Read This One: Namwali Serpell on Eva’s Man by Gayl Jones

“Name one black female narrator from a film or a novel or even music whom you did not trust, whom you suspected of willful deception. Black women don’t often get to be just bad.”

Three Songs to Enjoy While Reading Eva’s Man:
Nina Simone, “Pirate Jenny” 
Billie Holiday, “I Must Have That Man
Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, “I Put a Spell On You

For this series, I ask writers I admire to recommend a book. I read it, then we talk about it. For this installment, Namwali Serpell recommended Eva’s Man by Gayl Jones.

Namwali Serpell is one of the smartest people I know. Reading her work, talking to her, the force of her intelligence is profound, as is her generosity of spirit. Her debut novel The Old Drift is a massive, 563-page epic that takes place over a century, beginning in 1904 and ending in the near future, 2020s Zambia. The novel blends historical fiction with speculative fiction, fact with magical realism, genre tropes with so-called literary tropes. It eschews any single tradition in favor of a multi-faceted form that reveals to us something about how traditions take shape in the first place. It’s a heartbreaking romp. An epic bit of fun. A book to be read and reread. Oh, and did I mention the story is told by a swarm of mosquitos?

Eva’s Man is brutal, and absolutely mesmerizing. The violence it depicts might not be for everyone, but while it disturbed me, I also found it moving. Frustrating. Heartbreaking. Terrifying. It’s my first experience with Gayl Jones, but it won’t be my last. As a warning, our discussion of this novel touches on difficult subjects, including sexual assault and violence against both men and women, which are also depicted in the book.

—Colin Winnette

THE BELIEVER: What were the exact circumstances that led to your picking this book up for the first time, and what was its initial impact?

NAMWALI SERPELL: I’m glad you said “picking this book up” because it allows me to confess that I owned this book for a long time before I actually read it. I bought it in September 2017, prompted, I believe, by an online listicle of female villains in literature that neglected to mention a single black one. Incensed, I Tweeted a list, and this was one of the novels I included. Then I realized, somewhat sheepishly, that I knew that it was about a black female villain only because of a chapter about “shock” in an academic book, Rita Felski’s Uses of Literature. So I bought Eva’s Man to mitigate my sheepishness. And then I ended up carrying it around for a couple of years without opening it. I had loved and reread and taught Jones’s first novel, Corregidora, a classic of neoslave literature. I knew this would be just as intense an experience, if not more, so I think I was avoiding it. Thank you for giving me the occasion to sit down and read it. It thrilled me.

BLVR: This was my first experience with Gayl Jones, and she’s now a favorite. I loved this book. Could you describe the book in a few lines, for those who haven’t read it?

NS: Eva is in prison for murdering a man named Davis in a deeply unsettling, sexualized, grotesque way. She gives a sometimes unreliable account—partially to the cops, to her psychiatrist, and her cell mate, but mostly to us—of the events in her life that led to this incident.

BLVR: You mentioned that Eva’s Man has been compared to American Psycho. What connections do you see between the two novels?

NS: The comparison is mine. Ellis and Jones both use a flat tone in their murderous first-person narrators—rather than, say, an arch or ironic tone—to imbue their accounts with unreliability. And they both squarely target male sexual violence, though from very different sides of it.

I group them less because of the psychology behind the violence of the two protagonists, and more because of the large-scale rhythm of the two novels. Both use a large-scale alternation between repeated scenes of violent sex and sexual violence, interspersed with a kind of poetry. In Ellis’s case, it’s the poetry of consumer life—which is often mistaken as merely banal—while in Jones’s case, it’s the poetry of everyday life. In both cases, the beauty is more in meter and tone than the content—this isn’t about grandiose diction or lovely poetic figures. In both books, the rhythm works to produce a strange spell in the reader, a lethargic, lulling feeling tinged with a constant tension about whether the next scene you read will bring horror or pleasure.

BLVR: Do you consider this an “ambiguous” work? Jones describes the book that way, but it felt different from something like The Turn of the Screw, where the frame narrative formally invites you to question the story from the start. Eva’s account is fragmented, and changes slowly over time, but it never felt conspicuously dishonest. To me, the fragments and errors made it feel more honest.

NS: I think this is a common contemporary reaction to black female narrators. Name one from a film or a novel or even music whom you did not trust, whom you suspected of willful deception. Black women don’t often get to be just bad. Eva has her reasons, but she lies, too, she hides, she equivocates. She says:

“I know when I’m not getting things straight, and I tell them I’m not getting this straight,  but they say that’s alright, to go ahead talking. Sometimes they think I’m lying to them though. I tell them it ain’t me lying, it’s memory lying. I don’t believe that, because the past is still as hard on me as the present, but I tell them that anyway.” And Jones says in interview: “The main idea that I wanted to communicate is Eva’s unreliability as the narrator of her story.”

For example, Eva tells the story of her first crime—for which she was imprisoned at seventeen—in relation to two different men: did she stab the man with a missing thumb or the man named Moses Tripp?

BLVR: I didn’t always trust Eva, but I trusted the novel was pointing me toward an emotional truth, or a state that was being honestly described. But maybe I’m slipping into the role of the “they” Eva’s talking about, thinking there’s clarity to be gained from getting her to “go ahead talking,” even if she’s readily admitting she’s not getting things straight.

NS: There’s a moment in the novel when Jones splices together—as she often does—lines from various moments in time into a kind of poem:

“How did feel, Eva?” the psychiatrist asked.

My mother got an obscene telephone call one day. A man wanted to know how did it feel when my daddy fucked her.

“They told me you wouldn’t talk. They said I wouldn’t get one word out of you,” the psychiatrist said. “Did you feel you had any cause to mutilate him afterwards? Why did you feel killing him wasn’t enough?”

“How did it feel?” Elvira asked.

“How did you feel?” the psychiatrist asked.

“How did it feel?” Elvira asked.

“How do it feel, Mizz Canada?” the man asked my mama. She slammed the telephone down.

“Eva. Eva. Eva,” Davis said.

“My hair looks like snakes, doesn’t it?” I asked.

“How does it feel?” That’s the refrain here. So the novel is in fact aware of and playing with the idea that we seek “emotional truth” from black women, and it’s calling out this desire in us as prurient. Consider the fact that, even now, the online GIF is largely dominated by black women’s faces, Oprah’s face in particular. Is it because black women are more expressive? Because they’re expected to have greater emotional intelligence? Or because they’re relegated to the body? Because they’re considered repositories of “authentic experience”? Another way to put it would be for me to turn the question back to you and ask: how would you describe the “emotional truths” or the “honest state” that Eva discloses in the novel?

BLVR: The novel made me think about the challenges of satisfyingly communicating one’s personal experience of living with trauma. I read Eva as a character traumatized by years of severe sexual abuse. Her memories shift and reorganize over time, but key moments of violation cycle back through, forcing their way to the front of the story, again and again. And she’s not fixating on random moments of violence or carnage, but specifically on moments in which she was sexually assaulted. (I say assault because there are times when she explicitly says “no” and is forced, and there are times when she is a child and the assaulter is an adult). But that splicing you quote is a great example of the way Eva’s narration functions, in general. In that list of variations on the question of how Eva feels, each line is tied to a specific moment of violation while evoking the memory of yet another, separate violation, which then displaces the present moment of being asked. To me, I detected what felt like an emotional truth about living with and communicating trauma in the way those beats accumulated.

NS: That’s a great answer! I agree that there’s a continual reshuffling of the trauma of sexual violence. Trauma often reverts to the same original wound—oddly enough, like a riff on an original song or like the poetic returns into which Jones massages her prose. This device crescendoes in Eva’s Man in a very unique way. I’m fascinated by the novel’s subdivisions, the way part III seems to be the climax of these surreal juxtapositions of previous moments of trauma. I’m not sure what sort of feeling it gives me, as opposed to what sort of feeling it’s depicting. I don’t think I’m meant to feel empathy for Eva, nor am I meant to dislike her or want her to be punished. The coldness in her tone forces us to confront this horror without recourse to blame or pity or laughter. The strange reflections across the story—the sense that this is the same trauma repeated, the same wound being re-opened, not just in her life but in the lives of the men and women around her, or even the lives of all men and all women—unite into a mosaic of Some Larger Violence that we are left staring at, appalled and in awe.

BLVR: In a Times profile of Jones you sent me, several associates describe being struck by Jones as a “quiet,” “virginal” woman, while her writing is so unabashedly sexual, violent, and forceful. That duality made me think of the descriptions of Eva’s violence versus those of the other characters. The book is full of explicit sexual violence perpetrated against Eva, but Eva rarely describes her own acts of violence outright. She often obscures the central violence, focusing instead on the aftermath. She’ll suddenly withdraw a knife we never saw her wield. Then there’s this great line, “I didn’t know what he saw in my eyes because I didn’t know what was there.” She doesn’t see or describe herself the same way she does the rest of the world.

Do you see a connection between the descriptions of Jones’s internal life versus her external presence, and the way Eva experiences (or describes) her own acts of violence? Or is that a stretch?

NS: This seems right to me—there is a blankness to Eva that, again, reminds me of Ellis’s narrator, who says: “there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity…. I simply am not there.” But Ellis takes this in the direction of metafiction—Patrick Bateman doesn’t exist because he’s a fictional character—while Jones is playing, I think, with something more subtle: our expectation that black people and women will have what’s called “double consciousness.” This is both a burden and a boon—the idea that we always experience ourselves both as subjects and as objects, through the eyes of others. This constant projection into others who are looking back at us—a kind of boomerang of self-awareness—is taken as a given, as fundamental, for certain people. But Eva seems to lack it, or refuse it. I keep thinking of how Davis imprisons her, and how she lets him, and how, when he stops her from leaving the room or combing her hair, she acquiesces. And I keep thinking about why she makes his murder so theatrical and grotesque: she farts over his dead body; she bites off his penis and wraps it in silk. It isn’t just that Eva doesn’t tell us why she does these things. It’s that she herself doesn’t seem to know why. The recursive logic of violence, which is also the poetic logic of the text, seems to dictate it. And the brilliance of the novel to me, in part, is Jones’s ability to let Eva’s will and lack of will, her desires—to be abased, to abase—stand without explanation. It suggests, obliquely and perversely, that Eva’s unself-consciousness, this refusal to know herself or be known, or know how others know her, is a kind of freedom.

BLVR: I was surprised to read that Jones got involved with her late, abusive, husband Bob Higgins after writing Eva’s Man. His volatility, his possessiveness, so much of it resonates with the punishing relationships depicted in the book. I’d wanted to read Eva’s Man as a kind of warning about recurring cycles and patterns of abuse.

NS: I don’t think this book is a warning against, or a treatise on, abusive relationships. I’m not sure if that strikes me as an anachronistic reading—how this novel has to be read in the woke 2010s—or an attempt to soften or smooth its rough edges. But either way, it feels to me like the projection of a salutary message onto a horror novel or an existential novel. What if we put Eva’s Man next to Albert Camus’s L’Étranger or Stephen King’s Misery? What if we let a black woman be bad and found that as interesting as all the bad white men and women about whom we’ve been reading forever? What if we simply let this horrific relationship between men and women sit, without trying to psychologize it?

BLVR: You’re right, but I’d add that it doesn’t soften it for me to think of Eva as a person who is more than just bad. I think there’s something tragic and painful and terrifying about seeing her as someone who suffered violent abuse after abuse to the point where violence seemed to be the only response available. I do think there are evil acts, and that Eva’s eventually enjoying herself in a way that pushes into the sadistic, but what’s terrifying and compelling to me is the idea of a person who does bad things for reasons that feel innately human to me, or even mirror the reasons I have for doing things I might consider good.

NS: It’s not that Eva’s just bad, but that she’s interestingly bad—like Sethe in Morrison’s Beloved or like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. I don’t think that Eva’s violence can be explained away as “the only response available.” This is a kind of legal way of thinking about her psychology—an attempt for it to “mean” something in a model of justice or to account for other women like her in the world. We see other women in the novel (and in what I quoted above, a man) experience sexual abuse but they don’t do what Eva did in response. The extremity of it, the inexplicable details of it, the weird fatedness of it—the immensity and intensity of the act signify something bigger, more ancient and terrifying, than self-defense. Her name alludes of course to Eve (an inherent sin, or an act of curiosity), but the other major figure in the novel is the Medusa (a defensive sin, an act of bitterness): “I’m Medusa, I was thinking. Men look at me and get hard-ons. I turn their dicks to stone. I laughed.” Eve seduced Adam. Medusa was raped. For me, that combination of opposites in Eva’s Man—that central conflict between an inner evil and the evil of vengeance—imbues it with the gravitas of Greek tragedy.

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