Real Estate: A Living Autobiography

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A Year in Reading: Anne K. Yoder


Fate. It’s shown its force and ferocity of late. I’ve been thinking about this and catastrophe theory, with some scientific lassitude in its application, of course, when considering how it relates to our lives—collectively and individually—over these past seemingly endless twenty-some months. Catastrophe theory distilled articulates how a system endures change in a foreseeable way until it reaches a threshold where the unexpected intervenes. Those of us who were lucky enough to be able to isolate during the pandemic spent large swaths of time in our common spaces, with our common/lawful spouses, reflecting on our very specific lives. It’s an inordinate amount of time to incubate. Where does that threshold lie?

But, fate. Mid-summer I stopped by a free little library in my neighborhood that held a first edition of Diane Williams’s first book of stories, This is About the Body, the Mind, the Soul, the World, Time, and Fate. What a prize. I adore Williams’s stories, her linguistic fervor, the way her stories relish in the oddity of our everyday language, providing it with such scrutiny that the quotidian becomes deranged. These early stories are a window for me, to see how her sentences and stories have evolved to more fully inhabit themselves over time.

The volume itself is out of print, and its stories have bold, direct titles like “The Uncanny” or “Orgasms.” Williams’s stories are suffused with desire, with the ubiquity of desire untamed. They defy simple summary, and are not “about” so much as they animate. However, I feel comfortable stating that the “she” of “Orgasms” is the she, the narrator observes, who “kept on having orgasms with my husband.” The story ends with an ecstatic escalation: “The orgasms—where do they go?—crawling up into—as if they could have—up into—dying to get in, ribbed and rosy, I saw seashells were the color mouths should be, or the nipples of breasts, or the color for a seam up inside the legs, or, for I don’t care where.” In “”The Uncanny” social situations unfurl alongside antisocial answers hinted at and given, where all is like a palette attuned to color and the senses. It comes to a head with the husband’s observation and the narrator’s inference: “I took this to mean he has not loved me for a very long time. Everything means something, or it does not. I have expressed an opinion. Every effect has a source that is not unfamiliar. It’s all so evil.” Everything means something or it does not. Meaning making is one reason stories exist, though Williams’s stories actively question this. 

In the midst of summer, I took a photo of my hand. I was holding a cigarette over the cover page to commemorate reading this book. I was wearing a ring I’d recently been given. It was the first cigarette I’d smoked in years. I’ve studied with Williams; I deeply admire her mind and stories. But I’m not sure why I took this photo, a snapshot in time. It was fate. Or, it was fiction. Fictions unfurl into reality until they retract like waves. Stories articulate what’s often left unsaid, or capture a sense of being that easily evades language. If stories weren’t so real, so full of longing, they wouldn’t be such a preoccupation.

The cigarette was left by my fiancé’s lover. I smoked it. I didn’t know the whole story.

It was a crisis of mind, body, and soul, the world and time. And fate.

What is the whole story, though, and who really wants to know. It was astonishing to find life unraveling in this way.

Ceremonies were deferred and separations ensued. The outcome was very antisocial. I spent weeks at my brother’s apartment in Washington, sleeping on an air mattress in his spare room. I could barely make it through a book. I started so many books, so many were very good, but the maelstrom in my mind and life made it hard to focus in any way. I spent much of my days walking. I walked to the National Gallery. On the Mall. I walked where protestors had been tear-gassed near St. John’s Church. I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue and watched as tourists stood in the street taking photos of each other giving thumbs-ups before the Capitol, somehow ever resembling itself.

Perhaps all of this is why, when my mind settled a bit, I was drawn to Deborah Levy’s Real Estate. As if it were a lighthouse on the shore. Real Estate is the third and last volume in Levy’s Living Autobiography series. In this series she pushes against patriarchy to inquire into the nature of what it means to be an unexpectedly single female writer in the midst of her life, of her desire for the sea and solitude and her writing shed, and of making a home for herself alone but one that could hold her extended chosen family should they all visit at once. Levy has an unwavering commitment to articulating strong and interesting female characters—beginning with herself. 

Levy’s marriage unexpectedly fell apart 10 years before the writing of this volume. Despite finding herself crying on escalators at the beginning of her marriage’s dissolution she finds autonomy and power in her new solitary role, as man, woman, and shaman of the house, and in redefining herself as writer. As she writes at the close of The Cost of Living, “The writing you are reading now is made from the cost of living and is made with digital ink.” Similar themes, like the cost of a woman fully owning her solitude and her mind and her pleasures, connect the books. In Real Estate specifically she writes that she was and still is finding her way to the wolf, the wolf being danger à la red riding hood lost in the forest:

Who or what is the wolf? Perhaps the wolf is the whole point of writing. To walk towards danger, to strike on something that might just open its mouth and roar and tip the writer over the edge was part of the adventure of language. Anyone who thinks deeply, freely and seriously will move nearer to life and death and everything else we pass on the way.

Reading Levy helped me envision a way of writing myself again into existence, of remaking a home and a life, to visualize it as the adventure I was thrust into. There are many reasons, however, to love Levy’s writing and mind and not just for the didactic. Her writing in these volumes is playful and witty and engaging all while taking itself seriously. She plays the solitary sage to her best male friend’s supporting role. He is flighty and flawed, marked by his romanticism and his boyish desires.

Writing of endings and marriages and broken engagements conjures memories of high school, when I stayed up all night to finish reading Pride and Prejudice. I was drawn to Elizabeth Bennett’s independent mind and her verbal sparring with Mr. Darcy. And I suppose I was appeased that, by the end, all was settled and the three sisters were married. I found fault with happy endings in general and had ambivalence about this kind of happily ever after, but also, I felt the reality of this conflicted longing for both independence and security. I thought then somehow that endpoints were important. (I still overvalue them in life, less so in books). My fantasy of social harmony achieved remained firmly a fiction, and was ever deferred to the future.

How long ago that seems, as I arrive at this point in the future. Social harmony seems even further from the current reality. And now my best male friend who is also my ex texts me in response to some part of this story. He says that ex’s are dangerous. Don’t I know it. He says, “You are an artist.” As if an appeasement. It doesn’t tie up all the ends unraveled, nor do I want it to. Somehow, though, it is invigorating and a consolation. 

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