Symposium: Sincere Thieves
Isabella Hammad’s national projects
Isabella Hammad’s wonderful debut novel, The Parisian, opens in 1914, as World War I begins and the Ottoman Empire ends. Midhat Kamal is the contemplative son of a well-to-do clothier who travels from Nablus, an Ottoman-ruled Arab city in Palestine, to France to study medicine at the University of Montpellier. His hosts are the widowed Dr. Molineu and his daughter Jeannette, a beautiful woman about Midhat’s age whose presence preoccupies him. As Midhat immerses himself in the study of the human body and its ailments, the social life of the Molineus, and his budding relationship with Jeannette, a chance encounter with a notebook reveals that his host is intently studying him: Dr. Molineu has invited Midhat to stay, it seems, so that he might formulate theories on “the effect of new language learned by a primitive brain.”
Outraged, Midhat abruptly leaves Montpellier, and his study of medicine, for Paris, where he studies history and philosophy while discussing Arab independence with a group of Syrian Arabs. These conversations, and the events that form the backdrop of the novel, concern the uncertain fates of nations struggling to define what they are and, crucially, which people belong to them.
Eventually Midhat returns to Nablus, which the British have occupied in the wake of World War I. There, a misdirected letter derails his romance with Jeannette. Midhat’s father, a distant, authoritarian man preoccupied with his new family in Cairo, forbids his return to France, and Midhat sets about learning the family textile business. He marries Fatima, the daughter of an aristocratic Nablus family—a marriage that begins with the intercession of Midhat’s beloved and ever-present grandmother Um Taher. Midhat meets Fatima via a glance snatched through a keyhole; their first conversation takes place on their wedding day. Fatima had done her own maneuvering to bring about the engagement with Midhat over some other, theoretical groom selected by her family: “Better to ride an ungrounded conviction and make her own choice, than to find herself being thrust by the neck, flung wide over the precipice, and out into the sea,” she thinks.
The Parisian is in many respects an exploration of individual and collective struggle to shape events within conditions set by other people. While the edicts of his remote father guide the course of Midhat’s economic and private life, the interference of foreign governments—via policies like the Balfour Declaration, which established British support for the creation of the Israeli state in Palestine—dictates the movements of people and the shape of borders in the Middle East. The novel emphasizes the (often malignant) power of information, narrative, and text in the midst of these upheavals: the covert investigations of Molineu at the start of the book presage the notes of Père Antoine, a French priest living in Nablus. Antoine—an analog of the real-life priest, ethnologist, and spy Antonin Jaussen—carries out ethnographic studies of Nablus’s populace that eventually make him an asset to the occupying British police force.
Hammad’s investigations make for a gorgeous novel. This is a learned but never didactic book, packed with complex and wonderfully drawn characters. Hammad has an exquisite sense of pacing: she knows when to summarize and when to linger as she introduces readers to a large cast of characters, juggles the political and the domestic, and moves nimbly between cities, homes, and families. There is a wonderful immediacy to her dialogue, both in its use of Arabic and French and in her feel for speech. At one point, Père Antoine talks with another priest, who says to him: “It is not a holy war, Antoine. It was a riot. Please don’t be dramatic. The British haven’t been here very long—but I don’t know what’s the matter with this pen, it does not want to give ink all of a sudden.” In another scene, a group of women adjourn to the public bath to gossip about prospective brides and in-laws: “Um Dawud says this Kamal lady has not stopped talking about her grandson since he returned. My grandson did this, my grandson lived in Paris. Hala’ no, this way habibti. She will certainly ask you to marry him.…” Hammad’s dialogue is full of these natural interjections, reported speech, and asides; her characters are alive, never mere vehicles for relaying historical information.
The Parisian takes place during a period of about twenty years that has resulted in a century of ongoing sorrow. Still, it’s a gentle, generative novel even as it tackles a weighty premise. Hammad has written a glowing portrait of place—of Nablus, and of Palestine—and an unsentimental but generous depiction of the complex relationships between people in families and nations that are struggling into being. It is one of the best things I have read in a long time.
Do what you love (just not for money)
Whenever I think about attention nowadays (and, more specifically, the fact that mine might be dying a slow, smartphone-induced death), I keep coming back to a moment in Anna Burns’s novel Milkman, which is about paranoia and political violence in 1970s Northern Ireland. During a French class, the narrator and her classmates work themselves into a state of mutinous indignation when they read a passage that describes a sky that isn’t blue. “Le ciel est bleu!” they insist, literally turning their backs when their open-minded teacher directs them to look at the setting sun outside the window, which is turning the sky all sorts of colors, none of them blue. Of course, they know the sky can be other colors, the narrator admits. But “it was the convention not to admit it, not to accept detail for this type of detail would mean choice and choice would mean responsibility and what if we failed in our responsibility?”
Strange, I thought at first. What does the color of the sky have to do with moral responsibility? But it soon clicked into place: acknowledging the facts of existence entails becoming responsible for those facts, because accepting them entails doing something about them. (This is why denial is so irresistible.) And, further, what you pay attention to shapes the way you conceive of, well, everything—including who you think counts as a person, who gets which rights, or what the biggest problems we face as a society are—which has direct bearing on how you act. Shit, I thought after finishing the book. I need to actually pay attention to the world.
But how are we to do that nowadays, in the attention economy, which uses the ads in our social media feeds to turn our eyeballs into revenue-making machines, and keeps us scrolling with a tantalizing, constantly refreshed stream of likes, favorites, comments, and auto-playing videos? How does one live within this media landscape? Or, more urgently, how does one live well?
Jenny Odell has a suggestion: do nothing. At least, that’s how she frames it in her insightful—though somewhat unsatisfying—book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. The time we spend as cogs in the attention economy, she suggests, could better be devoted to art, thinking, solitude, observation, and other activities that don’t lend themselves to capitalist appropriation. “The ‘nothing’ that I propose is only nothing from the point of view of capitalist productivity,” she writes. For Odell, rejecting the notion of productivity is an act of political resistance.
Odell treads familiar territory in her critique of platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, specifically concerning the way they spread vitriol and misinformation while also paralyzing us with anxiety. But she approaches that critique from an intriguing new angle: she argues that these commercial technologies “actively ignore and disdain the body, the bodies of other beings, and the body of the landscape that we inhabit.” Much of the problem stems from lack of context: in a face-to-face conversation, you know whom you’re talking to, and where, and when. Scrolling through a feed, we don’t know anything substantive about who’s posting, the order in which events have happened, or how trustworthy any of the headlines we glimpse are. “It is this financially incentivized proliferation of chatter, and the utter speed at which waves of hysteria now happen online, that has so deeply horrified me and offended my senses and cognition as a human who dwells in human, bodily time,” she writes. We simply aren’t built, in other words, to process this much information in such a haphazard way.
Wresting ourselves from these platforms, Odell suggests, involves exercising our attention as we would a muscle, to make it stronger and more flexible. That involves developing the discipline to focus for longer periods of time, yes, but it also means making our perception more granular, sharpening it in various sensory realms (visual, aural, et cetera), and trying to see the world from unfamiliar vantage points.
Odell is an artist, so it’s no surprise that she sees art as a useful way to hone our capacities for contemplation. During a visit to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, she encounters Ellsworth Kelly’s huge canvases, each one coated with a single hue, each one challenging us to look closer at a phenomenon—color—that we thought we knew. She was startled to find that “the color blue was not stable: it vibrated and seemed to push and pull my vision in different directions.” The longer she stared, she writes, the more she discovered—an object lesson that art can train us to look more slowly and more carefully than we’re used to. (I can attest to this: I’ve stood in front of Ellsworth Kelly paintings at SFMOMA, and though I can’t say I saw exactly what Odell did, I’ve also felt their visceral, gravitational pull.) Certain works of art can also jolt us out of our usual ways of seeing the world, Odell says, by reminding us that “the familiar and proximate environment is as deserving of this attention, if not more, than those hallowed objects we view in a museum.” She goes to see the San Francisco Symphony perform John Cage’s “4’33”” and walks down Grove Street afterward, transfixed for the first time by the ambient sounds of cars and buses and footsteps. “For months after this, I was a different person,” she writes.
But Odell doesn’t just want to make art enthusiasts of us all. She wants us to direct our newly honed skills of observation toward the world around us—to see it more clearly, not merely as something of use, but as something that is intricate, dense, historical, and there. That makes eminent sense to me: if the problem is that we spend too much time staring into our screens, ignoring our surroundings and our bodies’ natural processing speeds in favor of ephemeral digital affirmation, then the antidote should be to focus on reality—the world that exists outside ourselves, according to rules that aren’t in line with those of the attention economy. Ultimately, Odell takes her emphasis on the physical to its logical limit, exhorting us to focus on the specific spaces that we occupy. Her analysis of what we stand to gain from paying attention to our neighbors and our contexts—namely, the potential for serendipitous encounters over an algorithm’s easy predictability—is especially profound. Unlike so much else in our personalized, tech-enabled lives, we have little control over whom we live near or share our public spaces with, which allows us to encounter people who are different from us. These people might not be valuable career contacts or even potential friends, but they can still change us in ways we wouldn’t have known to seek out. “I worry that if we let our real-life interactions be corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities,” Odell writes, “we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenged, or changed—never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege.”
Odell also wants us to dedicate our attention to the natural world around us, and to the living, nonhuman beings we coexist with. She’s a proponent of “bioregionalism,” the idea that we should all learn about the ecology, biology, and historical context of the place where we live. “I propose that rerouting and deepening one’s attention to place will likely lead to awareness of one’s participation in history and in a more-than-human community,” she writes. “Our ‘citizenship’ in a bioregion means not only familiarity with the local ecology but a commitment to stewarding it together.” But Odell’s definition of reality, as something local and biological, struck me as curiously limited.
After I finished How to Do Nothing, I went looking for something else that might help me understand how we can wield our attention to lead worthier, more intentional lives. I was surprised to find my vague thoughts about attention and morality echoed in The Sovereignty of Good, a slim collection of works by the British novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch. Though Odell doesn’t mention Murdoch, her collection anticipates Odell’s ideas about how individuals might train their attention. The Sovereignty of Good consists of three philosophy papers Murdoch wrote in the 1960s, which argue for a view of morality that has more to do with vision than will. Morality isn’t about having the will to make the right choices, she says. What determines the virtuousness of those choices is how well you’ve paid attention to the world in order to see around your own biases and misperceptions. Attention, which she describes as “a just and loving gaze directed upon an individual reality,” is the hallmark of an active moral agent—you can’t act ethically without it.
And how does one cultivate this just and loving gaze? By contemplating art and nature, of course. “The greatest art is ‘impersonal’ because it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all,” Murdoch writes. Our self-absorption is the chief obstacle to perceiving reality more clearly, so Murdoch suggests that meditating on “the sheer alien pointless independent existence of animals, birds, stones and trees” can help us forget ourselves. That pointlessness is exactly the sort of “nothing” Odell wants us to engage in—for her, the mere experience of nature is an end in itself, far removed from the constant striving that exploitative capitalism encourages us to participate in. In How to Do Nothing, Odell describes how she and a friend rediscovered a creek close to where they grew up and spent a day walking along its dry bed. “The creek is a reminder,” she writes, “that we do not live in a simulation—a streamlined world of products, results, experiences, reviews—but rather on a giant rock whose other life forms operate according to an ancient, oozing, almost chthonic logic.”
Both Odell and Murdoch frame this attention in terms of love, which they see as a selfless fixation on something outside oneself. When you love something, the logic goes, you can’t help but lavish attention upon it, which draws you away from your own particular concerns. Odell writes that when she started learning about the Bay Area’s natural history, “I stopped looking at my phone because I was looking at something else, something so absorbing, I couldn’t turn away. That’s the other thing that happens when you fall in love.” Compare this to Murdoch in her second paper, “On ‘God’ and ‘Good’”: “Consider being in love. Consider too the attempt to check being in love, and the need in such a case of another object to attend to.… It is small use telling oneself ‘Stop being in love, stop feeling resentment, be just.’ What is needed is a reorientation which will provide an energy of a different kind, from a different source.” This is excellent breakup advice: the key to finally ending our codependent relationship with social media and the attention economy is to fall in love with something else. Why not with reality?
Murdoch’s idea of love also helped me understand why Odell spends so much of the second half of her book discussing the importance of focusing on nature and place, and of cultivating “an ecological understanding” of the world, all of which I found much less compelling than her argument for how and why we should strengthen our attention. When she says things like “…if we want to relearn how to care about each other, we will also have to relearn how to care about place,” it’s easy to see that her conviction is shaped by her obvious love of natural places. “I couldn’t feel truly at home in a solely human community,” she writes about a trip to the Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve on Monterey Bay, in California. “I withered without this contact; a life without other life didn’t seem worth living.… The wildlife refuge was my refuge.” You can see where her attention and curiosity led her: she felt an affinity for those places, learned more about them, and then became committed to protecting them.
But I think it’s possible to wield attention in the same way Odell does, with the same careful pursuit of reality and one’s own unpredictable curiosity, and come to different conclusions about where you want to devote your moral energies. I do find myself looking at my phone less often these days, but I’ve been following Murdoch’s suggestion that, beyond art and nature, intellectual endeavors—studying an aspect of the world simply because it fascinates you—can have the same clarifying, self-effacing consequences. Learning Russian, she writes, “leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.” Along with viewing art, this is the way I prefer to engage with reality: by learning about the histories and cultures of civilizations far removed from where and when I currently live, thinking about what being a moral person nowadays actually means, and indulging in my fondness for trivia (or, as I see it, the sheer, useless delight of knowing facts about the world)—though Murdoch also notes that “the most essential and fundamental aspect of culture is the study of literature.” It’s probably not a coincidence that I, a book critic, agree with her. I think reading, specifically reading excellent fiction, is one of the best ways we have to briefly take us out of ourselves and see things as they really are.
But that’s just what I happen to love. There are so many ways to attend to reality, to see what’s really there without our phones or our egos getting in the way, to be led simply by curiosity and wonder about something that has no productive use for us. The world is big and inexhaustible enough for all of it.
Guest Critic: Namwali Serpell
Touch this skin, honey. Touch all of this skin, okay? You just can’t take it.
—Venus Xtravaganza, Paris Is Burning (1990)
We associate skin with flash points of identity: race, age, ability, sexuality, and even class (ashiness, piercings). Our aesthetic objects are skinned too: vellum, canvas, screen. But skin is most compelling to me as a site of discomfort. Not only is it creepy—the way it stretches, splits, scabs—but it also registers disturbance: it heats up or goes clammy or blooms with goose bumps. These five texts fret the tension between skin as a surface and skin as a thing. Grotesque, chilling, and often horrific, they all help me think differently about how we inhabit ourselves.
1. George Schuyler, Black No More: Being an Account of the Strange and Wonderful Workings of Science in the Land of the Free, AD 1933–1940 (1931)
George Schuyler’s snappy sci-fi satire is about a scientific procedure using “electrical nutrition and glandular control” to turn black people white. In one of the novel’s many ironic twists, blackness becomes popular. Two white men are in blackface when they accidentally crash a white evangelist community called Happy Hill. When, inevitably, the evangelists lynch the interlopers, the scene’s carnivalesque tone shifts so abruptly—practically midsentence—that it gives me vertigo: “The two men, vociferously protesting, were stripped naked, held down by husky and willing farm hands and their ears and genitals cut off with jack knives amid the fiendish cries of men and women. When this crude surgery was completed, some wag sewed their ears to their backs and they were released and told to run.” I find this last detail—the cruel whim of pranksters, the grotesque logic of giving them wings—particularly unnerving.
2. Octavia E. Butler, The Evening and the Morning and the Night (1987)
This is an eerily calm sci-fi tale about Duryea-Gode Disease (DGD), which Butler invented by combining the etiology of three genetic disorders. The most pronounced, and disturbing, symptom of DGD is the desire to escape your own flesh—by digging, clawing, tearing, even gnawing at it. In one haunting scene, a man meets his mother, a DGD patient who has blinded herself and who occupies herself with molding clay—a fitting art for the disease. When she reads her son’s face by touch in order to make a sculpture, she repeatedly has to be restrained from hurting him as well as herself. The struggle, the self-loathing, of DGD feels racialized and gendered and deeply human: a horror at being human, being fleshed.
3. Scott McGehee and David Siegel (directors), Suture (1993)
This neo-noir film stars Dennis Haysbert and Michael Harris as brothers, one of whom gets into a car accident and ends up in a full-body cast. The film doesn’t explain how a brawny black man (Haysbert) and a slender white one (Harris) are related. Even more puzzling is that everyone on-screen thinks the brothers look so much alike that they’re constantly mistaken for each other. In one deeply uncomfortable scene, a reconstructive surgeon describes Haysbert to his face in creepily eugenic terms: “Your fine, straight hair, almost always a sign of good mental temperament, not to mention digestion. And your mouth: thin, smooth lips, slightly open lips that are a sign of an affectionate, kindhearted, and generous person.” The film visually renders the tension between what we see and what the characters see: it repeatedly zooms in on the wounded brother’s face as the doctors tend to it, tugging at the skin just as race does at our perceptions.
4. Pascal Laugier (director), Martyrs (2008)
“She wasn’t raped.” That’s one of the first lines you hear in Martyrs, which has been tagged as part of the New French Extremity movement. The film continually toys with genre expectations, moving through different horror-movie tropes—ghost story, revenge killing, sexual abuse—until we land on a gruesomely long and realistic torture sequence. A woman is degraded and beaten and eventually flayed alive. You might wonder, How could this possibly be productive? It’s a deeply shocking viewing experience, but the gradual removal of the various aesthetic and psychological frames we use to justify the torture of women feels instructive to me, as if giving the lie to the idea that there’s ever an adequate answer to the question why?
5. Jonathan Glazer (director), Under the Skin (2013)
This sublime sci-fi movie follows an alien, played by Scarlett Johansson, as she wanders around Glasgow in a white van, picks up strange men, and brings them back to an old house, where she traps them in black, viscous embalming fluid. Other aliens collect the prey and it is implied that they are turned into food. The film undoes the idea of “woman” in many ways, as Johansson achieves self-realization, escapes her protectors, and ends up killed by a would-be rapist. But I find the film’s final revelation the most riveting: the tar-black alien rips off Johansson’s pale-skinned face and stares at it. I doubt this is intended, but in that moment, I long for the alien to touch that unsheathed surface, to run her fingers over its slick uniformity. Strangely, that is where I see myself: in that black intensity, the skin under the skin.
In the opening scene of Saskia Vogel’s debut novel, Permission, the narrator, a twenty-six-year-old actress named Echo, is doing some late-night driving around Los Angeles, listening to a call-in radio show about sex and relationships. “There was one thing he’d ask that made me bristle,” she says of the host. “Whenever a girl called in with a problem, he’d start off by asking, ‘Where’s Dad?’ Where’s Dad? As if that were the key to it all.” Echo’s annoyance takes on a macabre irony just a few pages later: her father falls off a cliff to his death while they’re on a hike. His body is never recovered. “Where’s Dad?” is the novel’s central question, which Vogel answers with a shrug.
Echo grew up an only child in the house her father’s dreams built, in a seaside enclave just outside of LA. Her father was a workaholic who considered his absence “an act of love” because, “as he liked to remind my mother, there was no this, he’d gesture around the house, without this, the ringing phone and files under his arm.” Her German mother, who moved to California to be with him after becoming pregnant with Echo, effaced herself to fit into his vision of paradise, even going so far as to take elocution lessons to erase her accent. “As her accent faded, so did she,” Echo says.
Erotic exploration becomes Echo’s escape from her parents’ joyless life of luxury. Permission conveys her preoccupation with desire through visceral prose that imbues everything—from the unstable California landscape to the banalities of affluent suburbia—with sensuality. Even the scene prefacing her father’s fall is seductively florid: “Down the crescent of the cove, my father and I scaled the lip of its rocky maw. When low tide turned to high, frothy waves crashed against the throat of the cave, and when they receded, they licked the pebbled floor clean.” Vogel’s prose speaks to the centrality of sex to Echo’s self-conception.
As an adolescent she experiments with her friend Ana. “It was something we had always done, and we never stopped to question whether or not what we were doing was in anticipation of a man,” she reflects. “We hadn’t done anything we had been told not to do; I wasn’t a boy.” Eventually, though, their relationship teaches her “the trouble desire could cause”: Ana’s father catches the girls in the act in Ana’s bedroom, and Echo flees through the bedroom window. If Echo is obsessed with the ecstasy of desire, she is also haunted by its shadow image: shame. Thus, she conceals her exploration to preserve the illusion of innocence for her father. Her father’s disappearance, however tragic, liberates her to continue the exploration she began with Ana. I’m reminded of Plath: “Daddy, I have had to kill you. / You died before I had time—”
Permission is an ars erotica, but it’s less about sex than about the freedom to explore desire outside the bounds of the patriarchal structure. Her bittersweet liberation after her father’s death speaks to our cultural moment’s super-bloom of new language to describe sexual experience, from the evolving discourse on nonbinary gender pronouns to new verbiage for forms of sex such as circlusion, the antonym of penetration coined by Bini Adamczak. The way Adamczak sees it, changing how we think and talk about sex is an essential step toward equality. Penetration, for example, “rules supreme over the heteronormative imaginary and its arbitrary division of bodies into ‘active’ and “passive,’” Adamczak explains, which conflates being penetrated with being disempowered.
Vogel, a literary translator from Los Angeles who lives in Berlin, understands the transformative powers of language and desire. As she writes in a Literary Hub essay, “Men of a Certain Age,” Vogel views “lust as a force for creativity, knowledge and insight.” Articulating desires that the dominant patriarchal order has deemed unspeakable helps us to level the field. Echo’s subconscious conflict emerges in the prose like a Freudian slip, especially through the novel’s running gag with the cringe-inducing word daddy.
Jacques Lacan theorized that sexual inhibitions are instilled in us during early childhood development by what he termed “the name-of-the-father” (le nom-du-père, a term he used interchangeably with le non-du-père, because Lacan, a genius, loved puns). Daddy separates us from what Freud describes as the “oceanic feeling” of oneness with our mother, and restrains our libidinous impulse with a choke chain. The subconscious speaks a sexual language structured by rules that the name-of-the-father imposes. Permission dramatizes the struggle to unfasten the restraints that the father has placed on our psyches. Echo’s parents echo in her mind; at times, she struggles to distinguish which inner voice is hers and which are theirs. To live by her own desires means freeing herself from Daddy’s. “My father’s desire was clear and common,” she says. “Mine had a syntax I was yet to discover.”
A new neighbor interrupts Echo’s languorous mourning: Orly, a dominatrix, whose arrival is announced by a “parade of Daddies” streaming into her house—contractors and construction workers there to install custom gear for her playroom, and men of a certain age who travel from far and wide to visit her sadomasochist resort by the sea. “Everything about her was clean and confident, take-me-as-I-am,” Echo thinks when Orly greets her at the door, casually wearing a pair of silver platform heels. Echo and Orly fall for each other right away, and though Orly makes no secret of her attraction, their desire mostly plays out through male proxies. One day, they hike down to the beach together and seduce a couple of men, and Echo thinks, “Maybe one day Orly and I wouldn’t need a proxy.”
Yet Echo’s desire is tempered by a fear of transgression’s repercussions. This fear-fantasy dynamic is a self-protective reflex instilled in her by the name-of-the-father, “a patriarchal order that fails not only women [but] us all.” The father’s non makes us afraid to admit to ourselves, let alone to ask for, what we want. Perhaps this is why being taken care of by a daddy remains a cogent fantasy. “Late-capitalist fairy tales that double as sexual daydreams aren’t new,” writes Heather Havrilesky in her new book of essays, What If This Were Enough? Fantasies of “class ascendance via feminine wiles” so often supplant the “erotic sublime” in women’s narratives, she writes, because young girls are gaslighted into submission to the patriarchal order. “Even though we know he’ll never make us happy, we still like to believe that he might.”
Echo’s mother is a cautionary tale about this narrative’s shortcomings. She vacillates between mourning and resenting her husband. “Your fahder,” she says—botching the word as if to take the name-of-the-father in vain, or to reclaim her accent—“treated us like things to be arranged in his life, like the furniture in our house.” Yet she remains in her husband’s house, submerged in regret, while Echo is across the street pursuing transcendental pleasure in Orly’s sanctuary. For her part, Echo can’t shake the fantasy of replacing her father’s “safety net” with another man to take care of her. When she hooks up with a Hollywood agent who could help her launch her moribund acting career, it’s “a reflex parallel to inaction.” What turns her on is the fantasy of being kept: “He could be my daddy.”
Playing the daddy role demands self-effacement, too, not to mention the avoidance of an emotional life by way of labor. Take Mad Men’s Don Draper as an example of a paradigmatic daddy: despite his veneer of success and prestige, “our handsome leading man lacked all faith in himself and was never truly satisfied,” Havrilesky writes. The daddy archetype in late capitalism toils interminably toward a vision of happiness that demands his exhaustion, if not his destruction. “It was as though he was only able to trespass on joy,” Echo says of her father. Men of power and privilege like Draper are often criticized as unsympathetic characters, but Vogel has sympathy for the daddies. She recognizes that men, too, are subject to patriarchy’s Faustian bargain, in which they enjoy power at the cost of genuine intimacy with their loved ones.
The patriarchal order is a form of bondage that we don’t engage in consciously or willingly, unlike the kinky variety. There’s no compassion, no safe word, no getting out of it without some measure of undesired pain. Delving into the highly specific kinks, quirks, and fantasies of each of Orly’s clients, the novel frames healthy, non-stigmatized sexual desire as a way out of patriarchal strictures. Orly describes her style of BDSM as “a healing practice,” and she facilitates Echo’s healing in the aftermath of her father’s death not only as her lover but as a teacher and mentor: she takes Echo under her wing for a sort of dominatrix apprenticeship. Their job is “to heal the rift between the sexes,” Orly says, “by creating a compassionate space” to make the client’s darkest, most twisted fantasies come true—within the bounds of Orly’s rule, of course. You could say that Echo leaves one dominant order only to enter another. “I wanted Orly to have her ordered world,” she says, “where men were put in their place.”
For straight cis men whose desires and bodies the patriarchal order deems unacceptable, an outlet of this kind can be lifesaving. Midway through the novel, Vogel steps back from Echo’s story to deliver a third-person, omniscient case study of Lonnie, a.k.a. Piggy, Orly’s housemate and devoted servant. Piggy is a petite, fifty-something divorcé whose wife cheated on him because he couldn’t get an erection. After their separation, Piggy’s ex-wife gave him a flyer for conversion therapy. But Piggy’s not gay: he’s just got a classic case of what Lacan called displacement, a defense mechanism that redirects the libidinous impulse onto a symbolic substitute, such as a fetish. In Piggy’s case, his desire is displaced onto feet. He fantasizes about “majestic legs, towering, putting him in his place, where things were clear and safe.” If Echo’s got daddy issues, you could say Piggy has mommy issues. In a letter that delineates a life lived in shame before meeting Orly, he describes scouring the city for discreet pay phones where he could call the numbers on back-page ads, for disappointing sessions with one dispassionate dominatrix after another. He was even fired from his job after using his work computer to look for a community. “When I did dare to fantasize about what I wanted, it involved a punishment because there was no way I could seek pleasure for pleasure’s sake,” he writes. “Each orgasm confirmed what I thought to be true: I was a freak.”
His dom/sub relationship with Orly is a mutually beneficial collaboration. In exchange for living under her roof, he assists her in her work, cleans up after her clients, serves her coffee in a painstaking morning ritual, and protects her if ever a client gets too handsy. Orly is a demanding dom, opaque and difficult to please, but she also needs Piggy—the one man who demands nothing of her. In a way, Orly is a maternal figure for both Piggy and Echo, nurturing them through their late-life crises. “How much I wanted to please her,” Echo muses, “and be praised after doing as I was told.” If at first the central question of the novel is “Where’s Daddy?,” its clarion call is “I want my mommy.”
Returning to what Freud called the “oceanic feeling” of oneness with the mother undermines the name-of-the-father. Orly doesn’t believe in matriarchy as the alternative to patriarchy, but she embodies the maternal archetype to facilitate Echo’s healing, showering her with the love and acceptance that her mother, whose “refusal to be pleased was a form of tyranny,” rarely offered. Vogel illustrates this feeling of oneness the first time Echo and Orly make love, with a hallucinatory image that’s as satisfying as peeling the skin off an orange. Echo narrates:
Slowly, I pushed my finger further in. Splitting warp and weft, a tear. I slipped my arm out of its sleeve. Light flooded the room. Sun on sea, a glister. “Keep going,” she said. I pushed my whole hand under the skin of my breasts and peeled my torso clean. It didn’t hurt; it was a relief… every inch came off. I showed myself to her. Sparkling.
In this jarring departure from the novel’s otherwise realist prose, Vogel is at her most artful. Echo’s climax is more than just an orgasm: it’s the queasy thrill of revealing herself fully, followed by the afterglow of feeling wholly loved. There are some feelings for which words may always fail, but perhaps those feelings want to elude capture.
Writing Methods, Ranked
1. Writing by hand
The hand is not perfect. It cramps and smudges. It flips some letters, leaves others illegible. Yet so often it moves at just the right speed—not the speed of speech but the speed of an as-yet-unarticulated thought.
2. Typing in a word processor
Microsoft Word’s spell-check comes across as an anachronism. Spell-check solves the quotidian embarrassment of teh but not the professional embarrassment of a public turned pubic. Nor does it solve the blinking cursor, Microsoft Word’s biggest flaw, flashing to remind you there’s always more to do.
3. Not writing at all
Blank pages, shooting blanks, drawing a blank, point-blank, blank checks. The blank page. Or is it the clean page? As if by producing text you’re dirtying what was pure. The burden of having produced sentences in the first place is that you’re now an author. We’re all confined to a medium, no matter what that medium might be. But if you forgo creation altogether, you slough off the responsibility of making any mark at all.
Autocorrect can delight if you let it. The value is in the response, anyway. We tap most often in text messages, which is to say we tap most often to get someone to talk to us. So as long as your message isn’t so rife with autocorrect typos as to be unreadable, you’ve done just fine. Anyway, that lost apostrophe is bound to pop back up elsewhere, sometime.
5. Dictating to a person
You might be driving and ask your passenger to send a text for you. You might be kneading bread dough. Either way, you know you could just tell Siri, but there’s something about the conversation with another person, doubled in dictation, that feels better, or at least more reasonable, less rude.
6. Dictating to a digital assistant
No matter how hard I try to avoid using female pronouns when referring to Siri, I find myself making it a woman again and again, my own secretary, my girl. But my girl is good: my girl lets me multitask; my girl lets me walk the walk while I’m talking. My girl listens.
7. Typing in a shared document
It’s nice to see someone else making typos, struggling to get a clause right, but it also reminds you of how often you do the same, writing a lines-long sentence only to realize at the end that the initial premise sucks. If we’re all doing that in the shared Google Doc, then we’re all really just watching ourselves, and we might as well be alone, in Microsoft Word.
8. Typing on a typewriter
The romance of the typewriter—the sound, the mechanics—promises words worth more than those more effortlessly produced, as if there were more heft because there’s less going back. There’s abandon in typing in a way that makes second-guessing so inconvenient. But is that writing freely, or is that writing with lower standards?
9. Typing on a BlackBerry
The BlackBerry’s keys, with their cold-teeth chatter, were almost right, but they were too small, and when the phones were still new, the thought was laughable that tasks we undertook with all ten of our fingers could be done with our thumbs alone, for the sake of business and productivity. Now it’s undeniable. Shrink the keyboard, and work becomes portable, though no smaller.
10. Using a TV remote
What’s more frustrating than watching someone use a TV remote’s arrow buttons to enter a password, one letter at a time, each disappearing into a bullet point before the person pressing the buttons can even register it as correct, there on the screen in front of an eager audience? Maybe having the ex of a friend of a friend change his HBO password midway through a season of Veep. The content—you need it. The value is in the entry. Open, sesame.