Staff Book Reviewer Spencer Dew is the author of the forthcoming novel Maintain (Ampersand Books, 2012). A regular reviewer for Rain Taxi Review of Books, Dew is the author of Songs of Insurgency (Vagabond Press, 2008), Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Another New Calligraphy, 2010), and the critical study Learning for Revolution: The Work of Kathy Acker (San Diego State University Press, 2011). His Web site is spencerdew.com.
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“What is abuse?” asks this novella’s nameless narrator, musing on mourning and her lost lover, Anselm, over whom it isn’t so easy to mourn. “Writing this, there’s such a confusing mix of emotions that I get so bound up. It seems like a full-time task to try and trace which emotions are which. And what my relationship to them is. Since Anselm left I’ve been eating constantly, as if to stuff the emotions down into the body, below the level of my consciousness.” Note that trajectory, from the practice of writing to the mind as something roiling down to a grounding in the physical. Our narrator, our protagonist, is both recording and parsing out, offering a chronicle and an off-the-cuff analysis. Her sense of the story, even her sense of self, is explicitly constituted by and in reaction to a jumble of forces. Then there is this ideal of a truth beyond the verbal, the stomach and its hunger, for whatever it is worth.
In college we all read Duras and Wittig and talked about ecriture feminine. All of us that I remember, at least. Everyone smoked but me. The scent of the memory of some of those conversations wafts up from Lillis’s pages, but if college kids handle everything—including their cigarettes—with a self-conscious effort, a squinting determination, Lillis’s writing—as in her other books, like the equally hypnotic The Second Elizabeth—reads like a natural thing, prose flowing like water.
Consider this bit of spoken-sounding vernacular, as essential to the tone and structure of this book as any plot device, a segment wherein the mind—in all its reliability, with its wild internal networks, its framing valuations—is displayed:
Sandra (Cassandra was her whole name) programmed databases for a living. Or was it that she was trying to break into that business and it’s really hard to? She also taught computer art at three colleges in the tri-state area, she had a car. Kean and Stevens Institute in New Jersey, and one of the closer SUNY’s—was it Stony Brook? I don’t think it was New Paltz or Purchase. Her own art was a several-step process, something like making paintings of these architectural-figure objects and then making them into computer animation and then into architectural models? No, I think it was the other way round.
This is brilliant and gorgeous, crafted with such cleverness that its craftsmanship is camouflaged. Here’s another bit:
The way Anselm embraced me back, I didn’t know what hit me. One minute, I was on Avenue B and 5th Street at 4:00 am, the next minute I was in this place of warmth where there were no shapes, everything just the color brown and the color pink, and the feeling of time stopping, the world stopping. The only thing I was able to understand was that his arms were tightly around me, arms so much stronger than I would have expected from such a sweet, thin young man. I remember thinking, “Who are you?! I’m yours!” It was like I’d never met him before that moment.
Dig that focus on time, how it freezes, turns to a film still, fuzzy, just color and then something for which there are no words—or for which the only words are questions, declarations of bafflement. There’s that flash, from representation to abstract, but our narrator isn’t interested in leaping off to pure poetry, to a world of brown and pink, unmoored.
She is interested, instead, in putting down her thoughts, in the work of making sense. She claims at the start that this series of journal entries, recorded in a journal Anselm once gave her, will offer “the story of Anselm,” but this is a feign from Lillis and, for the narrator, the wrong goal. Anselm just isn’t all that interesting; the best part of him is his being gone. Even the story of Anselm and our narrator, the romance, its collapse, is interesting primarily in hindsight, as an opportunity for reflection, a subject of analysis. It’s our narrator who matters, the workings of her mind which provide the real drama here, the action and suspense. “This seems at once incredibly cathartic to write and also may be bringing up an incredible amount of rage I have towards Anselm. I’ve been writing this story in my head all day, walking to the subway and at work (I’m at lunch now) but I’ve also been incredibly hyper all day today—high energy, boiling anger somewhere in my belly, on the verge of snapping any minute.”
We need to see her and Anselm sitting outside a party, on a roof, because we need to feel her then—enjoying or willing herself to enjoy, ambivalent, already aware that she and he, as a couple, “were always going to be only an intangible, fleeting entity,” aware that he’s trapping her outside the world she most wants, keeping her away from her friends, the warmth of community here as a very literal warmth as, instead, she watches him drink under the November sky—and feel her now, in the eternal now of the words on the page, the frozen moment of recording.
“‘Everything flows,’ Anselm used to like to quote some Ancient Greek guy. If you don’t keep flowing and getting back to the place where your heart can really accept Love and offer it, well, that’s the only state of Dis-Grace,” says out narrator, musing, here, on betrayal, on love. There is a dash in her thoughts, drawn-out, a lingering silence, a stretch without and beyond words, the space between feeling and feeling, between feeling and articulation, between feeling and knowledge:
But this feeling--------I can barely touch it from here. Such an intense longing to love and feel love as you did once as a child, ignorant of what lay ahead, ignorant of the limits and the disappointments and the rejections and the pettiness that dwelt inside even the nicest of people. The longing is to feel such a purity, such an intensity, along with the knowledge you’ve gained in adulthood. But it’s hard, so hard one might say it’s impossible, though you may have moments or even days or months where you can touch this feeling again. But the rest of the time, it’s just the longing for it.
Anselm falls away. A mattress gets dragged out to the curb. But those gone days of the affair become the point of departure for this meditation on identity and existence as well as love and regret, expectation, disappointment, recognition and perseverance and anger and hope. By the time our narrator tells us that “no one should expect so much nothing from their lover on their birthday, and if they get it, that tells them everything they need to know,” the voice on the page is a voice in our head, like lyrics that, as they echo through our days, come to explain them, to name the conditions through which we shuffle as we shuffle through them. The intimacy Lillis achieves here, of narrator with reader, as pages from a break-up journal become a chronicle of a mind, a heart, a body in a recognizably confusing and sometimes cruel, sometimes comically absurd world, is remarkable.
“The last time that Anselm and I kissed as long and as passionately as I always imagined kissing him was the first night we met,” she tells us, a novel in one sentence. Or, describing another woman in Anselm’s life, we are told that not only her hair was “medium brown, everything about her, medium brown. She was from one of the I states, Illinois or Indiana or Iowa. Divorced from a Russian man, a playwright or an actor. She was in Mensa, I used to love it when Anselm would drop that so casually in his stories about her, it cracked me up. When I say I loved it, I mean I hated it, who the fuck still cares about Mensa?”
If anyone still did, they should send Karen Lillis an application form. There’s genius at work in these pages—genius and grace.
Official Karen Lillis Web Site
Official Spuyten Duyvil Web Site