The Swank Hotel: A Novel

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Lucy Corin Picks Up Where Virginia Woolf Left Off


In the opening story of Lucy Corin’s 100 Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses (McSweeney’s, 2013), a soldier returning from a war in which he tore “open a man’s belly with his sword” meets a witch who lowers him down a hollow tree, where he meets a blue dog with snowglobe eyes (the Eiffel Tower in one, a Golden Pyramid in the other) protecting a chest of promissory notes. In “Madmen,” the day the narrator gets her first period, her father gives her a gift: “a harness for my madman, the best kind, made of real leather with quality hand-stitching and brass appointments.” (She also gets a madman to strap the harness onto.) Near the end of “Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster,” images of a burning California play on TV screens in the background. A few weeks later, the whole state is “a heaving, flattened, blowing, billowing mass of ash and soot and toxicity.”

These opening stories are firmly anchored in humans desiring things—safety, money, love, forgiveness, acceptance, pleasure—but projected against absurd tableaux, whereas the final sections of the book feel deliberately unmoored. The world ends, over and over again, in flashes. The entirety of “July Fourth” reads:
Got there and the ground was covered with bodies. Lay down with everyone and looked at the sky, bracing for the explosions.
In “Bluff,” a woman wearing “the Only Jeans That Truly FitTM” watches from a mesa as the apocalypse arrives, “filling the desert with roiling black soot so fast it seemed always to have been there, gnarled, burled, paisley, churning, eddying, smoking…” In “Apocalypses Past,” it’s “uncool” to talk about pre-apocalypse predictions of the apocalypse. Cannibalism and wanton sex, however, are very cool.

Wry, cutting, magical, and intentionally distant, Apocalypses was a McSweeney’s book at the peak of McSweeney’s hipness. Corin’s first novel, Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls (FC2, 2004), told from the perspective of a chorus of beautiful young victims, is similarly procacious. Like the conclusion of Apocalypses, Psychokillers employs a repetition that creates first horror, then numbness, then more horror that ultimately, as Patricia Eakins has it, “cracks the glossy landscape” and fixes in the reader a permanent disgust. The book is a sort of structural kin to the “The Part About the Crimes” section of Bolaño’s 2666—full of uncountable dead women—but instead of clinical pestilence, it bursts with aching (and maybe leering?) beauty.
She took her time arranging her gym shirt on her lap before swooping her arms into it and then over her head with the gesture of a super-stylized yawn, performed by a dancer. She was a weighted shape in the room, like a pin balanced still and upright in a frothing teacup.
Is that Corin’s gaze or ours? It might be both. Pschokillers is a critique of the commodification of murdered girls that is also, winkingly, a commodity constructed with the bodies of those murdered girls.

To call these books—and her debut collection, The Entire Predicament (Tin House, 2007)—“self-aware” isn’t to diminish them. In fact, it’s probably fair to characterize Corin’s early career project as a set of conceptual traps she dared her readers to think and feel their way out of. The best of those stories get their teeth into our ankles and don’t let go. Good luck escaping the final lines of “Miracles”:
After the apocalypse, a brother of mine said, “Do you remember if you were nervous with all those poison spiders radiating from the jar? Do you remember that we didn’t have any insect spray because we’d just moved out there but he had a can of hairspray and that’s what he sprayed on them, just as they were getting away? Why did we have hairspray? Was it hers?”
But if Corin’s early books are high-concept experiments (or collections of high-concept experiments) that transcend their concepts, her latest, The Swank Hotel (Graywolf, 2021) is—in scope, formal ambition, and linguistic sorcery—something else entirely.

It’s fairly easy to describe the novel. Em, with the inconsistent help of family and friends, attempts to find, revive, and rehabilitate her mentally ill sister, Ad. The action of the plot can be as absurd as Pynchon. Like The Crying of Lot 49, Swank begins as a sort of detective story, with Em tromping through ruined urban landscapes in search of her sister, who may or may not be alive, and a man named Jack in a long white coat, who may or may not exist. But the strangeness doesn’t ever actually veer into naked satire. It’s simply that by zooming into the materials and social relations of the late capitalist culture of the pseudo-optimistic Obama years (the financial meltdown and the assassination of Osama bin Laden are the novel’s foul poles), Corin proves that even a toaster—its production, its packaging—is a singular and inscrutable phenomenon, to say nothing of a paycheck and the bank that might cash it. Yet the narrative never feels arch or ironic. The episodes of the book are weird because the world is weird. And the world is even weirder when the person you love most on earth might be dead but you still have to go to work.
He said he might take The Solution to market. [Em] said something about the difference between your actual technology and the technology that technology keeps crowing about, and when she said “crowing about” she thought, who talks like that? He kept talking about his plans for making it big and she just took a deep breath and vacated the premises. She snuck down the hall and outside. Her sister was missing.

Outside was dark, practically no cars in the parking lot, just seven streetlights. As if there were no other bathrooms in the universe, she shoved herself between the building and a perfunctory hedge. One kind of humidity came from the bushes and another came from the wall.

She squatted and peed.
As we’ve become increasingly conscious of the utility of writing—why these characters, why this story, why now?—I think many of us, as we read, have trained ourselves to keep our radars scanning constantly for solipsism. In the face of climate change, nuclear war, and racism, why spend years writing a novel (or, for that matter, weeks reviewing one) about the private problems of the middle class? The majority of the characters in Swank, it should be said, are white, own property, and—with the glaring exceptions of Ad and Jack—are more or less physio- and neurotypical enough to sell their labor on the market for a wage. Even if a book like Swank reminds you just how rare it is to encounter invented characters who feel as psychologically distinct and capacious as your own family members, in 2022—fairly or not—a novel must often assert its right to be read. Is it topical enough, urgent enough, to deserve our attention? If it takes a decade to produce a book and that book is literally made of carbon-drinking trees, is it, to paraphrase Richard Powers, better than the trees cut down to print it? Is it a net gain?

It’s probably important to note, here, that I’m not posing these questions rhetorically in order to skewer the premise of asking them. (I often struggle not just with “why these characters, why this story, why now?” but sometimes even “why writing?”) I’m also aware that thinking in terms of efficiency and efficacy is just me applying capitalist productivity metrics to art. Maybe it’s not some writer’s inability to answer these questions satisfactorily that’s the problem; maybe the problem is the questions themselves. But here we are. The planet is heating and Putin has invaded Ukraine and abortion is about to be illegal and B.I.P.O.C. voters in America are being deliberately re-disenfranchised. So, why The Swank Hotel?

The simple answer is that it’s monumental. Not in an Anthony Doerr way, spanning continents and millennia. It’s monumental in the way of fractals: inward looking, but infinite. And in addition to being a scathing, often hilarious critique of consumerism, Swank might also be the most precise and illuminating novel about psychosis and (attempted) suicide since Mrs. Dalloway. I don’t say that just because the story has a Septimus and uses free indirect discourse to jump perspectives. I say that because Corin toggles amongst psyches with Woolfian delicacy, complexity, and dexterity. When you leave one character for another, Corin doesn’t broadcast her clues. You won’t find As I Lay Dying chapter headings (e.g. “Em;” “Mom;” “Jack”). Rather, you recognize that you’ve slid into a new brain because the world suddenly looks and sounds different.
“… I’d make bodysuits for objects. Those intricate plastic tray things where the gadget sits in a shadow depression and its cord has a little coffin with a twist tie and the whole tray thing slides perfectly into a square shell. I’d work in cardboard because I’m against styrofoam, like any decent person. Cardboard may still have a soul. Have you ever seen that guy downtown in the box? I like that little tab you have to slip out of the toaster oven door, have you ever bought a toaster oven? I like how you take something out of the box and you can never even imagine how it would go back. I’ve moved a lot, so I’ve kind of been in train- ing. If I think about it, I was probably made for a life of packaging. Both my parents have characteristics. You know what’s the most important art of our time? I’m sure you stay up at night over that. It’s those drawings of how children can kill themselves with everything you bought. Plastic bags, window blinds . . . I know, I am really backing myself into a corner, I may as well be waving a kitchen knife around like a microphone.”
That’s Em: obsessed, delighted, horrified, embarrassed, one thought crashing into the next, simultaneously in control of her own mind and not.
At dusk I stood in front of the Pantheon and let it put me in my place. Comfort me with its thickness, its guiseless, skinless surface. I traced the line between the conceivable and inconceivable, setting the curve of the Pantheon in relation to the curve of the universe. Anyway, the moon was full, white hole in the sky. Isn’t that enough? A bum was already asleep among the colossal columns of the portico. I was not going to sleep. I was going to keep walking the city until I had to walk right onto a train that would take me to a boat and leave.
That’s Em’s mother: falsely humble, composed, grandiose, independent, vigilant, critical. It’s not just that Em would never say “bum.” It’s that Em wouldn’t find solace in the history and architecture of Rome. She’d be appalled—or at the very least confused.

And then there’s Ad, whose “madness” is the nucleus of the book. Everyone and everything revolves around its invisible but irresistible force, including Ad herself. The novel teaches us, as all great books do, how to read it. You start out thinking you’re in a close-third story told from Em’s perspective. But then, in the next long chapter, you’ve wormed into the brain of her boss, Frank. Later, you’ve possessed Tasio, a young man from Chiapas who’s helping Em’s parents finish building their unfinishable house. And as the perspectives accumulate, it becomes clear that, at some point, Corin will have to make her way into Ad’s volatile, slippery mind. But when she gets there, the author suddenly disappears. And Emily Hochman, Corin’s actual sister on whom Ad is based, takes over—literally.

“One of the symptoms of mania is grandiosity,” Hochman writes in an essay titled “Urine Drinker.” “I always think I’m a genius.”
[W]hen I was in the hospital in the same psychosis, I was talking to dead David Foster Wallace, who was telling me how wonderful my writing was. I said yes it’s much better than my sister’s, she’s crap (I was pissed), and he said, “No no no, she’s quite good. Not as good as you, but she’s good.” I think the hardest thing about becoming sane and the squelching of the delusions might be the eradication of my belief in my own greatness. Imagine you are convinced you are a revolutionary, a prophet, a Van Gogh, a priestess, and then the meds kick in and what you really are is a nobody, and even worse than that, a psycho. It’s even harder than saying goodbye to the spirits, maybe even harder than the humiliation.
Relinquishing her authorship to Hochman, here, isn’t a cop-out. Corin proves in every other section of Swank that she could’ve written her own stunning version of Ad’s mind. But she chooses not to. Nor is handing the book over to her sister a post-modern gimmick. Rather, it’s a way for Corin to seek her sister’s permission, her forgiveness. The following passage—about Hochman’s discovery of an early version of the Swank manuscript—if Corin had written it, might’ve been a kind of disingenuous, artificial absolution.
What I saw was my life. It was my suicide and my coming back to life and my psychosis and my hospitalizations. In case the question comes up about how she has such intimate knowledge of mental illness, that’s how. And I felt like this is my story, it’s my book to write. But it’s her story too. The loved ones of people with serious mental illness go through their own torment and learning curves, and artists process their emotions and refine their thoughts with their art. A lot of fiction writers depend on events and characters from their own lives and I know exactly how that is. I rely on photographs and other source material for my painting. Almost always, except when I am in another dimension. So I can’t fault her.
Coming from Hochman, the passage is a bone in the throat and also a blessing. This isn’t your story. But it isn’t mine, either. Anything less than an actual collaboration would be an insult to both of us.

If Corin is, as Karen Russell has called her, “a writer light-years ahead of her time,” (and I couldn’t agree more) Swank is the glow of a star beaming back at us from a galaxy where descriptors like “sane” and “productive” are no longer labels we voluntarily apply to ourselves. To be “normal”—a normal worker, a normal consumer, a normal daughter—carries enormous social and environmental costs. To struggle on in the same yoke, in the same muddy track, is the only thing you can fairly call insane.

In 100 Apocalypses, a character named Arbuckle is warming to Marxism. His friend Patrick says, “So you want to kill millions of people and make everyone poor?” “Marxism is a critique of capitalism,” says Arbuckle. “[Y]ou don’t have to have all the answers to think there’s a problem, you just have to think there might be a better way.” Nearly a decade later, Corin continues believing there might be a better way. And as a final gift in Swank, we find Em and Ad glimpsing some hard-won, other way of being.
When [Em] did, as if finally, encounter a crowd in the street with emotions that covered her own and slipped into it, for a while she felt encompassed by people as colors, shapes, and sizes of videos and bodies and backpacks and giant-sized words written by hand. She moved along with them without knowing if she was present other than being a body, or if being a body was actually fine. She let some physics do some work, and as the light shifted because of interruptions by the built and breathing environment, her body found a rhythm in exertion.

Then she was on a cusp with them, with people ready to go off. People were the toxic detritus of their own horrid history and also clear weather droplets on the tips of the grasses of meadows in advance of fires. Em vibrated on the verge of dissipation in the moment between culminating and having happened, because there was Adeline in the crowd, glinting among everyone.
Get yourself, and everyone you love, well enough to act on something greater than a private emergency. An enormous, all-consuming, collective task awaits us all. Please, please, if you can summon the strength, be ready.

Surprise Me!