Reading: Edan Lepucki’s “Woman No.17”

Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki, Hardcover, 320pp, May 2017, Hogarth Press

I loved Edan Lepucki’s California, and when I wrote about it I spoke of how much I looked forward to this fascinating writer’s next novel with the fervent wish its setting not be dystopian. Ha! Little did I know by the time Edan Lepucki published again we would be hurtling toward a non-fictional dystopia brought about by a treasonous, narcissistic, sociopathic, dementia-riddled, pathological liar who stole an election with the help of Russia.

But, here we are. And without babbling on at too great a length in sociological theorizing, I think we arrived at this seventh circle because we live in fear that who we are is not enough, not who we ought to be, and because of that fear we have become performance artists, pretending to be some idealized “I”  — or, at least, a version of that “I” we wear like armor, a disguise we hope will allow us to survive, to meet with the approval of the culture in which we live. And, the effort to maintain the facade of projected-self is so all-consuming, we often dissolve into despair and desperate behavior, having lost the line between truth and our invented-self, an exhaustion of being which leaves us vulnerable to the manipulations of others to whom we look as mirrors, to find ourselves in how they perceive us.

Oscar Wilde said it best; “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” In Woman No. 17, Edan Lepucki has created a riveting and revealing portrait of the ways in which masks, personas, disguises, and the distancing effect of communication via social media affect modern life and personal reality.

The story is told by two alternating first person narrators; Lady, whose birth name was Pearl, and Esther, who is now called S. That the Lady sections are titled Lady, and the S sections titled Esther, indicates which of the two is more in touch with the anima beneath the persona, but both characters are remarkably aware of their own delusions — which in my opinion is where Edan Lepucki’s astounding ability to create real humans with whom one identifies and sympathizes, flaws and all, shines — because while Lady and S are both at turning points of identity confusion in their lives and behave in ways some reviewers and readers have described as repugnant, I found them to be like me, like everyone I’ve ever known, acting and behaving in the ways they do because they are compelled by the desire to find and be the “I” behind the masks, questioning the rules and expectations of cultural forces: social norms, parents, friends, and the roles we are expected to play based on gender, age, income, race, and class.

Lady, having recently decided to take a break from her marriage to Karl, hires S from a Craigslist ad to nanny for her toddler son, Devin. Too, Seth, Lady’s eighteen year old son from her first marriage to the long disappeared Marco, lives with her; while he has no diagnosed disability, Seth has spoken only one word in his lifetime and communicates via sign language, gestures, iPad, and phone texts. Both Lady and S had difficult mothers, and while Lady chose to deal with hers by disconnecting and cutting her out of her life, S’s reason for pursuing the nanny position has to do with her having decided to do a performance/art project and become her mother, who, early in her life, worked as a nanny; a project meant both to reveal to S who her mother was and who she, herself is. While S is plundering her mother’s past, Lady has pillaged Seth’s silence for an article she wrote which led to a contract for a book about his life. As the two pursue their goals, their lives and lies and loves become intertwined in a complex chiaroscuro portrait of parent and child relationships, the isolation of the self, and the ways in which we are so busy defining our own identities and healing our own wounds, we may well miss the ways in which we affect — or damage — others.

We don’t mean to disappoint, but life is never what we think it will be. Lady, remembering a long ago night when she thought things were turning around for her, that she was on the path to a happy end, says this:

     It hurts because nothing turned out the way I thought it would. You think you know how a story begins, or how it’s going to turn out, especially when it’s your own. You don’t.

There, there. So there.

Exactly. There is an economy of prose there with a near poetic rhythm, with that final paragraph, its four words sculpted into a metrical structure approximating a heartbeat, absolutely perfect; somehow both precise and ambiguous, like life, like the story, like the behavior of all the characters, like being human.

There are so many gorgeous, lyrical moments in Edan Lepucki’s work, I hesitate to begin quoting. But, in addition, Edan Lepucki also excels at dry wit and humor, with piquant observations of a world gone mad, populated by people trying to love and/or struggling to understand why they have not been better loved. I’m going on too long and I apologize. One more quote — this is the opening of the novel, by the end of which paragraph I was totally hooked, in love with the words, with the style. Listen:

It was summer. The heat had arrived harsh and bright, bleaching the sidewalks and choking the flowers before they had a chance to wilt. The freeways shimmered, any hotter and they might crack, might explode, and the poor cars would confetti into the air. People were complaining, they were moving slowly. They were swarming the beaches like tiny bugs upon the backs of dead animals. I preferred to stay home: ice cubes in the dog bowl, Riesling in the freezer. The air conditioner was broken. I had taken to sitting in the living room with the curtains drawn, my body edged with sweat like frosting on a cake, daring to see how hot it could get. I ate salad for dinner every night and had almost checked myself and the boys into a hotel. I’d refrained because of the babysitter search. What would applicants think if I requested they meet me poolside at the Roosevelt?

How beautiful and evocative is that? The highest compliment I can pay any author is that their work reminds me of Joan Didion and her trenchant, dissecting, laser-sharp prose; each word a perfect complement to the whole. Every word of that paragraph reveals something about its speaker, Lady, and after just those few sentences we know her, we’ve a feel of who she is; we’ve met her just as surely as if we’d been in a room with her.

This is the brilliance of Edan Lepucki and the beauty of a story which explores the meaning of family, art, truth, and the cost of our delusions and denials and desires.

Read it. Five stars. And, like I said after California, I can’t wait until her next novel. This time, though, I have no requests. I place myself wholly in Edan Lepucki’s hands, knowing that whatever she gives us will be a worthwhile and wonderful gift. She is one of my instant-always reads, and I bet she’ll be one of yours, too.

 

READING: “CALIFORNIA” by Edan Lepucki

California

Click on book to see where to purchase copy via IndieBound

California by Edan Lepucki. 400pp, Little, Brown and Company (CLICK HERE)

I want to be very careful not to write anything herein that would deny a reader their own journey of discovery through Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, so, instead of my own synopsis, I will quote from the publisher’s website. Listen:

“In her arresting debut novel, Edan Lepucki conjures a lush, intricate, deeply disturbing vision of the future, then masterfully exploits its dramatic possibilities.” —Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad

The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they’ve left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable in the face of hardship and isolation. Mourning a past they can’t reclaim, they seek solace in each other. But the tentative existence they’ve built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she’s pregnant.

Terrified of the unknown and unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses dangers of its own. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.

A gripping and provocative debut novel by a stunning new talent, California imagines a frighteningly realistic near future, in which clashes between mankind’s dark nature and deep-seated resilience force us to question how far we will go to protect the ones we love.

I will, however, say this: I hope NEVER AGAIN to read a book in which is presented a world in which new books are no longer available. Listen, if I have to live without books, all I have to say is; “People, eat me first. I am ready to go.” Although I imagine this curmudgeonly old coot would require a week’s worth of slow-cooking in order to achieve anything like tenderizing. But I digress …

When you’ve been blurbed by Jennifer Egan and exalted by Stephen Colbert as one of the collateral damage martyrs in the Hachette Book Group versus Amazon contretemps, you hardly need me to write about your debut novel. In a stroke of prescience (or damned good luck), in her novel Ms. Lepucki named one of the closed off, sponsored, Disney-esque-Celebration(ish) “Communities” reserved for the rich and powerful Amazon.

Another aside so as not to give away plot points: I’ve read my share of dystopian fiction. Of late, however, life in the real world has become uncomfortably close to the “before” of these “after disaster” fictions, as I call them. I had awful dreams while reading California, those half-awake, hallucinatory, fever-induced type, chimerical-night-terrors, during which I kept trying to remind myself; “No, Charlie. You’re safe. The world is a safe place.”

Of course, with what’s happening in Gaza and Ukraine and Congress, what sort of Pollyanna-crack-smoking idiot is going to believe that?

But, back to the book. Why is it that when we – and by “we” I mean we as a society and the authors who voice our Zeitgeist-ian fears – so often fill these “after disaster” worlds with even worse selfishness, hunger for power, duplicity, and betrayal than the “before” world in which we now live? I mean, is it not possible – not even worth hoping for a little bit? – that having destroyed the world once, we might somehow manage to be kinder, better, more creators of light and love in the process of rebuilding? Must every dystopian fiction feature some Bob Jones-ian/Big Brother-ian world where humanity’s basest impulses rule?

Cal and Frida, hero and heroine — or, well, protagonists — of this novel, believe themselves to be alone inhabiting a cabin in the wilderness after having run from a collapsing Los Angeles. Their discovery of other survivors and runaways is fraught with the dangers wrought by the keeping of secrets and unchecked power, those all too human landmines of needing to believe in something – even if that something is one’s own delusionally hope-filled, truth-denying narrative.

Ms. Lupecki has used the post-semi-apocalyptic-framework to write an exploration of all sorts of relationships; romantic, familial, societal and cultural, gender-based, power-based, and, most intensely, the relationship with the self and one’s personal truth. The foundation of uncertainty and hyper-vigilance inculcated in the narrative by its collapsed-society setting creates a level of intensity and life-death desperation in each of those relationships that would be less believable were not every character feeling always in danger of being voted off some cosmic island.

But, I do California an injustice if you leave these paragraphs thinking it’s another near Young Adult “only the strong survive” sort of fantasy-cautionary-tale novel. It’s not. What gives Ms. Lupecki’s tale its heft and heart is the skillful way in which she weaves the histories of the characters into the present (future) moments. The characters are all compromised, as in, real human beings who have made (and continue to make) questionable moral choices which they struggle to justify – some with honesty, some with deceit and denial.

I look forward to more of Edan Lepucki’s writing. I especially look forward to a story in a non-dystopian setting. Honestly people, the real world is near-dystopian enough, I can’t take any more scary, we’re not going to have flush-toilets and potable water and bookstores kind of stories. I admit it; I’m too first-world privileged to survive that.

I purchased Edan Lupecki’s California at my local independent bookstore (where I now hang out most often since giving up tequila) THE CURIOUS IGUANA. Click anywhere in this sentence to go there — and you SHOULD.

 

 

Zeitbites: Clap Hard to Keep the Fairy Alive!

THE MEAN REDS RETURN

july 31 breakfast at tiffany'sIt’s back – my fear. That thing causing a twisting in my chest, that sucking-breath, hands-a-tremble certainty that another avalanche of awful is about to happen, something dreadful is ready to drop, disaster about to descend on me, what Truman Capote’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Holly Golightly, called “the mean reds.” Listen:

Holly Golightly: You know those days when you get the mean reds?

Paul Varjak: The mean reds, you mean like the blues?

Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat and maybe it’s been raining too long, you’re just sad that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?

Paul Varjak: Sure.

Holly Golightly: Well, when I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there. If I could find a real-life place that’d make me feel like Tiffany’s, then – then I’d buy some furniture and give the cat a name!

That’s what hit me yesterday. I had to take action.

ESSENCE OF PASSION FLOWER

Keeping me going is a full-time job and not one the accomplishment of which often seems worth the effort required. I slog, slug, sloth, and slither through life, making do, confused and confounded as to the purpose of all this. It is enough to have a day (or two) wherein I do not hear the narrative voice in my head (which is usually, by the way, Lily Tomlin or Jessica Lange) intoning the final lines of my unpublished novel:

I have no answers

This was The Last of all my stories

So, no, happiness is not something I expect. Making – let alone keeping – me happy would require the lygarde de mayne of an alchemist like Merlin, and since that necromantic enchanter was long ago trapped in the Crystal Caves, in order to avoid one more time disappointing the friends and loved ones I have remaining, I work hard to keep going by arranging my life around moments of joy and methods of distraction. (And when that doesn’t work, I fake it.)

I get joy from reading and writing about books. So, yesterday after my gymming –

NAKED MAN ASIDE

gym guys 5 edit(which falls into the Distracting rather than Joy category– unless, by chance, there is an attractive naked man waggling around the locker room – at which point gymming becomes a Joyful Distraction – until I realize that naked man would NEVER want to see me naked, at which point the Joyful Distraction morphs into a Hateful Reminder of why I ought to just surrender to the Tomlin/Lange narration)

BACK TO THE BOOK(store)

– I visited my friends at The Curious Iguana (CLICK HERE), my favorite independent bookstore. These visits give me great joy. I love books, I love people who love books, and Iguana is owned and patronized by just that sort of people. Win. Win. So, I was making my way to Iguana, strolling up the sidewalk on Market Street, when I was forced into the street by a four-wide battalion of stroller moms, goose-stepping their Vera Bradley accessorized way toward me. The quartet took up the entire span of the sidewalk and rudely steamrolled blithely along forcing pedestrians travelling –

SPELLING CURMUDGEON ASIDE

(Spell Check is telling me that travelling should be traveling. NO IT SHOULD NOT. I am sick and tired of this current purging of required double consonants when appending suffixes to words in order that characters are saved to make it easier for Tweeting and Texting. I did not spend my formative years being abused by the School Sisters of Notre Dame JUST to have everything they taught me eradicated in my dotage. traveLLing. And while we are at it: canceLLed – just so all airports are clear on that.)

BACK TO BOOK(store) & PASSION FLOWER ESSENCE

– in the opposite direction into traffic. Thus, I entered the bookstore saying, “What the hell is wrong with you people?” Marlene, owner and heart and soul of Iguana, knows me well enough to know I was not speaking to her. I launched into my curmudgeonly ranting and we were soon joined by Marlene’s husband, Tom, and I was off on one of my long-winded raving raging wildly furious fits, this one about my recent adventures in the medical profession.

July 31 passion flowerAfter listening patiently, (Marlene and Tom are absolute darlings about letting me rail, as if they’ve nothing better to do than listen to the crazy old man) Tom suggested I hie my way to the local patchouli scented – tofu loving – green market and procure some tincture of Passion Flower, drops of which, he assured me, would calm my anxiety.

ASIDE ASIDE 

I know you thousand or so people who check me daily are saying, “Where is a book review? We are not interested in your existential whining.” Well, true confession: I only started writing book reviews to lure you in so you’d be FORCED to click on my existential whining. So there.

Now keep clicking or I’ll never share my opinion on books again. (I know, I’m hubristic and delusional to think you give a damn. Perhaps, but at least I own it) But, this morning, I’ve a long, full day of writing and gymming and reading and cookie baking in front of me, so, just a fast (for me) and brief (again, for me) few things … I promise.

Peter Pan LIVE!

When NBC presented The Sound of Music, I wrote about it nicely. I was hoping that it would be the first of many live musical theatre presentations and they had sense enough to fill the supporting cast with genius actors Audra McDonald, Laura Benanti, Christian Borle, so, one made allowances for other casting misfires.

And I don’t like The Sound of Music. But, now, this has gone too far. They have announced that — yet again — they have eschewed casting an actual Broadway musical actress in the iconic role of Peter Pan (CLICK HERE TO READ ABOUT IT – I’m not typing the name. I don’t want to trash anybody – not really – it’s not her fault.). Mary Martin — even dead — can only be expected to take so much and when the second of her iconic roles is repugnantly miscast with someone who has NO BUSINESS BEING ENTRUSTED WITH THE LEAD IN A MUSICAL, it reeks of such disregard and disrespect for the art of the musical that surely, something MUST be done.

marymartin_peterpanOh, wait, I wonder if THIS miscasting tragedy was the disaster I was intuiting yesterday? Ugh(a-wug) indeed. Of course, that number will be cut. And, this isn’t like Carrie Underwood with her huge country fan base meant to boost the ratings; this actress has a mostly hipster/gay man following and the hipster contingent is never going to watch the show — they don’t do television — and the gay man population was ALREADY going to be on board so, uhm W.T.F.? All I have to say (well, left to say) is that Tink is hardly going to be the only fairy pissed off and poisoned by this piece of shit disastrous-ness.

PASSION FLOWER (again … I keep forgetting)

So, I did get some Passion Flower essence and I have been swirling the muddy swill into two ounces of water and downing it like crazy and, I don’t know, maybe I am better? I’m having such strange, horrifying dreams of late and really not sleeping well, terrorized by that fever-like, half-awake, delusional thing that goes on. Which has NOT been helped by reading Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California (CLICK HERE), about which I will soon be blogging.

After I go to the gym (I hope there are pretty naked men) and hurry back here — I’m housesitting out in the country — and make cookies. Because, like I said, I went to the health food place and I got some pure natural butter because it was the only ingredient (I thought) missing here for my world famous chocolate chip cookies, and, like I said, I need to do things to make me feel better and/or distract me and making cookies does that. And I feel like shit and can barely breathe — something bad (besides Peter Pan casting) is DEFINITELY HAPPENING. So, I’m going to bake.

THE DOG IS ANXIOUS TOO … could it be 20-something hottie?

I would, normally, drive my Mom around on Thursday, but, I can’t be away from my Judah for that long. Judah has anxiety too. I’m usually MUCH calmer when I’m out here in the middle of nowhere but for the past few days I have been sharing the house. The tenant who lives in the in-law-ish apartment was here. And not only was she here, but both nights she brought in her 20-something boyfriend who was RIDICULOUSLY good-looking and seeing the two of them together — even for those few brief seconds when she walked him by me in his really worn, tight white t-shirt and cropped, dark, black hair and unbelievable ass — undid my vow to myself to feel okay about being un-partnered, un-dated, un-anythinged. I felt all un-wanted and un-all-over again and it sucked. Thank goodness she has now left for the weekend.

BRING ON THE BAKING AND THE BOOK BUYING AND READING! But first, I have to get to the gym and back.

NOTE:  I understand that this generalized anxiety and dread is very likely due to all the horrifyingly hateful energy roiling in the world at the moment; I cannot discuss — rationally — all the wars and the bombings and the borders and the children and the hate crimes and the disregard for life and dignity going on, let alone the suing of our President while ALL THE SHIT GOING ON IN THE WORLD IS GOING ON, and all our Congress can do is bicker? If the end is nigh, good, because if this is the middle, I have had enough.