Hi! Today is day one on my trip out of Grief Desert and I don’t want to talk about Grief Desert so let’s talk about books. While I was in Grief Desert I read The Sport of Kings although honestly I am not sure “read” is the right word for one’s terms of engagement with a book; “hit by a truck” is more accurate and also "it kept me from getting all the way lost in Grief Desert which is how you know it's one hell of a book." I think you should read it! And then we can talk about it because whooeee.
Before Grief Desert Week I read Sweetbitter and I loved it in the purest freebasing place of my heart: it is a book about appetites and undoing worthy of comparison to both Maggie Nelson and Henry James. It’s also a book about moving to New York when you are young and stupid and brave (and white, yes: race is present in Sweetbitter in a way that it’s not in, say, The Goldfinch, but the narrator’s experience is a particular one that should not be mistaken for universal) and realizing both the magnitude of your mistake (ha) and the possibility of your future, and one of the things you realize when you move to New York is that pretty much everybody who moves to New York really loves books about moving to New York and the ways in which that particular gesture is likely to both steamroll and remake you. (That part is if not universal at least endemic, from my experience.) I have lived here for long enough that I honestly can’t remember if people who don’t move here care particularly about that sort of thing (my guess is no? also ha) but even if The Story Of Moving To New York As A Young (White) Person is (reasonably enough) not your bag there are also great parts about food and sex and drugs and the weird intense claustrophobic family that is working in restaurants and there were parts of this book where I wanted to chew on it, like literally put it in my mouth and chomp down.
There is also a significant plotline that involves Falling For A Hot Tormented Emotionally Unavailable Douchebag (THAT one is universal, no? though for some of us it is perhaps a number of persons, ho hum); in Sweetbitter this character is played by the handsome troubled bartender, “Jake,” and the rise and fall of Tess’s doomed romance is chronicled via a difficult-to-pull-off hat trick wherein Tess’s 22-year-old first-person obsessive “no really, he just needs someone who loves him” is entirely believable even as the novel itself (and the reader) is bellowing NO NO NO NOOOOOOOO RUN AWAAAAAY. (I read an interview with Stephanie Danler where she remarked that women often ask her which real-life bartender “Jake” is based upon, and that is how I know I am officially old, I guess, because reading about the hot tormented emotionally unavailable douchebag did not set me afire with the desire to find his real-life bar but instead made me think ugh, go away.)
That plotline does not often work for me anymore; it works in Sweetbitter, I think, because Tess is 22, because the novel is fundamentally about appetites and one’s discovery of them, and because the relationship is not a stand-in for heteronormativity in general but instead a nod to doing foolhardy shit when you’re young. You get the sense that Tess will emerge from the wreckage of her affair (oh, sorry, spoiler alert, it doesn’t work out) an intact person who might feasibly go on to have successful relationships with people who are not tormented, emotionally unavailable douchebags. I was thinking about Sweetbitter in relationship to Elena Ferrante, actually; like the Neapolitan Quartet, it is a book whose narrator’s inner life is rabidly present-tense and insistently divorced from both history and consequence. In Ferrante’s books you know the narrator’s history; in Danler’s you do not, but while both characters are formatively shaped by their origins they seem almost entirely fixed in the ongoing present. I liked the Neapolitan Quartet a lot when I read it; I tore through the whole thing in a matter of days, unable to put it down, compelled by the novels’ Hunger Games-like demand that you find out what happens next, and then, similarly, when I finished them, I thought, “I don’t ever want to read a book by this person again,” and now I am not entirely sure whether I like them at all. The doomed romance in Sweetbitter made me faintly, gratefully nostalgic; the various doomed romances in Ferrante wore me out, I think because the novels are so relentlessly about the failures of masculinity and of heteronormativity, the ways in which marriages and emotional labor strip out women’s inner lives and artistic possibilities, and yet they do not offer even the faintest acknowledgment of queer possibility.
If your thesis is Compulsory Heterosexuality Fucking Sucks I am certainly not going to contest it, but I might also point out that there are a number of alternatives that quite a few people have been working on for some time now. Which is not at all to say that queer relationships and queer families are inherently liberatory or harmonious or even challenging to heteronormative paradigms, as a great many people who have already astutely written about the failures of a queer project that stops at gay marriage and a white picket fence have noted. But I think at this point in my reading life I am not any more interested in the failures of emotionally parasitic heterosexual relationships when women write about them than I am when men do. (I am also not especially interested in work that suggests friendships between women must be inherently competitive and freighted with poisonous subtext, or that they be mediated via possessive and frequently desperate exchanges of [male, power-wielding, agency-holding] lovers and partners; there are more than enough shitty dudes to go around.)
Watching a woman repeatedly subsume her entire emotional and artistic life to a totally worthless man for years is as exhausting to me in fiction as it is in real life, and while I suppose “we had a healthy relationship! the end” is a pretty short story if I am going to read about straight women I would prefer they be doing something more interesting than being made miserable by men over the course of a thousand pages—because, in the end, that’s not a book about women, it’s a book about dudes. So much of the Neapolitan quartet is about Nino! and let’s face it, Nino really, really sucks. It’s like reading early Margaret Atwood, where for a certain amount of time you’re like OMG yes exactly all men will fail you and then at a certain point you’re like, Lady, just go do something else. To me, certain books seem to suggest that the essential struggles of women’s lives center on negotiating boundaries with emotional labor, with raising children, and with male lovers, partners, and husbands, but that’s an essentialism that also serves to universalize heterosexuality and the nuclear family unit and leaves out whole swathes of other women’s lived experiences and histories and struggles.
All of which is a long route back to Tess! who, although she does waste a lot of time on Jake, also eats a lot of oysters, drinks champagne, does a bunch of drugs, and has a complicated, freighted relationship with a woman of her own that is, while intermittently competitive and occasionally cruel, also fundamentally more emotionally nourishing than any relationship she has with men in the book. Did I mention the oysters? OYSTERS. Yum. There is also a spectacular scene where the health department shows up and one of my favorite dinner party scenes in any book I have ever read and a tremendous amount of bad behavior in bars late at night.
Anyway. I’m gonna try and steer clear of Grief Desert this weekend, and eat some snacks and work on my new book (!!!) and read things that don’t make me think very hard about anything at all, until I work up to rereading The Sport of Kings. I hope you are as far as you can get from Grief Desert too, but if you are still wandering those brutal sands: I see you, I see you, I see you, and I send you love.