It’s another morning in small-town Central Florida, and outside the local taxidermy shop stands a middle-aged woman in a nightgown and fuzzy slippers, tapping a cigarette into a coffee mug and admiring the pornographic window display she’s created with the shop’s wares. For her daughter, Jessa Morton, it’s one more thing to deal with on top of her father’s recent suicide and her less-recent abandonment by her lover, who was also her brother’s wife.
So begins Mostly Dead Things, the first novel by the writer and Twitter virtuoso Kristen Arnett. Despite its raw materials, it is neither a slab of Southern Gothic nor a zany romp through the land of Florida Man. To its protagonist and her author, taxidermy is no joke. It’s an art, and even a kind of nurture: “Animals that might have weathered into nothing got to live on indefinitely through our care,” Jessa says. It’s also a bottomless source of metaphor for Arnett—sometimes forced, but just as often fertile
Like mediums and morticians, taxidermists hold a uniquely proprietary relation to the dead. By carrying on her father’s business, Jessa intends to preserve in formaldehyde the memory of a loving but inflexible patriarch, who would have preferred that his shiftless son Milo follow in the family trade but ultimately settled for turning his daughter into his “little miniature.” Arnett adeptly captures the comfort an odd, unfeminine girl might find in this model of close-mouthed masculinity. Jessa recalls roadkill-harvesting missions on which father and daughter rode in happy silence in a truck that “smelled like gasoline and heated vinyl. Receipts slid along the dashboard with a satisfying hiss every time he’d turn a corner or switch lanes.”
The other great lost love of Jessa’s life is Brynn, hopelessly entangled with both Morton siblings since childhood. Into a family that doesn’t “discuss each other’s business,” she brings a vitality that overflows into chaos, “shouting her feelings at the top of her lungs so everyone could experience them with her.” She’s “curvier and funnier and meaner than anyone,” both a type familiar to many a queer woman who’s had a teenage crush encouraged by a putatively straight girl and one of Arnett’s most original creations. Their relationship plays out in moments stolen at sleepovers, amid preparations for Brynn’s wedding, and, later, as Milo’s away struggling to fulfill his role as breadwinner, all masterfully rendered by Arnett. It’s no surprise that Brynn leaves, or that Jessa feels permanently undone when she does.
Compromised as her attachments to the departed may be, Jessa is most at home in the past. Curiously, so is the novel itself. Compared with the visceral longings and disturbances of Jessa’s adolescence, present-day plotlines like the one involving the widowed Mrs. Morton’s nascent art career feel less charged with lived experience. In the present, characters wrangle exposition into dialogue (“The economy’s not great, and there’s no money from life insurance, since … you know”) and have their motivations laid out plainly: Mrs. Morton, we are informed, enjoyed making her R-rated art “because she felt a wild kind of freedom that she’d never had access to before.”
Throughout, many, many animal corpses are dissected and desecrated in many creative ways. (I grew up among hunters and their trophies—no stranger to the sight of, say, a gun rack formed from deer hooves upturned in surrender—and still found some passages difficult to stomach. If you read at the table, be warned.) Not that Arnett is necessarily aiming to shock. Her eye seems naturally and continually drawn to dust, grime, guts; even beyond the taxidermy table, there’s hardly a clean surface in the book. She’s at her best elbow-deep in the details, sorting through the mess of family history to determine what can be salvaged and what should be laid to rest.
Mostly Dead Things By Kristen Arnett Tin House Books Hardcover, 9781947793309, 354 pp. June 2019
The psychic burden of living through the Anthropocene is a first-world problem. In such a world, a wealthy nation has done more than its fair share to call the future of the earth and its inhabitants into question. Those who bear this consequence walk in terror, guilt, and rage against an injustice in which we are thoroughly implicated. The emotional temperature rises alongside the succession of headlines that chart the course of our doom.
While the pace of our destruction may be novel, the poet Sarah Blake’s vivid first novel, Naamah, suggests that these feelings are not quite new. These fears are as old as the Old Testament, where Noah and his family received the heavy gift of being appointed lone custodians of life on earth.
Blake’s protagonist, Naamah, is Noah’s wife, although the Bible’s version doesn’t bother to name the women on the Ark. Nor, for that matter, does the scripture analyze psychology; the author of this tale is more engrossed in topics like boat-building and animal husbandry. Blake engages with these practical matters, too, and many of the pleasures and astonishments of Naamah spill from this source. In a world the size of a ship, how would you feed the tigers? Exercise the wolves? Advise your children on family planning?
In Blake’s novel, Naamah has the answers. She is, as one daughter-in-law says, “the one who’s always plowing ahead, unfazed by dead animals, broken doors, injured legs, the same food over and over.” But she is also disintegrating under the pressureand frustrated by her family’s chirpy attempts at theodicy. To escape, she goes swimming—alarming the others, who “don’t have much patience left for Naamah’s latest ideas about what might make her happy. They don’t realize it’s harder for her, trying over and over again to dream up ways to be happy, and mostly being wrong.”
More deeply than Blake’s other characters, Naamah mourns the ranks of the dead—who include her own female lover. That she had one is not posited as a betrayal of Noah. In an age of boundaries thin enough for God to amble down for a casual chatwith mortals, why wouldn’t women might share their bodies without leaving less for their husbands? Whatever the nature of the “wickedness” that caused God to exterminate the bulk of humanity, Blake argues that traditional sexual morality does not seem to have figured into it.
If man’s exact transgression is unclear, it’s not for lack of communication from the heavens. A parade of celestial beings (including not just God but fellow Biblical matriarch Sarai, a jealous fallen angel and a friendly shapeshifting cockatoo) appear to Naamah in a series of dreams and dives below the floodwaters. Swirling with symbols and heady questions—what does it mean to be a woman? How exactly is God’s presence distributed throughout creation?—these sojourns in other realmsmight have become unbearably high-flown. Instead, thanks to Blake’s attentive world-building, they read as natural side missions from the story’s un-science-fiction narrative of a ship traveling through strange new dimensions.
We know that the journey ends here, on this still-imperiled planet. Yet Blake engineers plenty of suspense from the tensions between predators and prey, divinities and mortals. Consoling a daughter-in-law overwhelmed by her responsibility to regenerate the human race, “Naamah wonders if God has considered this: women so distrustful of Him that they might never bear children for this new world.”
“‘You put us all at risk by not believing in Him,’” her daughter-in-law alleges. Naamah is a questioner by nature, but it isn’t fair to say she lacks faith. Touched by God, sheprefers to place her trust on stable ground. For Naamah, this stable ground consists of the home that is the body, the intricately wrought creatures around her, and her owndeep competence in caring for them.
Like the ark itself, Naamah houses an improbable bounty of life. Blake has packed a remarkable amount of earthly experience that is wondrous, funny, queasy, erotic into an ancient vehicle. Then, she made it sail.
Naamah By Sarah Blake. Riverhead Books Hardcover, 9780525536338, 304 pp. April 2019
In the cultural theory circles Julietta Singh traversed in grad school, “the archive” stood for the body of work one sought to claim as one’s unique site of study, from which one would ideally launch a dazzling academic career. Now a professor of English and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, Singh has remained in academia, but her new book No Archive Will Restore You takes stock of a different kind of archive: her own body and all that has traversed its shifting boundaries.
The tags on her publisher’s web-page for the book—birth, bulimia, cancer, desire, diaspora, pain, queer theory, race, robbery, sexuality, texting, the body, violence—give a sense of its range, but No Archive is less a catalog than a contemplative ramble, structured by the kind of inner logic that might guide the owner of a vast and apparently disorderly home library to any volume sought in seconds. Via email, Singh shared her thoughts on the eroticism of theory, the radical politics of hospitality, and her never-quite-finished writing process.
Contra the “born this way” narrative of queer sexuality and its quest to ground sexual difference in biology, you write at one point that “my engagements with queer theory had produced in me an unabashedly queer sexual desire.” That unexpected motion—theory producing rather than accounting for desire—to my ear faintly echoes the political lesbianism movement of the last century. I’m curious in what ways that might or might not resonate with you.
I’m in full support of the science of queer life, in and beyond human sexualities. I write in the book about a childhood experience of meeting my older queer cousin for the first time and feeling an immediate and profound desire, even while then I couldn’t quite understand it. It’s also true that this moment was caught up—as were many other moments that comprise my early life—in navigating the slippery politics of race and “racial mixing” in the Canada of my youth. In a sense, queerness felt less urgent for me as I was confronting the social struggles that were literally inscribed on my skin.
What I was trying to resist in No Archive was the formulation that I had been in the proverbial “closet.” Instead, I wanted to emphasize the ways that theory—so often presumed to be entirely intellectual and removed from embodiment—could ignite passionate desires for other forms of intimate and collective relation. I have been made, unmade, and remade by theory in countless ways. For me, theory has never been something that simply accounts for the world, but a form of active engagement that gives rise to other ways of inhabiting and imaging this and other worlds.
It’s cool that you hear faint echoes of radical lesbianism here! The brown and black lesbian movement of the last century—Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, and their collectives—are all indispensable to contemporary queer of color critique. Lorde’s essay “The Uses of the Erotic,” in which she moves eroticism out of a purely sexual realm and into everyday acts of making and moving (she cites the act of building a bookshelf!) is a really provocative way to connect with our bodies, to feel in and with them against the socially proscribed sites of eroticism.
You situate No Archive partly within a recent tradition of feminist new materialism. I think it’s also fair to say we’re somewhere in the middle of a long, rich wave of works by feminist writers (both academic and popular) examining bodily female experience. I’m excited by these works—there is still so much to be said—while also sometimes wondering how they sit en masse against the age-old cultural imperative for women, in particular, to devote obsessional attention to the body. Does this ever register as tension for you?
This is a provocative question, and I understand completely why you feel some tension around what may seem like an endless return to the female body. Part of why I think the body is so exhausting for women is because we’re locked into very rigid conceptions of what the body is, and how we should or must be in relation to it. There are, of course, long traditions of being embodied that do not require an unrelenting subjugation or obsession with the body. There are traditions of being in the body that are not disciplinary, that do not police your gender, your size, your sexuality. And perhaps for me even more excitingly, there may be ways of invoking other relations to our bodies that have not yet been played out historically. We might, in other words, invent new styles and tradition of being embodied.
The feminist writing that engages me most—across intellectual and popular spheres—shares a mutual reach toward alternative ways of reading and abiding by the body. If the body has been a source of profound struggle for many women, this for me is not a reason to abandon it. In a feminist deconstructive frame, I could say that I don’t want to flip the binary of women being “all body” by moving us to be “all mind.” I want to displace this binary altogether. We are, all of us, body-minds. I’m interested in that tangled play of the psychic and the material. I don’t want to do away with the body; I want to let it ring and echo in registers that do not align with patriarchal capitalism. I want to bring our bodies into a full, messy, and unabashed embrace.
You had another book come out last year, Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements. One could see No Archive as a companion volume, exploring what it might mean to inhabit a body that neither masters nor is mastered by itself or others—a body that’s more permeable and less bounded. What might happen at a broader political level if more of us were to reconceive of our bodies in this way?
I love the idea of No Archive as a “companion volume” to Unthinking Mastery, and it makes me realize that everything I write in some sense comes back to this primordial formulation: how can we be together in less coercive ways by reconceiving who and what we are?
One of the things I’ve written about beyond these two books, and that lingers palpably in both, is the ethical and political question of hospitality. A critical engagement with hospitality necessitates that we reimagine what is “ours,” and this requires us to rethink how we come into belonging, and why some are not eligible to belong. If we are to understand ourselves as embodied subjects that are fundamentally and infinitely bound up with the world at large, it becomes very hard to forget the refugee at the border. It becomes hard not to fight against a system that wants to wall out, or shoot, or arrest and detain the refugee. It also becomes very hard to turn away from those who are already here, and those who were here first as stewards of this place, who are excised from the systems that support healthy, sustainable life. It becomes impossible to continue to comply with an extractive capitalism that is maniacally destroying the conditions of possibility for life on this planet.
In other words, a radical re-conception of ourselves—of what and who we are—might open us to the prospect of giving up some of the things we have held as “rightfully” ours, and might urge us toward forms of living that refuse outright the very terms of exclusion and exploitation that drive contemporary geopolitics.
You end with the image of the burning book, which in a literal sense seems profoundly anti-archival. But there’s also something liberating in the image. It made me wonder: has writing this book put anything to rest for you? Or does the idea of the archive remain as fraught as ever?
Mulling over this question just made me realize for the first time that No Archive both begins and ends with the act of study! The image of the burnt book at the end marks a desire to turn toward those ideas that have been stamped out from above, that have been prohibited and destroyed. The act of burning books is certainly anti-archival, but the act of gathering up and studying the ashes of the burnt book can be said to be anarchival—demarcating a willingness to take up the partial, the fragmented, the destroyed, without needing to seek out something whole and complete, without needing to recreate the ashes into an “original” form.
No Archive itself falls apart by the end of the book, becoming somewhat fragmented in its form. Now that it’s making its way into the world, I’m still here studying, still desiring to gather up those scattered ashes, to think and feel with them. Much more than putting things to rest, I feel energized toward gathering, distributing, and holding together against the force of what burns us.
An archivist is a professional obsessive with an impossible task: to collect, preserve and organize everything within one’s chosen bounds. Julietta Singh is not an archivist in the typical sense: on the contrary, she says, she has “a long history of becoming discomfortingly overwhelmed in spaces that contain masses of information.” Instead, the obsession that propels No Archive Will Restore You is the idea of the archive itself, and what it might mean to behold one’s own body—in this case, a queer, multiracial one marked by experiences ranging from bulimia to childbirth—as an archive worthy of passionate study.
Her starting point is a quote lifted blithely out of context from the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who maintained that the first step in developing a coherent philosophy was to assess oneself as “a product of the historical process to date which has deposited in you an infinity of traces,” which must be inventoried to achieve self-knowledge. Singh is somewhat more interested in the deposits left by her personal history than by Gramsci’s great river of world history, but she dips into broader forces as well: the body can be shaped by many things, not all of them strictly physical. She speaks with rare candor about the material conditions of her labor as an academic within a system that churns out legions of “underpaid adjunct laborers without access to healthcare, facing our mid-30s without a clear sense of what it had all been for.” There is a riff on the politics of vegetarianism, and a thread tracing how the wellness industry and medical establishment converge to steer women toward natural remedies and psychological explanations for life-threatening conditions.
This is not even a quarter of the ground Singh wanders across—impressive in a book that barely crests the hundred-page mark. (At times I did wish she’d dwell longer in one spot, sometimes with the desire to forestall the occasional lapses into theory-as-poetry but generally because even her briefest asides are compelling.) One obvious predecessor for the book’s digressive form is Maggie Nelson’sThe Argonauts, which No Archive both references and closely follows in its blend of the academic and the couldn’t-be-more-personal. Which is not to say confessional. No Archive moves so briskly between subjects that the larger narrative of Singh’s life emerges only in flashes, and even major events can blur at this speed. Undescribed family trauma and an unexplained injury, for instance, haunt these pages like a kind of muscle memory.
If Singh glances away from such details, it may be to avoid framing No Archive as solely a catalog of damage. Early on she rejects the idea of focusing on the bodily “imperfections” that women in particular “see magnified so acutely that when we look at ourselves we see not body but flaw… I do not want to gather a body archive strictly in order to convert culturally produced deficiency into historical value; to begin to love in other words, what I have been trained to perceive as a flaw.” She’s after something messier: a portrait of the body as not so much vulnerable as permeable, continuously exchanging signals and material with the world around it.
That exchange produces joy as well as pain. Singh describes finding both inspiration and animal satisfaction in the birth and parenting of her daughter, produced and raised in partnership with a queer best friend. The book is dedicated to Singh’s romantic partner, the trans filmmaker Silas Howard, who shows up here as the object of a rapturous new love forced by distance to progress largely via text message. (Singh amusingly dissects the “biochemical desire” for an iPhone’s chime to supply a fix of attention, and “the private drama that unfolds in me each time I send a text message and receive an emoji response.”)
It’s perhaps a measure of Singh’s commitment to the instability of our embodied selves that she ends a long section on her blissful relationship by fast-forwarding to its end so she can address her partner’s next partner: “I want to articulate to her my devastation in advance. But also, and crucially, to welcome her lovingly into this genealogy of womanliness to which she will belong.” What might happen to our various relationships should we adopt Singh’s view of the body as unbounded and bountiful archive? Maybe something like this remarkable renunciation of ownership, this invitation to discover novel forms of community among our shifting selves.
“‘I want to sleep with a woman,’ I said. ‘But I don’t want to leave you.’”
That’s the salvo that ignites the central drama of Leah Dieterich’s new memoir, Vanishing Twins: A Marriage. At the time, she thinks of herself as “straight but interested in women,” having spent her college years making out with girls at frat parties on the pretext of male titillation. As a young wife, she’s still inclined to link her queer desire to a man: “I could still be just like him—a straight person who wanted to sleep with women,” she thinks. “It let me become more me without becoming less him.”
Make no mistake: Dieterich hears your yikes and raises it. This is a book about the pursuit of coupledom past the point where the culturally acceptable search for a soulmate leaves off. Starting with a childhood spent staring into the ballet studio mirror, Leah keeps watch for the twin she believes she ought to have had. Her vigilance roves through realms interpersonal, artistic, and even medical. Vanishing Twin Syndrome is the relatively common phenomenon of a twin pregnancy collapsing into one, and Dieterich reports from her reading that “if the less viable twin is not consumed, it ‘exists in a kind of limbo, compressed by the other to a flattened, parchment-like state known as faetus papyraceus.’”
There is something uncanny about twinship, of course; creators throughout the ages have mined it for camp or horror. An obsession with finding or transforming oneself into a twin is routinely painted as narcissistic, incestuous even. Dieterich plays with all these connotations in due time. “The idea of lovemaking in the womb got me hot,” she says at one point, and whether that line makes you guffaw or gag may indicate how much patience you’re likely to have with Vanishing Twins.
By that late passage, Dieterich has revealed that she’s a bit slyer than she comes across in the first act. No amount of mirror-gazing will produce self knowledge on its own, and adolescent Leah does not dig deep. She gets into journalism because majoring in nutrition requires chemistry, then switches to advertising because interviewing sources is too hard. Of a new friend/crush, she chirps, “I always liked girls with thick hair; I felt I had more in common with them than girls with thin hair.” When she meets her future husband, Eric, she marvels at a series of less-than-astounding coincidences: they’re both left-handed, both the products of long marriages, and both interested in art and being very thin. Still, those points of connection are enough to spark a passionate marriage.
Getting married doesn’t force Leah to grow up; when Eric goes out of town without her, she has her mother put her up in a hotel across the street, where “there’s always someone on duty at the front desk if anything goes wrong.” But getting restless in her marriage does. After the couple fail to find a willing party for a threesome, Eric agrees to open their relationship—which is convenient as his ascendant art career takes him to far-flung residencies.
Dieterich outlines the fraught dynamics of a newly open relationship with merciless precision. “I didn’t want to give him ground rules because I worried that if something was off limits for him, it would be off limits for me too,” she recalls. Leah gets what Eric indignantly calls a “lesbian haircut” and becomes enmeshed in a long-distance relationship with a Spanish filmmaker, trading emails about their periods and photos of the moon. Eric, meanwhile, discovers dancing, Marx, and other willing women. During their instant messenger dates, Leah tries to hide her alarm:
I punctuated my responses with exclamations. Whoa! Oh wow! Haha! I wanted to be supportive in the way he had been with me. I wanted to look excited. And I was, at an atomic level. It felt like everything inside me was dividing and dividing. Like it was all going to come apart.
In such disintegration lies room for redefinition, and Dieterich describes that messy process with a level of intimacy that often amounts to bravery. The marriage at the heart of Vanishing Twins may snap back into its original shape eventually, but from the inside it feels bigger than before.
Name: Eleanor. Age: “still not halfway to death.” Marital status: single, though recently granted a drawer of her own in her not-boyfriend’s apartment. Race: white, with the requisite sense of culpability in an age of “school shootings, murderous cops and their defenders, and remote-controlled bombings of unarmed civilians.”
When we meet the title character in Anna Moschovakis’s Eleanor, or, the Rejection of the Progress of Love, she has blood on her hands—both literally, her thumb bleeding from an unspecified injury, and figuratively, dwelling on an unspecified “thing that had happened—that she had made happen, or at least not prevented from happening.” She is stuck, and so is her creator: not Moschovakis, but an unnamed narrator whose struggle to revise her manuscript unfolds in alternating sections with Eleanor’s story. If this sounds unwieldy, in practice it isn’t, even as the narrator worries that her book has become “like a sequence of nested clauses, an interminable sentence requiring too many readings to locate the verb.”
For help untangling the threads, she turns to a not-quite-new acquaintance: Aidan, a critic and filmmaker whose place in the cultural canon is already being laid out, and whose course she once took as an undergrad—not that he seems to remember. His celebrated film is titled Audience, and his need for the narrator to serve as a combination student, handler and confessor is overpowering. Almost instantly, he thrusts dark personal secrets into her hands and reveals himself as one of those men who delivers every opinion with “an apparent authority and completion that I knew from experience I could muster only after substantial thought, the painful suppression of doubt, and hours of rehearsal before a mirror.”
But despite his self-absorption, Aidan is interested in her novel. And despite herself, the narrator is interested in him. Not romantically: she’s “mostly off men,” though Aidan’s correspondence is a welcome distraction from a breakup so fresh she’s still tripping over her ex-girlfriend’s stilettos. But love isn’t the only story worth telling. In this book, nonce friendships can be as life-changing as committed relationships, and sex isn’t necessarily a more potent form of eros than conversation.
While the narrator fields Aidan’s volley of emails and margin notes, Eleanor embarks on a fraught email correspondence of her own. After her laptop is stolen, she receives a message from a young African immigrant claiming that he’s found it and would like to help return her data. When he stops responding online, she decides to pursue him into the real world, seeking some cloudy mixture of confrontation and connection.
It’s this pursuit that ultimately pries Eleanor loose from her holding pattern and launches her on a shaggy-dog pilgrimage from Brooklyn to an Albany youth hostel, an upstate eco-commune, and ultimately Ethiopia. Along the way, she pinballs off a slew of characters who are no less vivid for having only walk-on roles.
Moschovakis is a poet, and Eleanor is unmistakably a poet’s novel, alert to the textures of experience but relaxed in the pursuit of plot. It is elliptical in the manner of David Markson or Renata Adler, yet eager to point out its experiments and omissions. We don’t learn what sort of event Eleanor regrets having caused, but we do get the narrator pondering “whether the benefits of withholding the particulars of the thing that had happened were worth any frustration such withholding might cause in a reader.” She also worries about the book’s “many unoriginal traits: its episodic structure, its banal storyline reflecting the alienation of the individual in late capitalism, and more.” All this could come off as precious; instead, it lands as a kind of generosity.
The other risk with such meta-commentary is that it might bog down the narrative. But in fact it’s the narrator’s story that starts to produce the stronger pull. Her unstable bond with the critic launches a compelling exploration of the kinds of witness we seek in others and the insidious ways gender and power complicate friendship. While Eleanor traces the footsteps of Arthur Rimbaud in Ethiopia, the narrator travels with Aidan to a ceremony in his hometown, where she finds it “hard not to take on the role of assistant, though I assuaged some of my anxiety about this tendency by calling it care.”
How might any of us get unstuck—from endless rumination, from gendered relations gone stale? One viable strategy, Eleanor suggests, is to escape, not carelessly away from the past but carefully toward each other and deeper into the world. Its heroines’ paths progress as unpredictably and digressively as Moschovakis’s magpie pen, picking up cultural artifacts ranging from Marina Abramovic to My Dinner with Andre along the way. It’s a pleasure to journey alongside all three of them as they drift and drift, and finally take flight.
Cathleen Schine’s They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a novel about reasonably pleasant people to whom nothing much happens except time, in all its ordinariness and brutality. That starts off as a weakness but, by the book’s end, turns into its core strength.
Given the Philip Larkin epigram that also lends the book its title (They fuck you up, your mum and dad. / They may not mean to, but they do), one might arrive expecting a somewhat darker look at family dynamics. In truth, nobody in this story of two octogenarians and their offspring—as devoted New Yorkers as they are casual Jews—is notably fucked up. In a moment of loneliness, it’s the matriarch, Joy, who invokes and inverts Larkin’s couplet, swapping in in “your son and daughter.”
But even Joy knows that her kids haven’t done anything so terrible. It’s true that they’re both more and less involved in Joy’s life than she’d prefer as she copes with her husband’s dementia and then death: more prone to judge her increasing disorganization, less physically and emotionally present.
Daniel lives nearby with his wife and precocious kids and does about what can be expected given that he’s a son, not a daughter. By comparison, Molly is the wayward child, having mystified her mother by leaving a perfectly good husband and marrying a woman in California.
Joy’s genial puzzlement in this area lends the book some of its funniest moments, likely to resonate with any woman equipped with both a wife and and elderly relatives. Joy refers to the couple as “The Two Girls,” and, for a holiday present, gives them “an opal and silver ring she’d found that Molly had liked as a child, she told them they could share it, there had to be some advantage to having your daughter marry a woman.”
At first it seems that Molly will be our primary guide through the book’s tour of old age and the way younger generations bob uneasily in its wake. But she never comes fully into focus: she’s a well-meaning and dutiful daughter, a bit of a meddler with a compulsion to tidy up messy surfaces and situations. What we see of her interior life is devoted mostly to her family—understandable, given that her senile father’s pastimes have started to include pantsless strolls through Manhattan. Still, as a dramatic center, she’s a little dull.
So it’s a relief when we realize that the animating consciousness of the story is really Joy. Schine takes pains early on to inform us that Joy is an extraordinary character who has always fascinated everyone around her; she’s “radiantly beautiful,” fathomlessly complex. This is not necessarily convincing, and in the end it’s simply not necessary: Joy is most compelling when she’s giving us an inside view of the universal absurdities of aging and grief.
Once her husband dies, the pace picks up and the humor gets grimmer. “Someday they would understand,” Joy muses about her children, who desperately want to believe in Joy’s façade of resilience. “They would feel sad the same way she felt sad about her own mother, about all the ways she had not been able to understand until she, too, was old. If only everyone could be old together.”
As a balm for sadness, Joy has her beloved New York City, a setting Schine handles nicely. Yes, it glows with nostalgic glamour and a “cosmopolitanism” that, for Joy, manifests mainly in the army of kindly immigrant caretakers and service workers conscripted to help her navigate her days. But it’s also shaded with the dinginess of growing old in such a city. Joy’s fridge is filled with half-covered morsels from the sad deli dinners she parcels out over days; the family apartment with its pullout couches that don’t pull out and oven doors that don’t open all the way feels deeply inhabited, not lifted from sitcoms or Salinger.
She knows the world has other ideas about how the elderly should live, but Joy fights to stay in the city even as she’s cajoled to move in with Molly in California, where a therapeutic rescue chihuahua and adult tricycle await. New York is her home—and it also happens to hold an old flame who reappears on the scene after her husband’s death.
There are many roads a plot development like that could travel down. The one Schine chooses is both non-obvious and highly in character for the sharp old woman who, by the end, has laid full claim to our sympathy and devotion. Clear-eyed and warmhearted, They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a book to make you call up whatever elders you may have and call on the memory of the rest.