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. [millions_ad] 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.
1. “I’ve been working on the translation nonstop—it’s like I’m in a trance,” Magdalena Edwards told me in early March 2017, while preparing a gin and tonic at her house in Santa Monica. I walked there from my place—we live very close to one another. I had just returned from visiting my family in Italy. Outside I saw her three kids, two boys and a little girl, on their bikes. “You have to absolutely see what I made at school!” “Are you going to have dinner with us?” “Are you babysitting us?”—they all yell at me from the other side of the street and keep biking. I try to answer but they are already far, so I enter the house. “How’s the book?” I ask as the kids come in. “Don’t run and take off your shoes,” Magdalena says, “We’re going to have dinner soon.” The kids are always with us. “The book is intense, but it’s Clarice, you know.” She has studied Lispector’s works for more than 15 years and we are both sure that she’s ready for this—she knows Clarice. I had never read Clarice Lispector before and all I knew was that she was a Brazilian writer, born in Ukraine. The older boy Théo, nine-years-old, wants to show me a magic trick with the poker cards that I have to pretend I don’t know. “My love, we’re talking about work,” she says. “Yes but just a second!” I understand immediately the situation: “If you need time alone, I can babysit the kids anytime,” I say. This is the first image I have when I think about last year, when my friend Magdalena was deep in the process of translating The Chandelier, the book I’ve just finished reading. She’s out of town with her husband, Vlad, so I text her. “It’s disturbing,” I say, and she immediately replies, “Remember how crazy I was?” 2. The book is a traumatic experience even for a reader. How could she translate it, I wonder. And with the kids always around! The Chandelier narrates the story of Virgínia and her never-ending relationship with her childhood, especially with her brother Daniel with whom she creates the Society of Shadows, a sort of secret pact with “strange and undefined objectives” based on two mottos: Solitude and Truth. “Everything that frightens us because it leaves us alone is what we must seek,” Daniel tells her. Virgínia never forgets it. She can’t forget it as a young girl at Quiet Farm, where she spends her days playing alone in the forest or exploring the dark corners of the shadowy mansion, a house that belongs to her grandmother who is still alive but bedridden. And Virgínia can’t forget it when she moves to the city to try to become an adult, a journey of the self interrupted when she is called to return home to pay her respects to her grandmother. “Better than Borges,” Elizabeth Bishop said about Clarice Lispector’s writing. How about darker than William Faulkner? And I can’t help but connect The Chandelier to As I Lay Dying and also Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. The three books open with the dynamic of a family and are set in the countryside, but whereas in Faulkner all the family leave the house for the specific reason of the mother’s funeral, in Duras and Lispector, the protagonists of the stories move to the city to emancipate themselves. In Lispector, it is through Virgínia’s eyes and feelings that the reader is shuttled between the events, even though there’s the sensation that really nothing happens, in what she calls “her girlhood without events,” in a life that “had gone on as if she hadn’t met anyone.” That nothing much happens in the novel (until it does) is neither a surprise nor a problem, despite the protestations of readers eager for the steady drum of narrative beats, especially given the opening sentence: “She’d be flowing all her life.” And then we get the opening scene: Virgínia and her brother Daniel in the forest watching the flowing water of the river, seeing something they’re not supposed to have seen, a secret they cannot tell anyone, the secret that “illuminated her against the world” and gave her “intimate power.” Virgínia is always in the past, indissolubly linked to her life at Quiet Farm with the family. The family is her primary social nucleus, what trains her for her future life out in the world, first in the anticipation of school, and then in society; and yet it’s at school that “Virgínia would understand, disappointed, that everything had been seen years before” like an “unfurling of an oft-rehearsed scene.” The family is also the place, the ecosystem, where its members discover how to be together but alone, where they feel, like in Faulkner, that their aloneness “had never been violated” (Lispector writes that Virgínia’s intimacy “even if violated didn’t seem to be possessed”), or in Duras, where to rebel means to create a destiny: “I’m still part of the family, it’s there I live, to the exclusion of everywhere else. It’s in its aridity, its terrible harshness, its malignance, that I’m most deeply sure of myself, at the heart of my essential certainty, the certainty that later on I’ll be a writer.” Even Virgínia feels like she acts “according to a destiny,” but she can’t understand what it is, the only thing she can really do is explore the connection between her things, the things she loses when she moves to the city, trying to grow up and take on an adult life, things like the chandelier at Quiet Farm. Presiding over all is her love for the brother Daniel, who has always rejected her: “Virgínia, every day when you see milk and coffee you like milk and coffee. When you see Papa you respect Papa. When you scrape your leg you feel pain in your leg, do you get what I’m saying? You are common and stupid.” She decides that Daniel is right, that she doesn’t want to be stupid anymore, she wants him to love her, she’s ready to do everything for him, hurting her parents or dreaming of pushing a dog into the river while watching him dying: “her goodness wasn’t preventing her badness.” But it’s never enough for Daniel, so that for Virgínia “Alone was the way she could wear herself out.” [millions_ad] 3. Last year Magdalena wrote a one-woman play, I Wanna Be Robert De Niro, which she performed at the Hollywood Fringe Festival. In the play a translator named Madalena is fighting with Clarice: why is she treating Virgínia like that? She’s a young girl, she doesn’t deserve it, she needs protection. No answer from Lispector. Then the telephone rings. It’s the husband, there’s a problem with the kids. Can’t he figure it out all by himself for once? She’s working! That’s what she says. Madalena, almost despairing, then turns to De Niro, born in 1943, the same year Lispector started writing The Chandelier, for help in saving Virgínia from Lispector’s tragic narrative. The translator breaking ranks, a woman behaving badly in the name of another woman. But in Magdalena’s play this vision of the translator, Madalena, interceding is foreclosed by Virgínia herself. Who dares tell another creature filled with her own being-hood what to do? Who dares rewrite, overwrite, another person’s script? Virgínia is alone in The Chandelier, but with a new force and a project: to free herself from the others. “To free herself from maternity, from love, from intimate life and in the face of other people’s expectations to refuse, to land hard and closed like a rock, a violent rock, who cares about the rest,” Lispector writes, only to retract everything 10 lines later: “But against what? Her fake power was waning with disappointment and slowly a troubled sadness was overtaking her, she wanted to rejoin right now the movement shared by everyone, being happy with them, accusing-offended very quickly with humility, without any power so that nobody could refuse her now, quickly, after she in a thoughtless gesture had sought, crazy, to free herself.” The eternal fight between subject and society, what to do? Virgínia constantly suffers from nausea; Lispector says that “in secret she felt pity for everything...people were so ridiculous!, she felt like crying from joy and embarrassment at being alive. That was her impression.” She tries to love them, the others, but she feels that only when she’s alone she can understand things and that “nothing essential had been reached with her love.” And it’s especially with her friends that Virgínia experiences the highest point of her alienation, as here at a dinner party with friends: The thin, confident women were chatting–they seemed easy for the men and hard for the women; and why didn’t they have kids? my God, how disconcerting that was. And if they did they treated them like friends, yes, like friends. 4. It’s a Sunday morning in 2017, spring is near and the temperature is rising. As Magdalena drives I’m at her side while the kids sit in the back. “Don’t fight! Stay quiet or I’ll bring you back home,” she says. “You’re too strict, mom,” her clever five-year-old girl, Viva, replies. “Oh well, in a few years you’ll thank me! Wait and see.” “Wait and see,” her seven-year-old son Max repeats to his sister with a wise nod and a wry smile that I catch as I glance behind. When we arrive at the Farmers’ Market the kids choose pain au chocolat and donuts from Allan at the bakery stand and run away to visit with Luis, who sells berries. They are authorized to take off because it’s a safe place and everyone knows them. Magdalena and I are drinking lemonade when she looks at me and says: “Above all, I don’t want the kids to see Vlad and me as friends! Am I wrong?” Virgínia is always somewhere else. Sometimes they tell her something and she distractedly asks, what? She’s not only alienated from her friends at the dinner party, but even from that living room, the stage for the evening’s events, from its surfaces; she feels herself to be “a prisoner of luxury.” And most of all she doesn’t understand the city, she keeps dreaming about Quiet Farm, the black countryside, the forest, the river, all the landscape of her past. She hates the present to the point that she wants to turn it immediately into the future and for this reason goes to bed earlier every day. “Somehow whatever she would live was being added to her childhood and not to the present, never maturing her.” Therefore she comes back home, but everything is changed. Even Daniel, the great rebel, had ended up married to a common girl with whom he shares nothing but a bourgeois life (the kind he had always despised before) and now he is accusing her, his sister, of having let him make the mistake. Virgínia realizes that “the place where one was happy is not the place where one can live." Lispector tells her story in a very personal stream of consciousness, which is too easy to reconnect to James Joyce because in Lispector the style is always memory and feelings; it’s not epic, it’s terribly familiar without being sentimental–thus there’s no space for self-pity, indulgence, or hope. She doesn’t even organize the points of view in chapters, but when you can’t foresee it, she just jumps from Virgínia to Vincente or Daniel or Esmeralda. Sometimes she writes down a cold sentence: “I hold myself back in order not to be loved by everyone.” But she goes forward, she takes the same line and, like in a poem, puts it inside another sentence, modulating words and sound in a way that forces the reader to read it twice and three times: “Who would have thought that that insignificant creature had just felt like someone who had to hold herself back in order not to be loved by everyone?” For sure, after reading Lispector, we know much more of how “horrible, pure, irrevocable” it is to live. It’s the end of summer. Magdalena, Vlad, and I sit in their garden, in the dark. There’s only a light in the living room, which reaches us from the glass wall. The kids already sleep. We have cooked with them homemade gnocchi and now the kitchen is full of flour. “When you translate something like that—I mean, it’s hard because it’s like living in the mind of someone else. So you have to question yourself and realize that you’re a woman, you have a family, you live in society, so what you read and translate it’s also about you. But at the same time you have to be yourself and raise the kids—I don’t know. I like that they spend time with us, but I know that they need rules too. Ways to learn to shape their future lives,” Magdalena says. “I think it’s great that we cook with them and they can understand that what they eat everyday is not free, that that takes time, and it’s the same thing with life,” Vlad adds. I go on: “Life is like literature: it wants the work as Scott [Fitzgerald] says.” We fall into silence. I try to imagine the kids’ point of view, making things with adults while they discuss literature, listening to them call writers by their first names as if they could be friends. And what about us? Trying to teach the kids to make practical, simple things to prevent them from becoming exploitative human beings. Will they be able to free themselves or will they conform to society? Will they find a balance between these two attitudes? Will they heap upon themselves “lies, false love, ambitions and pleasures” or will they choose to do the work, every single day, and fight for the life they really want? The three of us remain in silence. If I close my eyes I can see Tuscany. I see the countryside of my childhood and I am there.
In the frontmatter of Rebekah Frumkin’s debut novel, The Comedown, the reader is presented with two genealogy charts: one for the Marshalls, and one for the Bloom-Mittwochs. These are wild, unpruned, tangled family trees—more than a few names appear on both. Frumkin sets herself the task of filling in the stories behind these names, and in the more than 300 pages that follow, she does precisely that. The Comedown tracks the Marshalls, who are black, and the Bloom-Mittwochs, who are white and Jewish, over multiple generations. The two families are tied to one another by a briefcase full of money, which is to say, a plot device. When a hit job goes awry, a payment to the drug dealer Reggie Marshall ends up in the possession of one of his customers, Leland Bloom-Mittwoch Sr. His and Reggie’s descendants spend much of the novel chasing after it. “A briefcase,” one character says. “That’s symbolic. Like in a dream.” The briefcase is a classic MacGuffin, an artificial goal that gives the story purpose. But, breaking with authors like Rachel Cusk, for whom writing conventional fiction feels “fake and embarrassing,” or Karl Ove Knausgaard, who wrote in his My Struggle series that “the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous,” Frumkin isn’t ashamed to milk her MacGuffin for all its worth. She knows that narrative is artifice, but she also knows it’s fun. After a wonderfully dramatic prologue that finds Leland Sr. jumping off a hotel roof in Tampa to his death, Frumkin gives us a chapter centered on his first wife, Melinda Provouchez. We see Melinda as an adolescent in the '50s and '60s, traumatized by her mother’s binge eating; Melinda as an overweight mother in 2009, watching over her son in the hospital; Melinda as a student at Kent State in 1970; and Melinda’s search for the briefcase, also in 2009. Each chapter is dedicated to a single character who, in most cases, will not be the primary focus again. This structural gambit unfortunately results in a compartmentalized narrative. All 13 protagonists get their own chapter, with only one or two repeats. And because the chapters are structured like character sketches, every 15 or 20 pages the reader must reset and make mental space for a new set of personality quirks and childhood memories. As a result, much of the novel is given over to flashbacks and exposition. Each chapter demands the escape velocity of a short story. There is something democratic about Frumkin’s approach, giving nearly equal time to all the players, from the family patriarchs and matriarchs to Lee Jr.’s video game-obsessed, gender-nonbinary lover. But not all of the characters exert the same pressure on the story, and after a while the every-character-only-once model begins to feel like more of a constraint than an armature. The novel has less of a plot than a series of reoccurring motifs, the briefcase among them, nested in the character sketches. The Comedown soars, however, when characters we’ve already met, and who have left strong impressions—like Leland Sr.—appear in other characters’ chapters, not as reference points but in actual scenes, creating a more cohesive universe. Leland Sr. serves as the novel’s true connective tissue. Unlike the self-assured intellectuals and defiant neurotics of Philip Roth novels, Leland is an exasperating drug addict. If he has a predecessor in American fiction it is Eugene Henderson of Henderson the Rain King, or better yet Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, the Saul Bellow protagonists who, unlike Charlie Citrine or Moses Herzog, lack the wherewithal to self-diagnose, and self-medicate, with philosophy. But Bellow gives his novels over to these men; in The Comedown, Leland is one voice among many. Drugs, medicinal and recreational, shape the lives of almost every character. The Marshalls and the Bloom-Mittwochs are dealers, users, addicts, and abusers. Frumkin is attuned to the states these drugs induce, both within the user and without. A memorable chapter devoted to Lee Jr. (not to be confused with Leland Jr. or Leland Sr.) follows his plan to drug his half-brother (that’s Leland Jr.) against his will while under the influence of shrooms. Frumkin nimbly captures the anxiety, paranoia, and vulnerability of that experience. “He had the staticky, hippocampal impression that they were trapped in a snowdrift,” Lee thinks in the moments after stoned sex with a girl in his dorm, as missed calls and texts pile up on his phone. Devi was still on top of him and he was holding her, one hand at her back, one at her ass, as though she were in a front-slung papoose....She was breathing heavily. The room’s palette was set on a higher saturation than it had been when he and Devi had started...she was thinking about how fucked up he was, and how fake he was, and how little he deserved her... He was getting a shitty Pygmalion vibe from the whole thing and gently pushed her off him. Frumkin is whip-smart and funny. The writing is compulsively readable without being pedestrian. Sentences seem to vibrate. Here is Frumkin describing Temple Chaim Sheltok: Unlike the more modern synagogues in north Florida—the no-frills cement ones built by the Jewish retirees who’d floated south from New York and New Jersey, with Reform rabbis who wore guayabera shirts and kept kosher one day a week—the Temple Chaim Sheltok predated both World Wars. Compare that to Zadie Smith’s description of the Glenard Oak school in White Teeth: It had been built in two simple stages, first in 1886 as a workhouse (result: large red monstrosity, Victorian asylum) and then added to in 1963 when it became a school (result: gray monolith, Brave New Council Estate). Both writers have a flair for detailing the social histories of buildings, neighborhoods, and families with an arch sense of humor deployed by a winking, not-entirely-objective third-person narrator. [millions_ad] The Comedown is, in many ways, a throwback to the turn of the millennium. Like Smith, Frumkin’s debut employs a large, multiracial cast to explore issues of identity and history. But they most resemble one another on the level of style. Frumkin’s writing often calls to mind “hysterical realism,” James Wood’s term for the frenzied, information-rich novels of the late '90s and early aughts by writers like David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and Smith. These were novels that suffered, in Wood’s view, from an “excess of storytelling.” “The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine,” he wrote. “...Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion.” Wood succeeded in identifying the symptoms of this style, but whether or not they describe a disease is a question of taste. Diedre (not Deirdre—Frumkin loves a quirky name) Bloom-Mittwoch’s chapter opens like this: What had been happening in Diedre’s life prior to the summer of 1985, the month of July, when [Leland Sr.] drove up to the Shell where she worked in his 1976 green Ford Pinto, dressed in resort-owner pants and a guayabera, pupils massive behind a pair of expensive-looking Ray-Bans? She had been living with her girlfriend Trish in an efficiency above Sol’s Delicatessen...Trish who played drums in a hardcore band called Damocles Anthem that was moderately famous in the Orlando underground scene, playing places like Club Space Fish and D.I.Y. Records. Wood might argue, as he did of White Teeth, that details like these “vandalize each other.” And he might be right. (There’s that guayabera shirt again.) But this style has its advantages, namely that, when used well, it infuses a writer’s prose with a great deal of intelligence and energy, which is certainly the case in The Comedown. It’s rare that a novel this smart is such an engrossing read. In recent years, piece after piece has been written about whether white writers can (or should) write black characters, whether men can (or should) write female characters, and what we should make of sensitivity readers who comb novels for offensive material. Frumkin reminds us that these thorny questions of could and should are often a straightforward matter of imagination, empathy, and research. All of her characters are rendered with depth, portrayed with amusement and affection. Frumkin’s witty, third-person voice is as comfortable with the drug-dealing Reggie Marshall as it is his Melville scholar wife, Tasha; she can describe a tripping Lee Jr. just as well as she can Leland Jr., who works at a mutual fund and plans to invest in the very drug that Lee sprinkles on his fettuccine Alfredo. The Comedown is not, however, a work of gritty realism aiming to portray the lived realities of a diverse set of characters. It is a fundamentally comic novel (and a very funny one at that). Frumkin’s arch style sometimes risks flattening the individual characters under the force of her voice. But in a world of Cusks and Knausgaards, Teju Coles and Ben Lerners—all wonderful novelists in their own right—a novel like The Comedown, with its wide-angle lens and authoritative third-person style, is a reminder of what good old-fashioned fiction can do. Frumkin, like recent debut novelists Nathan Hill (The Nix) and Tony Tulathimutte (Private Citizens), writes like someone who grew up on Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen, among others, writers whose generation-defining novels appeared at the turn of the millennium. The result is a number of new voices bucking the autofictional trend, breathing new life into the energetic, pyrotechnic, neo-Dickensian novels that Wood so famously knocked, where the unit of measurement is not the sentence or the paragraph but the anecdote. This is good news for the story-starved reader. Narrative is back, and it’s wearing new threads.
The first time she told the story of her recovery from alcohol addiction, Leslie Jamison recalls in her memoir The Recovering, an older man in the front row of the meeting where she was speaking started shouting: “This is boring!” Jamison is quick to assure us that the man was ill, “losing the parts of his mind that filtered and restrained his speech.” Still, diminished though he was, the man had been a pillar of the local recovery community, and even now “he often sounded like our collective id, saying all the things that never got said aloud in meetings.” And now he was saying, very loudly, that he was bored. The moment clearly shook her—it comes up twice in The Recovering—but perhaps she should have paid more attention to what the man was saying. Jamison, author of the 2014 essay collection The Empathy Exams, is an incisive stylist and has amassed an enormous amount of information and insight on what her subtitle calls “intoxication and its aftermath.” But her own recovery story, the spine on which she hangs reams of archival research and reportage, is—well, boring is a little harsh, but it’s not enough to carry a 500-page book. Jamison is what is known in sobriety circles as a “high-bottom drunk.” The daughter of a prominent health economist, she earned degrees from Harvard, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and Yale. Along the way, she started drinking. Then she started drinking a lot. In her mid-20s, while on break from her doctoral program, she stopped drinking. A few months later, she started again. Seven months after that, she stopped for good. She was 27 years old and had never been arrested, never lost a job to drinking, never landed in jail or a psych ward, never shot drugs, nor caused bodily harm to another person. To state the obvious: this isn’t a bad thing. Jamison is to be commended for seeking help before she tore up her life, and in truth, her story probably hews closer to the lived experience of most addicts than the lurid tales of junkies shooting up into their genitals that you find in pulpy memoirs and on reality TV. It also hews pretty closely to my own experience. I can’t claim Jamison’s Ivy League pedigree or her precocious literary success, but, like her, I quit drinking in my 20s, leaving a long trail of “nevers” and “not yets.” Even so, addiction, and the years it took me to recover from it, left a blast hole in my life I still grapple with to this day. So, for the first 100 pages or so, I cheered on The Recovering as a welcome corrective to the popular image of addiction as a gritty battle for the addict’s soul and recovery as a heroic feat of derring-do. Jamison offers up instead a quieter story of an addict whose life looks great on the outside—She’s in a doctoral program at Yale! She has a debut novel coming out!—but who, unbeknownst to those around her, is slipping deeper and deeper into despair. She sneaks white wine at a B&B where she works and picks endless low-grade fights with her boyfriend until, at a low point, she comes home already drunk and fills a cup with eight shots of whiskey and drinks until she can’t remember. “I hadn’t set off a bomb in the middle of my own life,” she writes. “It had just grown small and curdled. I lived with shame like another organ nestled inside me, swollen with banal regrets.” The Recovering shimmers throughout with lines like that, but 500 pages is a very long time to watch a woman suffer in silence. Perhaps sensing this, Jamison intercuts her story with archival research about other addicts, like singer Billie Holiday and poet John Berryman. Too often, though, stories of lifelong addicts like Holiday, who grew up black and poor and died literally handcuffed to a hospital bed, sit uneasily alongside that of a Harvard-educated novelist who sobered up her 20s without so much as a DWI. Jamison is, of course, wise to this. “I am precisely the kind of nice upper-middle-class white girl whose relationships to substances has been treated as benign or pitiable—a cause for concern, or a shrug, rather than a punishment,” she writes, adding: “My skin is the right color to permit my intoxication.” But awareness of privilege doesn’t blunt its protective force, and in the end the borrowed pathos of the stories of Holiday and Berryman and other writers like Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace never solves the core problem, which is that Jamison’s own story lacks the dramatic heft to bear the weight of analysis and research she piles upon it. [millions_ad] Much of this, I suspect, could be resolved by more ruthless editing. There is little in The Recovering that wouldn’t be twice as compelling in a book half as long. But I wonder, too, if in her effort to highlight the stories of addiction, Jamison shortchanges another essential element of recovery. Midway through the book, newly sober and stranded at a weeklong writing retreat in a converted tofu factory in small-town Iowa, Jamison stays up until five a.m. obsessively watching an obscure BBC miniseries to distract herself from drinking. The next morning, desperate, she finds a meeting at a nearby church, where there are only three other people, two of them leather-clad bikers passing through the area. When Jamison tells the group about staying up all night watching the BBC miniseries, “one of the bikers—a huge man with a snake tattooed around his neck—nodded so vigorously [she] was sure he’d say he’d seen that miniseries, too.” He hadn’t, of course, but as Jamison says, “he knew what it was like when craving tugged you like a puppet.” He knew what it was like. I’ve spent decades in church basements listening to people tell their stories, and I can’t say I recall the details of more than one or two. I’m a story person, but it wasn’t the stories that got me sober. It wasn’t anything anyone said, really. It was that for the first time in my life I felt heard, that when I said aloud completely insane things whole rooms full of people nodded along in perfect understanding. In an afterword, Jamison writes that she “wanted to write a book that worked like a meeting,” by which she means that she “needed to include the stories of others alongside [her] own.” That’s one way of describing how a meeting works, as a series of people telling their stories. I’ve certainly sat through my share of those, but the meetings that stuck with me, the ones that changed me, were the ones where someone cried out in pain and a room full of people listened. To my mind, that is the deeper secret to recovery, that force of constructive listening, the almost osmotic process of drawing the pain out of a human being in crisis and allowing it to settle, if only for an hour, in the body of the group. Jamison describes several moments of this kind in The Recovering, like that morning in the Iowa church basement and others later when she meets with a sponsor and begins helping people with less sobriety than herself, but each time she moves on to recount yet another argument with her boyfriend, yet another anecdote about John Berryman. What drew me to The Empathy Exams was the sense I had of Jamison as being a crackerjack listener, a woman willing to sit without judgment as people told her, for instance, about their experience with Morgellons disease, a crackpot-sounding syndrome in which people believe their bodies are being attacked from within by tiny fibers no one else can see. The Empathy Exams is a book-length feat of constructive listening, and I suppose I came to The Recovering hoping Jamison would do the same for a world I know well. Instead, I got a lot of stories about addicts. Some are absorbing, others less so, but let’s face it: ours is a culture awash in addicts’ stories. They fill whole shelves at the bookstore and amuse the millions on TV. What we need is what there has never been enough of: more, and better, listening.
How many times have I checked my Instagram feed since I attempted to start writing this review? I have lurked on the Internet and seen sulking selfies and sultry men posing with plants and a green glow framed in darkness; I have witnessed cats playing with a Ping-Pong ball, a humble brag shot of mail received and photo “memories" of past AWPs. With Wi-Fi always at the ready, we are armed during our waking hours with iPhones and Androids and multitudes of screens; we are inundated in images like no age previously. We are the “Picture People,” "addicted to images, in all their varieties,” declares Ezekiel "Zeke" Hooper Stark, cultural ethnographer, sufferer of indecision, New Man, middle son, and protagonist of Lynne Tillman’s grand and sprawling new novel, Men and Apparitions. What does it mean to come of age amongst this glut of images, and how does this alter the way we as a culture perceive? This is one of two central questions asked in Tillman’s Men and Apparitions. As a 38-year-old man, Zeke is situated on the cusp of multiple transitions—from the analog to the digital, from dark room to Polaroid to cell phone selfie. In his lifetime a photo has gone from a way of remembering and memorializing to a throwaway—something evanescent. Zeke is old enough to have a childhood immortalized in the family photo album yet young enough to be fully fluent with digital media. New media’s proliferation has brought about a more fluid and abundant display of images, expanding possibilities of self, and notably, with regard to the “Men” in the novel’s title, new tropes of masculinity. We’ve gone from the iconic tough cowboy of a Marlboro Man, then appropriated by Richard Prince, re-appropriated by Brokeback Mountain’s gay lovers, and by now signals of masculinity have morphed somewhat, though not entirely. Another transition to consider: Zeke is one among a generation of sons of second-wave feminists who have matured into adulthood. The second central question of Men and Apparitions is how has their idea of masculinity expanded, and has it expanded in commensurate ways? The answer is murky. Zeke doesn’t question the way he performs tropes of masculinity, the way he is on autopilot, with his wife and his advancing academic career, until he encounters personal failure and betrayal. His wife leaves him for his best friend, triggering a crisis (he has dissociative amnesia, wanders Europe, tells people he’s Henry Adams). This rending makes real something he already knew intellectually, that identity is fluid not static. And he starts to discover his depths, to discover his true work, doing investigative work to explore and define this new masculinity, what he calls the “New Man.” Photography plays a role in this redefinition too, Tillman implies through Zeke: “To perform gender there must be an image to base it upon: this is who a woman sits, this is how a man walks.” If nothing else in this book is clear, we are performing ideas of ourselves all of the time. Zeke is obsessed with photographs, especially their role in forming and reifying identity. In his work as a cultural ethnographer, he analyzes relationships in family photographs—birth order, gender relations, and how this is portrayed, i.e. “how does that 'fact' become an image for the family?" Through Zeke we learn of his family’s obsessions: of his mother's intense connection to her ancestry through their images, of his hatred for his insensitive brother Bro Hart (oldest), and the selective mutism of Little Sister (youngest), with whom Zeke feels a quiet and robust solidarity. We learn of their family propensity to depression and suicide through Zeke’s meandering mental cataloging, just as we learn of his ex-wife’s immunity to failure, and of the nearly mythological status of ancestor Clover Hooper Adams, wife of Henry. And yet it’s striking that in this novel so focused on images, filled with images even, we don’t ever “see” Zeke, either through his perceptions of the physical world or through photographs. While I’m inclined to interpret a photomontage before the final section as Zeke’s personal collection, and wish some of these faces to be his, it’s never defined as such. Certainly my desire to “see” Zeke influences my reading, and the novel’s consideration of images and interpretation leads me to question why I want this. That somehow this "fact" of Zeke’s existence would confirm my own intuitions. As if he weren’t a fictional character. As if the photo were evidence. As it is, we only see through him, and rarely if ever glimpse the physical world around him. Zeke, however, does describe and analyze the expressions and posturing and framing in photos, and some are included in the text. Early on he describes a series of photographs by Lynn Marshall-Linnemeier, and specifically, one of a child standing in a crib on the lawn of a suburban house: "The picture was shot from the child’s POV, from behind his head, so the shot was low to the ground. The child looked out from his crib, the view was cone-shape, of street, houses, a car. It was a child’s eye-view, a Christina’s world. A new theoretical world, with a new eye wide open." This description provides a key to understanding the reader’s relationship to Zeke, and Tillman’s as author. I couldn’t help but read this as a nod to Tillman as author/photographer who turns the reader’s gaze toward the world with a Zeke’s eye-view, or rather, to witness through Zeke's filter of a mind, which is analytic, punny, and always thinking. It’s an authorial wink, too. Tillman has written male narrators before, though her only novel from a male perspective is an older gay man in Cast in Doubt. Women authors write men all of the time, and vice versa. What’s striking in this instance is the intimacy of voice, and Zeke’s focus on defining masculinity, his intent of reappropriating Henry James’s feminist ideal of the 19th-century’s self-made New Woman (Portrait of a Lady’s Isabel Archer, for example) to define the 21stt century’s New Man. Or rather: Henry James wrote in drag then; Tillman is doing it now, inquiring into the status of the New Man as a second-wave feminist. Gender is performance. Writing it is too. It makes me wonder, too, what nuances Tillman as a woman perceives, what she misses too. The attempt is certainly ambitious. Much of the book's first section is a Roland Barthes-like disquisition about the image, all from Zeke’s point of view. It includes a consideration of images and photos scattered throughout the text. Zeke states: "Images don't mean as words mean, though people (and I) apply words to them." However, these images are very much a kind of language too: a transmission of postures and facial expressions and gestures and framing; they tell stories, of identities, of the eye behind the camera’s lens, of pasts, of inheritance, of how we are seen and how we wish to be seen. The photograph creates and reinforces mythologies and narratives, about members of a family or a social group and their interrelationships. It makes me think of the four Brown sisters, photographed by Nicholas Nixon every year for more than 40 years. Always standing in the same order, with subtle changes in their gestures and faces and expressions; the most striking changes are in appearances: haircuts or a change in weight. The series captures their relationships over time and forms an intimate story. While the Fox sisters aren’t mentioned by Zeke, he traffics in contemporary photography and culture (riffing on O.J. Simpson, the Kardashians, Caitlyn Jenner, Bernie Madoff, John Cage) and a network of 19th-century Americans associated with Clover Adams (Henry Adams, the James brothers, etc., etc.) [millions_ad] As Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, "All images appropriate.” Zeke too considers appropriation in many dimensions: how we fall in love with projections, our aspirational branding and signification. He doesn’t state this directly, but this fantasy of transformation is the foundation of the American Dream: “Portraits of selves reside inside or beside portraits of desirable or desired others, too. The other’s desired life is a fashion or style, there is no inner to the outer-wear. Fashion and style rule because the shopper assumes the style of the designer and imagines it’s his or her own. When in fact he or she is merely branded. (See Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.)” Erving Goffman is a touchstone for Zeke, as are Sigmund Freud and Clifford Geertz and a smattering of cultural anthropologists and thinkers, but it’s through Goffman and his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life that he considers performative qualities we bring to the daily interactions that define us. In effect, Zeke confirms Goffman who confirms the old Shakespearean adage—“The world's a stage" — in that the roles we play and the way we convey (and betray) ourselves is a choice, or a repetition. Habits, they make you. Or they become you. A disruption can also change you. As Zeke remarks at the beginning of Men and Apparitions, he’s been conjugating breakfast for his entire life. It seems relevant here to tie in Tillman’s writing on the gaze and the desire in Cindy Sherman’s photos, from an essay in The Complete Madame Realism: [Sherman’s] photographs are not about her. They are about us. Human beings want to look at themselves, and the ubiquity of the camera and its photographic products demonstrates that obsession. People construct ways to look at themselves and others. It is an incessant desire, impossible to satisfy, which creates more pictures. Humans stare at each other longingly, or with disgust, anxiety, curiosity. People watch people, as if everyone might live in a zoo or be a zookeeper...Sherman’s art registers the restlessness of people to see who they are, or who they might be or become. And what will happen to them. Tillman, through Zeke, is not asking how should a person be or how does the world look, but rather, how does a person become? And how do images complicate these notions of ourselves and this desire to become someone else? Zeke’s rhythm of thinking, his patois, his clipped observations, his tendency to employ maxims evoke a far different mind than the narrator of Tillman’s previous novel, American Genius, A Comedy, whose smooth recursive thoughts loop back on themselves, riffing on skin, memory, and American history. And yet, what unites their voices is Tillman’s commitment to writing the drifts and vagaries of the mind, attempting to capture the generation of ideas on the page, and to stay with them over an extended period of time—here for nearly 400 pages. The depths Tillman plumbs seem almost paradoxical to a novel so intensely focused on surfaces and photography. It’s as if Tillman is acknowledging that life is life, but the active life occurs in the interface with the mind. Thinking is life. Zeke’s inaction or as he puts it, his "Hamlet disease,” is pitted against a multitude of photographic surfaces. Zeke’s depth begs the question, how does coming to know Zeke through voice differ from knowing him through an Instagram feed? And do the profusion of images surrounding him threaten depth of character, as in, will our surfeit of images lead us to understand, or “see” character or personality differently? Think of the balderdash on Twitter, the sound bites, the seduction of social media feeds, selfies. The fragmentation already. The novel ends in fragmentation. A field study, “Men in Quotes,” was performed and collected and arranged by Zeke, but his observations merely order the responses by subjects interviewed about their roles, their love lives, their relationship to masculinity. Of the largely heterosexual pool, some are confused, some admit to repeating their fathers’ lechery, some admit to desiring partners who are equals and more independent than their mothers, some aren't mystified by women while others still are. Zeke articulates his idea of the New Man as a reappropriation of James here. too, but with a twist: Guyville in Jeopardy: The New Man is analogous to Henry James’s New Woman, but change for him isn’t about his greater independence; it’s about recognizing his interdependence, with a partner, in my study, usually female, even dependence on her…He must recognize different demands and roles for him, and for her. A New Man must investigate the codes that make him masculine, and the models for hetero-normative behavior. And make him who he is or was, make him what he never believed had been ‘made.’ This new awareness of interdependence between sexes seems all the more timely, and fragile too, given the resurgence of the strong man, partially as backlash to this new masculinity. As this recent headline in The Guardian states, there's a crisis in modern masculinity. This too is shifting, not set. “We think we can be whatever we want to be,” says one subject in Zeke’s field study. “Men in Quotes” is a collection of observations more than a summation, and it’s meaningful that the voices are not mediated through Zeke. It’s also curious to note how this section nods to the final chapter of Susan Sontag’s On Photography—“A Brief Anthology in Quotations”—which collates an assortment of quotations relating to photography; this in itself nods to Walter Benjamin’s cataloguing of quotations documenting the shift to modernity in Paris in The Arcades Project. Earlier in On Photography Sontag observes, “A photograph could also be described as a quotation, which makes a book of photographs like a book of quotations.” Men and Apparitions, then, appropriates Sontag’s linguistic equivalent of the photo album with “Men In Quotes,” and in doing so marks its own shift in voice. Ending the novel with prismatic voices speaking to the many facets of the New Man is a deliberate opening of form to other voices, and quite literally, too. The responses from interview subjects are in fact responses to questions Tillman posed to a small survey of interlocutors identifying as male, age 25 to 45, and "Men in Quotes" features a glimpse at their candid responses with Tillman's Zeke acting as a guide. Could this making room for other voices also mark a shift towards a new form of novel? It opens up possibilities. The gesture expands upon a form used in David Shields’s Reality Hunger and George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, where the proximity and ordering of quotations creates a narrative of its own. Like setting images side by side. Like in the best books, where readers' imaginations are coaxed to leap. Men and Apparitions is a loose and beautiful baggy monster of a novel that opens in on itself like a fun house hall of mirrors. What a tremendous experience it is to walk through, never quite sure who’s who or what you’re looking at.
When Maggie Nelson appeared on San Francisco’s City Arts & Lectures circuit earlier this year, the first question she was asked was how she identifies her work, much of which masterfully blends of poetry, memoir, and critique. Nelson refused to play ball. “I’m afraid I’ll have to perform resistance,” she told the interviewer, not impolitely. She summed up “the affliction,” as she referred to it, of the requirement for artistic labels thus: “We all want to know what you are and we want you to stay that way.” This exchange about genre could easily serve as a microcosm of the demands placed on writers in general, and on marginalized writers in particular. The default perspective on queer women’s writing is their work as extension of their selves, inextricable from the personal, private, and confessional, even if it’s fiction, and even if it defies genre; like the queer women and nonbinary people that produce it, the work is gendered against its will (and probably in ways that are boring and reductive rather than otherwise). It is the norm to demand that the artist account for her art so that it’s immediately legible to conventional aesthetics—that is, affirm for us the ways it fits into our expectations rather than allow it to speak for itself. As Nelson’s interview suggests, “identity” has become a buzzword (one that’s acquired a distinctly Millennial veneer), but it’s no more a uniquely contemporary issue than “feminism” or “labor.” If you need convincing, look no further than Chelsey Johnson’s debut novel, which dives into this most topical-seeming of issues in the Portland of 20 years ago. Kicking off with a Dickensian description of the city’s fading grunge scene, Stray City is the story of Andrea Morales, a woman more or less orphaned by her lesbianism who has become one of the transplants, outcasts, and gentrifiers of the radical paradise of late '90s PDX. Among all the other punks and artists who’ve gravitated to the ostensible progressiveness of northern Oregon, she has enshrined herself in a tenderly wrought chosen family who half-seriously refers to itself as the Lesbian Mafia. Johnson competently sets the scene through music (riot grrl, homocore) and culture (zines, The Ethical Slut), contrasting it with the straitlaced, middle-class home Andrea left behind. Hers is a lifestyle that can be elevated as “bohemian” just as easily as it can be denigrated as “trashy,” an unstructured punk playground that nevertheless makes far more sense than the bourgeois logic of the homophobes from which she’s fled. In Portland, Andrea belongs, and she’s come to rely on her fellow queers as the family she never truly had. Until, that is, fresh out of a breakup and aching with heartsickness, she stumbles into the arms of a straight man. You can almost hear the vinyl scratching across the Bratmobile LP. Anyone who’s ever been in a queer scene knows what’s coming next—Andrea’s best friends are in a band called "Gold Star,” after all. As bisexuals, multiracial people, and those with fluid genders can confirm, resisting binary identification does more than evade metaphorical capture. Claiming an invalidated identity, or refusing to identify at all, can lead to rupture, even to danger. Andrea has not forgotten the birth family that practically holds its nose when it deigns to interact with her. Nor has she forgotten the repercussions of its shunning, both practical (like everyone she knows, she’s always a paycheck away from destitute) and emotional (“Promise me it is not what I think it is,” begs her mother). In Andrea’s subculture, fucking a man, not to speak of dating one, is more scandalous than selling out for a salaried job with Nike. If she is not really, totally gay, as this dalliance makes her wonder, will she be forced to shred her Lesbian Mafia membership card for good? The man in question, Ryan, is straight out of a Portlandia sketch: a scruffy musician not into commitment or owning property, he floats hither and yon on tour buses, rootless and futureless. He is kind, but other than his kindness is unremarkable, except for his dogged (though not usually pushy) pursuit of Andrea. Her attraction to him is another matter altogether. She is unable to explain it, even to herself. Least convincing of all is her ambiguous physical desire: “And just as I was thinking, This is so . . . simple, unsure if it was a nice thing or a boring thing, it was over.” Her already-low opinion of straight men—what with their penchant for seeing lesbians “as a porn category”—aside, she continues to sleep with him, igniting the tension that is Stray City’s most compelling feature. [millions_ad] Because there is (slightly) more to Ryan than the taboo he represents. He is an outsider, separate from Andrea’s close-knit queer community, whose intensity (and incestuousness) has started to overwhelm her. It’s no coincidence that Andrea and Ryan share their first kiss on the same evening that she learns her most recent ex has been dating one of her first lovers. The revelation is distressing, if not surprising to those familiar with how queer community tends to function. “If no one ever slept with anyone’s ex, if missteps and bad behavior disqualified people for life, we would all soon be single and sexless,” Andrea observes, aptly cramming the controversies of “call-out culture," the double-bind of assimilation, and capitalist precarity into one sequined nutshell. Instead of wading back into the lesbian dating pool, where her ex and a paralyzing number of potential heartbreaks lurk like a school of sharks, she plays it safe, dipping her toe into the Jacuzzi of heterosexuality instead. While it poses an existential risk, sleeping with a man is at least free of intra-community baggage—provided, of course, that that man can be kept a secret. Experience has taught Andrea that choosing the wrong lover can mean the loss of identity, because identity is not only self-conceived: It’s externally imposed, too. Never once during her relationship with Ryan does she question her attraction toward other women. Rather, it’s her lesbian cred—on which is predicated everything she’s come to see as “home”—that’s on the chopping block. This is a dilemma that’s been dogging her since her college years, where, “[e]ssentialist was an accusation my friends and classmates had flung around liberally in arguments, yet secretly maybe all we wanted it for ourselves in some way or another—to have an essence. To be an identity.” Having spent the majority of her young life struggling to discern just who she is (her connection to her Mexican ancestry, for example, was lost to assimilation when her grandfather left Nayarit behind him and never looked back), Andrea is dismayed at how easily someone like Ryan can threaten all that she has fought to become. What results is a love affair in its vintage application: a man and a woman who can only be together in secret. Andrea goes to outlandish lengths to make sure no one learns about Ryan, lying to all of her friends and sneaking off on trips so they can be together without getting caught. One wonders over but isn’t surprised by Ryan’s willingness to be treated like an embarrassing skin condition in exchange for intimacy with someone whose warmth for him is chilly at best. As queer women often bemoan, meeting men is easy; it’s meeting other queer women that’s hard to do. While it’s nominally about the sexual relationship of two people, at its core Stray City is concerned with the family, with monogamous romantic love and all of its auxiliary phenomena. As is the case for the lesbian protagonist of Sarah Schulman’s seminal After Delores, which turns 30 this year, losing a lover is just as traumatizing as losing one’s family, because for many queers, our lovers are our family. When her ex, Flynn, says, “Oh, Andy, you’re my family, you know,” Andrea’s never felt happier in their relationship. Ryan’s gender aside, the appeal of being pursued by someone on whom you needn’t even bother wasting the energy to trust has obvious appeal, especially when Andrea can keep it to herself. Until, of course, the unimaginable happens: She gets pregnant. In a heterosexist society, bisexual identity is usually both predicated on and nullified by monogamist ideas about “who you end up with.” Stray City evades this trope by not ending at “the end”—when Andrea decides to take her pregnancy to term, the book is only half-over. Her pregnancy doesn’t precipitate a “decision” to be straight or gay or even bisexual. The book cuts to a future, 10 years down the road, when Andrea is in her 30s with a kid, a new woman in her life, and a whole different set of problems: Her daughter, Lucia, is now old enough to start asking questions about the “bio-father” (as Andrea squeamishly describes him) she’s never met. Andrea and Lucia’s journeys to self-knowing are depicted with humor and compassion, and while the novel’s two Portlands, separated by a decade, are written with loving precision, Stray City nevertheless feels not quite complete. While its second half ends on a hopeful, but decidedly final, note, the first leaves Andrea’s anxiety about her bisexuality (Or homoflexibility. Or queerness. Or whatever.) unresolved. The bisexual boogeywoman that Andrea and her fellow Lesbian Mafiosas fear is the one that does not invest in lesbian community like they do—but neither do they make space for queer women who aren’t cis lesbians, so how can the latter be held to such a standard? “Because to us,” explains Andrea, “bisexual was the earnest white girl in your women’s studies class who had a nice boyfriend and wanted to clock in a little more oppression.” But just as we are getting somewhere with this fear, one that today we might identify as biphobia, the novel switches gears, splitting its focus to include Lucia and her own story alongside Andrea’s. The question of the latter’s sexual identity is absorbed into Lucia’s search for the person who contributed one-half of her genetic material, a shift that feels unsatisfyingly abrupt. In an ideal world, just as we would allow writers’ work to speak for itself, so would we allow queer women to the be the arbiters of their own identities and experiences. Andrea knows what she is, and what’s more, she wants to stay that way; in my opinion, anyway, her lesbian identity isn’t invalidated by her relationship with a man. But Johnson falls into the very trap that she lays for her protagonist: Andrea is more driven by the fear of a complicated identity than by a desire to understand herself better, and as a whole, Stray City exhibits this same hesitation. Instead of diving into the existentialist rupture Andrea’s shifting identity presents, Johnson lets the trail go cold, leaving us with a resolution that, while no less lovely, is as cloudy as the Portland skyline.
When the first recipe appears on page 24 of The Cooking Gene, it arrives as a kind of unmerited gift, a gratuitous offering to us, the community of readers. It’s a simple recipe for “Kitchen Pepper,” but it is as if Michael W. Twitty is giving away something into which an entire history has been condensed. It immediately follows the question, “How exactly did I get here?” and so does not arrive simply as a try-this-at-home kind of recipe, but as an invitation. Twitty is inviting us not so much to theorize about cultural foodways and to sample the flavors of ancient cultures, as to do. This simple recipe for Kitchen Pepper comes with an implicit interrogative force: are you just going to sit there, an armchair culinary historian, or are you going to cook—and not just for yourself but for your neighbors? And while you do, ask yourself too: how exactly did you get here? To publish a recipe can be—especially in the world of rock-star chefs, cooking-themed reality television, and the general atmosphere of cooking as a variety of warfare—an act of self-conscious display of culinary erudition or imagination. It can have the effect of dangling before the reader the lure of the possibility of participating, however briefly, in the ex nihilo genius of a famous chef who somehow thought of putting ingredients together in a way designed to wow and astonish our dinner guests. There is another way in which a recipe can be written, however, and more importantly, received. It can be written as an invitation into a reality that you did not recognize was possible before, an invitation into a kind of fellowship or communion. A recipe can be the transmission of a tradition, and to cook from such a recipe is not to “try this at home” but to enact a performance of that tradition, and thereby to participate in it in a mysterious and unrepeatable way. This is the way that recipes operate in Michael Twitty’s The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. This is partly because The Cooking Gene is not a cookbook. It contains recipes, but those recipes come freighted with the weight of American and Twitty’s own personal histories. They arrive in the context of a sprawling account of inveterate American racism, history, and the quasi-sacramental nature of food. The Cooking Gene is far more than a cookbook. It is a personal memoir, travel narrative, socio-culinary history, diatribe against the food industry, occasional gastronomic rhapsody, and quest narrative. Its moods are as varied as the fragments that compose it: it is by fairly swift turns witty and somber, indulgent and biting, ponderous and winsome. The Cooking Gene moves from historical excursus to culinary memoir to travelogue in often breathtakingly sharp turns. It is constantly looping back on itself, and sometimes leaving discussions feeling stranded in the way an oxbow lake is left isolated by the changing course of the River. These fragments are made of the same stuff as the river, but do not flow with it. This can be perplexing for the reader, but is in a way entirely consistent with the logic of the book, which is that the quest for personal identity is almost never straightforward but is instead sinuous, and results in bits of personal history that are at a slight distance from but never superfluous to the main thread of the story, if such a main thread can be found. It is illustrative of the cost of such a search, that finding oneself in the stories of one’s ancestors is never cut-and-dried or without anecdotal cul-de-sacs that can stand alone but have become unmoored and adrift from the general flux of personal history, whatever that turns out to be. It is also, in Twitty’s case, intentional: My aim has been to give a sense of the bric-a-brac mosaic that is the average African-American’s experience when he or she attempts to look back to recapture our cultural and culinary identities obscured by the consequences of racial chattel slavery. If it were possible to give a linear, orderly, soup to nuts version of my story of any of my family’s without resorting to genre gymnastics, I would have considered it. Instead, I am pleased with the journey as it has revealed itself to me. “The journey as it has revealed itself” to Twitty amounts to a sort of record of discovery, not unlike the formation of potlikker. It is not the stuff that sinks to the bottom that is important, but the gloss on the surface, the greasy, flavorful sheen that “winks back at you.” The Cooking Gene is the sum of the surprising accretions of ancient history that rise to the top that reveal who its author is. In this book, Twitty seeks his own reflection in potlikker—from the time it was mixed with cornbread to make his first solid food to when it was smeared on the bodies of enslaved men and women on the auction block to make them appear “shiny, a little fat, and machine lubricated.” But what makes The Cooking Gene more than simply a personal memoir is its attempt to reconstruct this personal and cultural history through food. The book is a literary extension of Twitty’s work as a chef and historical interpreter of antebellum culinary habits among enslaved peoples, developed initially through Twitty and his then-partner’s “Southern Discomfort Tour.” Twitty’s goal on the tour from 2011 onwards was to “travel the South looking for sites of cultural and culinary memory while researching the food culture of the region as it stood in the early twenty-first century.” Along the way, Twitty cooked the way enslaved people cooked, and in using their ingredients, their methods, and their tools, found more than just historical curiosities: “I lost arm hair and eyebrows, a little blood here and there; I was scalded and branded, burned and seared. These are the marks of my tribe” One might expect such a tour to have left Twitty jaded and cynical. But for Twitty: the result of the “Discomfort” experience is a hopeful, capacious vision of Southernness and its promise for the American future: I dare to believe that all Southerners are a family. We are not merely Native, European, and African. We are Middle Eastern and South Asian and East Asian and Latin American, now. We are a dysfunctional family, but we are a family. We are unwitting inheritors of a story with many sins that bears the fruit of the possibility of ten times the redemption. One way is through reconnection with the culinary culture of the enslaved, our common ancestors, and restoring their names on the roots of the Southern tree and the table those roots support. White families in America often have the privilege of a recorded history. Their deeds are frequently a matter of public memory. Domestic mythology may often trace a white family’s history back to a romanticized utopia, a green and pleasant land from which one’s forbears valiantly “chose” to sail to the New World. Or they may hang up family crests which may or may not be authentic—they help to shape a sort of familial sense of self, of belonging to a particular tribe with a particular past, however factitious or fabulous. In any case, white families may often be able to trace their lineage back several hundred years with impunity, without ever noticing what a privilege such a record can be. But in such cases what counts as material evidence in a family history (or mythology) does not include a bill of sale for a human person. Twitty uncovers one such document late in The Cooking Gene, related to his ancestor Harry Townsend. It is a salutary lesson about what “white privilege” really means: it means, in part, not having to reconstruct your family’s history from receipts. It is different for the descendants of enslaved peoples: We know so much, but know so little, and the fine details keep shifting, but unlike any other American ethnic group those details are always hotly debated. We are not allowed the peace of mind of our own self-rumination. Every aspect of our history becomes a contested article on social media, a gospel truth to be disproved by experts at conferences, and a groupthink to be contained. Our cultural myths we design ourselves around are not sacred like other people’s myths; our anchors are constantly being pulled up to make white people feel as it they’re in control, and because of this we have struggled to come up with a cohesive and empowering narrative of our own. At the heart of The Cooking Gene is the reality that a material record is not available to the descendants of enslaved Africans who were brought here against their will for 250 years. The lives of the enslaved were often anonymous, their deaths not recorded by name, their bodies not marked with hand-carved headstones. Their history is often inscrutable and at best conjectural. Slavery is, in part, the condition of being deprived of a genealogy, a “heritage denied.” Michael Twitty’s family history is vivid and detailed, but his recorded history only goes back so far. In The Cooking Gene, he sets out to reconstruct—by his own family’s oral history, by documentary research, and by DNA testing—his own genetic composition, to find some semblance of a story of himself that crosses the vast ocean of oblivion separating America from Africa, that traverses the boundary that divides before and after slavery. The Cooking Gene is itself a kind of literary descendant of Alex Haley’s Roots—which was not just a literary but a pan-cultural event when the television adaptation aired when Twitty was a small child in 1976. Roots inspired a generation of African-Americans to “connect to a place and a people,” and to ask “Who would we become once we confronted the Africa we longed for?” The series inspired African-Americans to identify their own “furthest back person,” their “Kunta Kinte.” In many ways The Cooking Gene is about the liberative power of being able to give your own past a name. As a stylist, Twitty has a distinct fondness for the inventory. Whole paragraphs sometimes consist of little more than lists of names—of things, people, places. Chapter Twelve, “Chesapeake Gold,” is a paradigmatic example. When Twitty cites Letitia Burwell, Frederick Douglass, Frederick Law Olmsted, and George Bagby in this chapter, he often gives us their lists of foods. He recites activities on tobacco plantations with a certain relish in the poetry of the sound of it all, and a wonder at the often forgotten diversity of African American foodways. These lists are evidence for Twitty of a world that “seemed to burst at the seams with a diverse variety of crops.” The book begins with an account of building a fire for a presentation on a plantation in a way that gives the flavor of Twitty’s style: The hardwoods are like friends, and each one has a different conversation with your food—the smell-the burn, the colas, the heat, the smoke—the hot intensity of white oak; the savor of hickory; the mellowness or pecan, the red oak, ash, apple, and maples. Sometimes you have to split the big logs up so that you can stack them like a chimney. When that happens, the day begins with the brooding energy of iron and all of its accompanying West African spirits—Ogun, Ta Yao, Ndomayiri. A youthful fascination with words nourished by the civil rights movement and the 1976 national bicentennial, Sesame Street and Yan Can Cook, inspired Twitty with a curiosity about his own origins, which he would later find the words for: Familiensinn: German, the feeling and sense of family connection. I longed for it. I cultivated it despite the pain it has often caused me—family is not easy to seek or create. Toska: Russian. According to Nabokov’s translation of the Afro-Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, it is “a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause…a longing with nothing to long for.” Fernweh. Back to German, “a longing and homesickness for a place you have never been.” One possible response to this is simply to be overwhelmed and maybe a little glazed over by the seemingly endless array of foods that flourished at the hands of enslaved people. And this is, it seems, precisely the point of Twitty’s fondness for the list: when recorded by Frederick Douglass, the repertory of the dishes served at the Big House in Maryland is an instance of reportage from personal experience; so too is Olmsted’s recollection, but from a seat at the table and not as a servant. Both accounts are suffused with wonder—at the sheer variety of meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains that constituted a single meal in the antebellum South. But only one side—the enslaved people who prepared these meals—could have known the ingenuity and the back-breaking labor that went into the preparation of such feasts, and the cultivation of each ingredient. Every crowder pea and sweet potato is a kind of living memento of the suffering and creativity that brought it to table, every rasher of bacon and hot-buttered roll an unspoken secret of the toil and torture endured by the people who raised, slaughtered, and dressed hogs; planted, cultivated, and picked wheat or corn; and transformed, by some mystical alchemy only they knew, the raw products of the Tidewater farm into the quasi-sacramental matter of the feast. Except the feast was for other people. In Douglass’s words, all the richness of the plantation table “conspir[ed] to swell the tide of high life, where pride and indolence lounged in magnificence and satiety.” The effect of the inventory, in Twitty’s hands, is to disorient the reader, to disturb and overturn the received perception about enslaved life. The latter was far from monocultural; it was often unimaginably diverse agriculturally as well as culturally; its foodways proved incredibly inventive and subtle, adapting itself to new circumstances and supply. The list as a form is, for Twitty, a kind of act of restoration: it restores to memory the names of things and people we should never have forgotten. These lists are Twitty’s litany of saints, gifts of the good earth, and it is as important that we remember the names of forgotten foods as the names of those who grew and prepared them, who bequeathed Southern foodways to future generations. They serve to destabilize preconceptions of African American foodways, to show that they—and therefore the world and its history—are far more complex, varied, sophisticated, and original than the hitherto dominant narratives of history might imply. They are also signposts of order, in marked contrast to the sometimes confusing and often obscure genealogy of Twitty’s family, which it is his task in The Cooking Gene to uncover and retrace. [millions_ad] But there are darker inventories too, which are not so much reminders of the immeasurable bounty of the earth but of the equally immeasurable, instrumentalizing savagery of human beings. In Chapter 18, “The King’s Cuisine,” Twitty tries to reconstruct, from fragmentary evidence provided by agricultural census and slave schedules, the life of his maternal great-great-great-grandfather, Harry Townsend. He lists five such lists from farms and plantations from Alabama and South Carolina where he has identified his own ancestors. Their names and relations appear only as the result of painstaking research. Otherwise, they are included in a roll-call of the anonymous, indistinguishable from mules, oxen, or bales of cotton. “This,” Twitty writes, “is what America looked like for over four million people in the decade before the Civil War. They were numbers, human machines with a measurable output. They almost completely disappeared into history after building this country and creating their own unique American civilization.” The Cooking Gene is perhaps the most significant contribution to the growing field of “foodways” literature. But it stands at least one remove from the farm-to-table, artisanal, small-batch, craft-style frenzies of recent years. His work involves “a return to the sources,” as it were, of Southern—and therefore African—cooking, but in a way that is both more personal and culturally load-bearing. More is at stake for Twitty than simply a resistance to corporate, mass-produced food: “It is not enough,” he writes, “to know the past of the people you interpret. You must know your own past.” The Cooking Gene is Twitty’s attempt to uncover not just lost methods and recipes, but a self occluded and dismembered by both a relentless schedule and the weight of a uniquely American kind of oblivion of its own past: “crumbling kitchens, rotting auction blocks, graveyards iced in asphalt. With each deterioration, I was becoming someone fading from who I was and where I came from, just in time for the world to catch amnesia with me.” The recovery mode of contemporary artisanal chic has something in common with Twitty’s project, in terms of a shared awareness of the social, political, and racial implications of the way we eat. Yet the “contemporary reclamation of barbecue, offal, hoecakes, wild foods, black-eyed pea cakes, and other plebian fare by white chefs with the capital to promote and polarize these foods is one of the cornerstone issues of culinary justice.” But Twitty wants to go further still: the way we eat (and the way our ancestors before us fed themselves and others) makes us who we are. So all our eating—whether we recognize it or not—is the work of anamnesis: “My entire cooking life has been about memory. It’s my most indispensable ingredient, so wherever I find it, I hoard it. I tell stories about people using food, I swap memories with people and create out of that conversation mnemonic feasts with this fallible, subjective mental evidence.” So the goal is not recovery simpliciter, but something stronger: “In memory there is resurrection, and thus the end goal of my cooking is just that—resurrection.” Human fellowship is still possible, though, in the unlikeliest of places, and it is the common vocabulary of food, the shared stock of folk culinary knowledge, that provides the occasion for mutual recognition. In one episode, Twitty recalls cooking for a group of Confederate reenactors (“never really easy for a black guy”). In this instance, it is Twitty’s persimmon beer that starts as a conversation topic but becomes an almost magical object, with the sacral power to effect a sort of qualified understanding between apparent enemies: Trading facts and figures and avoiding all other subjects, I had never felt so close to a group of white Southern men with guns who outnumbered me in my entire life. As I traveled more, I noticed kinship with strangers based on knowledge of the old plants. Sour faces turned to smiles at the mere mention of a pawpaw or discussion of techniques for breaking black walnuts and the like. I felt as if I was among a family of people keeping a flame alive—a university of volumes written in the understory and canopy and marsh and streamside that could not be relinquished, but desired, and for our survival’s sake, to be savored. I took a picture with those reenactors that day, for in a small way, we made peace. The final section of the book has Twitty dreaming about a return to the source of both food and being, to Africa, but is also a kind of hymn to cooperative memory: the work of restoration as a common human task. The payoff, for Twitty, is the discovery that “the world is a marketplace full of tasty things,” that “there are many good things to eat, but the rest of the world marketplace doesn’t know it yet.” At the core of The Cooking Gene is a profoundly religious vision, a wonder at the beauty of this world of gifts, a kind of relentless hopefulness in the possibilities of human communion, and the fervent desire to give names back to those we have scratched out, to revivify the unforgotten.
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City broke ground in perhaps the most satisfying way: sexually brazen and politically stealthy, with a healthy dose of humor. His recent memoir, Logical Family, tells the tale of Maupin’s youth, and many of the personal stories behind his beloved Tales. As Maupin remembers, fiction hadn’t run in a daily newspaper for more than 100 years when in 1974, the San Francisco Chronicle hired him for weekday installments of a series on avatars of local types, scheduled to run indefinitely. Maupin was a young journalist new to fiction, but he greeted the challenge. The saga quickly won plenty of fans, neutralizing the requisite scolding subscribers. Average readers soon became attached enough to the characters to sympathize with their loves, losses, and personal awakenings. The column also became a conduit to process collective hardships like AIDS, the killings of Harvey Milk and George Moscone, and anti-gay initiatives. The Tales ran for more than 10 years and took on a life of their own—collected in books, adapted for TV, sometimes even set to music—and Maupin became an icon of queer storytelling. He continued the series through subsequent novels; the ninth and purportedly final volume came out in 2014. A documentary, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, supplements the release of his memoir. Roughly, the memoir covers Maupin’s childhood in the South, service in the military, move to San Francisco, and life as an author. Substantively, it dwells on certain motifs: his parents and grandparents, Southern culture, various late 20th-century gay touchstones and the Tales series itself. It does not dwell in specificity on the concept of chosen or “logical” family, which disappointed me—especially after a clarion call in the prologue: Some children…grow up another species entirely, lone gazelles lost among the buffalo herd of our closest kin. Sooner or later though, no matter where in the world we live, we must join the diaspora, venturing beyond our biological family to find our logical one, the one that actually makes sense for us. We have to, if we are to live without squandering our lives. By the book’s end, it seems Maupin is referring simply to his own experience coming out, letting go of his parents’ expectations, and embracing life as a gay man. I’m aware it wasn’t easy, however pleasurable–and Maupin delights in relating that pleasure. People of my generation tend to take for granted the comparative ease of living queer now. But perhaps because of this, those of us yet to reach middle age often lack a template for a more robust kind of “logical family:” what it looks like to live, love, struggle, and age together without traditional family ties. Within the community, some will say that marriage rights have obviated this need. It’s easier than ever for diverse couples to marry, parent, share property, execute medical directives, and take part in mainstream rituals of all kinds. Indeed, Maupin himself is married. Others believe that assimilation co-opted a vibrant liberationist movement whose members invented their own lives. Maupin first produced the term “logical family” for the characters in his Tales: Anna the witchy landlady and her brood of tenants on Barbary Lane, the fictional home in the stories. Mary Ann Singleton, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver, Mona Ramsey, and others weren’t only lovers or friends; they were family. The places they’d come from weren’t ever home. Their blood relations couldn’t accept who they were. Society around them didn’t offer suitable options for life as an independent woman, a Southern gay man, or elderly single person. For many of us, it still doesn’t. Yet early on in the stories, Mona and Mouse shared their fear that one would pair off and opt out of a shared life. These tensions, between romance and loyalty and between blood and true affinity, run through the series, but Maupin leaves them sadly unexamined when discussing his own life. There are moments in which Maupin’s alienation growing up feels familiar, and others that feel quite foreign to me. We both came from conservative families, but mine was the religious kind, while his had been Confederate gentry. In my case, gender compliance would never feel like a viable option, however drastic the maternal enforcement. Maupin was more tenacious in his filial pursuit; throughout his memoir, he invokes a desire for his “un-Reconstructed” lawyer father’s approval. He cites this desire as spurring pro-segregation editorials in his college paper, his work for Jesse Helms soon after, his brief stint in law school, volunteer Navy enlistment and subsequent deployment to Vietnam. After collecting groovy adventures in his cushy officer’s post, he volunteered again: this time for a group of young vets returning to build houses, a Nixonian PR stunt to counter Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Maupin proudly posed for a photo with Richard Nixon, and displayed it on the wall of his new home until noting how it disturbed his conquests. Those conquests took place in San Francisco, where he moved shortly after Vietnam to take a job with the Associated Press. In between though, he spent a brief stint at the naval base in Charleston. This part of his story is the most interesting to me, when he was, as he eloquently puts it, “no longer one thing and not quite the other…in transition, foolish and floundering.” It was where at 26, he had sex for the first time, having known he was gay all his life. He wouldn’t come out until moving to San Francisco, at which point he became somewhat militant about requiring others to do so. But it was in Charleston that he began to envision a life he could live outside his parents’ world. Up to that point, his main sense of one came from a few “fairy godmothers” who could dig his artistic, sensitive soul. They seem to have been very good ones, in fact; I found myself feeling envious, not having had those guides myself. One was his free-spirited, suffragist grandma, who became his main model for Anna Madrigal. Ultimately, what Maupin cultivates for himself is a network of friends and occasional lovers, orbiting his married domestic life. The “logical” father figure he does eventually invoke is Christopher Isherwood, whom he met at an Oscars party for Saturday Night Fever. In my experience, it’s rare for established authors to engage so meaningfully with up-and-coming ones, however kindred. As have their respective books, Maupin’s life has had a very different texture from Isherwood’s. The latter was a dedicated seeker who almost became a Buddhist monk. His stories are sometimes melancholy and occasionally jaded, but always feel generous in their appeal to a deeper meaning. Maupin’s fiction remains highly accessible, but his personal angst feels uniquely American, perhaps rooted in his biological family’s Confederate history. But Brit-turned-Angeleno Isherwood historicized their friendship and “tribe” by summoning Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, E.M. Forster, and W. Somerset Maugham (he had known Forster in England). Maupin makes a point of encouraging others to be mentors too—though there may be another dimension in these men’s case. As Maupin is now, Isherwood was partnered with a much younger artist, 18 at the start. The Untold Tales reveals that Maupin found his on “daddyhunt.com;” the younger man founded the site. The other person Maupin cites as “logical family” is Laura Linney, who played Mary Ann in PBS’s Tales of the City miniseries in 1993 and 1994. Linney later rode with Maupin when he marshalled San Francisco’s Pride Parade, and eventually used “Armistead” as her child’s middle name. Having been young for the miniseries when it came out, I hadn’t known it was a target of the Republican push to cut public arts funding. Watching the series today it feels quaint in its re-creation of 1970s California, but a happy antidote at a time when TV’s main event was the O.J. Simpson case. In a filmed interview, Olympia Dukakis is refreshingly candid about her initial cluelessness being cast as (spoiler!) trans woman Anna. She immersed herself deeply enough to create a timeless, magical role—just one indication of why cast and crew were so heartbroken when PBS canceled the second book/season in 1996. The show had been an overwhelming ratings success and a major critical hit too, like a grown-up, soapier Sesame Street. Indeed, it won the coveted Peabody Award. Linney believes if it hadn’t been for the American Family Association’s campaign in Congress, the audience who saw the first gay kiss on TV would’ve gone on to see one of the two men later survive HIV. [millions_ad] The memoir’s emotional heart is that of the Tales, the “Letter to Mama.” In it Mouse comes out to his parents, and thus the author came out to his. The text, which ran in the Chronicle in 1977, is reprinted here as an epilogue; in the documentary participants including Maupin, Ian McKellen, Linney, and Dukakis read it aloud in moving composite. Perhaps Logical Family’s biggest surprise is the longevity and depth of Maupin’s hunger for his parents’ approval—not satiated when his folks joined him at Harvey Milk’s vigil and smoked a joint with his gay friends (as his mother was dying of breast cancer, no less). It seems he wanted his father to personally confront Jesse Helms about his cruel response to AIDS, and his father failed in this respect. But the younger Maupin closes the book with his father’s deathbed blessing on his union to his husband, at which point the famous author was 60. If I have one technical complaint about the book, it’s that for such a reliably linear storyteller, Maupin seems heedless of derailing his own story repeatedly. Once he reaches the point of his first collection’s release, the timeline he keeps in the memoir breaks down too much to preserve the episodic narrative. Lest this worry potential readers though, know that Maupin rewards with color commentary on sex with Rock Hudson about midway through. If one phrase carries on from the memoir, let it be “lost boner rodeo.” The author expresses some dissatisfaction with the San Francisco of today, though just how much might depend on his mood. In the memoir, he’s unmistakably angry about what the tech sector has done to push out artists and most anyone else who isn’t rich. In the film though, he professes not to mind about things like “the Google bus” when friends didn’t live to see it at all. Surely both can be valid, both a sense of thankfulness and a desire to protect the place from pillage. To the extent that the city has constituted a family home, shouldn’t elders seek to guard it for their younger counterparts? Other Untold Tales interviewees include fellow San Francisco literati Kate Bornstein, Amy Tan, and Margaret Cho (Cho’s parents ran a Castro bookstore), but they all discuss the city in its past tense. No one I know can afford to live near it now, neither my transplant queer artist friends, nor my Bay-bred evangelical cousins. In the most recent Tales, Maupin had Michael, Mary Ann, and Anna at Burning Man and on Twitter, but these felt more like concessions to the present than a real reckoning with it. Rumor has it that Maupin, Linney, and Dukakis have agreed to a Tales revival for Netflix, with Michael Cunningham as lead writer. My hope is that given such an opportunity to reach a younger audience, Cunningham will push the series beyond a legacy act to show what logical family might mean today for the characters’ wider communities: how to move on from past battles while holding onto their lessons, and fashion something new, both adaptable and lasting.
If, like me, you are a reader who wants to turn and run whenever the phrase “coming-of-age novel” appears in conversation or in a blurb, it may seem that a book about two young women attending college in the early 1980s is not for you. But if you seek to understand how American consumerism became what it is today, or if you’ve ever felt like a skinful of secrets, I’ve got just the book for you, from a small press that reliably delivers exceptional novels about women and the worlds they inhabit. Silver Girl is not really a coming-of-age novel, anyway. It’s not such a simple or insignificant book that it can be shunted into the pigeonhole of a particular genre and set aside to go quietly out of print. Silver Girl is an act of mesmerism, of misdirection; it appears slight and forgettable, but turns out to have more substance and permanence than half the novels on a given bookshelf. Thematically, it’s ambitious: irreconcilable conflicts regarding money abide within it, as well as enduring mysteries about female friendship and a spooky motif of displacement and replacement. Nothing is as it seems between its pages, or between its characters. The two central characters of the novel are a nameless narrator and her best friend, Jess. The young women meet on moving-in day at the dorm of an unnamed university that is plainly Northwestern, in Chicago, and become best friends in that bonded, implacable way that only seems to exist between women in their late teens and early 20s. The narrator is from a horrifyingly dysfunctional, poverty-stricken family in Iowa, while Jess is from a relatively nice family with Chicago money. Each chapter unspools more and more information about these women, revealing their flaws, their desires, and some of their secrets. (No one will ever know all of the narrator’s secrets—not even the reader.) Instead of placing its events in chronological order, the book zigzags through seasons and incidents in an ordering strategy that feels random but probably isn’t. Such disorientation makes it hard for a reader to keep pace with the narrator’s comprehension of her own story, but the reader will inevitably lean in closer, invest more deeply, in order to follow along. Part of what makes this novel so compelling is Leslie Pietrzyk’s stellar wordcraft. After committing an act of betrayal in a library bathroom, the narrator washes her hands, and then: I wouldn’t leave behind even a used paper towel marking my presence, so I wiped my wet hands on my jeans, telltale dark streaks slashing my thighs. Not only is this sentence a perfectly made image, it’s also a gesture to the clandestine act that has just occurred, and it performs sly characterization. The narrator uses as few resources as possible, because she has so little money; plus, she doesn’t want to take up space or be known. Every sentence in Silver Girl is this multilayered, this plugged in to the novel as a whole. Not every sentence has such beauty, but Pietrzyk has written every one just as carefully. Still, the language of the book is not its primary pleasure. This novel, unlike so much contemporary literature, feels like a novel, not like an extended story. It’s a rare book that strikes this bell; the last one I remember reading was From Here to Eternity, which takes place across 10 months. The characters seem to genuinely live that time. They eat meals, they get restless, they sing songs, they make bad choices. They change imperceptibly, day by day, incident by incident, until the novel concludes with gestures we know the characters will make but hope they won’t. This same dynamic is at play in Silver Girl, which happens across three years. Jess and the narrator live through enormous changes, and small ones. They drink Tab together, they borrow each other’s clothes, they dance and watch TV and stoke each other’s fears about the Tylenol Killer (the novel’s setting in the early 1980s is contemporaneous to that episode). After the last page, the reader feels she has encountered a world entire, real people and situations that have just been waiting to be brought to life in the reading, rather than a series of canvas backdrops with bright mannequins puppeteered to look human. [millions_ad] The novel’s focus on money and class issues provides some of its most profound and naked passages. For a while, I was saving money, planning to buy one for myself, but when I thought it through, I understood that even if I had the comforter, I wouldn’t have the Lanz of Salzburg flannel nightgown for frigid nights, and if I had the nightgown I wouldn’t have the Topsiders, and if I had the Topsiders (which, actually, I did have—three dollars at a thrift store) then I would need the Fair Isle sweater in blue and if I had it in blue, I would need it in pink and cream and heather…that there was no end to wanting and needing and imagining that just one more thing would be the thing, one more sweater, one more kiss, one more boy, one more anything. That endless yearning, that empty hunger, even when I knew it wasn’t sweaters I wanted (though also, actually it was). It was to not care how many sweaters I had; it wasn’t a number, but a word: enough. And that word was impossible, it seemed to me. The narrator’s background, and her placement among mostly rich kids attending Northwestern, force most of her waking thoughts to be about money. It’s not greed, or an unnatural obsession with status symbols (the careful placement of which foreshadows the brand-driven consumerism that characterized the millennial years); it’s just that she notices, and cares, that she can never pay for groceries or meals out or school supplies, and Jess always can. Jess doesn’t notice, doesn’t care, but the unevenness in their relationship proves untenable. The novel peels off the layers of charisma surrounding Jess slowly, deliberately, and before we even realize it, her privilege appears hideous, her spoiled, careless attitude more monstrous than we ever imagined. The narrator herself is no saint. In fact, she makes one bad choice after another: she fails to be empathetic in the face of various tragedies, she makes missteps with clothes, sex, and parents, and she leaves her sister in a situation she knows to be dangerous. These choices are all easy enough to understand, since the narrator has suffered terribly at the hands of her family and has no idea how to form healthy relationships. Besides, part of what confounds the narrator (and the reader, until she can spot the pattern) is the way sisters are displaced and replaced in this novel. Sisters act as mirrors, as hobbles, as parasites and sites of conflict. The death of Jess’s biological sister destabilizes the sisterly relationship between Jess and the narrator, and then a half-sister comes along to destabilize Jess herself. The narrator’s sister, Grace, disrupts her ambition to forget her family. She remains haunted by her invented stories of the Silver Girl, the stories she shares with Grace to keep her safe—which, of course, fail. The Silver Girl didn’t string along in never-ending, world-saving adventures; she was invented fresh each time I told a story, meaning I didn’t have to remember what happened before. I could simply start with “once upon a time.” The Silver Girl had absolutely no history or past. We liked that about her. Though she presents herself to Jess in the same way, as a girl without a history, the narrator’s real past continues to overwhelm her present choices. The reader doesn’t get a full accounting of this past, only gestures and whispers, but it’s enough to tell us that her backbone is formed of titanium and her skin of carbon steel. Even through all her mistakes, even though she lets no one into her mind and heart all the way, not even the reader, this central character is compelling and unforgettable. As is this novel. It’s a novel in the finest, most challenging sense of the word. Although Silver Girl is complex and sometimes difficult to track, and the narrator’s motives for her destructive behavior only come clear toward its end, it is a singular, crystalline achievement, a book that will keep you thinking and feeling long after its final chapter.
Elmet, Fiona Mozley’s sparse stunner, contracts where other debut novels might tell too much. Departing from current narrative conventions of dialogue-heavy realism, Elmet strips a mythic, unnerving fable down to its bones. Ex-hitman Daddy has built himself and his teenage children, Danny and Cathy, a home in the Yorkshire woods with his own two hands, where the three live a ruggedly idyllic life before crime and corruption in the shape of landowner Mr. Price threaten their survival. At least, this is the allegory on first glance. Mozley’s medieval history background isn’t lost on her fiction: Elmet references a Ted Hughes poetry cycle on Britain’s last Celtic kingdom, believed to have existed near modern-day York. Daddy’s larger-than-life strength—his career as a renowned boxer in underground fight rings, his knowledge of bow-and-arrow hunting, logging, and woodcarving—cements him as a primitive British hero. Daddy has even killed men while carrying out Mr. Price’s dirty work in the past, yet lives by a kind of warrior’s honor: “For all his brutality, Daddy liked other people. He liked people with as much affection as a huntsman had for his prey, deeply and earnestly but with cold regard.” By contrast, aptly-named Mr. Price’s overworked and underpaid tenants reveal a form of modern-day feudalism with which Danny’s family must contend. On one level, Mozley firmly grounds us in mythic territory with Elmet’s initial conflict of land ownership and its distinctly lyrical craft. Mozley’s narrator, Danny, observes his sister, Cathy, with a bow, loosing her arrows so that she was struck hard, again and again. Her forearm became red raw and so bruised that the grey and yellow blood that settled there almost made a complete bracelet that seeped all the way around, like her skin was stained with gold. Mozley’s rhythmic and elemental language reminds us that this is not how stories are told anymore. Perhaps this is solace at first: maybe this allows us to read Elmet in the safety of its unreality. Maybe characters like Cathy, who rolls her own cigarettes, disappears into the woods for hours on end, and bloodies the boys who knock her down as a child, don’t really exist. Maybe characters like Cathy—who strangles her rapist to death and douses her kidnappers in an explosion of burning oil—belong in the fictitiously violent worlds of Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Hardy, or Emily Brontë, where extreme evil warrants extreme reckoning. But if Elmet’s strength lies in its mythic construction, its brilliance appears in its subversion of masculine myth narratives with a fable of women’s sexual terror. Soon Mozley makes clear that Elmet is not only allegorizing the ownership of land, but the ownership of bodies. For Daddy and Mr. Price, bodily ownership is either a matter of philosophical individualism or a means of revenue. To Mr. Price, Daddy is commercial capital, no different than land: “I used to own that man’s muscles, and I owned his mind. I owned his fists and his feet; his eyes and his ears and his teeth.” Daddy voices his archetypal idealism when he says, “my body is my own. It is all I own.” But Mozley distinguishes between the language of ownership used by men and women: Cathy’s body is nothing abstract, but a threat to her survival. When meeting her tutor, Vivian, Cathy tells Danny, God, it’s disgusting. Can you imagine running with hips like that? Can you imagine trying to run away from someone when you’re being pulled back by your own bones? […] Jesus fucking Christ, I’d rather die. Where Elmet’s men might see the body as a material representation of something ideological—like masculine individualism or classed power structures—its women know it to be something very realistically at stake. A woman’s hips will slow her down if an attacker is running after her—a woman’s body compromises her safety. That Cathy looks at a woman’s hips and immediately imagines an attacker at all is important: she is thinking in a way we as readers are not. So far we believe in the kind of mythically masculine world we’re in—we believe that Daddy and Danny’s life in the woods is a story about good guys versus bad guys. We root for their cabin, their days spent chopping trees or drinking cider by the fire. But Cathy sees in this world of hitmen, fighters, hunting, and crime a tolerance of violent masculinity which comes at horrific costs for women. [millions_ad] Elmet is crafted in such a way that sexual violence takes place outside of what is narrated: we don’t see it happening and we may not even suspect it happening. It is only around the last 30 or so pages that Cathy confesses she killed Mr. Price’s son, her rapist. It’s almost easier to believe teenage Cathy has strangled a man than it is to think she has been suffering sexual abuse in Elmet’s margins. Cathy is tough and independent: in an early iteration of sexual abuse, a boy from school puts his hands up her shirt as a child, and Cathy beats him and his accomplice until they run back to town. Cathy does not even recognize this moment as sexual: She was just a girl and there was nothing there but bone and muscle but perhaps he thought this would bother her […] She had no idea that Gregory was acting out a kind of play, taking his cues from things he had either seen or heard […] But she did not know. She had not been told yet. Instead, she sees only an abuse of power, one she can easily overturn. As Danny remembers, “She chased them down and I knew she would catch them all. Her legs were longer and stronger than theirs in those days.” As a child, Cathy “fought them all and won.” For a moment we think this will always be how things go: bad guys overpower a girl, tough girl teaches them a lesson. We think even Cathy can benefit from the suspended rules of real life in fiction: in this myth, Cathy the abused girl can fight back. But the fantasy of a triumphant woman in a world where the odds are stacked against her must end there. Even our final vision of Cathy—naked, covered in blood and oil, holding a torch in one hand and a shotgun in the other—appears for a moment like womankind finally getting her reckoning. But this vision, like Cathy herself, vanishes in flames, and we’re left asking—like adult Danny searching for his missing sister—who really comes out on top. When asked by Danny why she killed her rapist, Cathy poignantly answers, “with the way things were set up between us, he had many chances; I had one.” In this Mozley gives us the key to reading Cathy's and women’s victories as anomalies in a world where sexual violence, horrifically, usually wins. Cathy’s victory was her one chance; her rape was one of her violent world’s many chances. As she tells Danny, All I kept thinking about was Jessica Harman, thrown into that canal, and all those other women on the TV, in newspapers, found naked, covered in mud, covered in blood, blue, twisted, found in the woods, found in ditches, never found. Sometimes I can’t stop thinking about how I’m turning into one of them […] We all grow into our coffins, Danny. And I saw myself growing into mine. Narratively, Mozley has turned Cathy into one of them: covered in blood, covered in mud, never found. By the novel’s end she is less like a vengeful Lilith and more reminiscent of a haunting earlier image of girlhood’s sexual blackening: a small plastic dolly with blonde curls lying face down in the mud of the front garden […] her pink cotton frock hitched up around her ears […] lying there, untouched, for years while the rain and soil stained her body. Mozley makes clear that someone like Cathy is the exception, not the rule. Yes, she gets her revenge, but against the ghosts of less fortunate women—“all those other women on the TV, in newspapers, found naked”—her victory is a drop in an ocean. By Elmet’s end, we’ve come to distrust the seemingly idyllic masculine world we’ve been in, as well as our own ease in believing that a story like this is archaic, mythic, unreal. If this is the world of myth, which parts can we distance ourselves from as hyperbole? How realistic is Mozley’s novel trying to be? Elmet offers an unsettling answer in that the fable—sexual violence—is very much real, as real as our believing the narrative to be so outlandish it must only belong in fiction. As horrifying as our discovery of sexual violence is, even more so is our disbelief of it, our willingness to push it into the same mythical distance as the rest of Mozley’s allegory. So, Elmet isn’t trying to be realistic, except when it is.