Hazlitt Magazine

The Kiss

“Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.”

Pregnant During the Pandemic: Three Stories

A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses.

'There's Still Time to Save It': An Interview with Charlotte McConaghy

The author of Migrations on connecting to the natural world, activist privilege, and creatureliness. 


The Kiss

“Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.”

Brigid could see the stoop of her former writing professor’s shoulders—she’d once remarked to her husband that his posture was like a heavy coat on a wire hanger, he looked so dragged down. Her novel was in his hands. He was fifth in line at her book signing and now she couldn’t focus on what the woman in the red coat was saying. She narrowed in on the woman’s equally red lips—“I really hated your book at first”—but her former writing professor’s stare was as concentrated as a lover’s. He was old when he had been her professor and he was older now, his skin as grey, lined, and tough looking as elephant hide. The elephant man, she thought, even though he was still handsome, a certain sophisticated elegance, an old-fashioned movie-star quality, Sean Connery-like. He even had the soft, marbled voice of a Scotsman. “Could you also,” the woman in red said, leaning in so that her perfume wafted like a gust of wind, “write the first line of the book, too?” Why? That would take forever. She thought of how her former professor’s aching hips must feel on this snowy night in Manhattan, his knees; how awful it must be to wait in line to speak to her, his former student. All this hoopla about her debut novel, all this bubbling about. The introduction that had made her sound as if she’d conquered the world. Her former professor had written six books. They had done moderately well. A writer’s writer is what a person would call him. What was she? A woman’s writer. Someone scheduled to appear on morning television. God, shut up, she wanted to say to the woman in red. You’re turning this into a spectacle. Stop laughing! Stop looking so fucking unhinged! She did as she was told: she signed the book, then wrote the book’s first line: All the women of Barra are dead in their beds. * * * “Brigid. Hi.” Her former writing professor held out her novel, and she took it. She knew whatever she wrote needed to be full of gratitude: it was what the moment called for. Was she grateful? What had he done for her? Given her an A. Pointed out her country way of speaking—youse guys—but in a sweet, flirtatious way, so it hadn’t stung. She liked this man. She liked him enough. With love and indebtedness, she wrote, then drew an absurdly large B, which managed to look lewd, like a teenage boy’s rendition of giant breasts, or, worse, a ball sack. * * * When she returned from the reading, her husband, Jack, was outstretched on the hotel bed, his legs crossed at the ankles. Even in this New York hotel room, he looked like the Oregon poet that he was—dirty-blond hair falling into his face, wire-rimmed circular glasses, a navy-blue sweater with a hole in the elbow over a white button-down shirt, the collar askew. Like Kurt Cobain, she thought, if he hadn’t shot himself in the face. Her husband had removed his pants, and the hair on his legs stood at attention. He had on his elf boxers, a gag Christmas gift from her. Christmas had been three months ago. “Jack?” she said. Her husband had his faraway look, his face angled downward, his eyes elsewhere, not seeing the white duvet cover but something else, either from his past or in his future. She sat on the bed and twisted his leg hair. She could make it stand up in coils. “Ouch,” he said and moved away. “So, did he show up?” “Who?” “You know who.” She brought her knees to her chest. Jack was suspicious of all men but especially her former writing professor. “Yes,” she said. “And why would he do that?” he asked. She was suddenly exhausted. “Because he was my professor.” “He lives in Ithaca.” She wormed out of her clothing and burrowed under the white duvet, wishing it were a porthole to another world. She waited for Jack to interrogate her further but instead his hand found hers. “Listen,” he said. “I got a phone call while you were out.” Out. At the book signing. Not just at a coffee shop or buying pantyhose. “And?” It came out a little shrill. “I got the fellowship,” he said. The fellowship. A year in Glasgow to research his third book of poems. Her book had taken place in Scotland, too, but she hadn’t gone, had only done a significant number of Google searches. The faraway look—she recognized it now—was about whether he wanted her to go with him. * * * In August, they arrived. From the airplane, Scotland looked like the Grand Canyon, only smaller and covered in grass. Little white things, which looked like lint, littered the hills. She squinted—sheep. All the razzle-dazzle about her book was over. It had sold two thousand copies—a failure, although no one would tell her that until she tried to sell the next one. The publisher wanted to change the jacket art for the paperback. “To appeal to the book club crowd.” Who were they? They were somewhere in the wilds of America, dipping their hands into bags of potato chips. She and Jack were above it all, their plane about to touch down. “It’s Glas-go,” Jack said. The wheels hit the pavement, and the engine roared. “What’s that?” she said. “You keep saying Glas-gow.” “Oh,” she said. “Sorry.” They rented a flat beside a church with the skinniest spire in Europe. To turn on the hot water, she had to push a button that looked like it would set off an explosion in a distant land. No air conditioning. A fridge the size of a hotel-room minibar. No freezer. Their neighbor, Alastair McCullough, told them people bought things fresh. When she asked, “what about ice cream?” he said people went out to eat it. All details that should have been in her debut novel. It hadn’t come out in the UK. To her knowledge, no Scotsperson had read it or would read it. Jack’s first book had chronicled the death of his infant son—an event that had broken up his first marriage but also skyrocketed his career. The world was discovering that men could have a tender side, and Jack’s book was part of that discovery. His second book had sold well (for poetry), earning him a modest advance and this fellowship for what he was doing now: mining the Kelvin River, which was full of garbage. What he found in the river would be the subject of the poems. Every morning, he put on waders, tied his hair into a topknot and walked the length of the river in the August heat, trawling for trash. It was supposed to be a portrait of Glasgow, as told from the river’s garbage. But also a meditation on humanity. And also something else. She wasn’t trying to be glib when describing it to Alastair. She believed in Jack’s work, particularly his first two books, which were stunning. Still, she and Alastair were eying each other, lips quivering, on the verge of something—possibly dangerous, explosive laughter. * * * The first week behind them, she and Jack sat in the kitchen in their underwear, the bay window open, hoping for a breeze. She could hear Alastair’s voice through the thin walls. An argument. A lot of stomping. Then silence. “They’re fighting,” she said. “Who?” “Alastair,” she said, “and Ezra.” “Who?” He was utterly uninterested in their neighbors. She, however, couldn’t get enough of them. Well, of Alastair. Alastair’s boyfriend, Ezra, was an artist. He made sculptures that resembled large pieces of beef jerky in a studio around the corner, and Alastair worked twelve-hour shifts at Scottish Meats. Each must take some inspiration from the other, Brigid said to Jack, then waited for laughter, but he was busy cataloging what he’d found in the Kelvin that day: a toothbrush; a pacifier; a retainer. “Mouth things,” she said. “Hm?” said Jack, holding the pacifier, not looking up. “You know, he used to be a model,” she said, thinking of Alastair’s chiseled jaw, his eyes as blue as a Siberian husky’s, salt-and-pepper hair with an undercut so she could see the dark mole behind his left ear. “Huh?” “Alastair. He still does it sometimes. Modeling.” “Oh.” “He’s not just a meat guy.” * * * A double date. First to the “chippy,” then to a movie. They walked down Great Western Road, Alastair holding Ezra’s hand and Jack holding hers. The evening was cool. Two childless couples in their late thirties out on the town, Brigid thought. She was a veteran of two miscarriages. She had earned the right not to have a child. She was even wearing lipstick. It didn’t matter, though: Alastair eclipsed them all in skinny jeans, a tuxedo shirt, jean jacket, and cowboy boots. She thought he’d been joking when he told her Glasgow had a thriving cowboy scene, but indeed it did, and Alastair and Ezra were a big part of it. On Saturday nights they went to a club called the Grande Ole Opry. She and Jack had yet to join them. You had to be in the right mood to play cowboy, and that mood never seemed to strike. “This one,” said Ezra, pointing to a bleak-looking takeaway joint. “They have the best cheese.” He was shorter than Alastair, with a round, milky face and dark curly hair. He was a research fellow at the Glasgow School of Art, an exhibition in the Scottish Pavilion of the Venice Biennale already under his belt. But Alastair was the masterpiece, Brigid thought. She looked at Jack, waiting to feel an ignition of the heart. His hair had grown shaggy and he’d slicked it back with water. Fresh from mining the Kelvin River, he wore cargo shorts and a t-shirt, New Balance running shoes. Stripped from the pretence of his “rising star of Portland poetry” clothes, he looked like a guy who was exactly where he was from: the wilds of Eastern Oregon. They walked inside the takeaway shop and ordered two “chips ‘n cheese” to share. A drunk man in the back was eating deep-fried pizza. They sat at a grubby table, her facing Alastair, Jack facing Ezra. She felt Alastair’s eyes on her. She was wearing a black-and-white striped blouse, black mini skirt, and black pointed flats. “You look like a French porn star,” Jack had said before they left the flat. “And you look like,” she replied, “an American.” “You should see more of Scotland,” said Alastair, his Glaswegian accent repressed by a decade of modeling in London. “Edinburgh. Skye.” “Skye,” said Brigid. “The Isle of Skye?” “That’s the one,” he said. The drunk man rose to his feet, abandoning his pizza. He walked to the counter and leaned against it. “Deep-froyed dog fer takeaway,” he said. “Oh jeez,” Brigid whispered to Alastair. “Oh jeez what?” he whispered back. “I thought he was ordering a deep-fried dog!” “He did.” “No, a dog dog. Dog dog. Dog dog.” It was happening again. She felt something like carbonation rising inside her. Alastair’s eyes locked with hers. They laughed soundlessly, secretly. She glanced at Jack, who was peeling the cheese off his chips. “Should have gotten the pizza,” he said. If given the gift of time travel, she thought, her husband would use it only to order different things from restaurants. She imagined herself stopping some awful Amtrak accident—Don’t get on the train!—while Jack wandered back into the chippy, saying, "the chips have too much cheese." “Get the pizza next time,” she said, trying to recover. The drunk man pivoted on one foot, barely able to stand. * * * And then to the movie theater. They sat in the lobby and each drank a beer. The only thing to eat was something resembling sponge cake, so Brigid bought one. Jack was in the bathroom; Ezra buying the tickets. “What is it,” Alastair said, putting his hand over hers, “that you write about?” “Men,” she said. “Men who kill women.” “Right, then,” he said. She launched into her spiel about The Women of Barra. A virus kills every woman in Barra. Six hundred women. “The book tells the story of who invented the virus,” she said, “and how the island copes afterwards.” “A man did it, yeah?” Alastair said. She moved her hair from one shoulder to the other. “You’ll have to read it if you want to know more.” Too bleak, a reviewer had said. She had no new ideas. Her brain was a hollow vessel where nothing grew. “I will.” Ezra returned with the tickets, and Jack emerged from the bathroom. He’d lost sight of where they were sitting, and Brigid watched him scan the lobby—hands on hips, looking miserable—before he spotted her. They were here to see The Saddest Music in the World with Isabella Rossellini, then Guy Maddin was giving a talk. Alastair and Ezra were big Guy Maddin fans. Neither Jack nor Brigid had heard of him. “Can’t take that in with you,” Alastair said, gesturing at Brigid’s sponge cake, and then he and Ezra were hurrying into the theater, Alastair’s hand firmly on Ezra’s butt cheek. She offered the sponge cake to Jack, but he was glaring at her. “What?” she asked. “Tell me what man drives four hours—when it’s fucking snowing—to see his former student read.” “Please don’t start this right now,” she said. It was the beer. It made Jack paranoid. “Brigid,” he said. “Tell me what man would drive all that way if there wasn’t something waiting.” Something waiting. She shook her head. No. Not this. She could feel Jack’s jealously like a fog, wrapping around her neck, around her wrists and ankles. “Why are you penalizing me for something he did? I didn’t ask him to come.” He paused to work the sponge cake out of his teeth. “You’ve done nothing but humiliate me tonight,” he said. “What are you talking about?” “You’re practically humping Alastair’s leg.” “Jesus, Jack.” Her cheeks flushed. “He’s gay.” “What difference,” said Jack, walking into the dark of the theater, “does that make?” * * * She woke to a horrible sound, like a bomb. She rushed to the kitchen’s bay window and scanned the Kelvin River, Jack somewhere within, trawling for inspiration, then over the bridge and past the subway station. The buildings were dirty and soot-encrusted, Dickensian. The bombing sound had stopped. All she could hear was the distant whine of bagpipes. “The sound of Scotland,” Jack had said when they first arrived. More like the sound of a thousand mosquitoes, she thought now. She looked the other way, over to the Mackintosh cathedral and the other flats that looked just like the one she was standing in. No bomb. Her hands were shaking. The sound had been so loud. The smell of meat. She could smell it under the door. Alastair usually didn’t get home until midnight—a day off? She checked her reflection in the mirror, shook out her hair with her hands. He answered the door in a bathrobe and white cowboy boots with spurs. “Hold on,” he said and disappeared. She heard the click of the stove being turned off. Loretta Lynn was playing in the background. The meat sizzled and popped. Her mouth watered. Her nipples grew against the fabric of her shirt. “You didn’t hear it?” she said when he reappeared. “Hear what?” “The big boom.” He went to the window, and she followed him. “I don’t see anything,” he said. He opened the window and leaned out. She could hear sirens now. “Oh,” he said. “Oh no.” He left her in the hall and returned fully dressed, his face red with either anger or shame. “I have to go.” “Go?” she said, but he was already headed down the red-carpeted stairs, then opening the huge front door. The bright light of day shot into the foyer, and then he was running down the street and around the corner, toward, what she could see now, was a scene of absolute chaos: ambulances, fire trucks, police cars—all surrounding a building, much like the one her flat was in. “Wait,” she called, but she found herself in a swarm of people, soot on their faces, fire fighters snaking white hoses through the crowd. She looked up and saw helicopters hovering like bees. The heat was unbearable, and she brought her hands to her face, as if to save the skin from peeling off. Above her, smoke poured into the sky. It wasn’t like in the movies—no one had blocked off the scene with yellow tape. No one seemed to be in charge. In front of her was a mountain of burnt rubble. No one stopped Alastair from climbing over it. “Alastair,” she cried. “What are you doing?” He disappeared into the darkness. In an instant she knew she was standing in front of the building where Ezra’s studio was. She remembered now—Ezra had been rambling about his latest art project after the Guy Maddin movie. Something about making a cube out of durable material, with a hole where Ezra would pipe gas into, then another tiny hole, big enough for a match head. It was supposed to make a big boom but then fizzle out. She couldn’t remember what it was supposed to symbolize or how it was related to the beef jerky. People hurried by, wearing masks, headlamps, carrying big red medical bags. She thought she heard someone yell at her to move, but the accent was still difficult for her, like everyone’s mouths were full of rocks. She turned to a woman who was leaning against an ambulance. She felt as if she didn’t speak to someone she would start weeping. And it would never stop. “My friends,” Brigid said, “they’re in there.” The woman shook her head and pointed to her ears. She was deaf from the blast. * * * She stood in the hallway with Alastair, listening to him tell her about Ezra with a raspy voice. Jack was in the shower, washing off the muck of the Kelvin. It was almost midnight. Ezra was alive. In hospital, as Alastair put it, on a respirator. His lungs full of soot and blood. He told the doctors he thought he was dead until Alastair touched his hand. “He fell,” Alastair said, gesturing upward. “He fell three stories.” She looked up. She imagined a ragged hole in the ceiling, revealing the smoke-filled sky. The floor disappearing underneath her feet. Falling. Her hair streaming out above her. A gas leak. It would have happened eventually. Ezra’s art hadn’t caused the explosion—he was just the first to light a match. In a gesture so bold she gasped, Alastair took her hands. He brought her so close their noses were touching. His whole body was shaking. “Alastair,” she said. She let his body rest against hers. Through the flat’s thin walls, she heard Jack turn off the water, then the slosh of his wet footsteps approaching. “He’s going to be okay,” she said and placed her hand on Alastair’s heart. * * * That night, Brigid lay in bed with Jack, the moon illuminating the room. White fitted sheet, white comforter. No one used top sheets here. Or dryers. She’d hung the fitted sheet out the window to dry, and it smelled of beer and vomit, of Alastair’s sizzling steaks. She turned to Jack. Her attraction to Alastair had reduced her self esteem to that of a crushed soda can. She kissed Jack’s lips, hoping to reanimate herself. They had fallen in love during their MFA. Back then Jack was a handsome, slightly broken-seeming guy from Oregon, his debut book of poems “making waves,” it being about the death of an infant, but from the perspective of a man. The father. It was hard not to fall under his aloof, west-coast spell. The life they would create together, the baby they would raise—here, in this Glaswegian flat, she replayed what he’d said the night he proposed. How lucky she’d felt. Now what she felt was nervousness. She took a lock of Jack’s hair between her fingers. “Time for a cut?” she said. He turned away. “Did you sleep with him?” Jack asked. “What? No.” She sat up and gathered her hair in her hands. Just as she had pulled away from Alastair, Jack had come into the hallway, a towel around his waist. “He’s a meat guy.” “I don’t mean Alastair,” he said. “I mean him.” “No,” she said. “Goddamn you, no.” “I’m allowed to like people,” she said to her husband. “And they’re allowed to like me. I’m allowed to like people—even as much as I like you.” He turned to her. “But not more than me.” “If that’s the rule,” she said, pausing to breathe in the beery sheets, “I haven’t broken it.” “Haven’t you, though?” “It’s our anniversary,” she said, lying down again. “This weekend.” “I know,” he said. He took off his glasses and moved toward her. Without his glasses, his eyes were darker, bigger, like someone else’s eyes. They had been married for five years and she still felt uncomfortable when he took off his glasses. “You hate me,” he said. “I don’t.” “You hate all men.” “That doesn’t include you.” “So many footnotes,” he said. “What?” “Everything with you has a footnote. You hate men. But, footnote, not me.” Two miscarriages, she wanted to say. I’ve had two miscarriages because of you. “Please don’t do that thing,” she said instead, “where you confuse what I’ve written with who I am.” “As if you don’t go looking for yourself in my poems.” “There’s nothing to look for,” she said. “You don’t write about me.” An old argument. Nothing more to say. He rolled onto his back and she put her head on his shoulder. She felt his muscles relax, the familiar letting-go as he started to fall asleep. “Let’s go to Skye,” she whispered. “What’s there?” he whispered back. His fingers came alive on her skin. He lifted her leg over his. * * * To her left lay a barren and craggy landscape, flat. Behind her and to the right sprawled a field overgrown with bluebells. In front of her: the Atlantic and the islands Rum, Muck, and Eigg, or the Hebrides—where Barra was—or Canna, she didn’t know, one of them anyway. The sky was perfect, big white clouds above their heads. She took a picture. All the houses on Skye were white. They walked with their heads down to avoid sunstroke. After two hours, they were nowhere near anyone or anything. Defeated and thirsty, they ended up in a little cove. White sand, turquoise water—as though they were in the Caribbean. She was sunburnt. Jack took off his shirt and tied it around his head. She’d slipped an hour ago and her jeans were ripped at the knee. Her former writing professor had told her that if she attended a few private tutorials with him, her writing—particularly on the sentence level—would improve vastly. He had an apartment that was as shabby as she’d imagined: teetering bookshelves, a faded Persian rug, an ancient gas stove. He offered her a cigarette, lighting it with the blue flame of the stove, and she took it, not knowing yet that she was pregnant for the first time. Now, he said, gesturing to the kitchen table, where an early, terrible draft of her novel sat. Let’s attend to these adverbs. She got an agent after he’d heavily edited her manuscript, then a book contract. Nothing. Not a kiss between them. Not a hand placed on a leg. Still, the night of her reading in Manhattan, after she’d given him back the signed copy of her book, the B of her name made lascivious by her own hand, he had lingered a moment. Then he passed her what at first looked like a credit card but was, upon closer examination, the key to a hotel room. “Hope to see you,” he said in his gentle voice. He gestured to the next woman in line. “She’s all yours.” How she wanted to tell Jack about what her former writing professor had done. How she wanted to share with him how swiftly it had ruined everything—her book, her writing, her sense of agency in the world. Instead she’d thrown the room key in a trashcan. She hadn’t told Jack a thing. He’d have lorded it over her. Told her he’d been right about the guy all along. Tell me what man drives four hours . . . Perhaps the marriage had ended for her that night in New York City. The moment she realized she would have to keep secrets. Secrets worse than infidelity. Secrets about pain. There was litter on the beach. Anchors, chains, that sort of thing. She picked up a chunk of green sea glass and handed it to Jack. “For your book?” she said. “I’m only interested in the Kelvin,” he said. A different sort of man would leave her. Would have left her a long time ago. She hadn’t provided what had been expected. Her belly, as flat as the day she met him. And she had desires. Desires that spanned beyond him. Miles to go before I sleep, she said in her head. And many more men to sleep with. A different man would beat her with the sea glass, until it was embedded into her brain. A different man would throw her into the sea, hands bound behind her back. “Should we keep going?” he said. He took a swig of water and passed her the canteen. To the lighthouse or in general? She couldn’t bear to ask. Her phone buzzed. “He’s okay,” she said to Jack, waving the phone at him. “Ezra’s out of surgery and he’s okay.” “Sure,” said Jack. “You’re not happy?” “It’s not that,” he said. He put the sea glass in his pocket. “It’s just a crush,” she said. “It’s not the thing with Alastair that bothers me,” he said. He looked at his feet, kicked some pebbles around with his shoe. “I understand crushes. I get them, too, Brigid.” She scanned her mind for all the people he could have crushes on. His agent, yes. His editor. His publicist. All the women of publishing. “What is it, then?” she asked. But he was walking toward the ocean, his cargo shorts billowing in the wind. “What is it, then, that bothers you?” she called out. “Tell me, please.” “I have given myself over to you,” he said, turning to her. He folded his arms. “But you. You have always kept a part of yourself separate.” But that’s right, she thought. You can’t have all of me. You don’t get to have all of me. Before she and Jack had left for Skye, Alastair told them that if they looked across to Mallaig, they would see a shaft of light at the entrance of Loch Nevis. The light was nearly always there. Nevis in Gaelic meant “heaven.” She walked to where her husband was standing, and she took his hand, and together they squinted for a long time. * * * When they returned to their little flat, Jack fell asleep, exhausted by the journey. She lay on her back and thought of when they’d visited the Necropolis by Glasgow Cathedral. A boys’ choir had been there, singing among the tombstones. One tombstone was so big she’d thought it was a smokestack. Jack talked about him sometimes—the baby. His baby. Until she’d met Jack, she thought that men didn’t care very much about babies, or children in general. The baby’s name had been Mercury. Jack had come up with it. The perfect, celestial name for a poet’s son who hadn’t lived even one day. It surprised her—the way, every now and then, Jack wept. That was another thing she didn’t think men did. She thought crying was to women what masturbation was to men. Every day, each bent to their respective tasks. She looked at her sleeping husband. His eyelids were twitching. She felt his familiar warmth beside her. Something happened, Jack, and it undid me. Something happened, Jack, and I feel like I can’t tell you. But let me tell you anyway. Her first miscarriage was nothing more than a giant period. Nothing gory. No embryo held in the hand. And hardly pregnant at all—she’d even gotten out a magnifying glass to see the faint, second pink line. Maybe that one didn’t count. The second happened a few weeks before Christmas. The day she’d bought Jack the elf boxers—not just elf boxers. She’d also gotten him a five-hundred-dollar Movado watch, taken out of her advance from The Women of Barra. She bought the gifts, then decided to walk home instead of taking a cab—she felt good. She felt alive with life. A little bean within her, nine weeks along. It was a two-mile walk, no hills or rocky terrain, just straightforward Portland sidewalks. Overcast and in the 40s—an unremarkable day. In her head, she went over what she would write in Jack’s Christmas card. She didn’t want him to make fun of her. He was against sentimentality of any kind, in life and in art. When she opened the door to their apartment, Jack’s cheeks were rosy from wine, and the smell of rosemary and tomato sauce was in the air. Some other poets were over, and he said he hoped she didn’t mind. She did and didn’t. She hid the gifts in her dresser, then walked into the kitchen. She told everyone she was pregnant. They cheered and clinked glasses. She held her belly even though there was nothing to hold. In the morning they had breakfast, and Jack hurried off to teach his last class of the semester. She worked on a story, then a Q&A for a magazine to help promote The Women of Barra. When she saw blood on the toilet paper, she texted Jack. Are you sure? he texted back, which seemed ridiculous, then and now. I’m sure. I have office hours, he texted next. When she thinks of it now, the memory slides in and out of focus. The feeling of something tearing, something moving in her that wasn’t supposed to be moved. The sense she didn’t have anymore—the sense of feeling alive with life. That’s the part she wished she could tell Jack. She wanted to tell him how strongly she’d felt the little bean’s spirit inside of her. But he would laugh it off. Accuse her of magical thinking. He might even invoke Mercury—how he had been the one to know a child’s spirit, if there was such a thing. But, no, Jack. She had felt him. She had felt him as strongly as if she’d once known him—like someone you remember, from a lifetime ago, suddenly and without warning, brought to you by a scent, someone’s perfume maybe, or the taste of something sweet in your mouth. * * * u up? It was Alastair. She looked at Jack, snoring beside her. Yeah. Why? She texted back. the moon, he wrote. She looked out the window. The moon was twice its usual size and blood red. lunar eclipse, he texted. She thought about waking Jack. He would like to see this big red moon. Instead, she found herself knocking softly on Alastair’s door. Alastair and Ezra’s flat had a little balcony. She wanted to watch the eclipse outside, in the cool night air. “Hi,” Alastair said, and stepped back to make room for her. He led her through his apartment, then onto the balcony. They stood together, eyeing the moon. She’d read somewhere that a blood moon was supposed to signify the end of the world. “Did you see it?” he asked her. “The light. The light at Loch Nevis.” “No,” she said. “We didn’t see heaven this time.” “Ah well,” he said. He sat on a folding chair and stretched out his legs. He was taller than Jack, model tall. “Jack’s been to Greece several times,” she said. “He said the light there is better.” “Oh,” said Alastair, laughing. “Sorry to disappoint him.” Across the street, a drunk couple stumbled by, arm in arm, oblivious to the moon. “I missed you,” said Alastair, his voice soft. “Did you miss me?” * * * Once the fellowship was over, they returned to Oregon. Jack finished his book and sold it, and the day it came out his publisher organized a big book launch at Powell’s. The book had generated enormous advance praise—blurbs, profiles, puff pieces—stuff normally reserved for the idiotic fiction that she wrote. The book was called Blood Moon over Glasgow. There was a poem for every day he’d trawled the Kelvin River—listing every item he found. A portrait of our city, a Glaswegian reviewer wrote, Jack Geoffrey has done for Glasgow what Joyce did for Dublin. At the end was a coda. A long poem—some reviewers would refer to it as an epic—about the love between Ezra and Alastair. And how a woman had come between them at the end. How Ezra, returning home from the hospital a day early to surprise Alastair, had seen the kiss between Brigid and Alastair from the window of his taxi, the night of the blood moon. A kiss so sudden it almost hadn’t happened at all. The question was, how did Jack know about it. Had Alastair told him. Had Ezra. Jack was walking to the mic now, after a long introduction by a local poet. He’d cut his hair. A sort of neo-Nazi look, she thought, the hair shaved on the sides but long on top. His signature round glasses and threadbare sweater. Rumpled pants. He reminded her of Woody Allen—or some quote about some person like him—it takes a lot of money to look this cheap. No, that was Dolly Parton. Well whatever, she thought. Same idea. “Thank you,” he said. “After that kind of an introduction, I can only disappoint you.” The crowd laughed, as they always did. “This is a poem about heartbreak,” he said. “I won’t read the whole thing. We’d be here for hours.” Again, laughter, although hers was nervous sounding. “The real trouble,” he began, “when you are married to another writer,” and at this he paused; he was good at suspense, “is you never know what they’re seeing and what you’re missing.” She scanned the crowd for someone she knew. But Jack’s newfound fame had brought with it only strangers. Their friends were at home, not wanting to stand in a line that looped around the block. She had started a new novel in Glasgow, but it was in its nonsense stage—plot-less, self-indulgent. She supposed this was the way life would go now. Her in the audience, Jack on stage. Marital secrets and transgressions mined for material. Infidelity immortalized on the page. He’d changed everyone’s names to ones from Greco-Roman mythology. Alastair had become Aeneas. Ezra was Dido. He’d changed everyone’s name but hers. I am sorry, she said after she’d read the poem for the first time—the proofs on the kitchen table, due back to Jack’s publisher in two weeks. I’m really sorry. It was so quick. Alastair was in shock—I mean, he was still so shaken up from what had happened to Ezra. I think he wanted to feel something, you know? Or be comforted. Maybe that. Maybe it was more of a comfort kiss. Jack stood and poured himself a cup of coffee. It was eight a.m. Too early for an argument. Too early to say the things that needed to be said. He sat across from her, slid the coffee cup her way. She took a sip and slid it back. The page proofs sat to her left. “Well, good,” he said. “Hm?” she asked. “I mean, I don’t regret putting it in the poem anymore.” “The kiss?” “Yeah,” he said. “It was a big risk.” She took the cup but her hands were trembling too much for her to take a sip. “We can recover from this,” she said. “Okay,” he said. He had his faraway look again, as though he were looking not at the floor but into another dimension. “Nothing happened between my professor and me,” she said. “And the thing with Alastair—you said that you get crushes, too.” “Well, that’s the thing,” Jack said, his eyes focusing now on her. “I made it up.” She looked at him as intently as he was looking at her. “I made up the kiss,” he said. “It seemed like a thing that would happen, but I didn’t know that it had.” She took the page proofs and flipped to the poem that contained the kiss between her and Aeneas, as he was referred to in the text. This part would be written about extensively by critics, it being so explicitly in the style of Robert Frost—even lifting some of his exact phraseology: And I saw them, or thought I saw them, Aeneas and Brigid,She wasn’t moving away from the kissHe asked with his eyes, not his lips But it hadn’t really gone like that. The night of the blood moon, she had stood on Alastair’s balcony, looking up at the alien sky. She was wearing a gauzy nightgown, and she could feel Alastair’s eyes running over the length of her body. “Yes,” she said. “I missed you.” That part was true. “Come here,” he said. He reached for her from his spot on the folding chair. “What?” “You heard me.” His voice was a whisper. She felt a ripple through her body. It was happening. She took his hand, felt the weight of it, the hair on his knuckles. His unmistakable smell—both desirable and repulsive—of meat. His undercut. That mole behind his ear. And yet. “No,” she said and drew back her hand. “I’m sorry. I can’t.” He frowned. She took a step backward. He reached for her again but this time with purpose. In one fluid motion, he had a firm grip on her arm. “You know you want to,” he said, and brought her down onto his lap. “No,” she said. She sprung to her feet but he had her by both arms now. He pulled her toward him, and she lost her balance. “You want to,” he said and again pulled her down onto his lap. She could smell the mint stink of his toothpaste. “No,” she said. She let the full weight of her body rest on him a second, then sprung up once more. Below her, she saw a taxi idling at the curb, the milky face of Ezra in the backseat, staring up at them. You know you want to. Did she? Sort of. But also no. And did she kiss him? No. * * * But it was more powerful to let Jack think that she had. “His tongue was like an eel,” she said to Jack after his reading at Powell’s. They stood in their kitchen in their socks. There was an after party in an hour and they were home to get changed. She thought about what she had worn in Glasgow—her black-and-white blouse and mini skirt—but this time with boots. “I can still feel it in my mouth, twitching, slimy, serpentine.” She opened her mouth and let her tongue hang out. “Like this,” she said and wiggled it back and forth. “Alastair’s tongue. It was really awful.” “Not like an eel,” Jack said. “A snake.” She slid her tongue back inside the safety of her mouth. “What’s the difference?” “Snakes are loaded with symbolism,” he said. “You can do something with the simile. But an eel—an eel is just an eel.” “An eel is just an eel,” she repeated. Their kitchen was small, with white subway tiles and white countertops, white appliances, and a white tile floor. He looked at her expectantly. She stood up. He looked at her longingly. Seven weeks now. She’d gotten out the magnifying glass. Not far enough along to tell anyone except Jack. Jack’s phone buzzed. His agent. She was at the party already. “We should get ready,” he said. Her husband was the nicest man she knew. So much had been written about the ends of marriages—the poignant domestic scenes; the moments of bitterness and cruelty and tenderness; the sweeping final paragraphs. So much had been written about violence and love. She thought, suddenly, of Othello smothering Desdemona. “You go,” she said to Jack. “I’m going to stay home.” “You’re not coming to my party?” he asked. He began to walk toward her. She thought of her former writing professor in his Manhattan hotel room, eyeing the door. All the hours that must have gone by. The snow falling in clumps outside. “No,” she said. “I’m not coming.” You’re not? And why? I’m trying to save my life.
‘I Want to Argue with Everything I’ve Ever Thought’: An interview with Catherine Lacey

The author of Pew on confession and original brokenness. 

If there’s one thing that rivals the discomfort of small talk, it’s an awkward pause. It’s a lull that either leads to conversational filler or oversharing. People really risk it all instead of being quiet, which is why that uncomfortable silence is exploited by HR people, priests, and journalists alike. In Catherine Lacey’s third novel, Pew (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), the titular character and novel’s namesake already complicates conversations because they have no identity: their ethnicity and gender are described as indeterminate and confusing. They have no memory or backstory. But it’s Pew’s silence that seems to rattle others most; instead of fixating on Pew’s origins, they project onto Pew, and confess their secrets and their sins.  Pew could be post-body, beyond human even, but in a conservative and religious town in the American South, they are interpreted as an uncooperative patient, stranger danger, an archangel, and more ominously, a sacrifice. These communities are founded on conformity, where the right answers to a line of inquiry lead to acceptance and assimilation. It takes only a week for Pew’s muteness to rattle their foundation and saviour complex. Over email, I talked to Lacey about the origins of Pew and, more importantly, if a novel and its characters can originate in a body or somewhere else.  Sara Black McCulloch: You had a very religious upbringing in Mississippi, and I wanted to know how that influenced writing Pew, especially when it comes to shedding identities? Did this start with a voice or something else? Catherine Lacey: The person at the center of Pew is an impossibility—a person without qualities, a person whose appearance is changeable, impossible to define. I think to some degree the desire to inhabit the sort of simultaneous visibility and invisibility that such a body would give a person would appeal to most people, regardless of their background. As a child, I took to religion with a kind of seriousness that made childhood strange, or rather it revealed that American hypocrisy of being a country founded on Christian systems of morality while also claiming to be secular. As a kid who took the Bible very seriously, I was understandably frustrated that moral goodness had no currency at school, in fact it was a hazard. But eventually the Bible came to feel inadequate, full of its own paradoxes and cruelties, so perhaps the book was an attempt to create a kind of annihilated space in my hometown, my home-area-of-the-country.  Pew is also not someone who is shifting between identities because they don’t have one, which frustrates people to the point that there is a breakdown in communication. I read in your interview with the Paris Review that you think a lot about the body and posture—how they influence the rhythm and voice in sentences when you’re writing. To Pew, the body is where so much dysfunction and other bad things start. Did that approach to writing change when you were writing the character? On a purely creative, personal level, the book was an attempt to argue with myself over that point. Does the book have to be in the body? Does the voice necessarily come from a body? I truly am not interested in setting parameters or concerns for myself that remain fixed. I want to argue with everything I’ve ever thought.  The only time Pew really does speak to someone, it’s with Nelson, who warns Pew not to say anything because the community will only hear what they want to hear and twist their words. There’s a pressure for Pew to assimilate as Nelson did, but there needs to be a trauma narrative first. I wanted to know what you thought about trauma narratives and the ideal victim. Does Pew’s silence threaten this community because it challenges their saviour complex?  This phrase, “ideal victim,” is scarily apt. In the last several years, partially from the way the internet provides such an easy confession chamber, the act of sharing a traumatic story has become so common that doing so—personal, public exposure—has, at times, felt requisite. Of course, some people don’t have the option to expose or not expose a personal story, so I’m not talking about that. But I feel strongly that one shouldn’t be required to expose personal trauma to be seen as worthy of equal treatment, or justified in their anger over an injustice. In some ways, this is the way American society has instinctively responded to the increased opportunity for telling trauma narratives. Essentially, trauma is treated like capital, and you must spend it in order to increase the value of your position. I felt this particularly around the time #MeToo first became a thing. I did not want to describe personal experiences in order to participate, but at certain times it felt like that was the price of admission—even when some tried to say it wasn’t required. It seems to me that many BIPOC Americans may often feel this way, that there’s a heightened value being placed on sharing the details of times that your life has been denigrated and if you’re not willing to share that then you have less of a right to complain, to have a voice. Of course, there’s no centralized authority in society that is setting that pattern—it’s emerging from us collectively, which makes it the kind of problem that fiction is best suited to deal with.  I was not directly thinking of any of this as I wrote Pew, but looking back I can see how this concern slips in. They’re not willing or not able or simply not sharing what has happened to them, so the system is breaking down. Nelson didn’t have the option to suffer privately and he resents it. He resents the community around him relishing in their personal experiences of “doing the right thing,” because he recognizes it as the same kind of noxious righteousness that leads people to commit violence in the name of their government or religion or hate group or whatever. Righteousness is so dangerous. It erases nuance. Many people fill in for Pew’s silence and start revealing more about themselves. What they confess to Pew is, at times, much darker and honest than what comes up at the Forgiveness Festival [in the novel]. This made me think about performative public apologies. In a way, when someone asks for forgiveness like that, they seem to be asking people to forget about their harmful actions rather than asking for help or learning from them. Even at the Forgiveness Festival, everyone’s eyes are closed, so the apology never reaches the person it’s intended for. What does forgiveness mean or look like to you? Is it about being good or bad, a fear of God, or just someone understanding how to be in the world? There’s this Protestant concept of being wiped clean, of being redeemed through private confession to God. As a child I was so interested in Catholic confession, in the booth with the priest—we did all of our confession silently, alone. Maybe Protestants repress their shame and guilt more than Catholics do? I would absolutely read that psychological study. I do think there is an increased societal preoccupation with forgiveness right now in the culture and maybe that’s part of the reason I wrote this book now rather than years ago. Perhaps the most useful thing I learned from Christianity—but perhaps even more from my mom than from church—was that there is no point in holding a grudge, that you’re usually better off forgiving someone rather than carrying around anger for them. But it’s also odd to me that I find it easier to forgive individuals than collectives. I remain pissed off about Mississippi’s general hypocritical disregard for the poor and the suffering while they all claim to be Christian but I’m fully ready to forgive individuals for individual things. I don’t think that’s necessarily the best way to be, but that’s what I’m working with these days. The epigraph is from Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” and while I know the reviews of Pew have focused on the unnamed narrator and the summer festival at the end, it also centers on the idea of the scapegoat. I wanted to talk about Pew’s role in the Forgiveness Festival because while they won’t identify themselves, the community abandons them at the end, rendering Pew an outcast full of the town’s confessions and sins. Pew is the scapegoat. I hadn’t thought about the story that way but I think it's a valid and interesting take. There’s this idea in Christianity that all people are born broken and sinful, that faith in Jesus makes a person whole. So, in a sense, by sending Pew to this festival, the question is being raised of, what would Pew have to confess to if they were human, but without history? What is the nature of that original brokenness? The question of innate sinfulness is fascinating to me. What does it really mean to be born incomplete and what is this state of completion people supposedly are striving to reach? While Pew is a narrator with no identity, they do ask us, in a way, to make a choice: do we go along with conventions, or do we abandon them so we can change and grow? This question is especially prescient right now, at a time when we’re being forced to reconsider our relationships to power, money, and each other. Have you been reevaluating your own relationship to and participation in any of these now? Oh, absolutely. I think it’s difficult to accurately or honestly describe how “the now” is changing me, but I think the process of writing Pew helped me defamiliarize myself with my own body and by doing that I see other people’s bodies differently and I suppose that’s all I want reading the book to do. I hope it made me a slightly less shitty, slightly more kind person in the world. I think there are many ways to read the book, to be frustrated by it, enjoy it, to not enjoy it, but the only stance in the reader that I am willing to say is a failure on their part is wanting to know “what” the person at the centre of Pew is. It wasn’t a secret I wanted to keep; it’s the problem I’m asking the reader to approach. And there’s no answer to the problem, or at least I don’t claim to have it.
‘There’s Still Time to Save It’: An Interview with Charlotte McConaghy

The author of Migrations on connecting to the natural world, activist privilege, and creatureliness. 

Birds are having a real moment right now—bird-identification apps, newly converted birders, repurposed Instagram accounts. And even if it’s brought on by all that birdsong we can finally hear, this moment is well overdue. But it’s also terribly fragile. In the last three decades, over a third of North America’s birds have vanished—that’s three billion birds. In India, where I live, the first nationwide study found that 80 percent of observed species were declining. In the UK, where I used to live, nearly a quarter of bird populations face extinction or steep decline.  In Migrations (Flatiron Books), the moment of the birds has passed. Along with that of the bears, deer, wolves, fish, bees, and trees. Set against a landscape of immense loss, Charlotte McConaghy’s evocative new novel charts the story of Franny, who attempts to follow the last flock of Arctic terns as they fly from one end of the earth to the other. Together with the wary crew of a fishing boat, Franny finds herself immersed in terrain that’s as unstable and precarious as her interior world. As McConaghy writes: “There is hardly anything wild left, and this is a fate we are, all of us, intimately aware of.” And if we have any hope of salvaging the natural world, Migrations suggests that we may have to uncover our own wildness first. Richa Kaul Padte: There’s a moment when your narrator Franny is explaining the immense journey of the Arctic terns—from the North to the South Pole and back again, all in a single year. She says, “I think of the courage of this and I could cry.” What, in turn, is the sort of courage required by humans to face the world of Migrations—one in which practically all the animals, birds, and insects that once populated the earth have died? Charlotte McConaghy: Great question! I like to think of the courage of the terns’ journey as a metaphor for the courage that Franny—and all humans—need in facing the looming animal extinctions. It’s so hard not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of this crisis, and to feel hopeless or apathetic in the face of it. It seems too big for any one of us to be able to stop, but I wanted the book to be a battle cry of sorts. To say no, we can make a difference, we can take up this fight, and in fact we have an individual responsibility to do so. Franny’s journey (without giving too much away) is one of hopelessness to a reclaiming of hope, and it requires a lot of courage from her to reach that point; this is what we will need in order to reclaim our own hope—and not only hope, but the energy required to take on a journey as vast as the flight of the terns.  Do you think this hope and energy partly comes from noticing—and in the case of Migrations, remembering—the remaining wildness in the world? There’s this moment when Franny sees the terns and thinks: “Easy to forget how many there once were, how common they seemed. Easy to forget how lovely they are.” Is paying attention a way to energize ourselves in the face of despair? Absolutely! The more we notice these beautiful creatures the more we will value them. And we don’t have to look far. Go for a walk and really look at the trees you see, study their leaves and try to spot the birds that hide among them. Find some water and sit beside it, it won’t take long for water birds to come and sit on its surface or dive below for fish. Sit quietly and listen to the sound of the wind. Spot the little bugs that find their way into your home and instead of squishing them, help them on their way. Everything has an important role to play. Take pleasure from all of these living creatures; every one of them is a wonder. We have the capacity to take such joy from the natural world, and I think you’re absolutely right that this helps to stave off the despair we feel when we think it’s all gone. It hasn’t gone yet. There’s still time to save it. Woven through your book is a “nameless sadness, the fading away of the birds...of the animals.” Franny remarks: “How lonely it will be here, when it’s just us.” This reminds me of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s concept of “species loneliness”—a “deep, unnamed sadness” arising from human estrangement with other species. Both Franny and Kimmerer describe this loss as unnamed; what, if anything, shifts when we try to name it? Perhaps the attempt to name it is what separates us from other species—the need for language to define and understand how we feel and what we yearn for. For animals there is only instinct. One of the things I wanted Franny to be, while thoughtful and contemplative, was more instinctive than most people, wilder, maybe, or more in touch with her wildness. This allows her to connect more deeply with the natural world, but also means she feels the loss of it keenly. I think we all must strive to connect more deeply with the world if we have any wish to salvage it and perhaps lessen some of that unnamed sadness. Whether we have the ability to identify it or not, it’s something that lives in us as deeply as instinct does, and maybe it’s a sign of our creatureliness, and hints that reconnection has the potential to nourish us all. Oh, now that makes me wonder if it’s actually reductive to try and name this sadness! In the sense that maybe our constant need to name, classify and categorize everything—including our feelings—prevents us from forming the sorts of connections we need the most? Yeah, I sometimes think that might be the case too. Overanalyzing and overthinking can feel like the occupation of a writer, which is why it was such a bone-deep relief to write about a character who doesn’t try to analyze what things mean, but instead tries to experience each moment, to really feel them. Franny is guided by emotion and I tried to let the writing process be that way. It’s a difficult thing when your job is to put language to emotion, because you must also know when language has its limitations and try to allow something deeper to shine through on the page.   Something you resist a lot in your text is the idea of human centrality—for example conservation efforts being focused on what benefits us the most. In Migrations, the work to save bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other pollinators is well underway, while “no-hopers” are allowed to “fade into extinction.” But, as Franny asks, “wasn’t this attitude the problem to begin with?” Yes, it really upsets me to think about the extinction crisis only in terms of how it will affect us humans. Sometimes it seems like the only argument that ever gets through to people is how damaged our food supply will be when there are no more pollinators to help us grow that food, or the thought of our homes being destroyed by flood or drought or fires or rising sea levels. It distresses me because we are not the only living creatures on this planet, nor the only ones with a right to safety. We are sharing this world; if anything, we are its caretakers. So I didn’t want this book to become a dystopian look at how our lives will be affected, I wanted it to be an existential exploration of how it will feel to be the only living things left here. I think it will be devastating. The thought of a world with only humans is a horrifying thought. The animals deserve to be here as much as we do, and not to serve any purpose, but to exist in their own right. There is a growing tension in your book between climate activists and fishing communities, with the latter often positioned as enemies of the sea. Franny, for example, is shocked when the captain of the The Saghani—the only fishing vessel that agrees to take her aboard—releases a large catch to free a sea turtle caught in its net. I think the only thing that shocked me, though, was her shock. I’ve lived near fishing communities for a long time, and in fact just last month, fishermen in my home state of Goa, India, freed several Olive Ridley turtles.   Is there a truth in the terrible way some conservationists view fishing communities—a truth other than activists’ own privilege?  I think there is huge division between people on this subject, and unfortunately a lot of that stems from a lack of understanding of the other party. I’m a vegetarian, while my father is a beef and lamb farmer. There could be division between us but instead we have enough knowledge to understand each other. For Franny, in the world of Migrations, the seas have been even further ravaged than they are now (although we are headed that way swiftly), so she is aware only of a certain greed on the part of those who continue to fish despite the terrible state of the oceans. She just doesn’t understand why they carry on. For Ennis and his crew, there is even more desperation than there is for fishermen today—fish are so scarce they aren’t really able to make a living from it anymore, and this journey is a kind of last chance for them all, which is perhaps why Franny assumes that their need will outweigh their compassion. What she must learn is that there are complexities to us all; it is the systems that have been put in place that need to change. I’m really interested in how knowledge operates in your book. Franny says of her scientist husband: “Niall has always wanted me to study the things I love, to learn them...in facts. But I’ve always been content to know them in other ways….the touch and feel of them.” This makes me think of the biologist who refuses to believe that a flock of crows befriended Franny in her childhood. At the same time, we see that Franny’s instinctive love of birds and the sea is deepened by Niall’s research, too. Are these two ways of knowing contradictory, or can they compliment each other—even when what we are trying to know is wildness itself? I think part of Franny’s journey is to understand that they can complement each other. There is certainly a sense of contradiction to her—she is hungry for knowledge of birds, sitting in on classes she’s not enrolled in just to learn more about them, while at the same time resisting the thought of making this learning official by committing to any kind of study. She’s frightened, I think, that the science of things might tarnish the magic she sees and feels in the wild. It’s her creatureliness that makes her disinterested in normal societal values—career ambition, wealth, etc.—but she comes to slowly understand that committing to learning about her passion doesn’t have to take the magic from it, and I think this is one of the gifts she gets from her husband. Just as he learns a kind of optimism from her about our potential impact on the natural world—and as we are all inevitably enriched in some way by our partners’ views.   “Creatureliness” is a word you’ve mentioned a couple times now, and it makes me think of Franny “reach[ing]…for poetry, for Mary Oliver and her wild geese and her animal bodies loving what they love.” What is creatureliness, and is it linked to how “we don’t always have to be a poison, a plague on the world…[how] we can nurture it too?” Yes, I think so. I’ve always taken a great deal of inspiration from Mary Oliver’s poetry and her extraordinary ability to recognize how our connection to the natural world can feed and sustain us. I read recently that it’s our separation from nature that makes us harmful to it. That as we advanced technologically, we lost our ability to be harmonious with the rest of the world. I think there are those with a more natural ability to connect with animals and wild spaces, and maybe it’s because they are able to remember their own animal natures. The quiet we are capable of. Perhaps it’s only by reconnecting with our animal sides, or our “creatureliness,” that we will remember what it means not just to exist for our own sakes, but as part of a greater, vibrant, interconnected whole. Our place here can be nurturing and gentle, instead of destructive. This is a very important theme in the book and in Franny’s life. The realization that she, and all of us, can help instead of hinder, gives meaning and purpose to her life, and I hope readers can take a little of this from the novel.
Pregnant During the Pandemic: Three Stories

A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses.

I. Maria—Pregnancy Monday was a bad day. Four patients in the ICU ward where Maria worked died of COVID. The patients had all been in the ICU for two to three weeks. Maria, a licensed clinical social worker, hadn’t seen or spoken with them directly; they had been on respirators, tubes in their mouths, unable to communicate, but she wasn’t allowed in the rooms with COVID patients anyway. She provided support to their families, facilitating end-of-life discussions in Spanish and preparing them for difficult news. When she’d met with the families, they had been more concerned for Maria than themselves: “They saw my belly and were shocked.” No one expects to see a six-month-pregnant woman working full-time in the ICU ward of a busy urban hospital during a global pandemic. “They say, ‘We were worried to come into the hospital, and here you are working here.’ It’s a weird position to be in, ‘cause here I am, trying to provide support and help them process the information being told to them by the medical staff, and trying to help them through the grief process. And they’re worried about me.” This happens more and more with Maria’s patients. Worry over her developing baby serves as a temporary distraction from the loss of their loved ones—a chance to worry about new life in the face of a painful death. “A lot of the families tell me, ‘We’ll pray for you.’ And it’s like, ‘Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be here to help you.’” Maria has become accustomed to being the object of such anxiety. Her patients regularly fret over her. Other hospital staff express concern. Her friends and family send well-meaning texts with unsolicited advice and links to articles. “‘You’re putting yourself and your baby in danger,’ they tell me.” Such interference is normal during pregnancy; just ask any woman who’s tried to order coffee when she’s showing. America’s culture of pregnancy-related fear-mongering and body policing can cause prenatal anxiety under normal circumstances. COVID has served to magnify this. Many pregnant women are experiencing an increase in depression and anxiety under the pandemic as a result. Maria hasn’t been particularly worried about working in the ICU, though. Her years of work in hospitals have left her feeling prepared for a situation like COVID. “I’ve been trained to look at the research, and all of it says there’s just not enough evidence. So really, I just have to protect myself like I would with the regular flu or any other contagious condition, like TB.” She washes her hands, wears her mask, keeps her distance. She also feels supported by her supervisor, who doesn’t require her to enter patients’ rooms or do anything that makes her feel unsafe. She found out she was pregnant in January. It wasn’t planned and the father wasn’t in the picture, but she decided to go through with it anyway. Her doctor began talking to her about COVID at her first prenatal appointment, even though there had been no documented cases in the US yet. He urged her to stop going in to work at the hospital. Working from home wasn’t an option for her position, though. Because she’s preparing to become a single mother, quitting wasn’t financially feasible either. Maria also had that particularly American quandary of wanting to save her sick days until the baby came. “If I use all my time off now, what will I do when the baby’s here?” Maria likes her job—she likes working face-to-face with families not different from her own, likes being a source of calm and support during a crisis, likes the distraction for the disappointment and loneliness of a COVID pregnancy. “What would I be doing otherwise? Just sitting at home.” A COVID pregnancy is riddled with small, subtle losses. For Maria, there’s no prenatal yoga classes to go to. No big baby shower. No birthing classes and making friends with other moms-to-be. No friends touching her belly and remarking on how big it’s gotten. There are instead quiet mornings with her dog. There’s a bag packed with snacks to fuel her through the long shifts at work. There are texts with other pregnant friends sharing resources. There are plans for a drive-thru baby shower. There are evenings watching movies with her parents with the subtitles on. There’s a stillness and a waiting. Her biggest fear is being separated from her baby at birth. Her hospital’s policy is to quarantine any mother who tests positive for COVID for 14 days—and that includes being quarantined from her own baby. “I worked in the Labor & Delivery ward for a year and a half, and I saw the strain on moms whose babies would go to the NICU. So, it’s a real fear. I get really emotional thinking about it.” There are other labor fears. She is planning for her mother to be her one allowed support person. “But my mom is in her sixties. I worry about exposing her while she’s in the hospital.” She also worries she won’t be prepared for labor. In-person birthing classes have been canceled and the online ones don’t have the interactive element. “I wonder, am I gonna be ready for the delivery? I haven’t been able to prepare the way a mom normally would.” She’s largely alone with these feelings. She lives by herself, so she makes a point to see her parents almost every day. “My pregnancy was a surprise, you know, and it’s just me. As much as I wanna say I don’t need those things—having people around, having a big baby shower—I do. I’ve felt very isolated. Friends who would normally come around haven’t. It’s out of concern for my safety, but I still wish I had that support. I wish I had all the pictures to show my daughter, ‘This is what we were doing to prepare. This is how excited we were for you.’” Instead there is Maria, in her mask. Work serves as a welcome distraction, a place where she can be useful to people in a time of need. “There’s a lot of grief at the hospital right now. A lot of suffering goes on with COVID, and it’s a very stressful situation.” Her hospital serves largely immigrant populations, who’ve been deeply affected by both the pandemic and ensuing economic shutdown. “They come to this country with big hopes and dreams. And then COVID happens to them, and it all ends.” Maria’s been crying more about her patients during this time, though it’s hard to know whether it’s the stress, grief, or pregnancy hormones. “Probably all three.” She tends not to be an emotional person. Her role requires her to stay level-headed, and usually she’s able to hold it all back. But after that Monday with four deaths, she couldn’t take it—she went back to her co-worker’s desk and broke down in tears. “There’s just so much pain right now.” She talks to a therapist once a week. And she talks to her baby, telling her how strong she’s going to be, how excited she is to meet her, how strange the world is right now. “I keep telling myself, ‘At the end of all this, I’m gonna have a beautiful baby girl.’” It’s a strange triangulation: work distracts from her pregnancy disappointments; pregnancy distracts from her work stress; and her pregnancy distracts her patients from the loss of their family members. It’s a COVID-carved shape, with a sleeping fetus at its center. That Friday, there’s finally some good news. Two people with COVID leave the ICU. “Not many people get to leave. And even though I’ll never see them again, it made me so happy. There’s not much good news these days, so I try to focus on that.”  [[{"fid":"6707271","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"1":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"1"}}]]   II. Kate—Labor Kate first thought of going to Canada when they were in line at Costco. It was early March and the line snaked the length of the airplane-hangar-sized store. Kate stood next to her husband Steven, her eight-month bump bulging. She looked at the line, the mountains of toilet paper in everyone’s carts, and felt an anxiety rise up her spine. She turned to Steven and asked, “Would it be crazy to go to Canada to give birth?” “Yes,” he answered. After all, they had a birth plan: a hospital they liked, an OBGYN they trusted, a doula they’d paid for. They had a baby-proofed apartment and friends who’d promised to deliver lasagnas. Could they uproot everything to return to Kate’s native country, where she hadn’t lived in since high school, because of a fearful hunch? A crazy premonition about a pandemic sweeping New York City? “I had to admit, it sounded crazy.” But she couldn’t ignore the mounting sense of dread. Kate had started to worry about COVID in December. Her job required her to follow the news closely. At first, it was a low-level, analytical worry. She read articles, amassed information, figured out what they needed to buy online. “It was like, ‘Do diapers get made in China? Let’s order 300 diapers, just in case.’” She felt like she was playing the stock market. “My mentality was, ‘Let’s just play it safe.’” She started buying living supplies as well, canned foods and toilet paper. Steven went along with it, indulging the pregnant lady. By mid-February, the worry became a constant buzz. She began reading reports of people in the US who were displaying symptoms but were unable to get tested. “I realized it was here and no one knew.” Soon, she was only reading COVID stories.  The buzz got louder. “In early March, I realized, ‘Oh, I can’t leave the apartment anymore.’” She sent an email asking her boss to work from home. His initial response was dismissive; four hours later, he wrote back saying that the higher-ups wanted her to remain working from home. By the next week, the entire office was working from home. Next was the run on toilet paper. “I felt like I kept being proven right.” All the hunches she had, everything she kept doing “just in case”—it all was turning true. “That’s when I said, ‘We need to go to Costco today.’” In line, the idea of driving home to Canada occurred to her. Later that night, their apartment crammed with stockpiled baby supplies and canned food, Kate went online and ordered facemasks. Steven watched her from the doorway. “Kate, I’m worried about you,” he said. “I’ve never seen you like this.” “I had to ask myself, ‘Am I going crazy? Is this all in my head?’” She wasn’t an anxious person; her pregnancy prior to that point had been worry-free, relaxed, “like sitting in a warm bath.” But this new anxiety kept getting louder. It was worse at night. She’d wake up to use the bathroom, check the news, then lie in bed in terror. Outside her window, she watched her block change, the restaurants shutter, the soup kitchen close down, the sidewalks empty. She heard sirens all hours of the night; countless ambulances kept returning to the halfway house across the street to take away sick residents. Soon she couldn’t even get groceries delivered. Then at 37 weeks pregnant, she got her first symptoms. First it was a sore throat. Then the chest pains began. When she called her doctor, she asked her to come in. Kate walked the 45 minutes across the deserted city, no one but the homeless on the streets. “It was eerie.” The doctor ran a slew of tests that all came back negative. The office didn’t have any COVID tests so, based on the color of her phlegm, Kate was diagnosed with bronchitis. She was relieved, but couldn’t shake the anxious feeling that stalked her. “I knew that we wouldn’t be able to get care, even if we needed it. And we had insurance.” Later that week, she found out her husband wouldn’t be able to accompany her in the hospital. She was devastated, livid. “I was doing everything I could to stay safe, and I just felt so powerless. New York is an amazing city, but New Yorkers don’t listen to their government. America is a country founded on ‘fuck this tyranny,’ and that’s not where you want to be during a pandemic.” Then, Cuomo held a press conference in which he shared the projected date of infection peak in New York City: April 8. The day after Kate’s due date. The fear was screaming now. She couldn’t shake it, couldn’t convince herself she was being crazy or paranoid. She kept thinking about the story of the frog that got boiled alive, the temperature of the water increasing so slowly, he never thought to jump out. And all of a sudden, she knew. Steven was taking a shower. She walked into the steaming bathroom. “We need to go to Canada now.” It didn’t feel like her speaking the words, but some other force. Steven looked at her from the shower stall. “Okay,” he said. “You’ve been right about everything else so far, so I trust you.” Everything fell into place. A co-worker lent them a car for several months. Her uncle found them a place to rent. Her cousin in New York took their cats. They left at noon the next day, their car packed with all the baby supplies and canned goods Kate had amassed over the previous weeks. They made sandwiches and stopped only to use the bathroom. “We wore facemasks and everyone looked at us like we were crazy. But we were just a week ahead of everyone else.” It was a ten-hour drive to the border, and the whole time, well-meaning family members kept sending texts. The border was going to close at midnight. No, the border would be open, but the provincial border would close. Steven, who wasn’t a Canadian citizen, wouldn’t be able to get in. “We were driving through the countryside and didn’t have internet, so I couldn’t look any of it up.” All they could do was drive and hope, while fear drummed in her veins. They arrived at the border at 11 p.m. The officer didn’t know what to do with them. “I have to call my supervisor and see if we can let you in.” Kate sat on a hard wooden bench inside the border control office, 38 weeks pregnant, and surrendered to the fear. What if they didn’t get let in? When the officer told them they could enter the country, she started bawling. All the terror and anxiety of the previous weeks sloughed off her. “I realized how scared I’d been. In New York, death felt closer than it ever had.” Labor and delivery is already a time when one walks with death. Despite relatively recent modern advancements in maternal and newborn care, when labor approaches, one still feels the dark edges of mortality closing around themselves, and their baby. COVID and the American response only magnifies that primitive fear. Driving through the Canadian night, Kate felt a weight lifting, death’s shadow receding. Out of the window, she saw grass and trees, instead of abandoned city streets. It was a sharp contrast. Everything felt safer, the intersections and stoplights wrapped in the knowledge that she would be able to get the care she needed. “I was just so grateful we weren’t going to die.” It turned out to be a good thing they’d brought so much canned food—they were required to quarantine for 14 days. They shut themselves inside the apartment her uncle had found and subsisted on tins of tuna fish and beans. Given their exposure and her unconfirmed bronchitis, Kate’s new OBGYN wanted to get her tested for COVID. “I was just so glad to be able to get tested.” It was another stark contrast. In New York, the hospital where Kate had been scheduled to deliver had released photos showing nurses wearing garbage bags and bandanas. “I couldn’t believe how much better the health care in Canada was. I always thought, ‘Oh, I’m in New York, I have great insurance,' but it turned out it didn’t matter.” The results came back the next day. Both Kate and her husband tested positive for COVID. “I didn’t have time to freak out.” Kate was due in two weeks.The town she was in hadn’t had a single case of COVID, let alone an infected pregnant woman about to give birth. As her husband’s symptoms worsened, she began talking with the doctors every day, trying to figure out a plan. She felt like an imposition, an entitled New Yorker bringing the world’s problems back to her hometown. One day while Facetiming, the doctor started crying. “We’re just so happy you’re here. We know the journey you’ve been through, and we just want to help you and your baby.” “I feel like such an asshole for bringing COVID here and putting everyone through this,” Kate said. “You’re doing what’s best for your child,” the doctor said, “and that’s what every mother does.” Steven’s case worsened as her due date drew near. Throughout all her fear, he had been her rock; now it was her turn. “We’re so much safer here,” she told him as his breathing became labored. “We can get care here, and the doctors know us.” Their marriage had never felt stronger. She was hoping that her baby would stay inside until after the 14-day quarantine elapsed and they were no longer contagious. The contractions began several days early, however. Kate would have to deliver without Steven. “I was devastated. It was so hard saying goodbye and going into the hospital without him.” They tell you not to get too attached to any birthing plan, because labor is unpredictable. Kate had lots of ideas of how she wanted her birth to go: she had a doula booked, had taken hypnobirthing classes, wanted to go natural. Just a month prior, Steven’s presence at the birth had been assumed, so much of a given she hadn’t included it in her birth plan. Kate didn’t have any of those supports when she went into active labor. All she had was her notebook from the hypnobirthing class and the peanut ball she’d managed to bring. She directed the masked nurses, who’d never heard of hypnobirthing, on how to adjust the peanut ball, unsure if she was doing the positions correctly. “I just kept thinking, ‘I have a husband at home with COVID who can’t walk; I can’t have a C-section.’” She didn’t have to. Her daughter was born at a healthy eight pounds, eight ounces, COVID-free. Being reunited with her husband upon discharge, several days later, was one of the happiest moments of her life. The first time he held their daughter, she felt a mix of deep joy and profound terror—was he still contagious? He wasn’t. They had to struggle through the first weeks alone, as her husband painstakingly recovered. They couldn’t have relatives come help, lactation consultants visit, grandmothers and grandfathers hold the baby. But they were safe and had each other. And a month’s supply of canned tuna fish.  [[{"fid":"6707276","view_mode":"media_original","fields":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false},"type":"media","field_deltas":{"2":{"format":"media_original","field_file_image_alt_text[und][0][value]":false,"field_file_image_title_text[und][0][value]":false}},"attributes":{"class":"media-element file-media-original","data-delta":"2"}}]] III. Lauren—Postpartum Five weeks after our daughter was born, the world shut down. Very little in my life changed. Lockdown was exactly the same as having a newborn, I told friends, only better. I was already terrified of the outside world, already living in my sweatpants, already worried about money and washing my hands like a hypochondriac. The only difference was that now my partner was home with me. So actually, lockdown improved my life. Our daughter was born in early February, three weeks early and barely five pounds, her skin covered in a rash of pustular blisters. Nothing to worry about, the team of pediatricians told us. A bad case of a fairly common response to the hormones in the womb. Everything was normal then. My doula coached me through the pushing, my partner stayed with me the entire four-day hospital stay. Our parents visited. An incessant cast of nurses, social workers, lactation consultants and doctors rotated through our hospital room, until we finally hung a Do Not Disturb sign. There were signs, in the elevators and hallways, warning to get care if you had a fever and had been overseas, but they got lost in the clutter of all the other notices for breastfeeding groups and domestic violence call lines. We fell into the newborn haze: all-night feeding marathons, diaper changing, rocking and hushing, wondering who this stunned, howling stranger who barely opened her eyes was, and how she could fit into such a small body. With an early-term, underweight infant, the outside world suddenly became terrifying. I refused guests, and made the few family members who visited wash their hands. I didn’t even want to leave the apartment to go sit in the garden. She was so small, I wanted to shove her back inside. She should still be inside me, I’d think whenever I looked at her. Her rash made her seem even more fragile. The waiting room at her two-week check-up was filled with sniffling children and crying babies. Each one seemed like a contagion threat. We stood in a far corner, pushed the elevator buttons with our elbows, and squeezed sanitizer on to our hands at every interaction. She was gaining weight, looked healthy, but the pediatrician was concerned about her skin. “The rash should be resolving by now,” she said. “She shouldn’t be getting new blisters.” We were referred to a dermatologist, who told us the rash was likely the symptom of a rare genetic disorder. I cried. My partner took charge, refusing the skin graft and the herd of young residents who wanted to take a look. The dermatologist gave us a printed-out PDF and told us to watch for seizures. There was a blur of next steps—geneticists and neurologists and ophthalmologists—and a series of appointments, each one brutal and wrenching in its own particular way. The ophthalmologist needed to dilate her eyes for an exam; they swaddled and held her down while the doctor inserted Clockwork Orange goggles to keep her lids open. Our daughter screamed louder and harder than anything that tiny ever should. The geneticist ordered a blood sample to confirm the diagnosis. I used my arms and hair to create a wall around her and shhh’ed while the lab technician pricked her foot and squeezed out blood. She writhed and howled, her mouth a tiny cave of pain. I tried not to cry. In the background of each of these appointments, there was a succession of increasing safety precautions, a time lapse of COVID preventatives. Hand sanitizer appeared at the reception counters. Screenings questions were asked. Masks were worn. Temperature checks administered, plexiglass barriers installed, waiting rooms emptied. The world around us spun out, but we were able to maintain a singular focus on our little girl. It was almost a blessing. The week before the world shut down, my partner’s office sent him to work from home. It was a welcome change after his too-short paternity leave. We’d been joyous, gleeful. He whistled while he set up the computer monitor on the dining table. When shelter-in-place began, my single friends grappled with loneliness and isolation, and I felt like I'd won some secret prize. I was relieved to not have to leave the house, relieved to not have guests, relieved to not be alone all day. My boyfriend cooked breakfast every morning. I wore milk-stained nursing tanks and rarely took showers. We binged new TV series and rubbed $60 medicated ointment on our daughter’s skin. We told no one about her pending diagnosis. The outside world sank away and it was just the three of us. It might have been one of the happiest times of my life. Most times I could ignore the lingering disasters waiting in the background, but they found ways of creeping in. I checked the news on my phone while I fed her late at night, watched the death toll in Italy rise and the images of overcrowded New York hospitals. I Googled images of other children with her same condition, examined the discoloration of their skin and conical abnormalities of their teeth, and cried. I watched my boyfriend suit up in quasi-hazmat gear to go stand in long supermarket lines at 7 a.m. I studied charts of developmental milestones and anxiously watched for her to smile and track objects. COVID was in full swing by the time she was scheduled for a laser eye surgery at seven weeks old. Only one parent was allowed to accompany her, and she was required to take a COVID test. I caught the technicians in white hazmat gear exchanging nervous glances when they saw how small my daughter was. “We have to keep the swab in for 15 seconds,” they told me. “You’ll need to hold her arms down.” The swabbing woke her up. She thrashed her head, let out a cry deeper and more pained than I had heard yet. Her small body wracked with sobs. I couldn’t comfort her—I didn’t want to take her out of the stroller in the middle of the COVID testing lab, and I didn’t want to pat her with my gloved hands. She cried all the way back to the car, until I could squeeze out hand sanitizer, take her out of the stroller, hold her to my chest, and cry with her. When had the world become so painful and terrifying? The surgery ended up being easy. The surgeon showed me images of her eyes, where they lasered the problem areas: “We were able to save her vision.” I chatted with the nurses about furloughed shifts and weak unions. They told me how pretty she was. The effects of the anesthesia were worse than the surgery. She fussed and cried for two days. On the second day, I overheard my partner in a Zoom meeting. “Can I ask what the criteria was?” “I understand.” “If there’s ever an opportunity to return.” He came and stood in the doorway. “I’m sorry,” he said. His company had lost a series of large accounts. It was nothing personal; they hoped to hire him back when this was all over. He sat down on the bed next to me. I felt our world tremble, start to crack. I put my arms around him, cradling our daughter between us, and we made a little cave like that—an island in an unraveling world. Ten minutes later, the geneticist called with the results of our daughter’s blood work. She was officially diagnosed with incontinentia pigmenti. Up until that point, COVID and the effects of the shelter-in-place existed outside of us. People died, lost livelihoods, couldn’t see loved ones, and I too exhausted and consumed to feel any of it. I’d been waiting for life to go back to normal, living a kind of denial. I realized then that life wouldn’t be going back to normal, not for us or the world. COVID, motherhood, and our daughter’s condition were altering us irrevocably, in ways I knew I didn’t even understand yet. I cut my maternity leave short and returned to my job as a high school teacher—cue the Google classrooms and Zoom live classes while breast pumping below the screen line. It wasn’t the vision of early motherhood I’d had. There were no Mommy and Me yoga classes, no smiling strangers congratulating us, no pushing a stroller to cafes on weekday mornings. All the ideas and sense of security I'd had had evaporated, and I was left with what was. Sometime in May, the newborn fog began to break. We started getting more sleep. My partner picked up freelance jobs. Our daughter began laughing when we kissed her, smiling at us first thing in the morning, putting everything in her mouth. Her rash faded into swirls of marbled discoloration. One day I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror—same stained nursing tank, eyebrows grown out and hair undyed for a year, bags under my eyes and wrinkles in my forehead—and wondered what the hell happened. Where was the person I knew, and would she ever be coming back? No, I realized. Life wouldn't always be like this, but it would never be the same as it was. The lockdown that at first felt like a blessing has become stifling. Our daughter has gotten older, sturdier, smilier, and I want to share her with the world. My parents haven't seen her in months, and most of my friends haven't met her. She rarely leaves the apartment or sees faces other than ours. How will that impact her social development? There’s so much uncertainty. How will the rest of her symptoms present—tooth abnormalities, alopecia, learning delays? What will happen when the extra $600 per week of unemployment runs out? Will I even be returning to teach in a classroom this fall? Will our daughter be teased for her discolored skin? When COVID finally ends, what kind of world will we awaken to? Sometimes it feels like standing on the top of a very high mountain; if I start running down, I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop. So I have to stay in today, in the present moment. She laughs and babbles and fusses. Right now, we have health insurance and enough money for food and rent. We have each other. “Daddy invented COVID so we could all stay home and cuddle,” my partner tells her. And sometimes, it feels true.
Outside, People Were Crying, Or They Weren’t

Is that bizarre? he asked. That such a brief experience of love was too much?

It was autumn in Michael’s apartment, but August everywhere else. Noise from the neighboring units jutted through the walls like slow-motion fists. I was seated on a chair in an otherwise bare corner, facing Michael; behind him was a tiny world, none of the items in which caught my eye. Light pooled between us on the carpet. It looked like a stain. Outside, people were crying, or they weren’t.   * I wanted to begin with an explanation, as if the body before Michael, in the shape of a bent exclamation point, were a kind of riddle. I told him I would be conducting interviews with a handful of folks from the area for a novel I intended to write: relatives, acquaintances, people of interest like him, and I hoped it would amount to an autobiography of a town, of rural Alberta. At this point Michael angled his head away from his shoulders, such that they weren’t flush anymore, then squinted. He asked how I would manage to write both an autobiography and a novel. Confidently, I said I was interested in how the emotional rhythm of a singular voice, when heard from a sociological distance, implicates a larger population, however wondrous or devastating or simultaneously wondrous and devastating. I did my best to clarify that I was suspicious of the notion that the autobiographical is an individualistic mode, that I believed every person is made up of a community’s memories. I wanted to make use of the form of the novel because it would allow me to sculpt a reality instead of photographing or duplicating one. It also guaranteed a degree of privacy and anonymity, modes through which the rawest kinds of language can surface. I wouldn’t be using voice recorders nor would I take notes, I told him, as either could introduce an aura of formality that might inhibit relatability. Veracity wasn’t the project’s primary artistic concern anyway, I had decided days ago. I was far more interested in the inestimable ways place governs the moods, atmospheres, and climates of confession and self-fabrication. Under certain conditions, I hypothesized, everyone participates in a genre of anthropological speech that breaches the fog of unknowing that, as it turns out, is also what it feels like to sputter out in the ruts of everyday life. The affective slip between stuckness and becoming alert to the force of history against one’s back was what I wanted to attune to. I winked upon describing this framework, in fewer words, to Michael, to suggest I assumed he was following along, that he thought my logic was sound, though it occurred to me immediately thereafter that such body language could be misconstrued to my detriment. So as to disavow a tiny jolt of shame, I rushed to add that writers generally agree one must suspend belief in the factual in order to get at whatever comprises the textures and tones of selfhood, which some remain ignorant to their entire lives. I spoke by way of generalizations without fear he would cross-examine them and therefore me. Sometimes a gesture toward truth, I said, could be more powerful than a simple description of it. Inside a moment of something like but not definitively suspense I analyzed Michael’s lips, which looked like a red smudge in the middle of a dark grey beard. It was as if someone had rubbed a wet thumb under his nose in one swift motion. His mouth seemed to be the work of a careless artist. All faces are still-drying paintings, I thought, when glimpsed from both ends of a long decade. I tried to picture Michael thirty, forty years ago. I wanted him to be beautiful, which meant I was okay making the present into something of a tragedy. Michael had heard some of the project’s premises before, when I rang him up at work last week (he is a newspaper publisher), so I was puzzled by a vacant expression that indicated not boredom but unease. I noticed then that the sleeves of his shirt were rolled up asymmetrically, one to his elbow, the other just above his wrist. I scanned the rest of him; his hair, slicked back with water, extended from his head unevenly. His clothes hung loosely from his thin frame, as if they had just come out of the washing machine. The total effect of his appearance was that he seemed struck by a gust of wind, like someone had plucked him from the air, mid-fall, and sat him down in front of me.  Michael said there wasn’t much he could tell me that wasn’t already in print in the archives back at the office. This town isn’t a literary spectacle, he explained, though I hadn’t believed otherwise. Michael has reported on what matters to the region for most of his adult life, and what matters has often had to do with mundanities and clichés. The stories he runs repeat every year. He suspected it was buried scandals and gossip I was after, he admitted, and that if this was the case the meeting should end sooner rather than later. He said this less accusingly than decisively, crossing one leg over the other. I was, however, of the opinion that a cliché could be an anchor, that it could bind us to the world, to one another. A group of clichés is a reason to live, I said to Michael with an enthusiasm I hoped wouldn’t embarrass him. Michael stared at me searchingly, likely turning over the sentiment in his head, investigating it for its plausibility. Was it intellectual nonsense masquerading as sympathy? Was there something more sinister beneath my performance of eagerness? Or was it something that could knot us together, if only briefly? As if deciding against the latter, Michael said irately that if I wanted him to rehash the last half century of store openings and closings, of council elections and athletic achievements, of industrial developments and petty crime, that he could have sent a digital file of his newspapers and saved me the drive up from the city. Caught off guard by the absence of generosity in Michael’s voice I resorted to a different register, one more exacting and emotional. I told him that I was the interviewer, which made him the interviewee, a position I knew he was unfamiliar with. I didn’t see him as the place where local history was stored and nothing else. I wasn’t driven to distinguish the sayable from the unsayable so as to be controversial. I wanted to illuminate how deeply entangled the two can become. I reminded him I too called the little town home, that it tailgates me like a shadow, despite my having left a number of years ago. I could feel my language flickering, aching. For a long time it made a racket inside me as if someone were striking a rock against my ribcage, I said. I worried it would consume me, but I left when I had the chance. My voice shook as the words leapt from my mouth. I imagined I’d have to sweep up the words later. If this were the case, I continued to imagine, what if anything would a twentysomething find important enough to say to warrant making a mess? I left so I could be as brief as any town, I added. I left so I could be as interminable too.  Silence befell us, but it was interrupted, or intensified, by the faint sound of a pop song from a car stopped at an adjacent intersection. I watched Michael watch me. It was like I had suddenly become un-blurry to him, as if the weather between us had taken a turn. For the worst? I couldn’t yet tell. Almost imperceptibly, he nodded with unblinking, serious eyes, which I took to signify fellow-feeling, empathy, and permission to proceed, however much ambiguity had filled up the room. I want to talk to you about regret, I said. *  Suppose a body were trapped between two parentheses, made out to be an aside, a distraction, a trace of another narrative possibility. Would you set it free, set it loose on the world?  * I admitted to Michael that as a teenager the sight of him had felt like a second chance. Nothing about him was conventionally gay, but he pivoted away from the codes of normative masculinity in quiet ways I embellished in my mind to represent a grace and liberty I might inherit. Where most men were a kind of noise pollution, something akin to TV static, Michael was reserved, thoughtful, calculated. Additionally, surrounded by those for whom joy was a vocation, a task yielding material consequences they felt they were owed, I was fascinated by the elegiac, non-arrogant register in which Michael inhabited the world. This is what constituted sociality for our species, I reasoned. Even his grief was a lighthouse to a boy whose future had no shape to it. Maybe early on I determined I didn’t have to live, Michael said, in a plangent tone, I just had to be alive. It was a difference so precise I had to close my eyes to hear it. What drives a person to make that sort of compromise? he asked. A question I inferred was rhetorical, a question he had to hear himself pose, had to know was inside him all along. Michael explained that for him there are days where all that matters is that he made it from the middle of one century to the start of another. This is because sometimes it feels like yesterday is still ahead of him. It was like someone had taken a photograph of him before he was an autonomous, thinking-feeling subject with an instant camera, the kind that immediately spits out a photograph, but it was taking years and years to develop. Not enough light had hit the surface, so he lived like negative space. By the time he caught a peak of himself, he had already faded. What this meant is that I was a gay man listening to a gay man who hadn’t been listened to. Why have you never formally come out? I asked. During the summer of 1980, Michael said, I fell in love with a boy, a classmate. It happened unthinkingly, against common sense. They had put themselves in danger. Perhaps having a “we,” however fragile, to endanger empowered them to rationalize the irrational in the first place, I thought. They would lay in his bed and hold hands until dawn, nothing else. Michael would squeeze his hand so hard it went numb, but he never protested. They seldom spoke in his bedroom, he clarified. It was as if there were things the dark made it impossible to utter. All sensory faculties fell away except touch, the language-ness of it. In the absence of speech, he told the boy everything. I knew what he meant. What is inside a letter if not light?  They were boys who knew only how to fail at boyhood. It sounded to me like an ethnographic spectacle. They were as afraid of being found out by one another’s parents as they were of the encroaching season. There was a summerness to their little love. The sweat of June and July and August glistened in the small of their backs, is what I heard Michael saying. Did he want to put his tongue to the boy? Was he afraid it was forbidden, that it was a sheet of icy metal? Did the passage of time feel like a personal affront? Did they crane their heads toward the sky so as to believe they had transported to another world? Without warning, Michael said, the boy disappeared. Rumour had it his parents sent him to a conversion therapy camp a few hours away. People didn’t say “gay,” Michael added, afraid it was contagious, that it would sit in the air. Michael waited for him. Michael waited as if he was put on earth to wait. When the boy finally came back, weeks later, he was no longer a person but an outline of one, no longer flush with humanity. Michael would knock at his door and no one would answer. One evening he pounded on the door until he heard sirens in the distance, until all of him turned red and blue. Days later the boy enrolled in a high school on the other end of town, so Michael moved on. It was all he knew how to do, he said. He was still someone’s child and children didn’t get to plunge into their solitude. Unless they did. The boy killed himself that winter; he used his father’s belt. That’s what Michael heard. At the funeral Michael wept and wept in the church bathroom because the truth of the death was lost in a place outside admission. He wept until he was no longer human. Like an animal, he wanted his mourning to be an enormous display. Michael began to cry, softly—to mention a history of tears often had the effect of bringing someone to tears. I held my gaze. The thesis behind my project was that people turned into musical instruments when encouraged to testify about the conditions of their lives. My success hinged on my ability to endure whatever song was sung, so I listened with both eyes, with my hands clasped tightly in front of me. People didn’t kill themselves, not around here, Michael continued. No one forgot. They remembered and remembered. It triggered something powerful in him, a survival instinct. Back then, he wanted to live. He wanted to live because it was the only thing expected of him, of everyone. My god, I didn’t want to die, Michael said with a grimace, as if the thought was a new one, as if its newness disturbed him, challenged the bedrock of his worldview. Perhaps he wasn’t ready to live differently in the wake of that sort of revelation. You know, he went on, that dead boy is more proof of my continued existence than anything else. Do we make ourselves into tragedians trying to accrue proof of our aliveness in retrospect? I thought. Somewhere between love and loss we pitch a tent from which we only look backward.   Was it then that you decided to sublimate whatever longings you had, to live a kind of repressed life? I asked. Yes and no, Michael answered. It was accretive, he explained, a slow build-up of small decisions made in haste. I didn’t shun the gay parts of myself for good, if that is even possible, he said. He always deferred the day he would get the fuck out. With age, immobility turned out to be something he didn’t have to resist anymore, it gave him context, which he thought he had irreversibly forfeited. The future stopped feeling like something solid thrashing against him. The generations that preceded his were socialized to believe homosexuality was a crime. It was only removed from Albertan criminal law two years after he was born, in fact. The sentiment didn’t magically vanquish when reform happened. Heterosexuality was where identity began and ended. So much so that when the AIDS epidemic ravaged gay communities all over the world, the town only caught bits and pieces of the circumstances. What made its way out here, north of the last major city, north of anyone at risk, was enough to piece together an intoxicating myth of gay impurity. To be gay was to be dead, dying. Worse, to harbor the ability to kill. It became easier to clock in and out of Michael’s body than confront the heaviness of his desires. He was unsure what devastation they might wrought. At some point, I thought, he convinced himself he was a stray bullet that silence had clenched between its teeth. Perhaps he was thankful for his captor. Michael’s oral history reminded me of Judith Butler’s observation that we sometimes choose to stay attached to what injures us rather than gamble with what it might feel like to be in the world without the attachment. The psychological investment is so large it seems counterintuitive to relinquish it, irrespective of its consequences. I was also reminded, perhaps un-usefully, of the story of Yellowknife’s arsenic. Let me explain. There are currently 237,000 tonnes of arsenic in the mines near the city. For decades, men hunted gold and, by extension, happiness, another world. Left unchecked, the arsenic production skyrocketed and seeped into the snow, into the surrounding environment, so it had to be locked away. Were the chemicals to escape the chambers in which they have been frozen, biological life would cease to exist. Don’t we all tell ourselves that what’s inside us, our wanting, is annihilative to this degree? Don’t we all suspect our most volatile yearnings, when freed from the pits of our stomachs, could upend a world? What if desire is one of the few forces that troubles the idea of continuums, meaning we are either entirely absorbed or wrecked by it? Don’t we all have it in us to destroy ourselves? In response to the Butler note, Michael produced his own analogy. He mentioned the method of disembodied writing, which is when the writer is made invisible. It’s an approach he trusts, because it doesn’t paint a target on himself or his staff. It occurred to him the other day that we sometimes practice a kind of disembodied living. Like a ghost trying to accentuate its ghostliness, he said, chuckling. It appears I have mastered the art! To remain, I thought, to settle down, to stay put meant that the act of being inhibited, of being forestalled, became the larger ebb and flow of life writ large. Isn’t geographical fate, then, nothing but an obstacle one has to surpass? If a home was a monument to what you lost or were losing out on, wouldn’t you run away?  I felt compelled to reel Michael back into the room. To keep us both from wandering too long in the abstract. Did you ever fall in love again? I asked. At the abruptness of the question Michael turned his head away from me and toward a wall adorned with a degree and nothing else.  I reminded Michael he could pass on any question that discomfited. He smiled. Not exactly, no, he said. Throughout the nineties he had the habit of driving down to Edmonton for weekends at a time to try to breach the prison of indecision and regret he made of himself. He would linger at the gay bar, terrified he would run into someone he knew—which never happened, he clarified— until one or two in the morning. All he wanted was to be seen in a place where exposure was a kind of currency rather than a death wish. Men made advances, most of which he rebuffed. He accepted a blowjob here and there in bathroom stalls but no one had names, including him. He thought about staying in Edmonton, but in the end he had lost the power to be anything but complacent, self-sacrificial. Most importantly, though, even in his thirties and forties, he felt haunted by his first, and only, love, and the thing about memory is you can’t extinguish it. It is as automatic as the spinning earth. He decided it would be wrong to not be as close to that history as possible, as if it were a dying language only he could speak. His love for the boy was so contested and fraught and tragic he is still awash in it. The emotional intensity was enough to last a lifetime. Is that bizarre? Michael asked. That such a brief experience of love was too much? For a second or two I thought Michael expected an answer from me. His eyes were pleading, but whose wouldn’t be? Who wouldn’t bruise themselves in the drama of self-documentation? How could anyone hold such a jagged memory up to the light and not wince? I decided against letting the interview naturally dissipate and asked Michael if he had ever felt empty, like something vital was missing, to which he said emptiness wasn’t something to run from. We all begin with emptiness, he argued: an empty name, an empty house, an empty life. Mine is a life of beginnings, he said. Every morning I start over. I explained to Michael that I experienced emptiness in two ways: either it was an echo from the past boomeranging around a room or it was the sound of air plummeting to the ground upon being sliced through. In both cases, around me it rained emptiness. I would be drenched in it. Perhaps that is a good way to understand our generational differences, Michael said, with an air of self-satisfaction. Michael, without prompt, said he doesn’t nauseate on what his life could have been. It’s his small act of refusal, his silent rebellion. Maybe when he looks in the mirror, he see who he is, which is someone who’s running out of time. All those years of evading death were preparatory. Without knowing it, he was practicing death, a ritual unto itself. Just then he closed his eyes, not in an effort to abate tears but as if succumbing to exhaustion. So I did too. For a short while we were alone in a shared world where nothing needed to be said to grasp one another’s emotional possibility. * Michael walked me to the elevator and then to the front entrance. I thanked him for his time, for his candor and vulnerability, to which he said it was nice to get things off his chest, that I could follow-up if need be, that I knew where to find him. At the edge of the parking lot, I turned back to get one last look at him. Because it was five o’clock and the sun gave him a new face, or because I was twenty-four and lonely in a town that made me feel like a shipwreck, I wanted to kiss him. Instead, I said goodbye for a second time. Now, alone in a hotel room, it’s as if I can still hear desire clamouring inside Michael. It’s like a bird’s wings rattling against a cage. It’s a beautiful and terrible melody I suspect he will die to.
‘America is Always in Therapy and Not Getting Much Out of It’: An Interview with Jason Diamond

Talking to the author of The Sprawl about teen rage, community disconnection, and building better suburbs.

When pressed via Instagram poll to describe what an America with defunded police would look like, congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded, “It looks like a suburb.” Initially, the manicured montage of a bland, probably white family living in a spacious house behind a white picket fence with 2.5 kids and a station wagon in the driveway seems like an odd characterization for a non-carceral state. But on further examination, the comparison makes sense. In this imaginary suburb, crime is relatively nonexistent because the community’s affluence is funneled towards resources and social services such as education, libraries, and public pools, instead of the overpolicing of its citizens. Between Ocasio-Cortez’s reclamatory metaphor and Jason Diamond’s defense of the urban fringe, The Sprawl: Reconsidering the Weird American Suburbs (Coffee House Press), the suburbs are undergoing a bit of an image overhaul as of late. From their inception post-WWII, the suburbs have formed the bedrock for a rich American mythology based on secrets and lies, normalcy and conformity. The first modern suburb, Levittown in Long Island, New York, was initially conceived of as a place where every young soldier returning home from the war could afford to own a home. The result was a tract of 17,000 near-identical homes built on top of fields that once yielded potatoes and onions that fed the very soldiers they now housed. Yet part of the planner’s desire to create an idyllic residential paradise involved consciously excluding Black and brown people; even today, Levittown remains 88 percent white. Diamond acknowledges the suburb’s exclusionary history and argues they can be redeemed. To him, the suburbs are not “a great big boring monolith of conformity”; rather they’re like Anakin Skywalker, a “flawed, imperfect but ultimately good person.” The Sprawl is part melancholic meditation on the meaning of the suburbs, part encyclopedic survey of the suburbs in pop culture references, and part futurist reimagining of the possibilities of suburbia. At its core, it’s both a paean to the place that formed Diamond and a wistful epitaph to where that childhood was discarded. But an underlying spirit of optimism prevails. If Diamond can overcome the trauma of his past, then perhaps there’s hope—a future that looks like a suburb might not be such a bad thing after all. Isabel Slone: The book is heavily rooted in place, yet it’s arriving at a time when most people have been suffocating inside for months. Has shelter-in-place affected the way you perceive the suburbs at all? Jason Diamond: It’s been really strange to see this sudden wave of people start thinking about moving back to the suburbs. There’s this acceptance, on the part of a lot of people my age, that they’re going to move back to the suburbs because they can no longer afford to live in the city or they just feel it’s safer outside, virus-wise. I have mixed emotions about it because I’ve been researching the suburbs for so long, but I didn’t hope for something so tragic as a pandemic to come up and make the book seem timely… You could almost argue that the entire theme of the book was mixed emotions. It’s clear you have a deep appreciation for the suburbs even though your experience growing up there wasn’t wholly positive. Did you feel like you were grappling with the idea of loving something you don’t really like? One of my favourite quotes, and I’m paraphrasing it so I guess it isn’t actually one of my favourite quotes, but Aaron Cometbus said that the two most nostalgic types of people are old punks and Jews. I’m both an old punk and a Jew. I’m a nostalgic person who tries to take a critical approach to things. It’s like with anything you write, you have to be as honest and careful as possible. My childhood in the suburbs wasn’t the greatest, but I do appreciate the idea of the suburbs, so I’m not going to come at them with my knives out either. I’m interested in your use of the term “reconsidering.” Why were you drawn to reconsidering the suburbs in the first place? For me, early on, I was like, “The suburbs suck. I don’t want to be here.” Then I started getting a little older and found myself in the suburbs more often and became really interested in the things I had previously overlooked. When I wrote my first book, Searching for John Hughes, I found myself going back to the Chicagoland area I grew up in, and was really stunned by how beautiful it is and how much interesting stuff there is going on. I didn’t realize the Steppenwolf theatre, this famous American theatre company of the last 50 years, was founded in the suburb right next to mine. Then I started unwinding every little thing that I like and realized that 90 percent of it comes from the suburbs. Lou Reed might be associated with New York City, but he’s from Long Island, you know? Steve Albini moved from Montana to Evanston, Illinois. It’s the same thing with Danzig. I visited his hometown, Lodi, New Jersey, and was like, “This is where Danzig is from?” It wasn’t some weird, creepy bat cave; it was suburban New Jersey. I really just started reconsidering the suburbs for myself. I got to this point where I decided that nothing is 100 percent bad. It's really easy to think otherwise, but I just wanted to expand on what makes the suburbs good and what could make them better. Do you think part of the desire to reconsider is getting older, slowing down? When you’re a teen, suburbs provide this context of something to rebel against. If teens have to move away to find their identity, are the suburbs where parents go to be themselves? I think it's less that they’re trying to find themselves, and more that it's just easier to live there. I can’t speak to suburbs outside the US, but here, there’s definitely this idea that the suburbs are safer and easier to manage. You just get in your car, you don’t have to walk, or deal with any of the spontaneous happenings on the street you experience—for better or for worse—in a city. But it’s important to consider who this ease is built for. Suburbs have not been a friendly place since the get-go. Levittown in Long Island, the first modern American suburb, was built on a foundation of racial exclusion. Suburbs have a long history of excluding Black and brown people. Even my own family: My nana kept these letters she received from the country club saying, “Thank you for applying, but we don’t let your race into our club.” Anything built on a foundation of keeping people out isn’t going to be able to hide that forever. The suburban story is a very American story because we keep sweeping stuff under the rug and haven’t been able to reconcile with it yet. When I visited Celebration, Florida, a suburb originally owned by the Walt Disney Company, it felt like everyone who lived there was doing PR for the place. It’s a very weird, tight situation. For a place that promises space and happiness. It's usually the opposite. Despite all the pop culture references devoted to them, I got the sense that suburbs actually aren’t that much more interesting than any other place. Are we wrong to imbue so much imagination and symbolism on them? I don’t think that impulse is wrong, necessarily. You can take anything and mold it into a book, or an album. Geographically, the suburbs dominate so much of America that it's only natural they dominate much of the conversation. Not to get too off track, but I’ve always found Moby-Dick to be this fascinating book because it’s a about a whale, it’s about a guy chasing a whale, it’s about obsession, but at the heart of it, it's about America coming to grips with being this new, young country. So much of our art is concentrated on trying to make sense of this really bizarre country. I could point to so many different works of art and demonstrate how it explains America at a specific point and time. Basically, America is always in therapy and it's not getting much out of it. It needs to change its therapist, I think. Damn. I didn’t grow up in the suburbs—I’m from a rural area—but sometimes I feel like I did because so much of my favourite music from my teen years was centred around the desire to escape them. That always makes me wonder, why does teen rage feel almost endemic to the suburbs? I would never go out to the suburbs and be like, “Hey, 15-year-old jaded punk kid, you should really like your hometown a little bit more.” When you’re that age, you’re never going to like your hometown. Maybe if you grew up in New York City—I read the Beastie Boys Book and hearing them talking about growing up in NY, it sounds like it was a wonderland. When you’re a teen there’s so much pressure, and if you keep squeezing, that pressure is going to make them explode, either through creativity or through violence. I got lucky that I was more drawn to the creative side. I remember the summer I turned 15, I had a friend whose dad passed away. He and his mom were away for a month to take care of family business and I remember, with his mom’s permission, my friends and I built a skate ramp in the back of his house. How did we learn to build a skate ramp? None of us were carpenters. My one friend just had this skateboard zine that had directions on how to build a ramp. We just kind of used what we had as cobbled it together. It took us maybe a month to build it. It made my friend’s entire life. We spent the whole summer hanging out skating on it. I wish I would have thought of that before I wrote this book because I would have gone back and reconstructed that entire summer. That’s incredible. I was surprised to learn that Gen Z is apparently obsessed with suburban shopping malls. It got me thinking, now that kids grow up with the internet and are able to ease the sense of isolation by finding friends there, does that suburban ennui that feels like a feature not a bug of the suburbs now cease to exist? I don’t think that will ever cease to exist. What has changed, I think, is the concept of regionalism. Growing up in the mid-’90s, I caught the last dying days of any sense of regionalism. Back in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, there were certain garage rock or hardcore scenes that sounded a little different—Chicago had the ska-punk scene, stuff like that. Now that we have the internet gluing everything together across the world, I don’t think that sense of regionalism will remain. I don’t think there will ever be another Dischord Records that only puts out DC bands. But I do think the ennui you speak of is always going to be there. If there’s anything I’ve learned from watching TikTok, or just paying attention to stuff I’ve seen on the internet, teens are more in touch with their emotions these days. But teens are always going to be sad. They’re going to have that kind of energy I am thankful I will never have to experience again unless I have my own kids. Speaking of Dischord, some of the best punk rock records hail from suburbia. Why do you think that is? And what do you make of the criticism that punk’s suburban roots somehow invalidate it, as if privilege and punk rock don’t go together? If we strip away the semantics, we can now safely say that Black Flag was a great American rock band. With every singer they had, they took the rage and anger they were feeling and distilled into something super brilliant. And they were 16- or 17-year-old kids at the time. It's fine to say punk rock comes from a place of privilege, but would people really prefer these kids to sit around on their butts and be boring? To conform and become like the people they didn’t like? I’m glad they didn’t become middle management. In a way, they were using their privilege in a positive way by saying, “Hey, I’m a middle-class white kid and I want to speak out against the things I see.” That’s what a lot of hardcore is. Politically, everything we’re seeing now, I feel pretty prepared for it because I grew up listening to ’80s hardcore. Everyone is just discovering ACAB and I’m like, “You’ve never listened to MDC?” They’re literally called Millions of Dead Cops. I had an MDC pin on my jacket when I was a kid. That’s why I’m not shocked by the current moment. Sure, everything sucks right now, but this has always been the way it is. Black Lives Matter is really galvanizing support and demonstrating how Black people are treated unfairly and white Americans are like, “This is a thing?” That to me is weird. But I’m glad early on I had people say to me, “Listen to Public Enemy. Read Howard Zinn.” There were maybe five people in my suburb that would have told me that and I’m really lucky that either I found them or they found me. I don’t know if I would have had that same luck if I’d grown up anywhere else. There's a quote in the book that goes, “The sprawl has consumed so much of this country with its ugly houses, chain stores upon chain stores, forgotten shopping plazas, and endless stretches of road. But it wasn’t supposed to be this way, and in that fact I see a chance, an opportunity.” Opportunity for what? Sustainability and community. I think these things are severely lacking in many suburban places. I don't like the idea of a place just being built and that's it. There's no nurturing or building that actually helps people that live in these places. We don't need more car dealerships or big box stores; we need libraries and gathering places, for when that sort of thing is acceptable again. We need natural grasses, not turf lawns. We need places to walk and cut our dependence on cars. If suburban places can embrace change like that, I think it would have a huge impact in countless ways, from environmental to quality of life. Community seems like a crucial part of the equation that is currently lacking in suburbs. So how do we go about creating one? There's a chapter in my book where I go to Avon, Connecticut, and talk to locals who organized against a developer. What fascinated me was the two of them had lived two houses down from each other for well over a decade and had never met their neighbors. The more people I talked to in suburban places, the more I found that was the case. So, the simple answer would be, "Talk to people more!" But obviously it needs to be more than that. It's important to note that as the suburbs rose throughout the second half of the 20th century we saw a decline in our social structures, whether that be churches or PTA, we were disconnecting from other people long before we all had smartphones to blame for our lack of attention span. Now, I'm not saying church or the PTA is what's needed to cure what ails suburbia, but getting people together is. It would take a grassroots effort, finding ways to engage people in the suburbs, getting them out of their homes, going out and getting to know other people. How, exactly, we do that with all the things currently taking up our focus is hard to say, especially in the age of social distancing, but I think one of the big things we can do is start by looking backwards, to the ideas of planners like Victor Gruen, who designed the American mall to be something more like the kind of spaces he knew in Austria at the start of the 20th century. It would be nice if our government would start to realize how important the suburbs are to America and work to make them more sustainable, healthier places, but I don't have much faith that will happen anytime soon. We need to rethink the suburbs we already have and figure out how to make them more than just places.
‘I’m Trying to Dig Into Our Deepest Fears Rather Than Make a Political Statement’: An Interview with Sophie Mackintosh

The author of Blue Ticket on leaving things unsaid, weaponizing humour, and bodily autonomy.

Sophie Mackintosh’s second novel imagines a world in which women’s decisions around pregnancy and childbearing are decided by a lottery. A white ticket gives you children. A blue ticket gives you freedom. The novel’s anti-heroine, Calla, soon falls pregnant even though it was her predetermined destiny not to. She hatches an escape plan, but discovers it’s not so easy to make a clean getaway, or figure out who you truly belong with. Mackintosh isn’t one to shy away from difficult, messy, daring interrogations of how women are seen—and treated—in so-called modern society. Earlier this year, she told British Vogue, “I want to be doing work that makes a change”. A Welsh writer based in London, her debut novel The Water Cure, which was long-listed for the 2018 Man Booker Prize, is a multi-voiced, slow-burning novel told from the perspective of three sisters stuck on a remote island. Their parents run elaborate, primitive purification treatments for women harmed by men from the outside world. Written during Brexit and the rise of Trump’s political power, the narrative considered the depths of toxic masculinity: what does it mean to be poisonous to those around you? How does unfairness spread like a disease? “We need a wider range of language to describe these books instead of writing them off as angry feminist dystopia,” Mackintosh pointed out in an interview with BOMB Magazine last year. “These are our real concerns that we’re writing about.” Blue Ticket (Hamish Hamilton) considers female pain, power dynamics, and how we define the true self in a way that sometimes makes the prose physically painful to read. Yet underneath the layers of toughness, a tenderness comes through—one that asks not to be judged; an understanding that resists being reductive. Sophie and I spoke in the lead-up to the North American release of Blue Ticket, while the city of London was still in lockdown. Nathania Gilson: In the acknowledgements of Blue Ticket, you mentioned that you spoke to many people about their experiences of motherhood and babies as part of your research for this novel. What surprised you the most? Sophie Mackintosh: Seeing first-hand the exhaustion and shock of new mothers; the fragmentation and the loss of sense of time really made me understand, a little more, the magnitude of the change. I knew it changes your life, of course, but I didn’t fully understand that a newborn only sleeps for a couple of hours at a stretch, even in the night; that their tiny stomachs mean they need to be fed near-constantly. I somehow had the romantic idea that you have the baby and the first weeks and months are this milky, dreamy time where the baby just sleeps while you regather yourself, and then you just carry the baby around with you and carry on as normal.   Also hearing about the physical effects. There are so many weirdly occult, horror-movie elements to it. The nightmarish idea of a forty-eight-hour labour before somehow being discharged with a new baby that needs you so much and a sleep debt you’ll never pay off; of bleeding and tearing, pelvic fractures, the sheer bloodiness and danger of pregnancy itself.  For example, I read somewhere the theory that we evolved periods because pregnancy is such a risk—a biological tug-of-war with the mother’s body—that our uteruses just violently purge themselves monthly in order to take no chances.  And that newborns will have a tiny period because they’re full of all the mother’s hormones. That freaked me out! And yet, having seen all this and heard of all this and learned all this, I still want to do it. Hearing you talk about the painful reality of being a mother or bringing a baby into the world, it reminds me how much “baby literature” exists in the world. Not just the self-help books that try to prepare you for it, but the myth-making involved, too. Babies being thought of as miniature sphinxes, dignified emperors sat in their prams, seeming powerful and fearless when they refuse to cry. I’m thinking of the Rachel Cusks, Sheila Hetis, Jenny Offills, Pamela Erenses, Lydia Davises, Raymond Carvers, and so on, who have their own interpretations. In the Western world, where it can seem like canonizing or creating “important” literature is the end goal, perhaps, how do you go about making your work feel like it’s yours? I think maybe by keeping my expectations low, or maybe a process of acceptance. To both know that I’m writing about subjects that historically have maybe not been seen as important, and also to know that, in the scheme of things, my book is just a book. To recognize realistically and humbly the smallness of my work, maybe. Not in a way that's self-deprecating, but in a way that's freeing.   To realize that there are a million takes one can have on any subject, and this is just mine. And to think of it in conversation with the others, perhaps, but finding its own way and interpretation.  Blue Ticket is so full of sights, smells, and sounds that make it feel not so far away from the world we’re in now, and yet. There’s a certain rhythm and cadence to Calla’s thoughts that feels hypnotic and otherworldly. I was wondering how films influence your writing process, or if the experience of watching films is a space where ideas come to life for you? Often when writing I am trying to pin down a feeling as much as an image, and using every tool at my disposal to try and get there. By the end of writing a book, it feels like its own film which takes place in my head.  Some films that I was thinking about and watching or re-watching when writing Blue Ticket include [Yorgos Lanthimos’] The Lobster, [Michael Haneke’s] The Piano Teacher, and [Lynne Ramsay’s] Morvern Callar, as well as road-trip movies like [Ridley Scott’s] Thelma and Louise. I'm easily soothed by beautiful images.  I feel a certain shame sometimes that my approach to writing is more emotional rather than academic—I feel like I should just know more about theory, or the process of writing as an art form. Instead it sometimes feels like blundering around a thousand messy drafts trying to get at something more indefinable, the way a song can transport you or remind you suddenly of somewhere you’ve never actually been.  That subconscious feeling you describe reminds me of an interview that the novelist and visual artist Leonora Carrington gives, where she tells off her great-niece for trying so desperately to intellectualize art. She said we should trust our own feelings about things instead. Instead of “getting” something, we can try accessing the part of our brain that feels more honest, because it’s less weighed down by ego.   I think intuition and heart (for want of a better word) count for a lot. You could execute the most technically brilliant and flawlessly researched novel in the world, and it could leave you cold. I like the unconscious connections, the things that come together when you're least expecting it, and the messiness of my own writing process facilitates this; I redraft and rewrite and distill obsessively because I never know what tangent I've gone off is going to prove to be the unexpected core of the work. Though maybe it's easier for me to think like this rather than interrogate what could be my intellectual laziness, so I'm more conscious now of striking a balance. I think some of it also comes from feeling slightly like an imposter. I used to get anxious discussing my own work, as if I could somehow get that “wrong,” when I wrote it, which is absurd, really! If I had built myself a fortress of theory and technique it might have been easier to talk about it. If something does come from an emotional place, it does make it that much more tender. Desire, luck, choice, and “badness” (as the opposite of goodness) come up frequently in the novel. How was the writing of this story a way to shift or challenge the binary of what is possible for women in this world?   I think we internalize—and externalize!—the concept of “good” or “deserving” so much, and especially when it comes to women, and then further still when it comes to mothers. There’s still this expectation that you have to be obviously maternal. Some readers find it hard to accept that someone like Calla would have a baby, or should have one. There’s still so much buy-in to the Madonna-whore dichotomy culturally, and I’m interested in how we interrogate that. This expectation of docility; how reproductive sex—as opposed to sex for pleasure—seems a whole different beast in the way we regard it (although I don’t know why that still strikes me as faintly absurd because I know we exist in a puritanical society where pleasure for pleasure’s sake isn’t really trusted). Also, I wanted to challenge the idea that only a “good” or “nice” character is deserving of being loved, or getting what she wants. Because, actually, having a baby is both quite democratic and wildly unfair. Women castigated culturally as “bad” mothers can do it and “good” mothers can have fertility problems, and everything in between. No matter how maternal we are, our bodies can betray us. Maybe we cling to these ideas because they give us some sense of control; that if we’re “good,” we’ll get what we deserve.  I know Calla does that sort of bargaining [in the book], and I’m familiar with it, too. I’m aware that she’s a difficult character to root for because she does go against our ideas of what a “deserving” mother looks like—there’s drinking and there’s smoking and there’s indiscriminate sex and selfishness—and you know these things are actually not so bad in the larger scheme of things, but for a mother to be these things still does feel like a taboo. And what does that say about us? It’s quite revealing. We can be as modern as we like but we still assign these moral values. When you were a teenager, what books made you feel known and seen? Do these books still matter to you now, or have other books been important to shaping how you think?  I think the main one for me was The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter, which was important to me both because of the language and style. It was so eerie, gothic, and lavish—otherworldly whilst also still being part of the world—and because it gave gravity to the experiences and internal life of a fifteen-year-old girl, which at the time (alongside reading mostly the Great Male Writers and plenty not-so-great), I didn’t know was necessarily something that could be the subject of literature. Every couple of years I’ll read a book (like Bluets by Maggie Nelson, or In The Cut by Susanna Moore), which totally cuts through everything I thought I knew and reinforces for me the power of language.  How has growing up in Wales influenced the way you see the world? I felt quite isolated growing up, always very eager to get out, but at the same time it was a very special place to grow up (though when I was younger I was very indoors and definitely took this beauty for granted, I just wanted to be inside). The entire coastline of Pembrokeshire, where I’m from, is a National Park. The landscape feeds into my work for sure, most obviously in The Water Cure, which is based on a real beach that I’m familiar with. I’m fascinated with both the beauty and the uncanniness of the natural world. In the places as remote as where I grew up, it’s quite overwhelming, but also quite eerie. You can imagine magical or unreal things taking place. And dangerous things, too. I’m aware that nature can really turn on you; that you never know what rip-tides are underneath a smooth surface. As I got older, and more independent, I started to realize the possibilities of such a landscape; of a kind of freedom, and started to appreciate it more. I was also educated through the medium of Welsh until I was eighteen, so I’m a fluent speaker, and while it’s a cliché to call it musical it just really is a musical language! My school was very big on making us learn Welsh poems and songs. So, I can see how this switching between languages and the emphasis on the lyrical, rhythmic side of it has influenced my writing. I always do entire read-throughs of my work to myself to see how it feels and sounds. Rage, anxiety, and compulsion spill out a lot in Blue Ticket. The characters are not always kind to each other, or themselves, in a universe where it’s hard to know who to trust. I was wondering how you find—or create—healthy ways of channeling these emotions into your writing? I was also interested in the challenges of writing visceral terror or violence in a way that feels familiar (or easy to empathize with) to the reader? When writing visceral emotions I usually start from thinking about it bodily; really slowing it down. This is something I still do now when I feel something uncomfortable. I think about exactly how I’m feeling in my stomach, my limbs. I try to name the feeling, and make time stop. But I don't want to be gratuitous when describing violence, and I think that leaving things unsaid can often be more powerful. I think we often disregard female pain and anger as histrionic or self-indulgent, but it feels important and interesting to me—worth writing and thinking about. Some people will lose patience with Calla making terrible decisions again and again, and the fact that she’s not necessarily repentant about her compulsive or bad behaviour. It’s not all from a place of emptiness—she also just is quite selfish and likes to have a good time without really thinking about the consequences, and also would really like to be a mother, and actually, those things can all coexist. The characters in Blue Ticket are pregnant women essentially competing against each other for resources, unable to really trust anyone, and underneath it they can barely trust themselves, because their bodies are changing and their desires are alien to them. That sense of dislocation was important for me to represent, and the idea that a pregnant woman isn’t necessarily sweetly domestic, but rather could be very ruthless if needed; rageful. There’s an incredible, incidental scene where Calla’s wandering around in the supermarket at her own leisure, and it struck me, as we navigate a global pandemic, how her experience of it challenges the rituals we have—or have lost—now. She says, “The supermarket made me feel safe. Even in childhood I had believed that nothing bad could happen in a place of plenty.” People often think dystopia is the blockbuster film with special effects, complex choreography and a dramatic soundtrack. How do you set out to write against this—or perhaps, point our attention elsewhere? A funny thing is that I wasn’t really setting out to write a dystopia. I didn't with The Water Cure, either, and am not even totally sure I did. I wanted to write a place that wasn’t ours, in which the rules can be different, and that automatically puts you in a dystopia and then sets up many expectations; the world-building. Perhaps my books are more quiet dystopias. Semi-dystopias? They’re always more focused on how someone navigates the world rather than on how that world came to be. The hypothetical bind is the thing. I think many people can identify with that secret fear that you are one sort of person, and you want to be another sort of person but even if you try very hard to change, to be “better” or even just different, you can never really shake that off—that there’s something intrinsic in you, often something shameful or small that you’re afraid of people seeing. It’s kind of a nightmare, that idea that your soul is basically visible, and found lacking somehow. That Calla wants this thing so desperately, and the judgement is that it’s not for her; she hasn’t reached some kind of invisible and arbitrary standard, and never will. That’s before even thinking about all the societal expectations around motherhood, and the fact that we still live in a world where many women lack bodily autonomy.  I’m trying to dig into our deepest fears rather than make a political statement. I wanted the world to feel real to us, to be populated with feelings we can understand and set-pieces we recognize, so that when things are off-kilter we feel that jarring somewhere deep inside us, that sense of something being wrong, somewhere.  Blue Ticket did start off more explicitly as a horror, actually. I started with the image of a bloodthirsty, cannibalistic pregnant woman tearing people to shreds. And I’m working on a weird historical fiction at the moment, which nobody could ever describe as dystopian, and yet the process of writing historical fiction also feels, to me, embedded in a speculative tradition: “This could have happened, but this happened instead. But what if it happened this way?” I wasn’t expecting Blue Ticket to make me laugh. But it has moments of humour that sneak up on you. There’s a scene in the book where Calla walks around a hotel barefoot, and meets a man at the bar. “I ate them,” she says, when pressed for an explanation about her shoes. Why is humour an ideal coping mechanism in a universe where so many things can go wrong when you’re a woman? Humour can be such a shield. If you laugh at something, you can pretend you’re not bothered by it. For someone like Calla, who doesn’t want to reveal herself and wants to make sure she comes across as cold and ruthless, laughter can be a weapon, too. A way to take people down a notch as well as distancing herself from having to care. She doesn’t have much else except for her sense of self and ability to react to a situation. So, laughter it is. The names women make up for each other in this world out of affection, or to hurt each other, stood out to me: “swamp monster,” “queen ant,” “cold fish.” Why the comparisons, rather than using birth names or initials? I wanted them to develop something like their own intimate, coded language, the way that lovers and friends do. It’s primarily affectionate, but also hurtful when you turn an affectionate name or mechanism of naming around and use it to be negative. Also, I kind of saw it as their feeling an affinity more with the natural world around them, which to them at various points has been terror and salvation, their turning away from the cities and pasts that has saved them. Calla refers to herself as a failed experiment in the book. Her doctor echoes this sentiment at one point: “I thought you had potential,” he says. “Sometimes I made admiring notes.” What advice would you have for writers who are sweating over the details of career trajectories, and perhaps afraid of the future? There are so many ways to be a writer, so many trajectories you could follow, and so many timescales. There’s a lot happening under the surface, but publishing loves a shiny story rather than thinking about the—frankly dull—legwork that goes into creating books. Plus, we all have lives. Things happen to us whether we choose them or not. I've had the luxury of a quiet few years where I wasn’t caring for anyone or moving around a lot or experiencing major tragedy or change, where my primary responsibility has been to pay rent.  I had a full-time office job that was interesting and left me with the energy and headspace to create things. I didn't feel lucky for all this at the time because I was too busy comparing myself with other writers who were living much more successful and glamorous-seeming lives with not a water-cooler and commute in sight. But I really, really do feel lucky now (especially now). Give yourself a break, basically. Because it’s easy to look at biographies and think: Oh, this person went to this prestigious university, and then gained this prestigious MFA right after, and all the while was being published widely, and of course their first novel was snapped up for a giant advance at the age of twenty-three, or whatever. To think that’s the trajectory for everybody, and if you’re not on that trajectory yourself, that you’re failing already...  That wasn't my trajectory by any means (I got rejected from every MFA I applied to and wasn't widely published), and it's not the trajectory for so many writers. I can understand being afraid of the future, especially now, because everything feels different; everything feels so up in the air. Talking about trajectories almost feels odd, because what is a trajectory now? How do we move forward and what will the systems we're familiar with look like? So, I think it's more important than ever to concentrate on your own writing journey, however you're able and whatever that looks like for you, rather than try and keep yourself on some arbitrary path or timescale. It might look different to what you expected, but it's yours. Write what nourishes you and what speaks to you in this weird, strange time. Write and don't be scared to write or feel that it's pointless, because I don't ever see a time where we won't need books, where we won’t need to see our world refigured and reflected, to know we’re not alone.
‘The Most Honest Version of How Other People See Us’: An Interview with Naoise Dolan

The author of Exciting Times on spreading goodwill, navigating and honouring difference, and the lie of meritocracy.

Naoise Dolan’s debut novel, Exciting Times (HarperCollins), follows twenty-two-year-old Ava as she leaves Ireland for the first time for a teaching job in Hong Kong. It’s a story about taking a not-quite gap year to see what else is out there, and how much money you can make in circumstances different to the ones you grew up in. But it’s also a story about class, gender, sexuality, language, and the danger of the space between how we see ourselves and how others see us. This is Ava’s story, but other people’s feelings and pride are at stake, too. There’s Julian, a British banker, coolly self-aware of his privileges yet non-committal about the arrangement he seems to be in with Ava (living together, sleeping together, a “let me know if you need anything” attitude towards cash and credit cards). And Edith—a twenty-two-year-old Hong Kong local, unapologetically earnest, a lawyer with a “churchy” accent who’d studied abroad in the UK. Both form an unlikely love triangle with Ava who is hungry for connection and belonging as she figures out who she is away from home. The novel hums with the intermingling thoughts of people wanting to be understood, avoiding, oversharing, reading and misreading each other: through drafted text messages that accidentally get sent; international phone calls; thoughts that don’t get verbalized, and things said out loud that should’ve remained a thought. It’s also a story about anticipation: how your whole life can change depending on the people you choose to have—and keep—around. I spoke to Naoise Dolan in the lead-up to the North American release of Exciting Times, in the midst of a global pandemic. Nathania Gilson: I remember how you’d mentioned last year that apologising wasn’t just something women did, but an inherently Irish thing, too—I was wondering if you ever thought about this as you were writing out Ava’s thoughts? There’s a bit in the novel where she says her favourite conversations are the ones where she says precisely what she thinks. I’m wondering how the character of Ava was a way of challenging what we think is difficult to change about ourselves? Naoise Dolan: I think there’s often a flattening honesty to how Irish people see ourselves. We keep everything in proportion, including our own egos. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad quality, although it can cause mild culture shock when we’re communicating internationally. The appropriate Irish response to a compliment is to give someone else the credit or to otherwise deflect it—and I find people from more individualistic countries tend to interpret that as us talking ourselves down, when it’s more that you don’t want to be singled out. You want to spread the goodwill.  That said, I wasn’t seeking to claim anything general about being Irish, or even about being a person, in writing Exciting Times. I prefer to show individual characters doing whatever makes sense for them, and then let readers decide if it’s an experience they share. Ava is quite bald in her self-assessments—she’s often wrong, sometimes wildly so, but there’s an attempted honesty in her head that doesn’t come through in her conversations. I don’t think I was attempting to “challenge” that disjuncture between internal and external expression, in that I don’t know if the novel really takes a position on it. But nobody verbalises all their thoughts, so I guess that’s why Ava doesn’t.  What Irish writers or poets did you read growing up that you think anyone on the other side of the world should know about? I loved Oscar Wilde when I was a kid, on the off chance his reputation needs my signal boost. Marita Conlon-McKenna wrote children’s books about the Irish Famine that grabbed my imagination for several months. I became obsessed with the Famine off the back of those novels, so much so that I then read Joseph O’Connor’s historical novel Star of the Sea, which also taught me about syphilis and incest at probably too tender an age. Emma Donoghue was pivotal in letting teenage me know that there was a place for Irish LGBT women in books. I don’t know if it’s available in translation, but I also think Máiréad Ní Ghráda’s Irish-language play An Triail is a great text for anyone who’s interested in Ireland’s history of reproductive injustice and misogyny. We studied An Triail in school, and I’ve never read anything in English that I’ve found as powerful on those issues. How did your experiences at Trinity College shape you as a writer?  I don’t know if they did! I think to answer that question I’d need a clear sense of who I am as “a writer,” which is still a concept I’m confused by—like, does that category concern itself with my internal psychology and identity, or is it purely about the empirical work I produce? If it’s about the work itself then Trinity didn’t shape my writing at all, because none of my current published work was written there, none of it is set there, and so on. But to the extent that me “as a writer” is about me as an individual, or about where I initially developed various themes and concerns that perhaps later emerged in my writing—I can’t say if doing something else at that age would have made me a different person, or if I would have wound up the way I am regardless of whether I’d gone to Trinity. Like anyone just out of school, I had a lot of growing up to do; so, in that sense, Trinity was formative.  But I’ve always liked books and I’ve always liked people, so I can’t imagine a version of myself who could have done something else without encountering books and people that would have shaped me. I was thinking about one of your recent tweets: Sometimes I’m writing something and then suddenly go: ‘am I making these characters male so they can have serious ideas about the world without people assuming I’m trying to parody them?’ As a reader, who do you think historically has gotten to have serious ideas about the world? As a writer, how do you navigate who gets to be taken seriously, and take up space in a story? When I have my characters express thoughts about the world, it’s most often because I think that having ideas is a major part of being human, and therefore a major part of convincingly portraying humans in fiction. I’d find it unconvincing if a character only thought about politics and philosophy, and never considered how to tie their shoes or what to have for breakfast; but I’d find it just as one-dimensional to write characters who never considered broader questions. There aren’t many overt big-ideas conversations in my fiction; it tends to be scattergun hints about how the characters approach things, because that’s the reality of it for me. I don’t voicenote my friends with: “Capitalism, good or bad?,” but my stance will surface as we discuss more immediate matters.  Yet I think when novels put women on those planes of thought, people are likelier to assume that the author is using those characters to voice their own opinions, or that they’re trying to make fun of them. Maybe it’s just dialogue, you know? Maybe it’s just texture. Many of my characters’ thoughts are glib or underdeveloped, as are most of the soundbites I come out with in conversation. It’s just character development. It’s also possible, indeed commendable, to think about things without immediately forming an opinion—but I’ve yet to master that approach myself, so I’m loath to grant all my characters a level of intellectual restraint that I lack. I loved in Exciting Times how characters are often the beneficiaries of—and sometimes to blame for—perfectly exacting commentary on each other’s flaws. For example, when Ava says how Julian sees beyond her exterior sparkle to the interior layer of her that only clever people see. And when Edith tells Ava, “I think you want to feel special—which is fair, who doesn’t—but you won’t allow yourself to feel special in a good way, so you tell yourself you’re especially bad.” There’s that double bind of being able to learn about how people see you but also being confronted with something you didn’t notice on your own. I was wondering how you dealt with writing for—or against—this being interpreted as a coming of age novel, not just a romance or love triangle? Yeah, I think we—or certainly, I—want to feel we’re getting the most honest version of how other people see us. When we learn that someone has deceived us, it’s jarring not only because of the deceit itself, but because it suggests that other people might be harbouring perceptions of us that would crush us if we knew. “Please be honest with me” is often actually a request to lie extravagantly, and I think Ava definitely falls prey to that tendency. I wasn’t really concerned with how people would interpret the novel when I wrote it, though. I don’t think there are any categories of fiction that it’s inherently good or bad to belong to. I would find it annoying if people judged Exciting Times by whether it worked as a crime thriller or a Mills & Boon, but only because it would be a dreadful novel by those criteria and it stands a better chance of succeeding on other metrics. I’d never accept it if another author tried to make me apply a particular critical approach to their novel, so I think I have to allow other readers the same freedom with mine. Money—making your own, being controlled by how much other people have of it, the fear of not having any, borrowing some, gifting it, chasing it, subsidising it, not knowing what to do with it—has a big presence in the novel. Sometimes it comes up in a literal sense: a borrowed credit card to pay for drinks; other times, it’s more cultural capital, for example, profiting from listening to other people and collecting the things they tell you for later use. In the writing of this novel, did you discover if there is a normal relationship to have with money?  Definitely not! I don’t think it’s normal to have a world where survival is tethered to whether billionaires need our labour. No normal relationship with money can flow from that basic setup. We can perhaps have normal relationships with money in the sense of “accustomed” relationships with it, or “unthinking” relationships with it; but I don’t think I’ll ever really get used to the fundamental weirdness of private property. I don’t really know what it’s like to feel normal in general, though. I’m not sure whether everyone feels as permanently alien as I do, or if that’s an especially autistic or queer experience—but in any event, the prospect of feeling ‘normal’ about anything seems so distant to me that I’m not sure I’d ever use fiction to reach towards that sensibility. I think I’m more interested in exploring ways of navigating and honouring difference while still being in the world with other people. I loved how much Ava noticed things about language—how she enjoys parsing through it; noticing accents; picking up on odd phrases (as Ava points out: real people talk, they don’t "touch base"). How much of this was driven by wanting to reveal the benefits of holding an outsider status, and how much of it was about demonstrating the lure of being an insider; part of the club; the in-joke; the big secret?  I think the impact of that material really depends on the reader. For me, I enjoy learning about Irish English because it’s cathartic to understand why the English I read in books was often quite different to the English I heard around me as a child; why I alter my speech when I’m not in Ireland, and so on. It feels like an outsider lens to me because it’s taking a step back to analyze what normally comes to me as a lived experience. For a non-Irish person, though, the information about Irish English in Exciting Times might hold “part of the club” appeal—the sense of getting closer to something that they hadn’t known about previously. Language is tethered to social norms, so I also think it’s difficult to discuss phraseology without at least implicitly dealing with the unspoken aspects of how we relate to one another. There again, insider versus outsider appeal will depend on the reader. I tend to feel like I’m getting closer to social norms when I examine them; but if your instincts are better than mine, then that same analysis might feel more like taking a step back. This novel is set in 2018, before the constitutional ban on abortion in Ireland was removed. What does writing in the near-past, rather than the right now, or near future, allow you to do as a writer?  Well, most novels are likelier than not to be about the near-past by the time they reach readers; I finished the first draft of Exciting Times in early 2017, and I think the time-lag between then and its 2020 publication is fairly typical.  I couldn’t have set the novel much later than I did at the time. I suppose I could have edited it after Ireland repealed the abortion ban, but I don’t know if doing that would have hugely altered Ava’s consciousness; I think the scar of that law will always be there for anyone who grew up under it. I don’t know if I’d ever deliberately set something in the near-past when I began writing it. It’s likelier, going forward, that I’ll keep giving my characters whatever political consciousness I think they would realistically have; and if the world changes after I’ve finished whatever I’m writing, then I’ll happily think of it as reflecting a now-altered set of conditions. And it’s worth noting that awareness fluctuates—Ava doesn’t think about the level of abortion access in Hong Kong, for instance, because financial barriers become far less of a concern for her there. Omissions are just as telling as inclusions. If I’d written an Irish narrator who hadn’t been thinking about abortion in Ireland, then that would have told us that they had the level of access to money in Ireland that Ava comes to have in Hong Kong. Having Ava never think about abortion in Ireland in 2016-17 would have “set” the novel, and “set” her character, just as much as having her consider it. As a reader who lives on the other side of the world—and isn’t Irish, or English—but has lived abroad as an expat, what stayed with me after reading the novel was the struggle of making sense of who you are, when who you are might not be seen as useful, appreciated, or good. Ava says, "The English taught us English to teach us they were right.” How is novel writing a way to claim who you are, or challenge how much identity should dictate our creative work? Writing novels is, in the immediate, a way for me to stop thinking about myself and do other things that I find more pleasant. Sometimes that’s creating or analyzing a character, sometimes it’s reaching for the best adjective to describe a chair, sometimes it’s deciding whether to end a scene or stretch it out a little bit longer … All those decisions are enjoyable for me because they take me out of my immediate circumstances and into a place where I can have a bit more fun. But when you actually publish a novel, you’re constantly asked about yourself, and people often seek to make connections between you and that novel. There’s no universal identity, so considering the particularities of an author’s circumstances can be illuminating, particularly if they would otherwise be assigned an incorrect label; I’m open about being queer and autistic mainly because I know that many people would otherwise assume that I’m straight and allistic.  So, I think ultimately, people are free to make whatever connections they wish between my identity and my work—but I don’t like being asked about it, largely because I would rather talk about things besides myself in general. I’m reading a book about pre-Raphaelite art at the moment, and I find that topic considerably more engaging. You mentioned in the acknowledgements of your novel that everyone deserves to write books if they want to. What advice would you have for someone who might not have the odds in their favor? I’d say focus on whatever’s within your control. There are countless inequalities dictating whether, or when, the literary establishment recognizes and rewards writers. Before it even gets to that point, there are manifold barriers to carving out enough time and energy to finish a novel in the first place. But to whatever degree you’re able to muster the time and energy, it’s within your power to keep your head down and work on something you love. Meritocracy is a lie in terms of eternal reception; but privately, on your own terms, you can produce something brilliant, even if it’s a paragraph a day.  That’s not to excuse the unfairness of who gets published and who doesn’t. We absolutely need to stay angry about that, and use that anger to reform the industry. But that’s how I’d advise aspiring novelists to proceed: paragraph by paragraph.
‘There Are Plenty of Readers For Whom Plot is Not the Be-All and End-All’: An Interview with Eimear McBride

Talking to the author of Strange Hotel about the tolerance and patience of readers, writing “difficult” books, and the urgency that comes with age.

Eimear McBride’s debut novel, A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing, and its follow up, The Lesser Bohemians, were dazzling reminders to the mainstream anglophone literary scene that fiction could still be a language event. Innovative and uncompromising Bildungsromane tracing the formative, furtive, often brutal experiences of their young female protagonists, both books were distinguished above all by the shattering linguistic inventiveness of their first-person voices. McBride’s prose was protean, agitated, and exquisitely receptive, intent on barrelling past mere communication toward a state of total visceral embodiment. Here were sentences and sentence-fragments that seemed wired into the very nerve-ends of their protagonists, capable of registering their every minute physical and emotional perturbation. Strange Hotel (McClelland & Stewart), by contrast, is written in the third person rather than the first, in sentences that, while still rich with McBridean obliquity and a forensic attentiveness to the subtle, incessant fluctuations of the senses and the mind, nonetheless more closely approach conventional syntactic units. But even a more traditionally shaped McBride sentence is rife with inimitable turns of phrase and is still intent on interrogating to the limit what can be registered and expressed in language. If the self is sui generis, requiring, as in McBride’s first two novels, the total breaking apart of language in order to remake language in the self’s own singular image, what does that mean for a self that remains within the boundaries of what might be called conventional expression? Is that self seeking expression, an image of itself, at all? Does it want to be seen? And if not, why not? That self, the protagonist of Strange Hotel, is a woman with a name we do not know and about whom, in many respects, we get to know very little. What we do know is that she is approaching middle age, and that whatever her occupation is—several passages in the book emphasize it has something to do with language—it requires her to travel extensively. A list of cities transitions the reader from one scene to the next. Each scene takes place in another hotel room in another city. The present tense action consists of little more than the woman ordering wine from room service, idly considering if the drop from the balcony would be sufficient to kill her, or watching the sleeping back of a one night stand; what preoccupies her is her past, and the distance, geographically as well as temporally, she might achieve from it in the purposeful anonymity of these hotel rooms. There is something she wants to forget, or more precisely, not remember: "… allowing memory, or any of its variables, admittance is invariably a mistake. Nonetheless, and even knowing that much, time makes a ladder of her anyway." This interview was conducted via phone call in early June. * Colin Barrett: In the opening scene of Strange Hotel, a woman walks into a hotel room in Avignon and suddenly realizes she has been here before. This mundane cosmic coincidence opens a rich seam of memory in her. As she tries to recall the particulars of her previous stay, we come to realize that she is trying to keep other memories at bay, and that she is trying to achieve that by being hyper-focused on the present. As the book proceeds, we see her traverse an endless chain of hotel rooms. Did this premise come first, or did it emerge out of your sense of this particular character, who is capable of elaborating at length on certain things, but being scrupulously reticent about others? Can you even make a distinction between the premise and the characters on one hand, and the writing style on the other? Eimear McBride: I find it quite hard to separate them out. Writing is a complete process of discovery beginning to end. I don’t arrive with the plot ready, or the characters, or the style in which I want to write. It all emerges in a sort of rush and mess together, and it’s my job to pick my way through it and make sense of it. Strange Hotel originally started as a short story, which is unusual for me because I’m really not a short story writer, and clearly, I’m still not a short story writer [laughs]. At the beginning I felt there was a gain in going against what I’d written in the past, and so rather than use fractured perspective, narrative, and syntax to bring the character closer to the reader, I wanted to use language in a really different way. I wanted to write about someone using language as a means of creating distance, not only with the reader but within themselves. It was fun being contrary about that because there had been some criticism of how opaque my other books were, how difficult they were. So it was fun to use really formal, correct, linear sentences, where everything was correctly punctuated, in order to show how even straightforward language doesn’t actually aid communication. I’d written two books about much younger women and I felt the language they were written in really conveyed urgency, that experience of life when you’re young, the almost overwhelming nature of it. In this book the protagonist is someone who is not very inclined to be overwhelmed, who wants to keep her distance, who doesn’t want to be very close to her memories or her pain or to the people around her. Somebody who is going to be much older. And so I realised early on I would be writing about a middle aged woman instead of a young woman. Even though the book is written in the third person, and the reader sees the woman from “outside” herself, there is still, by conventional standards, a paucity of expositional detail about who she is and what her backstory is, to use an industry term. We don’t know her name, why she is in any of the places she is in, etc. Holding back that information while writing in the third person presents its own challenges. What was it that compelled you to make the decision to write this way? I thought, “I’ll have a go.” Of course it’s not proper third person at all, it’s close third. The reader is allowed into her thought process as it’s going along, which is why there is no explanation, why she is thinking the things she’s thinking, and you just have to pick up what the details are, what the backstory is, in the way that you do when you think about your life, when you think about something that happened. You don’t think about the things that led up to it, that’s not how the thought process works. In a way we take lots for granted, our understanding of ourselves. So part of the challenge was to make sure there was enough there to suggest to the reader the bigger picture, but at the same time not succumb to that convention of the character looking in the mirror, describing how they look, etc. That makes sense. I mean, when we are experiencing our memories, thinking about our past, we don’t do so in an ordered, detailed sequence, the way it tends to be delivered in stories. Another trait of the character, and the writing itself, is the heightened attention, the granular focus, she gives to even the completely mundane and generic fixtures in and around the various hotels she’s staying in, the way the light falls on a hallway wall through the slats on the windows, the difference in textures between the filters of British versus European cigarettes stubbed out in the sand on the beach… She does not prioritize deep thoughts. She is not interested in cultivating great moments of revelation, or thinking about works of art or anything profound. What I was interested in is the diplomatic thing the eye does when it falls on anything, it gives the thing the attention it wants to give it, rather than the attention that thing might or might not deserve. Character is the thing I’m most interested in, and how language serves that. In this case, there is a character who is not interested in feeling. At the moment I’m feeling exhausted by how much feeling everyone is having all the time, and how much shouting there is going on, on the internet, etc. Everyone is expressing everything all the time. It was a relief to write about a character who wasn’t interested in making sure everyone knew how she felt. She is someone who is really, really quite preoccupied with not being at the mercy of her emotions. So it was really about writing a book that was about thinking about feeling, rather than feeling itself. The book does definitely have a plot, and she definitely does have a backstory, but her history is revealed in brief, allusive glimpses rather than in chunks of direct exposition. You said you think of character first; in relation to the reader did you agonize over that stuff, about how explicit you should be in fleshing out the character? Did you always know what the key points of her past were, or did it surprise you as you were writing it? It did surprise me. It’s something I always thinks about in the second draft more than the first draft. You can’t just write what you’re writing, you have to be a writer. You are aware of wanting to be read, and while you don’t cater to what you think the reader’s expectations will be, at the same time you have to acknowledge that you are not really writing it to put it in the drawer. You have to give enough to the reader to allow them to make the picture for themselves. But it is very hard to assess that, the writer’s instinct has to try and gauge that, and you can’t know whether you’ve gauged it correctly or not until it’s published and people read it. They understand or they don’t understand. But I think it’s an impossible thing to plan for. I do think that readers are far more tolerant and patient than they are given credit for, and all the faff to get Girl published and all the publishers who thought no one would ever read a book like that, it was proved that that was not the case. There are plenty of readers willing to have a go. It’s not that they necessarily love it or want to read lots of books like that, but they enjoy being obliged to engage with writing in a different sort of way, not just the usual, “Here’s the story, here’s the characters, here’s what happened, the end.” I think there are readers for whom process is enough. It’s not about the big finish. Readers are interested in character. It’s the endless fight isn’t it, the pushing, pushing, pushing, the prioritisation of plot above all else, but there are plenty of readers for whom that is not the be-all and end-all of the reading experience. It’s okay for some books not to have to engage readers in that way, although you’d think from the reaction of the critical press it was the most terrible thing you can do to a reader, expect them to pay attention to a book. That interests me. And I hope there’s enough weirdos out there like me, who are also interested in that! I wanted to ask about the treatment of time. It’s a short book, it traverses huge expanses of time and space, taking place all over the world and over a number of years. Yet each scene takes place in a kind of cool, dead, parenthetical interval, where on the surface nothing much is happening. Things have happened to the character, but each time we see her she is stuck in the present, in nowhere, a kind of nowhere time. When you’re younger, you don’t think about time, and when you’re older things become more urgent. Things feel like they have already slipped by, things have been missed, and I suppose in the midst of the travelling and the hotel rooms there is the idea that wherever you go and however freeing the anonymity is, there is, ultimately, no escape from the self—your self—that is continuing to move through time whether you want it to or not. She really would prefer time not be moving on, not because she doesn’t want to be older, not because she wants to be a young woman again, but because, as becomes clear, she feels that everything that is going to happen has happened. She is seeking a kind of stasis. What she can control is her interactions with other people and so she is seeking to stop the possibility of all that, of future intimacy and closeness. She wants to stop time within herself in a bid to hold herself close to the time that was once meaningful. She’s stuck. She does not want to move on, but also is trying to barricade herself psychically against the encroachment of her own past. She seems to be pursuing the idea that she can will herself into anonymity, disintegrate her personality, allow it to take on new shapes, or no shape at all. But the more she tries to do exactly that, the more she seems to loop back to her foundational concerns, to the matrix of her personality… I think she wishes she could do that. She is able to dissolve herself to a degree, but continuously returns to this very firm sense of herself. That sense of self doesn’t necessarily follow, or isn’t expressed, in all the usual markers of identity, like family, job, financial status, but it’s still there, this fundamental knowledge that she cannot escape, even though she wishes to. I don’t think of the self as being amorphous. While there are all these markers of identity that we display as emblems of self, beyond all that there is a harder, darker, colder bit, right at our centre. A bit that maybe we find harder to live with, but it is the bit that counts, that never changes, that never becomes anything else and which is quite hard to deal with. Lastly, the book got me thinking about hotels. In the book they function as as these sort temporal waystations, outside of time almost, where the protagonists can think about time, her own experiences in time. And above being either luxuries or expediencies, that’s what hotels are, these interstitial spaces that operate by their own logic of time, outside of ordinary time. Wherever you go a hotel operates on hotel time, and you really begin to feel it if you stay in one for more than a handful of nights. You can go get a drink, or have a swim or whatever if there’s a pool, but it’s all preset, on a loop… it gets weird after a time. A hotel is a place you go to wait. You are waiting for a thing to happen, or you are waiting to leave. Eventually, you realize that it’s just you in a space, and there’s nothing else. You don’t have to go cook the dinner, or help with homework, or walk the dog, there’s nothing to distract you. You are a body floating in space, in this anonymous space, just being yourself, and either engaging with that self or trying not to engage with yourself. You don’t have to do anything, that’s the rationale behind a hotel, you don’t have to do anything. I don’t know how comfortable most people are with that... Maybe you should have to make your own bed when you arrive! It would be something to do. Well, that would invest you in some way, into the experience of the room. You realize there’s a whole machinery working around you; of people that are invested in their jobs, in their relations with their co-workers, the welfare of the guests, but you—the guest—are not part of that. You are outside of all that. You are the reason everyone is there. But you yourself, you have no reason.
Paper Faces on Parade

Sanctioning the buffoonery of Joel Schumacher.

It has been three months since the murder. At the insistence of a shadowy tutor, the neglected ingénue Christine Daaé has been catapulted to stardom. Toggling between her and their (exhausted and exhausting) resident diva La Carlotta, the Opera Populaire has seen a period of quiet, comfortable success: a bustling box office and contented patrons, tepidly applauding familiar, easy repertory French farces such as Il Muto—works that feature but do not challenge their new star or the city’s bourgeois sensibilities. Three months of relief and of delight—no more ghosts, and no more notes.And then the Phantom returns.Crashing their New Year’s Eve masquerade in exquisitely bad taste, the Phantom delivers the manuscript for his new project: a feverish, frenzied adaptation of the story of a damned lothario, Don Juan Triumphant. The score, the hostage company discovers, is a cacophony of discordant, unpleasant wails and jangles; the enclosed sketches for its set design are a lugubrious nightmare; its projected “hero” is a sex pest who is finally swallowed by the Hell he has certainly earned in an end that no audience will ever mourn. Amid the Phantom’s tyrannical and absurdly sedulous demands (beefing with the orchestra’s struggling third trombone, body-shaming the chubby male lead), the cast reacts in horror. Ugly, unsingable, barely music or theatre at all, the tasteless Don Juan will certainly be laughed off the stage. In a sequence added to the 2006 film adaptation by director Joel Schumacher, Miranda Richardson’s Madame Giry—the dance instructor who once saved the young Phantom and is, bizarrely, the only character in a film set in Paris who speaks with a French accent—breaks down in a hallway as our stalwart romantic lead Raoul (played by a staggeringly handsome Patrick Wilson) comforts her. She weeps for the young boy she saved: “He is a genius! An architect, a designer, a composer, a magician! A genius!” “Yes, Madame Giry,” dim, sweet Raoul says soothingly, “but clearly genius has turned to madness.” * I turned thirteen in the summer of 1997—deeply closeted and, headed in the fall to an all-boys Catholic private school far from the suburbs, about to become more closeted still. The key to surviving in the closet is plausible deniability. You frequently do not really need to pass; you just need to provide adequate cover, and signal a sufficient threshold of shame. The Nineties superhero comics that littered my bedroom—rife with rippling male physiques, full of gooey alien symbiotes menacing a half-naked Peter Parker, Superman’s clothes-shredding pietas, and the queer idylls of Charles Xavier’s welcoming school for the different—always had the optics of simple, normal, four-colour escapism, and so they survived a household that insisted by dizzying turns on suffocating religious devotion and paralyzing macho gruffness. It was under these conditions that on my birthday—a teenager at last—my best friend and I went to the Cinema 8 in Pickering, Ontario, to see Batman & Robin. From the opening shots, it was very clear something had gone horribly wrong; as the montage smash-cut from close-ups of male crotch to buttocks and back again, I felt, with a horrible sinking feeling, as plausible deniability seeped away like so much alien goo. I returned home that night with a feeling I’d never felt in a movie theatre and whose meaning I struggled to coordinate: I felt ashamed. I slunk into the basement, using the dial-up modem on our ancient Hewlett-Packard (which I mostly used to play endless hours of multiplayer DOOM 2) to log onto AintitCoolNews. My cheeks still hot with confusion, I found the review I’d been scrupulously avoiding because of spoilers. I read Harry Knowles say this: “First, let me say that Joel Schumacher should be shot and killed. I will pay a handsome bounty to the man (or woman) who delivers me the head of this Anti Christ.”Over the next months, the film and its director rapidly became a punchline. In an episode of Batman the Animated Series, a lisping, mincing teen wrapped in a feather boa under a sign that says “Shoemaker” squeals with delight when he hears some other kids talking about Batman: “I love Batman! All those muscles, the tight rubber armor, and that flashy car—I heard it can drive up walls!” The other teens roll their eyes: “Yeah, sure, Joel.” Knowles meanwhile spearheaded a blitzkrieg of frothing bad press for the film, himself penning 52 separate negative reviews riddled with his characteristic homophobia and misogyny (the paparazzi dubbed star Alicia Silverstone, whom they felt had been insufficiently sexualized in the role, “Fatgirl”), and it bombed egregiously with critics and fans alike, tanking not just the franchise but badly damaging the studio as a whole. I may have felt ashamed, but the film hadn’t. And I learned a little more about what being unashamed can cost. * A fluffy, tufted gorilla suit makes its way clumsily through a crowd of oafish glitterati. It seems to be just part of the party’s awful, kitschy tiki-pastiche décor, but once the lumbering ape reaches the dais, with a sinuous, sensuous slink on the soundtrack, the beast begins to gyrate, and the crowd turns to stare. One glove slips off, then another, exposing elegant, manicured hands, and at last the fursuit falls away to reveal not just a woman, but the woman, blowing a kiss that leaves the striptease’s audience—onscreen and off—under her spell.It is the showstopping cabaret number in Blonde Venus, the 1932 Cary Grant vehicle that introduced German émigré and bisexual icon Marlene Dietrich to American audiences. But it is also, shot for shot, the introduction of Batman & Robin’s villainous Poison Ivy—played by Uma Thurman, who oscillates wildly between a broad, aloof Mae West drawl and a mousy, twitchy academic, without ever clarifying which is the real and which the drag (Ivy twice disguises herself by pulling on a “wig” of Thurman’s own hair, while in the front seat her enormous goon Bane discreetly dons a chauffeur hat over his bio-mechanical luchador mask). In her Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag credits one of the term’s earliest definitions to Isherwood’s The World in the Evening: “a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich”; in its Blonde Venus burlesque, then, and in the animated series’ cruel mockery of its director, Batman & Robin takes camp almost to its absolute taxonomic source. But Isherwood also there warns that camp cannot exist without a profound appreciation and close reading of its target: “You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. […] You're expressing what’s basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance. Baroque art is basically camp about religion. The ballet is camp about love.” Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin (like Batman Forever, the film that preceded it) is a film in delirious love with its subject, and that subject is the goofy, gay beauty of the modern myth of the superhero. Overt in its desires and its delights, the film stares with incredible, lingering longing at Chris O’Donnell’s bedewed lips, submerges the cold, aloof Bruce Wayne beneath the warm, kind smirk of George Clooney (a Batman who smiles!), and—most unforgiveable of all—it put nipples on the bat-suit. I will tell you the secret of why Batman’s nipples so enrage its critics: because the charade is over. The swells and dips of the lovingly sculpted male torso can be explained, and therefore explained away: these muscles are the site of masculine power; they speak, surely, of strength, of solidity and unremitting training. It is no accident that every femme fatale in Batman’s cinematic rogues gallery fans her hands across these rubberized zones, seeking the chink in the armor. But the male nipple has no such function, no exculpatory capacity for war; the nipple is the site of weakness, of sensitivity—and of pleasure. Plausible deniability is gone. Put a nipple on the batsuit, and you admit to having fun.Unproductive fun, perverse fun, queer fun—the Schumacher Batman films are, in Jonathan Goldberg’s analysis of a parallel vein in queer texts by Shakespeare and Marlowe, sodomitical, wholly uninterested in the patina of virtuous grimaces or generative reconstitutions of order (grim and grimy and gritty—the superhero equivalent of making love missionary-style through a bedsheet) and instead reveling in the spectacular and preposterous (a term that literally means “putting the ass first,” which is indeed both a Renaissance euphemism for gay sex and also literally how the films’ glorious butt-shots kick off their action). It is not just this celebration of the beauty of the male form that marks Schumacher’s auteurism, but a wild, debauched excess of style and narratives that foreground the displaced, lost other. From Jim Carrey’s Riddler’s obsessive, yearning lust for Bruce Wayne to Chris O’Donnell’s martial arts laundry skills to a neon-noir Gotham City peopled by Day-Glo supermodel pompadour gangs, the films are wall-to-wall pageantry and faggotry, and they do not apologize for it. Instead, they create a sensitively observed and minutely detailed love-letter to the wry surrealist goofiness of the 1966 Adam West/Burt Ward series that had saved the property from obscurity and catapulted Batman so immovably into pop celebrity, and itself made by a rogues gallery of Sixties counter-cultural icons. Indeed, Carrey’s zany hyperkinetics—clad in gorgeous crystal-studded leotards and with dazzlingly acrobatic cane-work—pay meticulous homage to Frank Gorshin’s own Riddler, whose giggling fiendishness nearly earned him an Emmy. “Remember,” Schumacher was fond of saying to the actors on set, “you’re in a cartoon!”This style is not without its critics. Even on-set, Carrey struggled to connect with cackling co-villain Tommy Lee Jones; pleading to be liked, Carrey says he cornered Jones, who told him openly he detested the man—then, needled for more to go on, looked Carrey dead in the eye and rasped: “I cannot sanction your buffoonery.”* Schumacher’s broader oeuvre, even in films with budgets in the hundreds of millions, is consistently obsessed with the outsider, the misfit, the buffoon. His early endeavours include cult classic musical Sparkle (the prototype for Dreamgirls), followed by Car Wash—a film now infamous for queer icon Lindy, who responds to being called a “sorry-looking faggot” with an imperious “who’re you calling ‘sorry-looking’?” and rejoinders “I am more man than you’ll ever be, and more woman than you’ll ever get.” In 1978, Schumacher penned the screenplay that took the quintessential American myth—The Wizard of Oz—and transformed into a critique of the American effacement of Black culture and labour: The Wiz. There, even the thoughtlessness of L. Frank Baum’s Scarecrow becomes a fable of systemic oppression, as the crows make the painfully sensitive dummy sing a song of their own devising about his own misfit uselessness that keeps him helpless upon his perch; when he doffs his hat to Dorothy, his head is not empty, but to her horror has been filled up by those who would keep him docile with “garbage.” The critics that revile Schumacher ignore that he was perfectly capable of making tight, hardboiled films—the impossibly taut Phonebooth, the dismaying hopelessness of Falling Down—and instead just as often would, like Bartleby, prefer not to. The Lost Boys may be a shrewd glance at the AIDS crisis and at the rootlessness and poverty of so many young queer lives, but the film is also a roaringly energetic comedy that delights in chaos and cute moody boys and loud, rowdy found family. “Take off that earring; it doesn’t suit you at all,” the mean-spirited young brother hisses at the breathtakingly beautiful male lead Jason Patric (whose vampiric style now trends to the androgynous and whose resemblance to Jim Morrison is emphasized by a matching dissolve), then adds with a sneer: “Have you been watching too much Dynasty?” By film’s end, however, the two have made peace and forged an acceptance of Michael’s outré new alternative lifestyle: “You’re my brother, even if you are a vampire.” The malevolent father figure (played by Edward Hermann with the same avuncular dweebishness he brought to Gilmore Girls), however, who tries to reinstantiate the stability of heteronormative family, is quite thoroughly and satisfyingly exploded. As an artist, Schumacher recognized there is something important, transformative, and transcendent about joy as resistance; he had as instinct what every poor NYC club kid knows: the revolution, when it comes, must be opulent. He extended this interest in underdogs to fostering underseen talent, launched the careers of many of Hollywood’s best-known faces, shepherding the Brat Pack, Julia Roberts, Kiefer Sutherland, Colin Farrell, Gerard Butler, Matthew McConaughey, and many others into the public eye, frequently sacrificing established bankability to mint a new star. Pop singer Seal credits Schumacher with turning “Kiss from a Rose” from relative obscurity to karaoke staple, while Jim Carrey, whose buffoonery Schumacher had sanctioned not just in Forever but in Number 23, said that Schumacher “saw deeper things in me than most and he lived a wonderfully creative and heroic life. I am grateful to have had him as a friend.” Remembering working with him on Phantom of the Opera (in which she plays the past-her-prime diva), Minnie Driver meanwhile recalled this week that “once, on set, an actress was complaining about me within earshot [about] how I was dreadfully over the top (I was).” Driver said that Schumacher “barely looked up from his New York Times” and replied: “Oh honey, no one ever paid to see under the top.” * The climaxes of Don Juan Triumphant and Phantom of the Opera itself dovetail in a final number—“The Point of No Return,” in which the Phantom replaces the murdered lead actor Piangi as Don Juan (himself disguised, in the tissue of the play, as his own servant, Passerino, to effect a last cruel “seduction” before his damnation). The company knew if his opera was staged, he was certain to attend, and have laid traps for him—everywhere except onstage. Now they watch, helpless from the wings, as he stalks opposite the ingénue who consumes him, intent to abduct her at last. The moment is badly, almost fatally, under-imagined in stage productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical, with the Phantom in a black shroud, completely illegible, and the stage half-heartedly dressed with a dinner table to facilitate a cheap disappearance trick at the end: a pretty melody, wasted.In the film, however, Schumacher transforms it into a shocking, bizarre set-piece: the stage, ablaze with a hideously avant-garde depiction of the hell-mouth that has come to swallow Don Juan to his damnation. Surrounded by expressionist cut-outs of flame and jarring tilted-angle smash-cuts to sweaty flamenco dancers moving with jerky arrhythmia, the Phantom (here restyled as a beautiful baroque toreador) and Christine now climb up parallel winding staircases to Hell, as the score palpates and whirls with bleats and trumpeting and the theatre’s patrons recoil in visible confusion and disgust.The coup de grace is the Phantom, whose disguise is no disguise at all: Gerard Butler’s own face, in a mere domino mask, only revealed in close-up at the last second of his unmasking to be part of an elaborate hair-and-makeup prosthesis to conceal his othering disfigurement. His disguise ripped away—Passerino is not Don Juan is not Piangi is not the Phantom is not even the handsome “real” of Gerard Butler—he slices through a cord, plunging down the onstage shaft of Hell with his prize as, from above the crowd, the chandelier falls to crush the paper-fire set and consume the Opera Populaire and its screaming, tacky arriviste audience in gouts of burning wreckage. This week we lost Joel Schumacher. He was a denizen of the NYC queer underground, a department store window-dresser, a fashion designer, a screenwriter, and finally one of cinema’s most iconic and reviled directors. He was eighty years old.He left the audience disgusted, and the theatre aflame.
‘You Can Sing an Alternate Reality’: An Interview with Sasha Geffen

Talking to the author of Glitter Up the Dark about Savage Garden as entry-point to fandom, missing shitty clubs in the midst of a pandemic, and Britney Spears’s communist reblogs.

“Mr. Presley has no discernible singing ability,” the New York Times critic Jack Gould fumed in 1956. “His one specialty is an accented movement of the body that heretofore has been primarily identified with the repertoire of the blonde bombshells of the burlesque runway.” In their new book Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary, the slyer critic Sasha Geffen notes that he could’ve just called Elvis a male bimbo. Geffen scours a century of music for these glinting crystals, from 1920s blues singers to early synth experiments, Beatlemania to grunge, with Prince as a genre unto himself. Even the most harmonic among them carried notes of dissonance, rupturing the carefully gendered voice. Geffen invokes canonical artists with wan mischief—“Titless, he struts like he’s got his tits out for all to see,” they write of Iggy Pop—and keeps finding curious historical details, like how Klaus Nomi settled on his abstracted outfit because a full costume would’ve been too expensive. They also hit on the ways capitalism tries to recuperate each moment of subversion: “If it can’t get rid of them, patriarchy tends to devour its threats.” But that process never moves in only one direction, and Glitter Up the Dark lovingly describes the affinities drawn together by the act of listening. “Inside a song,” Geffen writes, “every singer is exactly who she says she is in the moment her voice passes through her throat.” Chris Randle: After the prologue where you talk about early modern American music, like, the blues, Harlem Renaissance people, why did you decide to start the book with the Beatles, and specifically their first pop covers? Were you looking to invert the canon? Sasha Geffen: I don't know if it's an inversion, necessarily, but I wanted to point to a moment that I saw as the beginning of pop culture and fandom as I think it still is now. This gathering of attention around a band on a mass scale, with heavy consumerism involved too. And I thought the Beatles were a pretty reliable starting point when it comes to pop as a mass cultural phenomenon, because even though pop is 50, 60, 70 years old, depending on when you want to mark it, that's the first time that someone makes dolls out of a band that I could find. Action figures, wigs, merch. And it also seemed to be a sea change in the way that fans oriented themselves around bands, taking bands as these objects that generated identity. So it wasn't that I see the Beatles as the beginning of pop music, because they're not, but they did seem to mark a shift that made a good starting point for this discussion. Yeah, my sense is that, at least before World War Two, stardom didn't work in quite the same way. Like, more often the songs would become famous and the stars would be Artie Shaw, or whoever. Right, it feels like the song was more the defining unit of liking pop music. And the Beatles came along in a decade where the teenager had just been established as a post-war phenomenon, where there was all this money concentrated in the hands of young white people, and a lot of capitalists were eager to draw it away from them by any means possible [laughs]. And Elvis kind of started with that too, but I think the Beatles really raised the stakes to another level, the level of urgency around Beatles fandom was unparalleled at the time. Even just, like, the hair. I actually love how much attention you lavish on that [laughs]. It's more interesting than the music, I think. Just the way they looked is so fascinating, it's so specific. There's an old Hannah Black tweet that went, "Gender is 50% hair." It's true. It's the first thing that people notice when they see you. Do you remember a moment earlier in your own life when you saw a music video, or heard a song on the radio, and sensed everything turning liquid in that way? Yeah, I can tell you my Savage Garden origin story! That was my first experience with fandom, and it's really dorky. When I was maybe nine or ten years old, I was really into being online, and went to all these different goofy fandom things, games, virtual pets. That whole '90s culture of having your own colorful home page: "Here's this GIF of a cartoon cat that I adopted from someone else's website." And one of the sites I went to had this auto-playing MIDI rendition of the Savage Garden song "Truly Madly Deeply." I would hear it every single day, and I didn't know what it was, and it was just a melody without lyrics so you couldn't look it up. Then I was on a plane, listening to the looping airplane radio, and that song came on, and I was like, holy shit, it's the song from the cat website that I visit all the time. There was a pre-recorded announcer who identified the band as Savage Garden, so I went home—I think one of their newer songs was playing on the radio too, from the second album. So I convinced my parents to buy me both albums, and I had this ritual of putting in the first self-titled record, the little orange CD, into my mom's computer right before I would go online, and go into my chat rooms pretending to be this gender-morphing fantasy creature. I think that voice triggered something in me for sure, because Darren Hayes's voice is so effeminate and so androgynous, so interestingly coarse. It's very high, and he uses his falsetto, but it also feels kind of crimped and faltering at points. There's a lot of failure hard-coded into it. In retrospect I could see that speaking to my own bodily situation, of being about to go through puberty not really knowing what I was in for, and excited to become a sexual being but also obviously not doing it the right way, according to the feedback I got from my peers [laughs]. Being told that my relationship to myself was weird or wrong or gross, all that fun baby gay shit where you don't know what's happening yet, but everyone's like, "You're disgusting." And you're like, "I'm just here trying to be a person, I don't know what's happening." So that band was like a sanctuary for me at 11 or 12, I was obsessed to the point where it was my schtick. When you're in middle school and no one knows what to do with you, they just assign you a schtick. I had a VHS and a DVD of their music videos, and I just watched them obsessively. The "I Want You" music video, I think I write about it in the book, because that was a big one for me. He's got that gross chin-length stringy hair, looks really young and androgynous, he's in this cool cyberpunk environment. I actually got my hair cut like that, or tried to, it didn't really work because I've got Jewish hair. I had printed out this black-and-white photo of Darren Hayes at his most androgynous, and I brought it to the person who cut my hair at the time like, turn me into this please. That's kind of the root of my whole desire to see the gender in music, I guess, because they were both so intricately bound up for me from a young age. Was there anything that turned up from research that really surprised you? I love the detail about Wendy Carlos, that she had to do her first publicity appearances in male drag. Yeah! That was a fun one. I guess I didn't know a lot about Alice Cooper, especially his early work and early appearances, how he was spouting lines that sound very much like Tumblr-queer jargon now. "Everybody has a little male and female in them, it's a biological fact." Which sounds like an infographic you'd see among social justice communities, but he was saying it to be provocative, because in the early '70s you couldn't just do media interviews and say that shit without making some people upset. And of course his whole getup was designed to be freakish, it wasn't like Alice Cooper was wearing makeup to be pretty, it was to look garish. What also surprised me, kind of from that same era, is how you see the young proto-punks like the Stooges being really into the Beatles, because they're so frightening to their surroundings. Like being into Nazi imagery and being into Beatles imagery were equally provocative. It's mind-boggling to me, because the Beatles seem so tame and anodyne now, it's like dad culture. But people would get catcalled, you'd get called "Beatle" on the street if you had long hair with the venom of a slur. That shifted my preconceptions around these eras I was studying. I feel like you don't always know the norms of a particular musical era, even if you know the music pretty well, so reading a bunch of contemporary interviews was really interesting, because you could see the shock happening in real time [laughs]. Seeing very square, very straight music journalists getting up in arms over what Lou Reed or Alice Cooper were doing was funny and revealing. You spend a lot of this book writing about the ambiguity of voices. Why do you think they're so malleable in that way? I think just the fact that they're the one musical sound that comes directly from the body, and that the body by necessity has to be malleable and flexible. Humans are very adaptable, and at least in hearing communities we communicate primarily through voice—communication isn't just done through actual words, it's intonation, accents, all kinds of subtle variations in the way voice is used. I think that extends to music, maybe it's even intensified in music, because music is this heightened dream-space. When you're singing it's not the same as speaking, it's this gauzy detachment from linear reality, where the song is looping in perpetuity, if that makes sense. Especially since recording began, individual vocal takes are frozen in time forever, kind of in their own reality. So I see voice as an opportunity to try out ways of being, ways of expression, that don't necessarily have to be rooted in the material conditions of your life. You can sing an alternate reality, an alternate mode of relations, and it doesn't mean you have to be that person that you're playing. It's almost embodied and disembodied at the same time. Like, an impression of the singer with no visual. Totally. Yeah. And in many cases an impression of a singer who's no longer alive, who no longer has a body to which that voice corresponds, but this ghostly after-impression of their voice still lives on. I think that makes it ripe for a lot of tension and conflict, and that's where I see a lot of these themes of gender-weirdness coming out. Early on you mention those wax-cylinder recordings of the last castrato, Alessandro Moreschi, and it made me think of—do you know this book called Making Sex, by Thomas Laqueur? I think you've mentioned it to me before, it's on my list of things I should be reading but haven't yet, because I'm a very bad procrastinator and a slow reader. I've gotten better, but I get disillusioned. Sadie Dupuis [guitarist/vocalist of Speedy Ortiz] just posted her April books pile, and it was like eight books, and I'm like, shut the fuck up [laughs]. I've been inching my way through Faulkner and Alice Walker right now, these classics that were on my bookshelf, but I've been doing it every day, which is progress. It's funny, because Making Sex is a book from the early '90s by this middle-aged cis professor that doesn't explicitly mention trans people at all ever, but it's about the endlessly changing and contradictory "scientific" definitions of sex. Starting with the Aristotelian one, where he was like, "Women are cold and wet, which corresponds with the elements of..." Right, women are like 3D printers for the male form. Laqueur writes that all of these definitions of sex contain claims about gender. There's a part on the Renaissance where he discusses various cases of intersex people, what became of them, the formal decision on their identity from the local duke or whomever. He says that, generally, "as long as sign matched status, all was well." And in so much popular music sign does not match status. It reminded me of that great essay you did about robotic voices—I actually have this giant quote from it pasted into my phone: "When grafted onto robots, alpha masculinity becomes distended and uncanny; Robocop and the Terminator supplant organic masculinity with a hilariously overwrought form of butch. Others present a beta masculinity ripe with pathos: the tragically named Alpha from Power Rangers, whose neuroses constantly short-circuit him, or Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s Data..." I guess I'm wondering, how do you feel those cinematic robots relate to synth-pop and vocoders? I think you see a lot of overlap in Laurie Anderson, who I write about in the book, who created a caricature of masculinity using vocoders and pitch-shifters, which was deployed to a subtle comedic effect. It's a character that she uses a lot throughout the early '80s to poke fun at the idea of competent masculinity, masculinity as the harbinger of the future and as the natural subject of America. The comic effect of roboticizing masculinity definitely appears there, like, how powerful can masculinity be if it's so easily mimicked by something that's not a man? And that's true for failing robots like Data, it's true for someone like Laurie Anderson, and I think more recently you see Dorian Electra working in a similar vein, where they're doing office drag and singing through vocoder about being a "career boy." Performing all these stereotypical male roles ... The idea that masculinity is kind of inherently comic, because it's so stilted and brittle, comes into play there. And robots are a good excuse to magnify that, because they're so easy to break, and ill-fitting in the role of human in a similar way that men are. It's interesting that Daft Punk, the other artists who had a Billboard hit while dressed as robots, have always been smoothly asexual in their persona. But not the camp C-3PO thing, or even that Data type, more like the Terminator if it were just making house jams ... In the Prince chapter, you talk about him in these Sapphic terms, echoing Wendy & Lisa's own description of him as a "fancy lesbian." I was thinking about the inverse, divas with a homoerotic affect, like Madonna. I couldn't find a way to slot Madonna in. There were moments, but I couldn't make them cohere into an argument, whereas Prince, the chapter could've been longer ... He was so specific with such widespread appeal. I don't know any other pop star who managed to be that consistently strange and opaque and elusive and still so massively popular. So insistent on his own displacement from his surroundings, in terms of gender, the way he produced his music, and his relationships with the rest of the band. He's my favourite musician, and I find "If I Was Your Girlfriend" so moving in the way that it takes this fantasy of perfect mastery—Prince writing and performing and producing every element of every song, shifting between genders effortlessly—and crushes it down into the narrow intimacies of heterosexuality. Yeah, and I feel like there's this longing for a feminized mastery within the lyrics, right? This caretaking that he doesn't necessarily have access to in his male form, as a man who loves women. There's this whole realm of mastery that he's sealed off from, and the best he can do is use his mastery of music to simulate it, or try to find a way in to pantomime it. In the chapters on dance music, you write a lot about these distended experiences of time: The improvised circuit of DJ and dancers, the stopped clock at the Loft. It feels very appropriate now that we're living in this endless suspended present. What do you think distinguishes the two? Why is one of them euphoric and the other nightmarish? There's a point to the former, right? Being in a place where there's a lot of sensory input, you're hearing music that's really loud, you're surrounded by other people, maybe your end goal is just to dance, or maybe it's to get high and peak at some point during the night, or to have sex or whatever. Even though the moment is extended, there's direction within it, there's narrative. And that narrative doesn't necessarily conform to clock time, it's on its own timeline, but it does have peaks and valleys, it does begin and eventually end. Whereas what we're doing now, there's no end to it, it seems so yawning and empty. And obviously we can't be around other people, so all the sensory overload and the sensuality of the dance floor is drained out of the picture. It's interesting how it's even drained out of musical experiences that are happening. I totally get that musicians have to do something to survive when they can't tour, because for so many musicians that's their only source of income, so playing Zoom shows makes sense, but I feel like it's such a different experience from an actual concert. Where you feel the vibrations from the speakers in your body, and you're near other people reacting at the same time. The lack of any sensory shift makes the moment impoverished, I think. It's so weird, I had that thought of, wow, this really shows how time is conditional. The fact that March took 400 years and April didn't really ... happen? It doesn't seem like April happened, there was no demarcation there. There's no narrative to it because everything is just bad all the time and slowly getting worse ... I thought that I would be fine through this, I kind of dug in my heels like, whatever, I'm in my house anyways so it doesn't really matter that I have to stay inside my house. But the psychological effect of everyone I know being stuck and suffering for it... The idea that something bad is happening and there's nothing you can do about it except stay home is hard to swallow. All of that makes this hellish. But it's a good example, or at least an effective example [laughs], of how time is conditional. I wish I could be on a dance floor. Ever since I moved to Denver I haven't been to as many shows or dance nights as I once went to in Chicago, because I knew the environment, knew the layout of the city a little bit better. Here there's a lot of—I don't want to bad-talk Denver, but there's a lot of EDM and jam bands, just not as much of an abundance of stuff I like. But I didn't really miss it before all this, I was like, alright, that's fine, I'll get my few shows out, that scratches the itch as I'm getting older. And now I need to be in a shitty club with sticky floors and concrete walls, where I can't hear anything but feedback, with a bunch of drunk people [laughs]. That's something I miss that I didn't think I would miss. Your book made me return to that Octo Octa album from last year [Resonant Body], where she gestures towards '90s rave anthems without just pastiching them or lapsing into melancholy. It feels like this intense solidarity. Totally. She goes through those gestures with such a light touch, it feels like there's room for forward motion. Right, it feels purposeful. And I feel like that's the challenge in a larger sense too, how to care for and remember all the people who are sick and dying. It's strange to try to be present without being present right now. It's also troubling how conveniently dependent we are on internet technologies to communicate now and care for each other in whatever ways we can, like, with the refusal to bail out the postal service. Any non-corporate communication we have is being starved. One of your recurring themes is how the gender expression of marginalized people gets eyed up and repackaged by capitalism. Have you read that Elijah Wald book, How the Beatles Destroyed Rock & Roll? No, I haven't. The title is very inflammatory [laughs], there's only, like, one chapter about the Beatles. It's more a secret history of American pop music, touching on some fantastically unfashionable artists like Pat Boone or Paul Whiteman, because people were listening to them. And one of his recurring themes is the way that music-making gets shaped by recording technology. He argues that a big influence behind the rise of the album in the '60s was—I'm not really an audiophile, I forget exactly what changed to allow for longer LPs, but something did. Before music was a recorded commodity, people would take songs and adapt them and put their own twist on them—it's a very human impulse, I think, to do that. But when the music industry comes along that becomes part of capitalism's repertoire. How do you feel that's all been accelerated and complicated by digital technology? I'm thinking of Arca sequencing her album to confound streaming services. That whole phenomenon just has accelerated, right? As soon as something's published online it can be devoured. A somewhat recent example is Rihanna's Saturday Night Live performance [in 2012], where she or her creative design team borrowed elements from seapunk, which was this small semi-comedic vaporwave offshoot out of Chicago led by a trans girl and a cis girl, just making lots of '90s-nostalgic synth music. Lots of Ecco the Dolphin visuals. Lots of digital replications of paradises, beaches and oceans and palm trees, that made it into this Rihanna performance. Very quickly things from the fringes were scooped up and repackaged around a mainstream pop star. I think maybe what you're seeing is a new generation of artists kind of accepting that as inevitable? Making work so quickly that the swagger-jackers can't keep up. You see a lot of trans artists in particular putting out a ton of stuff, like Black Dresses and Ada Rook and that whole network, releasing three or four albums a year sometimes. Pouring out music at the rate that they're making it, and not necessarily working through a label or thinking so much about marketing. It's interesting because that's almost the speed at which the Beatles were releasing albums, back when an album didn't have to have these high levels of production, you could have four cover songs and it wasn't a big deal. You only have to write four to six songs, and then you record it all over two days. Before the album became this art object, when it was just a convenient package for songs by popular artists, you saw things happening a lot faster. Now that the internet is what it is, and has messed with many people's ability to make a living making music, you see that same rate for different reasons. I think most of the albums that I'm talking about are considered as full-length narratives, it's more about not needing a label to mediate between you and your listeners. I love how you keep returning to that search for unlikely affinities. It's the "Crush With Eyeliner" thing, two people swerving towards each other while conspicuously failing at gender. Where are you finding those affinities these days? In music? Anywhere! It's the last question, it could be anything. That photo of Daniel Radcliffe walking all the dogs [laughs]. Oh boy. Honestly, the insane, powerful singing that my body used to do when I saw pictures of abject males has quieted a little bit since I got top surgery, so I don't explode in longing when I see a picture of Daniel Radcliffe looking at his phone while tied to 17 dogs quite the way I used to. I used to go to Twenty One Pilots a lot for that, because there's a lot of homoerotic play between the two of them. My fandom for them is like the adult version of my Savage Garden fandom ... any kind of beta-male affinity. You mentioned R.E.M., and I'm actually researching for a potential book about Michael Stipe, a false hagiography or critical biography, because I feel like he's going to write his own at some point, I can't do that for him. That seems illegal. But I want to write something about his place in culture from the position of a fan. I feel like I'm also getting it in Britney Spears's communist reblogs. The idea that this person who was the one symbol of Y2K consumerism, everything wrong with the way capitalism has infiltrated music, is now like, "I was never a willing participant in my own exploitation." Her working against her own interpretation has been really productive, not in the erotic sense that you were asking about, but in the sense that she was held up as this image of perfection and now she's actively embracing her own failure ... I get a lot of vibrations just from seeing other trans people on the internet, seeing what we're all doing with ourselves in this weird time. The fact that people are looser with what they post, maybe, not necessarily in a lewd sense, just more casual. I wish I had a better answer to your question than Twenty One Pilots [laughs]. No, I love that answer! It's one point where I feel like I have no agreement from the rest of music-critic Twitter, that this is a good band. But I also just festooned them with my transmasculine hopes and dreams, and now I can't get rid of them. They're a comfort band for sure. I used to watch a lot of their music videos compulsively, in the same way that I would with Savage Garden. "What if I had that body? Wouldn't that be cool?" What if I could look and move like that in this weird, failed rock stardom? Because that is a band that's all about pushing against the bombast of their alt-rock predecessors ... Imagine Dragons, Kings of Leon, those post-Arcade-Fire what if we ran away from this world together male survivalist fantasies of the post-apocalypse. And then Twenty One Pilots were like, what if we were dweebs in the post-apocalypse instead? What if we were just nervous, insecure, vaguely homoerotic bros in this world those alpha males are ruling? I had never actually looked up a photo of Twenty One Pilots before. All their publicity shots look like they just got signed to an esports team. Yeah, Tyler just stoops! He's got the muscles and the big black tattoos but he just looks like a sad little boy. It's such a contrast, and so relevant to my own interior experience of being a person. So, if Elvis was a male bimbo, does that mean Savage Garden are catboys? Yeah, they can be catboys! I like that. I was active on Savage Garden message boards and fanfic communities when I was, like, 12, and I feel like that was probably something that got written at some point. Darren Hayes got turned into a cat and fucking loves it.
Perverts Like Us

There was a creative storytelling aspect to sex, and a form of intimacy we didn’t share with boys.

There was a time when I had orgasms that had nothing whatsoever to do with fantasies. I had them by accident. I remember having them in gym class all the time. We had to prepare for some Canadian Fitness Exam. We had to take it very seriously. As a child, you are supposed to accept what adults put in front of you and denote as important. There is an element of nonsense in the life of any child. That was why Nonsense Literature is so appealing to children. In any case, we were told this was important and that we would be receiving an iron-on badge when our scores were submitted. I really wanted a gold badge to iron onto my grey hoodie. I was hanging from the chin up bars against the wall. My body hit the wall as I rocked and it brought me to a climax. I would hang there, oblivious to the time passing. My arms would have held me up even if I were 500 pounds. All of my body became focused on a singular feeling. I climbed up a rope and similarly achieved an orgasm. I had no idea what it was.  * I befriended a girl named J. Her mother had three children with different fathers. They were each devastatingly beautiful. This meant her mother had beautiful genes. It was a lot of work to produce three beautiful children. After it she went to bed for the rest of her life. She sometimes left the bed to put on lipstick and go sit at the Jupiter Café. Her beautiful children roamed the neighborhood. Going mad, the way that unsupervised beautiful people do.  We were delighted to find out we had both discovered our bodies had this wonderful feature. J loved to share with me the different ways she had discovered to masturbate. She told me about how she masturbated in the bathtub, scrunched up under the faucet. She had made love to every electrical appliance in the house, from the hair dryer to a vacuum cleaner. She made love to appliances in public too. She really had no shame. She didn’t have a washing machine in her house. She went to the laundromat. She wrapped her arms around a washing machine and held it as tightly as she could. We went to the swimming pool. She stood in front of the tube that new water poured through, her head tilted back in ecstasy. She had big eyes. And lips. When she closed her eyes, she looked as though she were in a permanent state of bliss.   * I met a girl with long stringy, dirty, blonde hair. I liked kids who didn’t wash their hair regularly. It meant (to me anyways) that they were wild and had parents who were more permissive. She lived in a building right next to the swimming pool. She wore her bathing suit everywhere that summer. Another friend said we shouldn’t speak to her, as she was possibly amphibian.  I put my bathing suit on to go and see her. I knocked on her door and, sure enough, she answered in her bathing suit. She tied a blindfold around my eyes and decided to tell me the definition of certain words that had to do with sex that I was unaware of. * A girl in my class came up and invited me over to her house. She had a peculiar style. She had bangs and two ponytails she wore oddly high on her head. I didn’t want to go because she always wore plaid and I had an aversion to it at the time. I don’t know how to say no to any girl’s invitation. But she told me her grandfather had moved into the duplex apartment underneath her. And rummaging through his unpacked things she had come across an entire box of dirty magazines. We sat in the narrow back staircase of her house. It was covered in yellow carpeting and we felt so snug sitting on the stairs. Our bums were crushed together and our running shoe clad feet were piled on top of one another. We turned the pages, looking at all the naked women and men in extreme postures. It was a rare find this box. It would most likely be seized at any moment. There was no time to be erotically stimulated. All we could do was consume the information the photographs contained before they were confiscated. Her grandfather had a right to look at all these naked female bodies, but we, as girls, did not.  What I liked most about that day was that we were together, looking at the magazines together. We had triumphed over the adults. We were doing things they could never imagine us doing. It was our collective secret that we were obsessed with sex. Our sexuality was kept secret from us, while it was exhibited, examined and exploited by men. *  The secrecy of it all made me feel guilty and troubled, of course. I thought I might be headed to a life of perdition. Until I befriended the most intelligent girl in my grade, named P. She had a thick black pony tail and baby hairs on her forehead. She had a collared shirt that she buttoned at the wrist and up to her neck. Her ability to concentrate was phenomenal. She was hardworking and conscientious. She was never late with her assignments. She was always taking notes as though the teacher had just given her winning lottery numbers. She was from Uruguay. She had an overweight sister who couldn’t get anything right. She was always daydreaming and fainting in gym class. They made a wonderful pair. She invited me over one day. She suggested we become best friends. She had examined the prospects in the class. She decided we had the most in common. Which meant we had the closest grade point average. We both were reading above our level. We both read in very different ways. There are as many different ways to read as there are people. P. brought me down to her basement. She had a tape recorder. She said she used her tape recorder to tell short stories. These seemed elaborate. But it was really to be expected of her organized personality. She asked if I would like to hear a story she had recorded. I said certainly. She played it. It was a very filthy story about her and a boy in her class. When it was done she looked at me and asked, “How did you like it? Did you think it was well written?” There is a creative storytelling aspect to sex. When the fantasies came, they were in the form of stories. When I was writing my novel The Lonely Hearts Hotel, I wanted to capture a childlike attitude to sexuality, perversity and pornography that I once had.  *  This was a form of intimacy we did not share with boys. They were already intimidated by the sexuality and bizarre amorous assertion of girls in the class. Girls would pursue them around the schoolyard trying desperately to kiss them. They would receive anonymous love letters and marriage propositions. I was more interested in the sexuality of girls and their physical presence back them myself. The girl who sat behind me one day reached forward and took my hair in her hands and began to braid it. It felt so good, as though each strand of my hair was coming out of my scalp and falling out around me. * I had a boyfriend when I was a teenager who had a job cleaning up a public library after hours. Whenever he would find a book in the remaindered section that he thought I might like, he would bring it home to me. He didn’t really know anything about books so his choices were always based on the covers. He brought me a book called The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin. I had heard of her before and was delighted. I loved the photograph on the front. It was of a girl in a cloche hat on a chair holding up her dress and revealing her skirt and slip so that one of her stockinged legs was exposed to the viewer. I saw clearly on the cover beneath the title that the word Erotica was written. He had either missed it or did not know the meaning of the word. He saw I had the book in my shoulder bag a few days later. “How is that book?” he asked. “It’s absolutely wonderful! It’s so dirty. People are having sex on every second page. You can’t sit down in this book without someone crawling on their knees to give you a blow job.”  He insisted I hand the book back to him. He was furious that I had been reading porn. He demanded to know if I had masturbated while reading this book. I was taken aback. I mean, obviously. Was there something wrong with that?  Why in the world did he feel threatened by a book? Especially since these were characters who had nothing to do with us. They were so pathetic. They lived in small attic apartments in Paris. They didn’t have refrigerators. They were always cold and couldn’t pay the rent. They dipped a stale baguette into a glass of wine and they were still hungry afterwards. They pushed the mice away from their plate with a fork. These people were no longer alive. What did it matter if they were turning me on from beyond the grave? It was surely a victimless crime. It seemed a pity because in giving back the book, I was giving him back any trust I had with him. * I gave up the boy but not reading porn. It seemed too fundamental a difference anyhow. * I hoped to grow up and meet someone as perverted as me. I wondered what this wonderful pervert would look like. Would he wear nothing but mismatched socks as he read paperback novels on the windowsill? He would be like nobody I knew. In part because nobody I knew loved me. That was what his perverted heart would be capable of doing. He would be capable of loving me. He would stand on coffee tables and say intelligent things. He would be broke because he would be much too cool to have a job. Ah! The life of artists. That would be a way I would get to be a pervert and be proud of it. I went to the library to find another copy of The Delta of Venus. I was young and filthy and it didn’t occur to me there might be something a little dingy about checking a dirty book out of the library. *  I loved novelists who wrote about sex. Who included the perversity and filthiness of the whole thing. And the lovely awkwardness of it. The early twentieth century, any writer who lived in Paris was engaging in a miraculous sex life. It was so philosophical and political. They were trying to be free through having sex with as many people as possible. And why not? It was a noble pursuit.  If you are a fallen woman, then you wouldn’t be able to be married. You would be outside conventional society. The women in Victorian novels decided they would kill themselves. But in the 1930s they went to Paris to join other groups of the fallen. And write and live to excess and discuss philosophy. And to write down their pensées which would change the way people thought about women and war. They would murder God. At which point it meant nothing to be fallen. I liked the 1930s as a time period, aesthetically. And I had been planning to write about it since I was very young. In The Lonely Hearts Hotel, one of the main characters, Rose, becomes involved in 1930s black and white pornography. I began researching it. One fascinating collection of pornographic photographs of prostitutes was taken by a man who called himself Monsieur X. They are beautiful and somehow speak, to a modern viewer, as portraits of innocence rather than wantonness. Unlike in modern pornographic photographs, the subjects seem like ordinary women who you can imagine having inner lives and interests that do not revolve around sex. Two girls sit reading a newspaper. Their legs are spread. They have no underwear on, but they are wearing stockings and pretty high heels. They look like they are two girls reading comics after a slumber party. They prefer not to look at the camera, as they are shy. Another pair of girls squat in an unnatural position to reveal their privates. They have the awkwardness of non-athletic girls in gym class. One has a run in her stockings. There is, of course, the messiness of pubic hair. One girl, alone in her photo, leaning on a chair partially undressed and smoking a cigarette, looks at the camera. She has a tinge of Henry Miller’s wife, June’s, pride about her. She doesn’t care that she is in a pornographic photo, she is still better and more accomplished than you.  In a 1928 film called Le pompier des Folies-bergère, a fireman goes to see the naked dancing girls of Folies-bèrgere. When he comes out, the revue has made him lose his mind. He imagines every woman he sees naked, including a subway worker played by Josephine Baker. Every man he sees turns into a naked woman, including his fellow firemen, a priest, and a bus driver. He tiptoes around the city blowing kisses to everyone. These films seem like Charlie Chaplin movies until everyone takes their clothes off.  There were films that were shown in Mutoscope peepshow machines. These were also called “What-the-Butler-Saw” machines, because they gave the viewer the perspective of looking at a scene through the peephole. You put a coin in and put your eyes against the goggles and saw a film created by a circular rotation of cards. It’s the same effect as when I was in high school and we all used to draw flip books on the sides of our dictionaries. Then we would pass them around. Little stick men would shoot each other in the head or a stick figure with a penis would have sex with a stick figure with breasts.  In The Lonely Hearts Hotel, the character Pierrot sees Rose star in a movie in one of these machines and thinks it is the most beautiful, lovely film he has ever seen. Neither of them is ashamed of it and they love each other more because of their sexual pasts and experimentations and exploitations. Rose and Pierrot have a gender fluid relationship and they are best friends. They have been searching for one another since they were separated as children. There is something that remains childlike about their love and attraction for one another, causing them to be innocents. They share their sexual awakenings and desire with the same curiosity and wonder that I did with other girls. Even though society says girls are not as horny and perverted as boys, they truly, truly are. And when two people share the secrets of their perversions with one another, they become free of the false mores that society puts in place to clip our imaginative wings, not only in sex, but in all walks of life.