intellectual circle as a distraction from the book he’s writing. Sex is presented as an afterthought, though clearly it seeps into all aspects of life, even as everyone pretends not to care. The challenge of so-called laissez-faire sex is the main theme running through Katherine Heiny’s short story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow. The characters are anything but what the title suggests, spending most of the stories conflicted about their supposedly casual affairs. In these books, it’s never a question of will they or won’t they, but whether it will mean anything after they do. The very impetus of the story is sex, hence there are no stories for the sex-less, intentional or not.
The generation ahead of the millennials has reclaimed singledom as a social movement. Kate Bolick’s memoir/history book Spinster is about redefining the formerly pejorative word. To Bolick and the women she profiles — among them Edith Wharton and Neith Boyce — spinsterhood isn’t about virginity or chastity, but rather about proudly living as an unmarried, and thus unemcumbered, woman. She concludes that “spinster” is a dated concept: “The choice between being married versus being single doesn’t even belong here in the twenty-first century.” Rebecca Traister develops the thesis further in All the Single Ladies, her nonfiction examination of just what it means socially and politically when women have more choices than just marriage. The first single women spawned revolutionary movements from abolition to suffrage, and with only 20 percent of Americans married by age 29 today, single women could continue to change the dominant culture. “Single women are taking up space in a world that was not built for them. We are a new republic, with a new category of citizen,” she writes. Being single is a call to action in these books, but it’s also a choice.
Of course, this new singledom can come with unexpected hitches. “In a culture that has more fully acknowledged female sexuality as a reality, it is perhaps more difficult than ever to be an adult woman who does not have sex,” Traister writes. She continues to tell the story of sexually willing women who couldn’t find the opportunity to have sex, including herself (Traister didn’t lose her virginity until age 24), describing it with increasingly negative vocabulary: freighted, loom, frigid, cumbersome. Virginity is pathologized after a certain age.
While millennials and Gen-Xers ultimately have different views on singledom and sex, both are fighting against a previous narrative that dictated social mores (particularly for women). But someone like Rathbone’s Julia Greenfield was never part of the narrative to begin with. This doesn’t leave her much room in literature or even culture. Indeed, literary virgins with any agency are few and far between.
The most infamous example is Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. After being left at the altar, she retreats to a mansion, where she never takes off her wedding dress and is described as a witch. She is a pitiful wreck whose forced virginity pushes her to mental breakdown and full removal from society. Even Jeffrey Eugenides’s titular virgins in The Virgin Suicides are more figurative than literal virgins. They are trapped by both their strict parents and the narrative the neighborhood teenage boys impose on them, effectively fetishizing their virginity. All of these women’s fates are decided and described by men, both by the domineering men who keep them virgins and the male authors who write about them. They are modern-day cautionary tales.
This is what makes Losing It subversive. We understand Julia’s hesitation, which is almost radical in this world of swipe-happy 20-somethings. But even though her characters may be ashamed of their virginity, Rathbone isn’t ashamed on their behalf, and so gives voice to a silent subgroup. This isn’t just Julia’s story; it’s also Vivienne’s, and Rathbone decides not to give us a definitive reason for why Vivienne is still a virgin. There are no Miss Havishams here. Sometimes nothing is wrong; sometimes it just doesn’t happen. (And sometimes, in Julia’s case, it does.)
Picked up by a deputy police officer, a man claiming to get lost ghost-hunting in the woods was actually cooking meth. A man who won a competition to party with the Breaking Bad cast and crew was busted for manufacturing narcotics. A Hialeh, Florida, official pulled over by the cops secreted a meth pipe in his rectum.
Even forgoing the bleakest cases, meth fact is stranger than meth fiction. It’s fair to ask why a young writer would take on a subject when the finished novel will be less astonishing than the day’s headlines. (Granted, if that was a requisite, all fiction would go unwritten.) Some plucky writers, I assume, hope their writing acquires by association some of the drug’s features: highly addictive, vivid extra-sensory illusions, the intimations of ruin and transcendence.
The story of a thirteen-year-old heir to a family drug operation, Katherine Faw Morris’s Young God takes its title from a song by Swans. When they recorded “Young God,” Swans was still in its most harrowing, dissonant period before Michael Gira made slightly less harrowing, less dissonant music later in that decade. The song takes the perspective of Ed Gein, the serial-killer inspiration for the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Psycho movies. The macabre lyrics, as bellowed by frontman Gira, are all jagged edge:
I don’t know where I am
I’m dancing in my corpse
I don’t remember anything
I’m wearing your flesh
Your flesh is my face
I love your face
Though Morris’s writing shares some of that song’s dark, cryptic tone, the novel has a conventional five-act structure. In spare, piquant prose, we watch as the protagonist Nikki flees a Department of Social Services home and seeks out her father, Coy Hawkins. Nikki might not have courage, but, as Lorrie Moore once described a very different character, she has “bitterness and impulsiveness, which could look like the same thing.”
The first scene begins at a perch overhanging a swimming hole (formatting is consistent with the book):
This is the jumping off place. everywhere else is the wrong side. Nikki bends at the knees and moves her feet one by one. With a lunge she grabs the head of the shrub. Now the river flings its white froth at her. The falls roar in her ears.
“i’ll go first.”
“No,” Nikki says.
“Just walk down on the path,” Wesley says.
“Nikki,” Mama says.
“God,” Nikki says.
Since she is going to die she would like to be remembered, spoken of in the backs of cars in words that shudder. Nikki pictures this. she turns the shrub loose and stands up.
she slips a step and then jumps.
Years after her mother commits suicide (in a mordant parallel, by leaping to her death) and a stay in DSS, she decides to return to her father’s house. The father, Coy Hawkins, is an appealingly grotesque villain, formerly “the biggest coke dealer in the county,” now a fading specter. The narrator says, “iN her MoUth his name is shiny and bitter like a licked coin.”
Tragically, she find her father’s expressions of sympathy as inexplicable and unfamiliar as his paroxysms of violence. In her conversations with her father, she is both naïve and clinical:
“is it BeCaUse oF the eCoNoMY?”
“That you’re a pimp?”
Coy hawkins laughs with his head thrown back.
“What?” Nikki says.
she laughs, too. Though she doesn’t think it’s funny.
“You used to be the biggest coke dealer in the county.”
Coy hawkins rests his elbow on the bench seat. He looks at her.
“You were,” she says.
“everybody’s on pills now,” Coy hawkins says.
“This is my new thing. This is the future.”
Nikki looks out at the motel parking lot. her teeth are grinding.
As in Winter’s Bone, the devastation caused by the meth trade in this rural North Carolina region has unsettled all the usual social structures that might constrain the impulses of a smart, ruthless teenage girl. Either novel could be mistaken for professing a kind of feminism, but I would prefer to call it selective misanthropy.
Each chapter is a fresh descent. Nikki endures the rape and murder of her friend, the mutilation of a rival drug dealer, and a dangerous stick-up. She becomes aware of how he has made her vulnerability a weapon:
“i don’t need you,” he says. […]
all NiGht she sits oN the CoUCh in the dark with her mind racing.
he does need her. He couldn’t have gotten into that apartment without her, for one thing.
she pictures the black girls, with their mouths wide open, but she doesn’t hear them scream.
Watching her father’s casual brutality, of course, Nikki becomes more jaundiced about life generally, and more cynical about family ties specifically. Violence is something she masters, but Morris isn’t particularly interested in a sociology of the drug trade or criminal pathology. Instead, Young God unfolds unselfconciously, as character study.
One of the strengths of the novel is how Nikki’s emotional disfigurement is subtle and teased out patiently over the course of the novel so that, until the final pages, neither the reader nor Nikki herself fully grasp what heinous acts she is capable of doing in order to restore her family’s status.
The unconventional capitalization and grammars, as in Sapphire’s Push, is meant to convey the main character’s lack of formal education, though I found it mostly distracting. In her first novel, Morris also allows a few quirks to clutter the prose. For instance, “muscle,” “chin,” and “shoulder” are all used as verbs. Those choices might be naturalistic, but I thought they were fussy diversions from a taut, concise plot.
What “young god”? Nikki does possess the sort of inarticulate, elemental impulses (rage, pity, hatred) that used to drive the gods of ancient Greek mythology and the Old Testament. It’s clear that her godliness is some mix of her ability to take life and her Nietschzean amorality. Paradoxically, her omnipotence is representative of the narrowness of her worldview, like the narrator of Ted Hughes’s poem, “Hawk Roosting:”
Now I hold Creation in my foot
Or fly up, and revolve it all slowly —
I kill where I please because it is all mine.
There is no sophistry in my body.
Why a “young god”? Throughout his career, Kenneth Burke pointed out the perversity of metaphor. In the essay, “Why Satire,” he quoted the phrase, “Necessity is the mother of invention.” Burke suggests that this aphorism has discomfiting implications for our perspective on “need” and “motherhood.”
If a meth-dealing teenager is a “young god,” how radically changed is Morris’s secular world from O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South. The central metaphor of Morris’s novel — Nikki as god — is a provocation, sure, and one that indicates a rift in Southern literature. Though their works diverged widely in subject matter and method, Faulkner, O’Connor, and McCullers wrote novels and short stories in riot against the modern assumption of the rational, knowable self, and that self’s ability to master history and nature. Their skepticism about modernity has been so widely embraced – by thinkers who have no interest in Sutpen genealogy, and those who might think of the Southern Agrarians as little more than a historical curiosity — that it seems de rigueur. Perhaps the concerns of O’Connor, et al, were prescient, and prescience is obsolescence in a flattering alias.
The novels of Daniel Woodrell, William Gay, and Morris have a much narrower philosophical scope. Young God is a strong entry in the tradition of the Southern Gothic Novel (redneck noir subcategory), but, while reading it and after watching the HBO series True Detective, I began to wonder if the genre still has any explanatory power for contemporary America. Stripped of its context and without invigorating it with new significance, that familiar mood has become an affectation. The style is still there, nestled between the derelict churches and the epic violence, but without the expansive critique that ran like a quicksilver thread through Wise Blood and Absalom! Absalom!
Late in Young God, the narrator repeats her father’s words: “This is the future.” Then, Nikki disposes of a body by hacking it into pieces. I suspect the Southern Gothic Novel (like many of the characters that have populated it) will have an even less tranquil afterlife.