The Church of Reformed Libertines

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In meme parlance: life comes at you fast. Perhaps that sentiment is so retweeted and relatable because it always feels true. Time is elastic, defiant of the order we pretend to impose, the past simultaneously whispering in our ear and calling long-distance, a continent away. Joan Didion wrote that we are “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” I have ghosts that visit every time I taste tequila or enter a room with faux-wood paneling, whose reappearances often coincide with tales of bad sex or bad choices or a sort of drunken, desperate ambition I often see in women between 18 and 25 with artistic temperaments.

It’s uncanny to slip as thoroughly into a character as I did with Jaracaranda Leven in Eve Babitz’s Sex and Rage, published in 1979 and reissued this summer by Counterpoint Press. The novel follows a young Angeleno, progeny of the Hollywood relatively-elite, as she fumbles with varying degrees of elegance through relationships and self-discovery, art-making and rent-paying. It is the story, really, of one’s 20s, or at least the kind I’ve had, wherein the clashes of reality and desire can lead to spectacular and terrifying confrontations with the chasm that divides them.

It would be foolish to ignore the differences—her West Coast upbringing vs. my North Carolina one, where I was more prone to encounter a screened porch than a screenwriter; her inherent ease with boys and men, which I feigned (poorly) until I could hide in my room with a notebook to exorcise my insecurities. We share more superficial things in common, though: an interest in books, a dicey relationship with alcohol, a scramble throughout our 20s to find meaning and fulfillment in unconventional, often fruitless ways. By the time I finished the online synopsis, I was already sniffing out the novel like a bloodhound, eager to meet a character that felt so particular but could be a stand-in for many young and reckless women like me, members of the Church of Reformed Libertines.

I picked up the novel just when I’d reached an odd détente with the city of San Francisco, about 390 miles north of Jacaranda’s native bars and surf breaks. I’d resigned myself to spending 46 percent of my take-home pay to live in an apartment two hours by train and bus from work in academic publishing. I’d effortfully carved out a niche of people who didn’t ask to meet for $15 cocktails, who read Clarice Lispector, and occasionally fed me at our Dungeons & Dragons games. I had the perilous sense that I had built a life for myself, but that it could shift with the next mass exodus of good friends, the price of the incumbent repairs on the car with the failing brakes. Unwilling to work in tech, tired of being hamstrung by the intermittent medical bill, I applied for a few gigs in a place I’d rejected for its West Coast opposite: New York.

Sex & Rage’s Jacaranda, reckoning with her alcoholism, exudes a similar reticence when faced with a voyage east. Recently launched from “the barge,” a cluster of high-rolling partiers who slept with, shit-talked, and enabled one another, she writes, “There seemed no place to go, after fourteen [gin, lemon, and egg-white] White Ladies, but into a spin that fell out of the sky, a smashed victim of impending gravity.” I thought of a particular summer, a night with cocaine and a blood ritual and the bruises I accrued by morning, outward tattoos that weren’t so different from the smashed way I felt inside, writing down my sins in the wood-paneled room. “She was lucky,” Babitz writes. “…because most of the girls they used for local color died before they were thirty.” A fateful encounter with an East Coast literary agent named Janet Wilton accelerates Jacaranda’s writing career from piecemeal freelance work to a book deal, and she’s faced with potential that’s almost as terrifying as its wanton, boozy opposite.

Babitz structures the novel such that its bulk occurs on Jacaranda’s sun-drenched home turf, in which she’s imagining the numerous ways her departure could end in tragedy. Live in coastal California long enough (about three years, personally) and it imprints on you—its languor and the subtlety of its seasons, the tendency towards liberality and the fringes. Even if Jacaranda and I spent most of our nights in bed with wine and cats, often both, I feel I know her enough to say that she, like me, felt she belonged on that furthest edge. What would a “Goodbye to All That” look like in reverse? Probably a long toke in Dolores or Griffith Park, and then a “meh” when someone asked what you thought of all that hustle & bustle, the concrete and steel. Maybe something more stringent. “She began feeling an even finer-tuned rage against material East Coast diamondy objects,” Babitz writes, and as soon as I read it, I thought about the visceral nausea I felt on a visit to Times Square.

This is a façade, though, especially in a place that contains multitudes. There are wide swaths of the western-most state that would rather ship out the homeless than care for them; rent is cheaper in Brooklyn than it is in San Francisco, and I have the anecdotal evidence to prove it. Who are we not to allow ourselves success, even if there is a part of us that bucks the conventional way, the one that would bring us less grief? “Up until this point,” Babitz writes, “it didn’t seem as though she was debauched at all, but the truth was that while she believed in being a washed-up piece of driftwood on the shore, she also believed in bold adventuresses, cigarettes, and suffered from one too many of anything.”

The novel’s most interesting section takes place when Jacaranda boards the plane, when she goes from spinning her wheels in a rut to launching herself forward, full speed. Babitz’s prose mirrors her new sobriety, both clear-eyed and frenzied. When she runs into Max, a beloved member of the barge with whom her romantic involvement was both vague and intense, Jacaranda has a revelation. “And once again [she] felt the aching waves roll over her from wanting what she couldn’t have. She couldn’t afford Max,” Babitz writes. “That much truth cost too much.” She doesn’t fall for the city like she fell for Max—she admires its glitter and lets herself feel simultaneously exhausted and enamored. She acknowledges its faults and sees its winsomeness, her affair with Manhattan an ember in contrast to roman candles like Max, like Colman or Gilbert or Etienne or Shelby before him.

Jacaranda and I were and are privileged white women with the bailouts and resources to fuck up many times between the achievements that buoyed us from year to year. Self-destruction can seem sexy until you’ve sobered up and seen how much easier it is to lay low—pay your rent on time, spend less on ibuprofen, allow yourself the simple pleasure of being good and thorough at your work. I think Jacaranda learned that, by the end of Sex and Rage, when she boards the plane back to L.A., having proven to herself that she could take a leap of faith, bet on her own will. I’m sitting in the July heat in Crown Heights, a black cat who’s the analogue of Jacaranda’s beloved Emilio splayed on the wood floor, with no return ticket to the place I thought suited me best. Finding your fictional parallel can be uncanny, but it can also be a reflection that brings your blemishes and beauty into a different relief. The future isn’t clear, it stands on shaky, sober legs, but here is the money I did not spend on rent. I’m placing my bets.

Fertile Ground: On Anne Raeff’s ‘The Jungle Around Us’ and Claire Louise Bennett’s ‘Pond’

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Sex, gender, and nature, a potent and sometimes winsome combination, aren’t a novelty in literature; they’re so inextricably entwined as to be almost obvious, fertile material for anyone probing at the edges of identity and environment. While D.H. Lawrence might have been treading new ground (pun intended) when his character masturbated onto the earth, while John Casey might have set his two lovers to tryst on the windswept seashore before they retired to a boat, it’s the women of contemporary fiction who are writing the latest revelations about interiority and exteriority, the tamed and the wild and the places where the two merge. The women in Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond and Anne Raeff’s The Jungle Around Us contain a wilderness that cannot be mapped.

What the wilderness outside possesses in mystery and density, so too do these characters’ inner lives contain veritable jungles, uniquely feminine experiences that rival the wiliest outdoor spaces in their mess, their beauty, and their inability to be wholly, completely known.

On their writerly surfaces, these books share few commonalities. Pond deals in freewheeling language that disorients and flummoxes, run-on sentences that fragment and dissolve in turn. Following the course of a single, unnamed narrator through her daily existence in the Irish countryside, in a ramshackle cottage whose quirks and malfunctions rend it almost a character, it zooms in close on the inner workings of a single, inimitable mind. In “Morning, 1908,” Bennett writes:
Everyone has seen a sunset — I will not attempt to describe the precise visual delineations of this one. Neither will I set down any of the things that scudded across my mind when the earth’s trajectory became so discernibly and disarmingly attested to. Peculiar things, yet intimately familiar. Impressions of something I have not perhaps experienced directly. Memories I arrived with. Memories that snuck in and tucked up and live on within and throughout me
The Jungle Around Us unspools more conventionally, with clean, digestible prose and stories that ambush the reader, stealthy in their impact. It follows numerous characters, primarily women (with a few men scattered throughout), and finds literal and metaphorical jungles in places as disparate as New York City and Mexico. The collection opens with “The Doctors’ Daughter,” wherein a 14-year-old named Pepa, whose family fled wartime Vienna for Bolivia, prepares to care for the homestead during her parents’ trip to the jungle on a medical mission. She describes the clinic attached to the back of the house as “painted a soothing blue like the eyes of an Alaskan husky, like winter.” After the doctors’ return, Pepa finds herself pregnant by a local boy named Guillermo, whom she would go to meet in the bordering forest. The ensuing abortion is as clinical as the story itself, haunting. Pepa sees “the instruments…lined up like soldiers, and everything smelled so clean.”

But beneath these superficial differences, the collections share an emphasis on the thorniness of femininity throughout time and space, whether present or past, in a city or a forest clearing. The unruly spaces in which these stories are set are a direct reflection of the characters’ inner lives, the turmoil and tranquility, the known and unknown. To be a woman is to arrive at a wilderness with a destination in mind but no map, the sprawling vagueness before you both a challenge and a threat. When there are so many ways to be, and so many pitfalls to encounter, women learn the topography by stumbling over it, step by step, the foibles as necessary and inevitable as the ascent.

Take, for instance, Raeff’s “The Boys of El Tambor,” in which Ester writes to her former lover, Amy, from the Mexican town to which she’s decamped after their breakup. “Nature” here is not so much canopies and blooms as it is dive bars and cheap hotels, a distinct, unfamiliar environment in which Ester can shed her past self and observe the world anew. Having given up painting and taken up a love affair with a straight couple, her experimentations in reshaping her identity are tethered directly to the permissive, occasionally debaucherous place in which she’s settled. Raeff’s descriptions of the central watering hole, El Tambor, take on the vibrancy and verve of a tropical space. She writes, “It’s completely pink. There’s not one wall, one chair or tabletop that is not bright pink. Even the napkins are pink, and the toilet paper, when there is toilet paper.” Ester loses herself in this cotton candy dream, swimming through memories and newfound sensations like one overtaken by a rip current.

In Pond, the natural landscape’s promises and disappointments mirror the narrator’s continual pogoing between expectation and reality, her thoughts that bounce like Ping-Pong balls from one subject to another, only to arrive at truths that demand a reckoning. In “The Gloves Are Off,” she fantasizes about the dreamy origins of the reeds that will soon thatch her roof, laid there by workmen who make lewd jokes and crane their necks for a glimpse at pretty girls. “I liked to think about all the little fishes that had nudged around and prodded at the reeds here and there…And the swans’ flotilla nests resplendent with marbled eggs,” she muses. Later, when she discovers that they’re sourced not from the nearby River Shannon but from faraway Turkey, the daydream abruptly shatters. As she’s pruning the garden afterward, her trepidation about the flora surrounding her cottage becomes apparent. “Oh, fuck the leaves and fuck the flowers!” she thinks. “I want to see naked trees and hear the earth gasp and settle into a warm and tender mass of radiant darkness.”

The writers’ respective views of nature differ. For Bennett, it is a constant presence, alternately a site of revelations and the menacing beast breathing at the back of the door. For Raeff, it’s background, the quiet symphony on the turntable that underpins the human drama at the fore. Yet despite their relative engagements with wild spaces, environment is essential for these characters’ trajectories. It’s a reminder that the woods and the psyche both startle us, be it with monkeys appearing in the trees in Raeff’s “Maximilano” or Bennett’s protagonist’s persistent daydreams of rape while passing a stranger on a morning walk in “Morning, 1908.”

In both collections, the marriage of environment and psyche, the overgrown thicket and the tangled brain, finds further footing in the characters’ caginess, their circumspect awareness of themselves or their reluctance to reveal certain facets to the reader. The cool, almost clinical tone of stories like “The Doctors’ Daughter” in The Jungle Around Us lends the collection an air of detachment, more impactful for its lack of sentimentality or melodrama. Still, it hints at further, unplumbed depths — there is no mention of how Pepa feels about her own abortion, only the stoicism she displays when faced with a trek through the jungle or a two-week stretch as the head of the household.

In Pond, the narrator’s breakneck narrative speed — her thoughts circling and derailing like a drunken carousel pony — means that certain revelations or milestones get treated with the same gravitas as replacing a malfunctioning oven (see: “Control Knobs”). It’s difficult to parse the significant from the mundane and easy to conflate the two, much like the barrage of stimuli one might encounter in a dense, wild space. The reader is subject to whiplash following the narrator’s trains of thought, the connections forged in unlikely and unconventional ways, and taking a psychological temperature proves difficult. When she nods to her character’s emotional state, Bennett tends to deal in koan-like non-sequiturs, spurs that jut from within the paragraph. After turning on a tap of water, the protagonist muses, “If we have lost the knack of living…it is a safe bet to presume we have forfeited the magic of dying.”

There’s a line in Bennett’s “Finishing Touch” that reads, “…I feel quite triumphant for having the good sense at last to realise that people who are hell-bent upon getting to the bottom of you are not the sort you want around.” For Bennett and Raeff, this might well be a manifesto. The women in these collections aren’t easily sussed. Their lives unfold in untamed spaces, jungles either literal or metaphorical, but their inner lives rival these environments, unknowable and wild.

Keep Trying. Be Content: On Belle Boggs’s ‘The Art of Waiting’


It is an innocent train ride, full of the banal chatter we save for our post-work hours, until my coworker Marthine pulls out her phone and shows me a video of her laughing son. At what she calls the “sweet spot,” those tender months between squalling and teething, Arun (whose name refers to the dawn in Sanskrit) glimpses himself in the mirror and chortles, drool pooling between his lips and chin. He is as smitten with himself as the world is with him. He observes himself; he loves what he sees. We observe him; we love what we see.

There is a portion at the end of Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting in which, as she’s holding her infant at home, a mason says, “Imagine if there was only one baby in the whole world…Wherever that baby was, we’d put down our things and go see it.” “You’re right,” she says. “I’d go.” At 26, newly struck with baby fever, I would be there in line, craning my neck to behold.

I can’t point to the moment that it started, and yet it accrues every day, the inverse of my bank account. The way I accuse men of thinking with their penises, I’ve begun thinking with my ovaries — sidelined by tiny outfits, ogling at babies on Instagram, indulging vague daydreams about pregnancy clothes worn with wide-brimmed straw hats. I am an unfit mother: a smoker, a shopper, a too-frequent cheese eater, and bill forgetter. I inhabit (with my husband) a tiny one-bedroom in the most expensive city in the country, where we can barely afford our square footage. I’ve over-drafted my bank account buying cat food. I’ve celebrated the arrival of my period in college with cake and champagne, bought anxiety-inducing pregnancy tests at the pharmacy with nail polish and cheap beer. And yet; and yet.

“It’s spring when I realize I may never have children,” Boggs opens the first chapter, this forthrightness setting a precedent for the rest of the memoir. The Art of Waiting delves directly into the process of assisted reproductive technology (ART) in all its pre- and mis-conceptions, its prose like a sledgehammer cracking through drywall. She probes beyond the clinical terminology and atmosphere of the doctor’s office and takes as her subjects cicadas and gorillas, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, and Raising Arizona. She sees motherhood everywhere, like I do: it’s inescapable, especially because we do not have it.

In a book that could easily become insular, instead the reader finds Boggs’s considered, holistic approach, wherein she covers families of numerous formations and facets — different races, socioeconomic categories, and world views pepper this intelligent and insightful treatise on fertility, medicine, and motherhood, which spans years of Boggs’s life and years of research on childbearing, its successes, and its failures. Science meets narrative; the global meets the personal; the reader meets the author, or at least feels that way, a knowing closeness that builds with every revelation and dispersal of personal, painful fact. The world of reproduction is hardly beautiful, with its sanitized wands, needles, and oocytes, and yet we’re privy to it, as if standing next to the stirrups.

We’re privy, too, to stories that vary dramatically from Boggs’s. There are her mentors, professors, and friends who choose to forgo children in favor of careers and lives of artistry. There is Virginia Woolf, who writes, feeling euphoric after completing The Waves, “Children are nothing to this.” There are gay couples facing rampant discrimination. There are her friends who adopt from overseas, and face the harrowing knowledge that their black child will live an entirely different life in their mountain community because of the color of his skin, the story of his origins.

Perhaps the most important lesson that The Art of Waiting imparted was its insistence on the long game; that the things worth wanting are worth waiting for, and that impatience is a tax we pay for arriving at our fateful conclusions. There’s a decided sense of fatedness about the entire book, a necessary corollary for a treatise on building a family. Who are we meant to be, and in relation to whom? Is a struggle with infertility a sign that we’re meant to walk a different path? Is resisting the body’s futility an act of bullheadedness, foolhardy? Boggs, who describes herself as non-religious, persists, questioning every phase of intrauterine insemination (IUI), the consideration of adoption, and eventually of in-vitro fertilization (IVF). The result is ultimately a baby — Beatrice — but the question lingers, essential to the book: if we’re always in the process of becoming, what are we meant to become? What if that end isn’t the one we had in mind?

Boggs aptly describes the arduousness of ART without writing an arduous narrative — she spares no detail, be it negotiating insurance coverage with a cut-rate pharmacy or injecting herself with one of many medicines each cycle. These details never become drudgery. They’re an inherent and interesting part of the narrative of modern pregnancy. It’s easy to forget, amidst the deftness of Boggs’s prose, that this book depicts a clinical process.

The experience of child-rearing, of adoption, of infertility, impacts more than just the person at their center, despite the feelings of isolation they bring about. Mr. Cheek, the aforementioned mason, embodies this knowledge. “He knew something bigger, more profound,” Boggs writes. “Each baby is born not just to her parents, but to the world surrounding her. To neighbors, friends, teachers, enclosure mates. To ex-cons and allomothers and cousins and grandmothers, who will each want a peek and will each have some impact.” The same could be said of unintended childlessness; in the void created by such powerful wanting, whole communities are implicated.

I pass babies in their carriages on my street and sometimes we lock eyes, as if my desire is transparent. Round-headed and wide-eyed, taking in the new world, they take me in, and I take them in right back, pining for something I’m too sacrilegious or jaded to call a miracle. Meanwhile, I care for my cats. I love my husband. I yearn, and I scheme, and I imagine what fate will deal me next year, or the year after that. In the present, I am only a collection of wants, imagining what it’s like to shape the destiny of a tiny, malleable being.

“Keep trying. Be content. How do you reconcile those two messages?” Boggs writes in her epilogue. She has no exact answers; this is not a textbook. Rather, it’s a primer on waiting and wanting, something we’re arguably always doing, whether it’s for the end of the workday or whatever missing piece we feel might complete us, for whatever unknowable reasons. We’re waiting for the world to adapt, to accept all forms of family; for our bumbling bodies to perform as we wish; for fate to unfurl like a carpet, its threads and fibers as intricately, tightly woven as our own desires.