The first time I came across Linda Yablonsky’s The Story of Junk, it was a twenty-page submission to a grant-making organization for which I was a judge. I was on the nonfiction panel and The Story of Junk, a dazed chronicle of the author’s life as a downtown heroin addict, was offered as a factual account. Although Ms. Yablonsky did not receive the award, the details of her manuscript stuck in my mind for a long time afterward. In that piece, which is the first chapter of Junk, an offic er of the Drug Enforcement Agency has caught up with Ms. Yablonsky and is tugging at the threads that will make her life unravel. He is obsessive, like another addiction, and there is no way she can shake him.
What caused Ms. Yablonsky’s manuscript to stay with me was the idea that it was a real story, the story of her life. The dissonance of that life and her life as I imagined it before heroin, as a suburban Philadelphia Jewish teenage girl, was part of what gave the work its frisson. One day she’s shopping at Record World, the next day she’s buying baggies from a guy on Avenue A. It was like those books about serial killers and stalkings that publishers love to call “true crime,” because they kno w that emphasizing the fact that these things really happened is seductive, maybe even erotic. Which is why, when I picked up a copy of the completed manuscript recently, I was surprised to see, as its subtitle, the declaration that The Story of Junk was a novel.
Though categories like fiction and nonfiction can to some extent converge, the extent to which they do not is illustrated by Ms. Yablonsky’s book. As nonfiction, her book needed to answer some basic questions for the reader—questions that had mainl y to do with what happened, how and why. The answers could be artful, they could be straightforward, but whatever they were, their power would come from their authenticity. Some of the best nonfiction, of course, borrows heavily from fiction, but still, l urking behind every deftly rendered character, every advance of the story, is the knowledge, shared by reader and writer, that the story is true, and that the writer’s allegiance is to fact.
Now that Ms. Yablonsky’s story is presented as a novel, it is not immediately obvious, particularly to someone who doesn’t know the book’s provenance, if it is factual or accurate. Though Junk is largely a recitation of details and scenes from a drug-dealing life, and while it is quotidian rather than eventful, detail is different from fact. And, though the details make the story feel “real,” that feeling is the book’s undoing. Being a junkie, one learns after the narrator’s third cab ride to Alphabet City in the middle of the night to score some drugs, is about as interesting as a dead-end job. Ms. Yablonsky does not try to make life on junk boring—this isn’t one of those subtly preachy books—it just happens to be boring.
The DEA officer, whose name is Dick, is also curious about how the narrator, whom he calls Laura, became a junkie, and much of the story is told in flashbacks. Most of these begin after she has abandoned middle-class conventions and is working in r estaurants where heroin is so available and commonplace that using it seems inevitable, like table salt. Laura meets Kit, the lead guitarist of a punk band called Toast, whose seduction of Laura includes a needle in the arm while they’re soaking in the tu b. Later, she writes,
When I moved in with Kit, I no longer cared what the world found socially acceptable. Two girls together? Of course. Could we have sex standing up? Fine with me: heat rises….
It was the physical thing that hooked me. I wasn’t looking for God. I thought I’d seen enough. But the prospect of a life of pure sensation—that, I liked. Heroin was another way to see the world, from the other side of the glass, another way to free it. It’s a world you don’t have to enter; it enters you. It makes you feel sexy—good for something. But this life isn’t about feeling good; it’s about feeling better. However good or bad you feel, heroin makes you feel better. It’s a short leap from there to feeling nothing at all.
Word for word, Ms. Yablonsky is a provocative, gritty writer, and her rasping, intimate voice can be arresting. “It’s hard to pin down the color of her eyes,” she writes about a friend of Laura’s. “They change from blue to gray to green quicker t han you can say ‘Fuck me.”‘ But because she fails to imagine her story, fails to build it out of plot and character and reflection, there is no getting around its fundamental tediousness. People get high, have sex, buy drugs, deal drugs, buy drugs, deal drugs, get high, have sex, try to kick, fail to kick, buy drugs, get caught, reveal their sources, try to kick. For all that apparent activity, neither the characters nor the narrative can go anywhere, because Ms. Yablonsky fails to animate them. Though t he events and circumstances she writes about would seem to be inherently dramatic, the drama remains potential until it is released by art. Stories rarely tell themselves.
Calling the book nonfiction would not, of course, change the way it is written or make it less monotonous. What it would change is one’s expectation. (One would not be looking for the story to be plotted or for the characters to be fully drawn, sinc e nonfiction can be read for the facts and information. In these instances, any literary qualities one encounters can be considered value-added.) Read this way, the story’s monotony could be attributed to the material (which would be saying something abou t that material), rather than to the writer’s talent. Having written the book as nonfiction, the author would not have been less or more responsible to the reader, but her responsibilities would have been different: clarity, narration, reflection, truth. As it is, The Story of Junk: A Memoir might have been a more satisfying book than The Story of Junk: A Novel.
The response to Kathryn Harrison’s memoir, The Kiss, also illustrates how one’s expectation defines one’s reception—how what a book is called determines how the reader reads it. The Kiss, as everyone knows by now, is about Harrison’s four-year affair with her father, a pastor, which began when the author was twenty. The book is written in a cool, hypnotic monotone, as if the writer were unattached to the events she records (and therefore not culpable). “We spend our nights in motels not s o much sordid as depressing. Sordid has a style and swagger these places lack, rooms with curtains cut from the same orange fabric as the bedspread, ceilings of plaster textured like cottage cheese,” she writes. And, in the book’s most sexually explicit passage:
“…He lifts the hem of my nightgown. He doesn’t speak, and neither do I. Nor do I make any attempt to stay his hands. Beneath the nightgown I am wearing no underpants, and he opens my legs and puts his tongue between them…. What he does feels n either good nor bad.
The writing is so painstakingly flat and uninflected, so reported, that it seems to detach the writer from her own willfulness. It is, deliberately, amoral.
When The Kiss came out this spring, critics complained that it was both meretricious and poorly written, and in a rare moment of collective outrage castigated both author and publisher for the opportunism in bringing the book to market. Other critics, citing a number of recent books by male authors revealing their defiance of sexual taboos that did not meet such opprobrium, accused these critics of sexism, among other sins. Meanwhile, the author’s husband—perhaps opportunistically, perhaps not—took to the pages of Vogue to defend his wife. His main argument: The Kiss was a book Kathryn Harrison said she had to write, and who was he to deny her? What is interesting about this justification is that it suggests a compulsion: not only could Colin Harrison not stop his wife, she could not stop herself.
And the manifestation of a compulsion may be exactly what The Kiss is, for it is not the first book she’s written that chronicles the affair and other family pathologies. Harrison’s first novel, Thicker Than Water, tread that fertile ground six years ago. But writing about it once, apparently, was not enough. Harrison came back to the affair, though not to portray it differently. Indeed, the two books share a lot: images, conversations, paragraphs. (One critic, in fact, accused Ms. Har rison of “self-plagiarism.”) What is different, though, is that one book is a novel, the other a memoir. One is supposed to be fiction, the other fact.
From the novel, Thicker Than Water:
When I was fifteen, my mother made me get my first diaphragm…. My mother was in the examining room when the doctor broke my hymen so he could fit me properly for the device. He used a series of graduated green plastic phalli. First a tiny little boy sized one, then a larger and larger one, until he withdrew one whose shaft had been discolored by a smear of blood. My mother leaned against the wall, watching.
From the memoir, The Kiss:
He uses a series of graduated green plastic penises…. One after another he inserts them, starting with the smallest—no bigger than his little finger—until the second to last one comes out smeared with blood. This doctor deflowers me in front o f my mother.
From the novel, Thicker Than Water:
In line at the salad bar he pulled my plate out of my hand and let it fall to the floor and shatter, cherry tomatoes rolling between my feet. When he thus had the attention of all the diners he said loudly, “You’re a slut, just like your mother. ” One entire family turned around in their seats and looked to see who I was.
From the memoir, The Kiss:
My father leans across the table. His face is the same shape but much larger than mine, seemingly larger than other men’s. At close range, it seems planetary. “You,” he says, too loudly for a restaurant, “are a slut just like your mother.” Ev eryone who hears turns to see who the big man is talking to with such righteous conviction.
When it was published, Thicker Than Water received many favorable reviews. The writer, who was thirty years old, was praised for her use of language, which was at once direct and distilled, and for her command of the material. But one review in particular, by Scott Spencer, writing in The New York Times Book Review, is especially prescient: “The first two words of Thicker Than Water are ‘In truth,’ and as the novel plunges into a woman’s painfully frank and unsparing revelations abo ut her miserable childhood, and her struggle to awaken from its dank, hypnotic spell, this reader felt, at times, that he was reading a harrowing, fully imagined work of nonfiction.” And so, it turned out, he was.
What is interesting about this comment in retrospect is that neither Mr. Spencer nor any of the other reviewers who suspected that Thicker Than Water detailed real events chastised Ms. Harrison for writing about the affair. No one argued that i t was exploitative or potentially damaging to her children or that her rendering was meretricious. No one suggested that she should not have written it or, at least, if she had to write it, that she should not have published it. No one said anything of th e sort because the story was told behind the veil of fiction. As long as there was the slightest possibility that the story was not true, veracity could be the object of speculation, not the subject of criticism. As long as the story was just a story, no one needed to consider its impact on the family or the author’s motive in publishing the book. As fiction, both the writer, and the reader, were protected.
Call it something else, though—nonfiction, true crime, autobiography, or the murkier “memoir”—and the reader cracks the binding with certain (and different) assumptions. Knowing that the events are really “real” raises questions of culpability , intent, and motivation. Not only is the writing—the telling of the story—under scrutiny, the writer’s life is, too. The outrage people have expressed about Ms. Harrison “outing” herself has as much, and maybe more, to do with her real-life behavior vis-à-vis her father (and mother) as they do with the content or style of her book. Calling the book a memoir afforded them this liberty: the life as well as the work are fair game. One suspects that Ms. Harrison knew this and that this, in fact, was one of the reasons she chose to tell the story again, in this form. In the vitriolic controversy that occurred after The Kiss came out, greed, notoriety, and revenge were each suggested to be the author’s motivation for writing and then publishin g the book. If so, it would not be the first time a book was drawn from any of these wells. But more likely, The Kiss first came from a deeper place—the need to lay bare—that only a book that has no pretense can get at.
Still, in a curious way, the impulse works to Ms. Harrison’s disadvantage. The Kiss is a stronger book than its predecessor precisely because it gets at its subject more directly. Forget subplot, forget ancillary action—this book has one subjec t, one narrative line, and it clings to it almost desperately. There is no relief from the story, no diversions, no humor, nothing to keep the reader from getting sucked into Ms. Harrison’s reality. And that is the problem. It is another seduction—this o ne of the reader. In the beginning this feels all right—it is, in fact, what good books do—but some time later the author’s confession begins to seem manipulative. The somnolent, distant voice through which she makes that confession, and which at first contributes to its authenticity by suggesting how truly damaged Ms. Harrison has been by the affair, is so self-consciously “written” as to be suspect. In another context its mesmerizing quality would be an achievement. In this one though it cannot help but raise questions of trust. And trust is essential to the enterprise of nonfiction, even to memoir.
It is to Jonathan Rosen’s credit that it is not at all obvious if his first novel, Eve’s Apple, is a roman à clef or a fully realized work of the imagination. Though the book’s overriding subject—anorexia—might seem to lend itself bett er to nonfiction, Rosen’s humor and the intelligence he imparts to his narrator, a recent college graduate and part-time English as a Second Language instructor named Joseph Zimmerman, are so winning that anorexia is absorbed into the larger story, becomi ng a nearly metaphorical device to talk about deep human hungers. Indeed, the few times Rosen breaks into the narrative with factual material—excerpts from the DSM, case histories of eating disorders—are the few times his voice falters. Fact gets in the way, slowing the movement and corrupting the integrity of the story. Fiction, on the other hand, gives Rosen the license needed to create a realistic and emotionally complex, honest narrative.
Joseph Zimmerman’s cadenced, mordantly wholesome voice sets the tone straight off.
The first thing Carol Simon does when she enters a room is water the plants. It doesn’t matter whose house it is, she runs around sticking her fingers in the flowerpots, and, if things are dry, she finds the kitchen and emerges carrying a glass o f water. She’s like an animal staking out territory. And because I was living with her daughter, she may have felt a special urge to lay a claim to our place. Her daughter, Ruth, sat glowering beside me with a shawl over her shoulders—huddled, shy, enrag ed.
…”I hope you don’t treat him like the plants,” she said, stretching out her arms and dragging the cat toward her. The plants were Ruth’s. The cat, Max, was mine.
“No,” said Ruth. “Max eats like a horse. I don’t think he’s really a cat. I think he’s some other animal in disguise.”
Max could eat the cream cheese off a bagel in the time it took to answer the telephone. He would jump over the serrated top of shopping bags and land face-first in the groceries as soon as the bags were set on the floor. And Ruth hated him for it . He was like her hunger gone out of her—prowling the kitchen, nosing in the cabinets, leaping on the table at dinnertime. He gave away the secret of her appetite. And if I had learned anything about Ruth in the time we were together, it was this appalli ng mystery that I first refused to believe—that she was always hungry.
The narrator is so familiar and likeable, he could be a friend. The reader is drawn to Joseph, and it is a much less complicated attraction than his is to Ruth. We are not asked to sympathize with her and her disease, but with him and the mystery of her disease. He is the detective, stalking Ruth’s illness as if it were a missing person. He sneaks looks at her diary (which, written in the third person, becomes a second narrator), obsessively reads the medical literature, and, in one of the funniest set pieces of the book, conducts a surreptitious physical exam looking for telltale signs of the disease while maneuvering Ruth into bed. By continually deflecting the reader from the generic medical problem while simultaneously keeping it in full view, R osen keeps the novel from becoming maudlin, predictable, or textbook-dull. This contrasts with Kathryn Harrison’s more clinical approach to writing about anorexia in The Kiss:
At fifteen, when I stop eating, is it because I want to secure [mother’s] grudging admiration? Do I want to make myself smaller and smaller until I disappear, truly becoming my mother’s daughter: the one that she doesn’t see?
…Anorexia may begin as an attempt to make myself fit my mother’s ideal and then to erase myself, but its deeper, more insidious and lasting seduction is that of exiling her. Anorexia can be satisfied but my mother cannot; so I replace her with t his disease, with a system of penances and renunciation that offers its own reward. That makes mothers obsolete.
Or with Harrison’s confrontational manner in Thicker Than Water:
There was one year that I stopped eating almost entirely, subsisting on predigested liquid protein… and Shasta diet cream soda, which tasted more substantial than the other flavors. But after my period had been gone for a year, after I believed, with a religious fervor, that I had broken myself of the vulgar habit of food…I suddenly became hungry and could no longer fast. I started eating again, ravenously, and solved the problem by sticking my finger down my throat.
Joseph, too, has had his sorrows: his sister was a suicide at sixteen. But he does not dwell on it, does not show his guilt or sadness. Unlike Ruth, the neglected daughter of rich, self-absorbed parents, Joseph seems to have overcome his own history . His concern for Ruth, his compulsive need to understand her illness and to help her through it, appears to be predicated solely on his love for her. He is mother and father both, her “nourisher.” So when Carol Simon’s lover, Ernest Flek, an enigmatic shrink who has renounced the talking cure, hints that Joseph’s need to save Ruth from herself may not be so unalloyed, and that it may, in fact, derive from his inability or unwillingness to have done the same for his sister, it comes as a revelation to b oth Joseph and to the reader. It’s Ruth’s motives we’ve been questioning, not Joseph’s, but it is Joseph’s, ultimately, with which Rosen is concerned.
Rosen is good at surprises—instead of what might have been a predictable plot, Eve’s Apple takes unexpected, and at times thrilling, turns. Rosen is also an excellent storyteller, so that when, toward the end of the book, the attention shifts a way from Ruth and her problem to Joseph and his, it is a surprising but natural transition. And once it’s made, it becomes clear that Rosen has been waiting for us to understand that this was Joseph’s story all along. His own hunger—for making everything all right, for absolution, for life—is no less gnawing than Ruth’s.
Intention and desire, love’s chaos, sadness that cannot be extinguished—the emotional nuances that Rosen brings to Eve’s Apple are haunting. In a sense, he has written a ghost story, a tale of two emotional specters that, by the story’s unsenti mental and promising end, he hopes will make themselves into something fleshier, more corporeal. Fiction, which allows for such a future, serves Rosen’s purpose well, but only because he, in turn, knows what to do with it.
September 25, 1997