A Year in Reading: Lynn Steger Strong


At the end of Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, which I teach and re-read almost every year, a wolf-boy, (half boy half wolf or maybe only dressed up to appear this way) stands on stage, in front of a rapt and silent crowd–though minutes before, this same crowd was tittering, choosing whether or not to listen or to laugh–and screams. Screams, is maybe not quite right. It is a sort of wail, a primal scream. This is the last paragraph, one of my favorite ever paragraphs, in its entirety:

But they hushed, all at once and quite abruptly, when he stood still at center stage, his arms straight out from his shoulders, and went rigid, and began to tremble with a massive inner dynamism. Nobody present had ever seen anyone stand so still and yet so strangely mobile. He laid his head back until his scalp contacted his spine, that far back, and opened his throat, and a sound rose in the auditorium like a wind coming from all four directions, low and terrifying, rumbling up from the ground beneath the floor, and it gathered into a roar that sucked at the hearing itself, and coalesced into a voice that penetrated into the sinuses and finally into the very minds of those hearing it, taking itself higher and higher, more and more awful and beautiful, the originating ideal of all such sounds ever made, of the foghorn and the ship’s horn, the locomotive’s lonesome whistle, of opera singing and the music of flutes and the continuous moanmusic of bagpipes. And suddenly it all went black. And that time was gone forever.

Train Dreams is a book about a man, Robert
Grainier. We meet him in his thirties, but through the course of the book,
which is only 117 pages, we get most of his whole life. He loses his young
daughter and his wife in a fire. He lives, for years, in the charred remains of
the place that used to be their home. It is, to my mind, a nearly perfect book.
I love short books. I love books that are as careful with everything they leave
out as they are with what they put in.

last scene too, is, to me, a little bit of what it is to be a writer; it’s the
only type of book I want to read right now. By this, I mean the scene portrays
a particular and penetrating type of performance. I think all books are
performance, which is to say they are not life but an attempt to contain and
offer something about life to other people, which is very different than just
living day to day. This is the wolf boy on stage. In addition to performance,
the books that I love most are guttural, visceral, and urgent: a scream. The
types of performance that make almost everyone who hears them stay still and
silent, sit up straight.

I started a lot of books I didn’t finish this year. I had no attention span; I’ve been with my children almost all the time. I read some books that felt empty, like box checking, the opposite of the wolf boy. But I also read Marie NDiaye’s My Heart Hemmed In, like nothing I have ever read before and a performance of a dissonance, a way of being in the world and feeling of near constant discomfort and vertiginous-ness that felt not only true but also like I’d never seen it portrayed as brilliantly as I did in the NDiaye. I read Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of The Dead and found it equally thrilling and specific. Though I should admit there is no surer way to thrill me than to give me a brilliant angry older woman who might have also lost her mind.

I taught both these books in a class about “Unhinged Narrators”. This is a made-up term. Most of the narrators, to my mind, are only there to show us how unhinged any of the people who don’t feel regularly, or at least intermittently, unhinged are. We read Erasure by Percival Everett, a master class in grounding the reader firmly and confidently inside a well-built narrative, sufficient that, within it, the writer might go anywhere he wants; we read the brilliantly funny, fragmentary Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison. We read Thomas Bernhard, whom I adore, and who students inevitably feel strongly about. When they come into class and claim to hate him, I ask them to consider how that too is an accomplishment. There’s nothing scarier, I tell them, to me as a writer, than to imagine someone reading something that I wrote and feeling meh.

is connected to the primal scream and how it’s how I’ve come to think of novels
lately. I want the ones that hurt a little, get inside of me and make me pay
attention. Like life, but distilled down to its clearest and most visceral
component parts.

We also read Horacio Castellanos Moya’s The She-Devil in The Mirror and Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a book I love not least because I love how she shows how stories can take feelings and imbue them fully into objects: that last image of those girls locked up inside that house, the way it makes me feel both pleasure and horror at the same time, feels like an accomplishment very few books can pull off with abstraction all by itself.

Other books I read this year that felt like this haven’t come out yet: Brood, By Jackie Polzin, Julia Fine’s The Upstairs House, Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan. I read each of these quickly and hungrily, foregoing sleep. I’d never read anything quite like them, even as they explored terrain I’ve spent my whole career reading and thinking and writing about.

much of this year has been awful. What we’ve lost, how separate we’ve all felt.
I’ve cycled through every awful feeling. I’ve been so scared and sad. But as
opposed to other times that I have felt sad and angry, desperate like this,
other times when I started to be horrified that I’d chosen to make a life trying
to do something as futile and absurd as to write books, this time I’ve found a
different and more solid sense of solace inside of reading and of writing.
Maybe because of how much I miss human interaction, maybe because I’ve lost my
faith in so much else: I believe in books, at least the ones that feel like
primal screams, in ways I never have before. I don’t think that they can save
the world, but, I think, the fact that their power is on the scale of the
individual and specific and guttural feels like one of the few spaces that
still seems capable of offering some hope.

More from A Year in Reading 2020

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 20192018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Shells: Picking Apart Pain and Womanhood

- | 2

The skin on the bottoms of my feet is so hard that I have felt a dull ache somewhere in my heel after running miles barefoot on the beach; not until I pull my foot up on my knee do I realize that a small, sharp shell has dug in and stuck inside the callused outer layer of my skin. My toenails have fused into my toes, and the two have begun to grow together. There is a science to this, I’m sure. I could look it up. The nail grows out, but underneath it is this other, not quite nail and not quite skin, that makes it almost impossible to cut.

I used to get all varieties of blood blisters, on my smallest toe and on the front pads of my feet, dark reds and purples beneath thin, clear layers of skin, and in the arches, too, though I have flat feet and don’t have arches actually. This is another cause for wear and tear. I used to have metal and clay custom-made orthotics and every time I broke in a new pair, before the metal fit into the grooves of the new shoe, it would dig into the sides of my feet and they bled. I will not ever get a pedicure. To do this would involve someone smoothing out my feet, rubbing off my calluses. I can’t imagine the pain I would experience, the next day, running, 10 or 15 miles with my flat feet, my worn out shoes, my socks with holes in the heels.

I was in labor for 40 hours with our first daughter before I agreed to the epidural. I ended up with a C-section, all the drugs pumped into me one after the next.

When my milk came in, I made too much; I gushed milk, almost all the time. I’m waterboarding her, I said to my husband as I watched our tiny baby choke and sputter at my nipple, as the milk gushed over her face and in her eyes. She would get scared or maybe her brain wasn’t capable yet of the word scared, but instinctually, as the milk began to flow, she’d clench down hard on my nipple with her gums. She clenched each time I tried to feed her. She’d latch on, then the milk would start, then she would clench and slowly unclench, then reclench, for the entirety of the time she fed.

My nipples bled and chafed and I stopped wearing a shirt the whole first couple weeks we had her home. Nipple confusion, said my books. She cannot have anything besides the breast for the first month and a half. So every hour to hour and 15 minutes, we’d go back to clenching, her, my nipples, every other part of me. The pain was bad, but not as bad as being certain she was miserable as well. She’d cry and unlatch once the fire hose became more powerful than her clenching; she would sputter off, her whole face sticky with milk, and I’d hold her, both of us wet, up against my chest, and we would cry.

For months, we did this. I finally started pumping but still refused to let anything but breast milk pass her lips. Once, when my husband was traveling for work and she was 3 months old, I held the bottle with one hand, pressing the pump to my breasts with my calf. I had to continually pull the bottle out of our screaming baby’s mouth so I could refill it, and then continue to pump.

“This is about you,” my husband yelled one night when I was crying and the baby was crying, and he was making her a bottle while I pumped. This has nothing to do with her. He meant this was about my ego and my need to prove that I could be a good mother, about my constant, desperate need to prove my worth.

My husband wasn’t wrong in what he said, and I told him as much, but that didn’t mean that I could stop.  It wasn’t about her health in any way that I could properly articulate. I’d read enough at that point to be able to argue for almost any feeding choice a woman might make or have to make. I had to show, to suffer, or maybe I didn’t love her well or rightly and not for any reasons that made sense. I wasn’t sleeping; I had months of blisters on my nipples. In winter, they burned when I was outside, chafed from the pump. Every time I accidentally brushed an arm against myself while picking my bag up or raising a hand to speak in one of my graduate classes, I winced. It felt like I was loving her somehow when she wasn’t there.

I meant to write an essay about a specific type of female strength, but all of this sounds painful. I wanted to write an answer to the notion of the female as a space of wounds and being wounded, but maybe this is just an essay about different types of wounds, how we cover them over and make new ones, how they manifest themselves in new ways as we age.

Leslie Jamison says in her essay “The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain” that:
The moment we start talking about wounded women, we risk transforming their suffering from an aspect of the female experience into an element of the female constitution—​perhaps its finest, frailest consummation. The ancient Greek Menander once said: “Woman is a pain that never goes away.” He probably just meant women were trouble, but his words hold a more sinister suggestion: the possibility that being a woman requires being in pain, that pain is the unending glue and prerequisite of female consciousness.
I want to push this forward and say the moment we start talking about strong women, powerful women, we risk transforming their strength into a justification for all that we and they have asked them to endure. We valorize selflessness and fortitude, as if we haven’t foisted it upon them, as if we have not somehow created a world in which their value is largely tied to their willingness and their ability to survive the wounds the world inflicts.

When I was 14, a boy stuck his fingers up my shorts without my saying that he could do it. When I was 17, a boy had sex with me while I was drunk and couldn’t move or think. When I was 19, a boy yelled at me for not sleeping with him and then refused to talk to me until he saw me at a party, drunk, and screamed “bitch” in my face. The next year, a man, much older than me, wrote me a letter telling me that the one thing he was looking forward to about his college graduation was, because I had thought that we were friends and had not realized I was not allowed to tell him I didn’t want to sleep with him, never again having to see my disgusting face.

None of this feels new or particularly revelatory. It felt, then, like growing up. It is the sort of stuff you talk about in private, that you share with other women, because you all have your own version, that sort of broiling pent-up female indignation that you talk about when you’re alone together, that you sometimes talk about too loudly after a third glass of wine in public and then suddenly start again to whisper, for fear of who might have heard, who might have found you out. Found out what, I could not tell you—that you are weak enough to have had violence done to you, that you are acting like a victim, as if somehow that is the worst violence of all.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about victimhood. Like most women I know, I despise the idea of victimhood; it is the largest, loudest argument against a lot of what is happening right now. Women should not, some argue, give into the narrative that we are victims. We have power and we must take it. We are only as powerful as we assert ourselves to be. Victimhood has, for years, been one of our few spaces of power. If you declare yourself as wounded, as a victim, people look and listen, people care for you in ways they might not have been willing to up until then. Victimhood has, for years, been one of women’s main avenues to power; it is particularly female, maybe, and therefore somehow embarrassing. We deny we want it; we refuse to lay claim to it, even when it’s ours.

Once, just after our second daughter was born and we were briefly living in a house in Florida, I went to the emergency room. I had just run eight miles in the heat and was not sleeping. I was nursing our 6-month-old 10 or 12 times a day. I got light-headed and my vision blurred and my husband put my symptoms into a computer and a big red box that said “GO TO THE HOSPITAL” popped up on the screen. I spent hours there, on a bed out in the hallway, because the emergency room was busy and there was no space for me. I pumped three times while I waited but spent most of the day reading a book. They did a brain scan and took blood and the doctor came over to me and made me touch my fingers to my nose and answer basic questions before he told me I was fine and let me go.

I was so embarrassed when I got home. I felt so silly. Pathetic. Such a victim. I still thought that I had symptoms: I felt dizzy, unsteady, almost constantly. I had been relieved sitting at the hospital. I was so exhausted. For eight hours, no one needed from me; no one touched me. I read and was quiet, and in some ways, it was one of the best days I’d had in weeks.

A few months after I went to the hospital, I flew alone to New York for a dear friend’s wedding. I’d been alone with our daughters for the past year off and on. My husband was traveling almost every week for work and we were living in Florida, where I had very few friends. Our youngest daughter was still nursing all day and night and our older daughter was not quite 2 and a half. I saw friends in a sort of gluttonous span of a day in Brooklyn before we drove upstate. I slept through the night and no one woke me up to feed them. I pumped at JFK, at MOMA, in a bathroom in the middle of a three-hour lunch with friends. By the time we were in the car and driving up to Woodstock the day before the wedding, I was certain I was dying. I had no reason to think this, but I was sure.

I was in a car with four friends and they all talked and laughed and told stories and asked questions. I held onto the handle of the car door and tried not to shake or break into a sob. By the time we got to the rehearsal dinner, I was shaking. My friend, who is dear and kind and knowing, grabbed hold of me when she saw me and took me behind the restaurant. “Are you OK?” she said. I started sobbing. “You miss the girls?” she said. “Not really,” I said, laughing while I was crying, “I just feel like I might die right now.”

I can’t explain this. More than three years out from this moment, I can’t tell you how I thought that it might happen, or how I thought I might avoid it, but I can tell you I was wholly, fully sure. It was my dear friend’s rehearsal dinner and my friend helped me get myself together. I called my husband and talked to our 2-year-old and listened to the baby babble. I ate artisanal pizza. We went to my friend’s grandparents’ house where we were staying. I pumped and read and eventually fell asleep.

When my first book came out a couple of years ago, I started disappearing. I run a lot, but I was running more than usual. If I didn’t do 10 miles before our girls were up, I felt afraid. I lost more and more weight. None of my clothes fit. I looked wan and tired. I’d finally stopped nursing after four years of either that or being pregnant, and my skin sagged in strange, sometimes horrifying ways. I also, then, felt certain I was dying. I would sit on the subway and think, these are the people I will die with. I’d see a child across from me talking to her mother and I’d start crying, imagining her about to get blown up because of her proximity to me.

The overlap here is that I was getting what I wanted. The result, in both instances, was a daily, constant, paralyzing fear. If I get what I want, I told my husband, I can’t see to the other side of that. If I’m not struggling, if I’m not fighting—I can’t see through to what I’d be if I’m not that.

The whole time I was in New York and then upstate at my friend’s wedding, it felt, physically, like I was in free fall. My head spun and I felt unsteady when I stood. I did not have our children’s wants and needs to bolster and define me. When I was told my book was coming out, I did not have that desperate want, and I began to disappear myself.

When the Harvey Weinstein story broke and the deluge followed, I had a similar kind of fear, but for these women. “Aren’t you scared,” I would whisper to my friends, “that they’re about to be slapped back?” They were being strong, but not in the way I’d been taught to be strong as a woman: not quietly, apologetically, not while staying in their place. They were being strong against the systems instead of within them. They were saying, doing, wanting out loud—asserting, not apologizing or disappearing afterward. I walked around clenched up like I had been with my book, except I was looking for the stories to break that would destroy these women. I was waiting for the system to reassert itself.

I felt similarly watching Emma Gonzalez standing and screaming to a crowd of people about the BS that she saw in Washington. Of course, I thought. We all know this. I was madly, wildly in her thrall. But I was so scared for her, for what the world might do to her for saying out loud what I and everyone I know have felt and thought for so long, for performing it so forcefully and brilliantly, for forcing the outside world to look.

These are embarrassing things to admit as a woman who thinks of herself as strong and assertive. The other day, I said to a student at the university where I adjunct that I found the offices intimidating because I am one of the few nonfamous writers on the faculty. “You don’t seem like a person who would cower quickly,” she said. Oh honey, I thought. But I just nodded and said thanks.

At this same university, a few weeks ago, I sat in the office of the head of the program close to crying, moving things around on his desk so I didn’t have to look at him. I was very quiet, very sorry for taking up his time; I was asking him to let me keep my job. I didn’t walk into that office and show him my very good student evaluations; I didn’t ask students of mine to speak up for me. I didn’t send him my recent credits or try to have a substantive conversation with him about what I think I add to the faculty. Instead, I sat, head down, quiet and apologetic. I said, at one point, voice quavering, “I just…I have a family,” as if being weak enough, both a caretaker and in sufficient need of taking care of, might convince him to just let me stay.

I could give you all sorts of reasons I did this, but what feels important here is copping to it. What feels important is unpacking or describing how that impulse both defines and hinders my strength and my success; how I imagine it does this to many other women much like me.

When I talk to my students about writing I talk a lot about an economy of readership: The reader gives you time, investment, energy; you give back bits of entertainment, character, plot points, question answering, along the way. The economy, as I’ve been taught to understand it as a woman, is prescribed and specific. It feels, always, very zero-sum. One must calculate each move carefully. One must calibrate. One must be strong, but not too strong. One must perform both pain and strength, but not too much. If one siphons off bits of one’s self, one might get bits of what she wants back. If one works and works and hurts, one might feel joy. Maybe part of this is what it is to be a person. Maybe it’s work ethic. Maybe it’s just being old enough to know the systems tend to win. But I’m finally too desperate and too tired to keep trying so hard on terms and performances that take too much from me: too much time, too much energy, too much emotional investment or compromise or pretending. I’m interested and excited by the fact that many other women, right now, seem to feel the same.

Image: Flickr/Finizio

On Sheila Heti and (Not) Motherhood


A friend texted me a few months ago to tell me her period was late. We spent five minutes going back and forth on the specifics, but I was about to teach a class and she was getting on a train. Remember, I said, just before I put my phone away, the abstract idea of the thing is always scarier than the thing itself. This is a sentence I wanted to whisper to Sheila Heti’s main character throughout the reading of her book Motherhood. This is a thought exercise, I wanted to tell her, but it has very little relation to the actual thing.

Of course, Sheila Heti knows this. Her character—who, like her similarly Sheila Heti-like character in her previous novel, How Should a Person Be? is to be understood as both a stand-in for Heti and sufficiently Heti-adjacent that scenes might, in moments, have been altered for effect—acknowledges and plays with motherhood as abstract idea throughout the book. Heti’s character knows the abstraction’s relation to the thing itself is limited, but it is perhaps her knowledge of this that is one of the forces keeping her decidedly unwilling to become a mom.

She likes ideas of things. She revels in abstractions. She seems less sure of what to do with actual life.
But just as that autopsied body revealed a startling lack of something to my mother’s eyes, so in the moment of marrying I felt deceived: marriage was nothing more than a simple human act that I would never be up to fulfilling…so I fear will be the first moments in the delivery room, after having the baby laid on my chest, when it will hit me in a similar way as to how those moments dawned: there’s nothing magical here either, just plain old life as I know it and fear it to be.
I recognize this feeling so completely. I felt it when I got married. When we had kids. The feeling that this Big Life Event was so shockingly like the rest of life, the fact that magic maybe only ever existed in my head. Or maybe that magic only existed fleetingly. I love the man I married. I love our marriage. I love motherhood, but most of it is exactly like the rest of life: confusing and exhausting, messy, complicated, never like I planned. This is also, of course, the relief of all these major life decisions: there is just more—sometimes more crowded, more exhausting, sometimes more joyful—life on the other side.

When I told a friend I was about to start reading Sheila Heti’s book she looked at me and smiled. We’d spent part of the lunch we’d just had together ogling a baby at a nearby table. We’d spent some of the rest of lunch watching a video of my three- and five-year-old on my phone. I liked it, she said. It was 150 pages too long, but I liked it. My friend doesn’t have children, but she’s thinking of it. She’s at the beginning of her 30s, still with a broad enough swathe of time in front of her, that she can be thinking about it, for a while still, without the stakes feeling too high. It was like 450 pages, my friend said. It should have been 300 pages, but I liked it. When I got the galley in the mail a week later, the first thing I did was check the page count: 278.

I bring this up because I also felt like the book was too long, but on purpose, as if Heti is performing for us what it felt like for this woman, thinking the same thing over and over again, having the same types of dreams, the same types of fights with her partner, the same kind of conciliatory sex. This feels like part of her project. If this is a book about (not) motherhood, it is also, a book about the female body and its limits and its strength. It is also an intense, sometimes maddening, performance of female ambivalence.

Heti uses a recurring act of her main character asking an i ching coin yes or no questions throughout the book as a sort of exercise in external surety. The character acknowledges that it’s random; we watch as she asks enough yes or no questions so as to make them further her larger project.

The form breaks a few times and she’s smart and charming enough to call herself on it, to acknowledge this is just a way to force herself outside her own brain, “its useful, this, as a way of interrupting my habits of thought with a yes, or a no.” Of course, the coin only interrupts her briefly and she can easily outwit it. She asks enough questions, gets enough yeses, and her habits are quickly reestablished.

Once, when I was hugely pregnant the first time and walking around a small town where my husband had work and where I had come along, I walked into a bookstore off a crowded street and the woman behind the counter looked at me and said, that huge thing is never coming out of tiny little you. I had big babies and am not a big person. With both our girls, people pointed at me on the street in my final months. But it has to come out, I said to her, horrified. It has to come out, I said a second time; she looked at me and laughed. I walked another hour after that, shaken and crying. What if it was still possible to take it back? I had been so grateful to have decided. I had been so happy, for the first time maybe, to be so surely interrupted, to just let my body act.

This is the trick of the physical bodily world to which we must all succumb in some way. Heti’s character can outwit nearly every yes or no that’s offered to her, but the no she gets or lets herself believe when she turns 40 is the only thing that can actually, and finally, interrupt her habits. She will not have a baby, so it seems, all of a sudden, after years of back and forth, because her body says so. She doesn’t have to think in circles any more.

Heti’s character less decides not to have a child as decides to wait out her body’s ability to procreate. This is, of course, its own sort of decision. She’s a fiercely intelligent woman. She knows what time passing means. There is a scene in the book where she goes to see about freezing her eggs to prolong this timeline, but she opts against it. There is talk of money there, but it also seems that she needs this experience of deciding not to to be more wholly contained. It is a type of deciding that feels less like deciding than the vasectomy enacted by a man she meets at a party, less deciding than the IUD she gets then has removed. But still, it is the same decision insofar as there is no baby at the end of the book. It has the same physical consequences, contains the same absence in the end.

Containers were what I thought about the whole time I read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood. I thought about what words contain and how that is determined for us early, what books contain, and what bodies contain. I thought about the ways in which we are at the mercy of each of these containers, how our ability to acknowledge their limits and their capaciousness can determine so much of how we choose to live.

In a class I taught a few months ago, we read a handful of what I thought of as revolutionary female writers: Clarice Lispector, Jean Rhys, Rachel Cusk, Samantha Hunt. All of these women I think of as fierce consciousnesses, not beholden to the traditional expectations of the novel, not beholden to traditional expectations of the Female. In each of the books we read by these women there are pregnancies; there is an acute awareness of the female womb. One of these pregnancies ends in an abortion, one in a dead baby, but the womb as character, as part and parcel to the character’s status as Female, is present in each.

In the Lispector, Passion According to GH, the book is largely about language. She is interested in absencing words, as we understand them, from their expected meaning; and she does this even with her “pregnancy.” The main character in the novel is “pregnant,” but she knows immediately that she will abort the baby, so then, “pregnant” as in filled with something that will one day turn into a baby, is not that, but something else. Of course, women have for centuries been pregnant and it has not resulted in a baby, but Lispector lets us see this clearly, that even the most seemingly certain word, an empirically provable fact of the body, does not have to be.

Each of these women forces the words around the female body to become something other in their telling. Hunt, in her short story “A Love Story,” whose character is a mother, is asking her status as “mother” to also hold within it the word “sex,” to also contain words like want and need. Each of these books succumbs to the fact of the female as a specific type of body that is also a container, a vessel maybe for the womb and for procreation, each of these books seeks to explore what else “Female,” “Mother,” “Pregnant” might be.

Heti’s character seems both to want to explore this and also to be fighting against the fact of the limits of it, both in what her body might hold, but also in the words as they were delivered to her up until then. Close to the end of the book we spend some time with Heti’s character’s mother at her house close to the sea where she lives alone. We know already this is Heti’s character’s dream of old age as well. It is also one of the reasons she gives for not wanting to procreate. She wants to be old by herself and without obligations. It seems her mother has achieved this, though, of course, her mother also has her. Her mother is perhaps the most compelling character in the whole book. For obvious reasons, I guess, but, most of all because she seems to have managed to largely not mother, even as a mother herself.

When this woman describes going to visit her mother in medical school when she was a child, she says, “there seemed to be nothing so glamorous or romantic in the world as a mother who lived alone in an apartment with her colored pens and books.” Later, she explains that she had a friend ask her once (though she doesn’t say at what point in her life) if her mother was dead. Close to the end of the book, while staying with her (still living) mother in her house by the sea, there is the following scene,
Right before my mother left the room, she spoke, with some confusion, about women who say that raising kids is the most important thing in their life. I asked her if motherhood had been the most important thing in their life, and she blushed and said, No—at the very same moment that I interrupted her and said, You don’t have to answer. I was there.
Her mother, it seems, was able to be both Mother and Not Mother at the same time; a sort of extraordinary feat of female ambivalence; a resounding accomplishment of the abstract outpacing the physical fact. And, of course, this also isn’t true. She is a mother. She birthed this woman and her brother. She is just Mother in a different size and shape and with different preoccupations and interests than we might expect.

Both my mother and my sister are lawyers. They both have four kids. They’re both married to lawyers. My sister is a partner at my mother’s law firm and the only major difference between her life and the life my mom lived is that she works fewer hours, because she is a partner at the firm my parents built when we were kids. If you ask my sister what it is that bothers her about our mother she will tell you that it is the fact that, if someone at a party tells my mother that she looks familiar, she will mention she’s a lawyer, and not that she’s a mom. She’s a very successful lawyer. Her kids, my sister argues, are also a success. The fact that her first response is to trumpet her accomplishments infuriates my sister. It is one of the things about my mom I like the most.

My mother and I don’t speak much. On the surface, my life could not be less like hers. I run though, and she runs. I look like her. I love my kids fiercely, if not in the way of other mothers. I am obsessed with work. I am both a corrective to everything I see as how she wronged me, and more mother just like her than I might ever say out loud.

All of this to say, part of Heti’s project seems to be to push the limits of the Female, to upend the necessity of Mother, to suggest whole worlds that might exist beyond the making of other smaller versions of ourselves. But what her book also does is remind us of the limits, both of our bodies and our thoughts. For all her abstract acrobatics, this feels like a book about the complicated way Heti’s character both does and does not love her mother; it feels like an exploration of the ways our bodies hem us in.

Heti’s character doesn’t actually decide one day not to be a mother, the same way, when I found myself accidentally pregnant at 28, I more just decided to not get rid of it for a few months; she lets time run out and then watches as her body decides for her. We watch as her body, month after month, controls her thoughts and moods and feelings, even as she continues to be brilliant on the page. We’re reminded again and again that we are contained not just by our bodies, not just by time and the roles long since established by biology and culture, but by the way we’re taught to think about the words that are meant to define our bodies, contained by the specific, intransigent ways those words might mean in our own lives.

The Mourners


The summer that we lived in Florida accidentally, my husband’s mother’s friend’s son hanged himself in his Montana art studio. I am close with my mother-in-law, but I hardly knew her friend. I’d met her son just once. He’d lived in New York and studied art before moving west. He moved for the cheap housing, the sky and landscape, maybe a girlfriend. I’d met him at a party a couple of years before. He was New York artist, young, successful, charming. He’d worn a cowboy hat.

They sat a sort of Shiva for him, my mother-in-law and three of her friends, though none of them are Jewish or believe in God. They called it Shiva, though the body wasn’t there.

For days, there was a round of women in and out and drinking, talking. I came by with our two small children every day. I spent years of my life thinking I would be a member of a room like that by dying. That I would be the thing no one was talking about, all anyone was thinking. I spent years imagining what those rooms might be like with me not there.

Instead, I brought a two-month-old, a toddler. When I walked into that room, I brought the joy. I had never paid much attention to small children until I had them. I’m not sure I understood the appeal of other people’s babies until I brought mine into that room. I sat and talked and listened to these women mostly as they watched the toddler, passed the baby to one another, squished on her, kissed her, all of them crying; they breathed her in.

The friend whose son had died was quiet mostly. Her face splotched and swollen, her drink full and always in her hand. There was a parade then of people who had also lost their children. My husband’s mother lives in a small town with a close-knit circle of friends. Three of the couples, in a group of maybe thirty people, had lost kids. One after the next, the couple whose daughter had been hit by a car on her bike when she was in college, the couple whose seven-year-old, also hit by a car, when she was playing in the driveway outside their house; another woman, divorced for decades, her son driving home from active duty, who fell asleep and hit a pole. I don’t know, couldn’t ask the details, but they filed one after the next into the house. They brought wine, weed, bourbon, clasped hands and escaped into other rooms to share wisdom, knowledge none of us who hadn’t lost like this wanted any part of. They didn’t look at me when they came in.

I have to go, I said to no one. My husband’s mother nodded at me and I left.

At the funeral, I rigged an outfit up for nursing, black leggings and a black nursing tank under a black dress. I watched these families who lost children. I watched the mothers, the way they stood, the way they drank, the way they sat. I sat with the one who lost her daughter when she was 20, hit-and-run driver. She would have been 40 then.

You’re a writer? She said. I shrugged, my black dress bunched up at my chest, looking down at my nursing baby.

I’m this right now, I said.

Their daughter was their only daughter.

What do you write? She said.

Fiction, I said, shrugging. It felt small and stupid; for months, I had been trying to remember what sort of silly person I must have been to think fiction writing was a good idea.

She was beautifully dressed in black silk pants and a high-necked black sleeveless shirt, a dark green and blue scarf folded around her neck. She touched it two times, just at the edges, deliberate, careful. She had short hair and her arms were thin and sculpted, long and tan. My leggings fell to the middle of my calves, and I’d pulled them up to my rib cage beneath my tank top to firm out my still sagging belly. My right breast was still bare.

My mother-in-law had told me that they kept their daughter’s room the same these years they haven’t had her, a cork board and her bed and comforter, pictures on the wall.

Your mother must be so happy, said this woman. She knew vaguely of my mother, who also lived in this small town and doesn’t have that many friends.

She is, I said, interrupting, eyes scanning for the toddler who had run across the room. I didn’t tell her that I hadn’t spoken to my mother since I was six months pregnant with the baby, that she hadn’t met her, that she maybe never would.

I didn’t tell her I wasn’t sure I should be allowed to be a mother.

I didn’t tell her how very scared I was.

My mother-in-law had told me this woman and her husband travelled often, months in Europe and East Asia. Her husband is a lawyer and she runs his office. They host exchange students and always have great wine.

My mother-in-law had told me that for two years this woman walked back and forth along the street where the car hit her daughter, that sometimes she sat, still, in a big floppy hat, on the grass and stared at the passing cars.

I wanted to ask her how to love our babies properly, how to survive them. I wanted to ask her about whole worlds I didn’t want to be a part of, but that I wanted to have hold of just in case.

I heard you guys were in Greece this summer, I said.

She looked down at my hot-cheeked, suckling baby.

I don’t do anything interesting, she said.

Image: Wikipedia