By Raven Leilani
Whenever I, a person raised both Christian and corny, encounter something truly sinful — so delicious that it feels illicit; too much, but sneak me a little more when no one’s looking — I feel a need to remark on it with a “whew.” “Whew,” expressed in the side text to the group text, about one friend’s response to another that was slightly too cutting but hurt in the way it needed to. “Whew” to the woman one recent morning in Brooklyn’s Herbert Von King Park, as immersed in her phone as I was in the gentle lift of her calf down her golden brown leg. “Whew” to the first breeze from the air-conditioning unit in my bedroom window on a steamy morning, “whew” to a truth that keeps finding me despite my constant dodging, “whew” to “Luster.”
Raven Leilani’s first novel reads like summer: sentences like ice that crackle or melt into a languorous drip; plot suddenly, wildly flying forward like a bike down a hill. Edie is a 23-year-old New Yorker dissatisfied with everything. Her Bushwick walk-up reeks of fish, or broccoli; mice and roaches live alongside her and her roommate. During the day, her publishing job provides her with barely enough money to get by; at night, it feeds her with a cast of sexual partners — “What they say about not [expletive] where you eat only holds if they pay you enough to eat,” she thinks — including one man for whom she thaws into true affection. He leads her on not just romantically but professionally, encouraging her artistic interests — Edie is a painter — threading her hope that she can move out of editorial and into visual work for the company, but dumping her after her mother dies. She stops painting. But then she meets Eric, a white digital archivist twice her age, on a dating website, and she is charmed by the softness of his profile pictures, the ease with which they discuss the uglier parts of life. His “retired internet slang” and earnestness are, “compared to the inscrutable advances of younger men, … a relief.” In his first message, he tells her he’s in an open marriage.
Like Edie, Leilani has a ruthless knack for the somatic, rendering flesh on paper as alluring and unidealized as it is right next to you. On their first date, at an amusement park, Edie finds Eric’s abject joy “raw in a way that makes me feel like I can unzip my skin suit and show him all the ooze inside.” After a month of seeing each other, meticulously following the rules set forth by Eric’s wife (Eric must always pick up when Rebecca calls; Edie and Eric get tested for S.T.D.s together), they finally have clumsy, domestic sex in his bedroom when Rebecca is out of town. Edie, worked up at the sight of extra towels in the en-suite bathroom (placed there by Rebecca, no doubt), accidentally calls Eric “Daddy”; Eric, worked up at this tremendous turn-on, accidentally tells Edie he loves her. Afterward, “looking like he has not so much had an orgasm as experienced an arduous exorcism,” he immediately sends her home in a cab, and ignores all her subsequent calls and texts. Ten days later, nonplussed, Edie goes to New Jersey and lets herself into Eric’s seemingly empty home, running her hands over the lemons on the counter, drinking milk straight from the jug and coming face-to-face with his wife, who invites her to stay for dinner.
[ Read an excerpt from “Luster.” ]
This scene unfolds like a shaky film projection on the wall, cut with memories of the first time Edie had sex, which resulted in a pregnancy, then an abortion: “To invite admiration or ridicule, you first have to be seen. So the story of the cell that once divided inside me and its subsequent obliteration is also the story of the first man who saw me.” “Dinner” is actually an invitation to Eric and Rebecca’s anniversary party, and when Rebecca brings out the cake, she makes Edie light the candle. Strangest of all in this entire bizarre ordeal is the unexplained appearance of “a Black child in a pink wig and a tummy shirt, smoking a candy cigarette”: Akila, Eric and Rebecca’s adopted daughter. After Eric drives Edie home — “You’re wearing my wife’s dress,” he tells her in the car, and asks if he can slap her in the face, which leads to crunched, furtive sex in the front seat — she receives a voice mail from his wife, inviting her back.
Edie gets fired from her job, and days later has to vacate her apartment once her roommate departs for a better setup (Leilani wryly makes Edie’s landlord a young social influencer who regrets, wistfully, that the two “should’ve partied more”). Strangely, Leilani’s heightened rendering of the tangle that can be one’s early 20s — Edie picks up delivery gigs to make some money, and, in a claustrophobic coincidence, ends up delivering food to Rebecca, who offers Edie a temporary stay in her home while she gets back on her feet — is what actually lends the novel its acidic verisimilitude. There are years of your life whose every retelling sounds just a little bit absurd, as though your life has made a bad joke out of itself. It turns out Rebecca’s invitation is as much for Akila’s benefit as for Edie’s; the girl regards everyone in the house with suspicion, reluctant to get comfortable lest she’s uprooted again.
Their world narrows, more or less, to the house and its inhabitants; not a single one of them, it seems, has any real friends. Edie twists into intimate relationships with each of her new roommates: She and Akila mirror each other, two hyper-mature children — Akila regurgitates her parents’ awful conflict-avoidance psychobabble — who stand at a cool remove from the chaos of the world their parents have created. (A hurried confrontation between police officers and the two young Black women heightens their lonely, racialized table-for-two, but ultimately feels rushed and jarring, and is perhaps the only unnecessary scene in the novel.)
Edie and Eric keep having sex, in stolen moments fumbling around in the basement and in hotel rooms, while acting melodramatically icy in front of others — Eric makes a show of calling her the wrong name in public. The relationship between Edie and Rebecca is a living thing with its own heartbeat, and it is here that Leilani is at her most nimble, her writing sinewy and sharp: Rebecca is alternately a friend and a foe, with whom Edie shares a home, a lover, a steady stream of cigarettes. Their smallest interactions are rife with tension, and begrudging affection; a medical emergency delays Rebecca’s request that Edie finally move out. As Edie heals, her feelings for Eric extinguish (“I think of how keenly I’ve been wrong. I think of all the gods I have made out of feeble men”), and it’s clear that the person she needs to disentangle herself from is Rebecca. The two “take even more incremental steps toward each other until we are basically moving through these last days with our fingers linked, as stiffly as this can possibly be done, our adjacency embarrassing but somehow necessary.”
Edie finally moves into a place of her own, and recoils as soon as she’s alone. “It is not that I want company,” she thinks, “but that I want to be affirmed by another pair of eyes.” Indeed, it is Edie’s hunger for recognition — more than her desire for self-improvement or the humiliation of heterosexuality or her attempts to wrestle her life into something worth the pain — that colors the novel. Recognition by her absent then dead parents; by her co-workers and the professional world; by her lovers; by herself. Eric sees her but keeps looking through her, his vision clouded by lust and fantasy; Akila spies a cautionary-tale role model, a person in need of as much help as she is. Rebecca is the one who finally settles her gaze onto Edie — indeed, she had been watching long before they ever met — despite her efforts to avert her eyes.
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