Sometime in the 1980s Catholic primary school teachers in Ireland abandoned the concept of sin, considering it too harsh for the six-year-olds they were training for the confessional. They reached instead for the phrase “a failure to love,” a devastating switch that moved children from the pleasures of transgression (who doesn’t like a good sin?) to the wilderness of abandonment. It was like accusing them of causing their own loneliness. There is, perhaps, a game to be played with novels along these lines, dividing fictional characters into those who sin and those who are merely wrongheaded and sad. It might also be useful to ask if the latter are more often female.
The narrator of Miranda Popkey’s first novel, Topics of Conversation, is the daughter of an old Hollywood family, now in gentle decline. Her nice, white life “was going to be suburban, it was going to be upper-middle-class,” but she throws all that into disarray when she decides to leave her husband, John, who loves her. She does this despite the fact that he was “so kind and so supportive and emotionally generous and a good listener…everything a liberated woman is supposed to want.” Her remorse is partly political: How can a woman refuse all that for herself, when it is exactly what she wants for women in general? Her regret is also, in part, simply human—she does not love a man who loves her, and the pain he feels when she leaves him makes her feel badly about herself.
The problem seems self-evident, but though there is much discussion about morality and desire in this book, it asks no radical question about why women in particular should feel beholden to people who like them, love them, or desire them. Why do women feel guilty when they cannot love the person they “should” love? (Of course they feel guilty! Is there another way to feel about all that?) The question Popkey asks is familiar from the nineteenth-century novel, where it is also a question about society: Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina abandon marriage for love, and both suffer disastrous consequences. For Popkey, society has been replaced by feminism as the system that tells you whom to love, though this switch from authority to the dismantling of authority does not solve the problem of desire. Her narrator tries to date men who have “working definitions of the word feminism” themselves; these are “lovely men, men with advanced degrees and wit to spare,” but when they try to kiss her, she recoils. “It was as if every cell in my body began immediately trying to pull away.”
Her need to be dominated cannot be overcome. Popkey’s unnamed narrator desires men who will tell her what to do. This might be an efficient enough thing to want in your life, except for the way it shifts, perhaps inevitably, into a need to be mistreated. It also leads to questions about consent that are so taboo they are almost beyond articulation: “Either the desires I had were possible desires or…or, this was the other option, I had been tricked. The other option was I was wrong.” She worries whether such a “wrong” desire (or a desire for wrongness) can be sanctioned by the self. She is also alert to the possibility that her needs are shaped by a newly toxic patriarchy: “The porn wars were over and porn had won and we were porn-positive,” she says of her student self. “We were sex-positive, we probably wouldn’t have even called ourselves feminists.”
The book covers seventeen years of the narrator’s life and plays out through various conversations with or about women who are interested in being subjugated or hurt by men. The first is told by Artemisia, the wealthy mother of a classmate who brings the twenty-one-year-old narrator from New York City to Italy to watch her younger children while the family is on vacation. In a late-night conversation over a bottle of wine, Artemisia tells the babysitter of the moment of relief and excitement when her older husband reasserted his power over her by the “introduction of violence” to the sexual dynamic. When he did so, she says, “I was again the child.” Artemisia, as well as being beautiful, Argentinian, and elegantly self-aware, is a psychotherapist who goes on to discuss, with her babysitter, “the rape fantasy”: “It was not because I was released from shame that I found relief in his violence. It is because I was released from control.”
The word “child” strikes a curious note in a story about abnegation and arousal—if that is what it is (for a book that deals in the paradoxes of desire, very little is described below the waist). Artemisia’s account contains the unchallenged idea that children do not want control. It also suggests that the adult shortcut to this happily regressed state is through violence and sexual coercion. Artemisia leaves this husband for another, one who does not need to prove his strength over her in such a crude way. “I have only wanted to be cared for,” she says. “I have always wanted to give myself over.” At twenty-one, the narrator recognizes something of herself in Artemisia’s managed weakness; she is not the master of her fate, just the gardener, trapped “in a hedge maze of her own design.”
It is hard to know if these stories are chosen to illustrate some essential or unsayable truth of female sexuality. Perhaps these women have been “tricked” by their own unhappiness, or by the world’s unfairness, into wanting the wrong thing. If so, how do we liberate our desires? It is also possible that the book only seems to consider the “problem” of submissiveness in order to explore something else. The babysitter’s response to Artemisia’s words—or rather, to her speaking mouth—is a desire to “stop it with my own,” an urge that is not so much copulatory as admiring, or even envious: “Now I know that I am never more covetous than when someone tells me a story, a secret.”
Popkey understands the intimate and seductive purposes of self-disclosure. She is alert to the moment when story turns into self-enclosure, or narcissistic display. She also knows how competitive all that can get. In a subsequent chapter the narrator responds to her friend Laura’s story with a sudden urge to push her off the ridge they are walking along, in part because the narrator’s own life story is falling apart. By this time she is married and trying for a baby, taking her basal temperature every morning before watching porn, “like I couldn’t think about making a baby without thinking about making a baby.” Meanwhile, she is plotting infidelity. She travels to a distant city and has a one-night stand with a man who understands that she wants to be hurt.
As with each of the encounters described in the book, much of the pleasure of this incident is held in the slow revelation of impending risk. When they finally get to bed, the business traveler she has hooked up with checks that she isn’t “confused” about what is about to happen. If she is confused, he might have to tie her up, and that would spoil things. He will not hurt her unless she enjoys it, and if she does not enjoy it, he will have to hurt her more.
The masochistic double bind is a malign version of the narrator’s problem. What she wants, more than anything else, is to be released from making choices, and physical pain seems a high price to pay for that. The act of submission brings relief, but no sense of liberation. There is none of the exultatory pleasure that writers like Maggie Nelson find in abjection, as here in The Argonauts: “My face smashed against the cement floor of your dank and charming bachelor pad…. Does it get any better?” An anxiety about consent runs through Popkey’s book; this may also be an anxiety about the agency of others. In a benign form it might be called the flowers dilemma: you cannot ask a man to give you flowers, because to do so undoes the sense of a gift. The requirement we make of the world to surprise us can go wrong very quickly; we can, for example, get bored, or killed. The narrator’s kale-eating husband, so kind and liberal, wanted her to have desires of her own: “Really it was a mean trick that the only one I developed was the desire to leave him.”
The voice, so light and elusive, performs one paradox after another, until paralysis becomes the natural and desired solution. A recurring figure throughout the book is an older, married lecturer with whom the narrator had an affair as a grad student. He initiates the relationship by pushing her facedown on a hotel bed and pressing her body into the mattress, after which he orders her not to move. She tries and fails to articulate the benefit she gets from being hurt. “I felt beneath his hands—remade in the way that pain, anyway—” He watches her for “twenty minutes or so” before leaving the room, and this produces in her a feeling of floating. The churning in her mind is stilled for once, and she is just “blank.”
The problem, she explains, is that she wants to be used by men as a means to their ends and not for her own ends, whatever they may be. This, she says, makes her good “at exactly two things, school and sex.” Popkey does not say why a desire to be used rather than, say, fulfilled might make a woman “good at” sex. She does not consider that a man might want to elicit as well as experience physical pleasure. There is no talk of penetration and what it might mean, whether suggesting passivity or the agency of another human being. She reaches, instead, for a biblical image: her narrator is “best at being a vessel for the desire of others.” This makes her mostly miserable and “was evil besides,” a sign of a “fundamental problem with me as a person.”
It is almost unfair to unravel Popkey’s light and winding arguments about love and desire, turning, as they do, on various elegant reversals, except to point out that the problem is always her narrator’s problem, and no matter where she tries to go, she always lands back at her own doorstep. Popkey’s list of credits at the end of the book thanks her two therapists, “neither of whom I have slept with” (unlike her narrator’s Californian mother, who found doing so “very therapeutic”). The reader-as-therapist, however, might ask why a narrator who has a problem with older men discusses her mother but not her father, aside from a teasing half-sentence here and there: “My parents are lovely people, really very nurturing. My father more notionally as in he’d love to be but mostly he isn’t around.” Of all the wrong men a girl might want to sleep with, her father is, of course, the first and the best wrong man of all.
The three pages of “works (not) cited” at the end of the novel read like a curated insight into a cultural moment—from Sheila Heti to Steve McQueen’s 2011 film Shame to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s TV series Fleabag. The list does not include My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh’s 2018 novel, whose protagonist is supremely passive, often mean, and in a relationship with a man who treats her very badly.* Both Moshfegh’s and Popkey’s narrators are highly educated in a way that seems to increase their sense of personal disappointment, and both like to describe works of modern art and perform excretory acts of vandalism. Popkey’s narrator pisses into the teapot from her wedding china and secretes the result back in the cabinet; Moshfegh’s takes an angry shit on a New York gallery floor.
They are also good company, able to turn a good sentence and to maintain a tone, which is to say a distance, from the life described. Moshfegh’s narrator resolves to stay asleep for an entire year. Despite a regimen of heavy drug use and complete inactivity, she remains slim and attractive, provoking the envious admiration of her friend Reva, toward whom she remains sadistically aloof. She is both dismissive and secretly abject—high with women and low with men—with a cool not unrelated to Artemisia’s chic. After her big sleep, she feels a waking sense of tenderness. She sees Reva as a human being in all her particularity. “I love you,” she says—if we are to believe her. Then she promptly loses her newly discovered friend in the destruction of September 11.
Compassion, or a glimmer of it, is one cure for the unhappiness of young women in modern fiction; you wonder how much has changed since Jane Austen’s heroines learned to love the right men in the right, sometimes slightly subdued, fashion. For Moshfegh, pride is replaced by solipsism as the dangerous pleasure that must be overcome. Toward the end of Topics of Conversation, Popkey’s narrator takes a different turn, not toward love but into motherhood, which is, it seems, not the same thing. Although she views her own child with sympathy (albeit while drunk), one of the last stories in the book is told to her by a woman who realizes that she has no feelings for her baby: “Toward—toward myself, too. As a mother I did not—recognize myself. Toward myself as a mother I had no feeling.”
Still dependent on her parents for rent, with her graduate degree unfinished or abandoned, the narrator ends up in “the ugliest part of California farm country,” and that absence of glamour feels political: this, Popkey implies, is what happens to women when they rear children on their own. Late at night, she takes her toddler into bed with her to comfort him while drinking glass after glass of bourbon. She spends free time socializing with other single mothers, telling stories about their self-sabotaging interest in terrible men, and their glancing, erotic response to women. This provokes the withering contempt of one of the company, Fran, who is “an actual lesbian.” As for how her child was conceived: “It’s a fascinating story,” she says. “Which I will never tell any of you.”
Popkey’s interest in the erotics of storytelling among women is made more interesting when one considers that the majority of readers of fiction in America are female. It is ironic that her work has been criticized by female readers in particular, on reader-review sites like Goodreads, for not being attractive to them: “Aside from the fact that none of the characters were likable, the book itself is written in primarily run-on sentences.” This request for likability refuses to go away, though everyone gets it already: fictional men are allowed to be bad, their badness often is the story, female characters are not allowed to be bad, because it makes a story slightly unpleasant. Readers deflect their aversion toward the author, who is accused of a crime that is hard to define. What does “likable” mean? And how might it be managed?
In her brief essay on writing fiction called “How to Shit,” published in the literary magazine The Masters Review, Moshfegh advocates writing for your ideal reader, whether this be your mother, best friend, or the love of your life. Best of all, however, is your worst enemy:
I think you’ll discover that the work for the enemy will be of highest quality. It will be the most daring and smart, because if someone is your enemy, she has the power to hurt you, and so you must hold her in very high regard.
Meanwhile, Popkey’s disclosures are differently configured: “Telling people what you want, speaking desire,” says a character in Topics of Conversation, “it’s like telling people how to hurt you, handing them instructions.”
Like many of the works she cites, Popkey’s discussion about passivity is, itself, entirely controlled. By telling a story (and by telling it beautifully), the narrator is in charge of her own weakness; she can occupy both positions at once. There is, in the held moment, a posture: a kind of performance that asks or rejects the reader’s judgment. It is hard to break free of this nexus of control, to discover, in the writing, what Popkey calls “pleasure’s abdication of responsibility.” Despite all the talk of sadism or submission, it might be said that both Popkey and Moshfegh only seem to talk about sex, even when they are talking about sex (an act that also involves the opposite of control).
The plunge into chaos and libidinal disaster in Ariana Harwicz’s debut novel, Die, My Love, threatens to undo the possibility of story altogether. Harwicz is an Argentinian writer, and her autobiographical novel is set in the French countryside, where she now lives. Her jagged syntax makes her work very different from much of contemporary American fiction, especially that which privileges a controlled style. Obscenity is a tic that is always ready to ambush her thoughts. Whenever she looks at her baby, “I think of my husband behind me, about to ejaculate on my back, but instead turning me over suddenly and coming inside me.” And you might uncomfortably agree, that is the way new human beings are made.
The narrator here is also unnamed, her thoughts dissociated. She has completed an education that only serves to make her bitter: “Take me, an educated woman, a university graduate—I’m more of an animal than those half-dead foxes.” She is also unfaithful to her husband, a man who has done her no harm, whom she calls “her savior.” She finds, in motherhood, none of the sweetness that women who give birth are expected to experience or perform.
The book begins on her infant’s first birthday: “The baby appears to have shat himself and I’ve got to go and buy his cake. I bet other mothers would bake one themselves.” Motherhood makes her, fleetingly, socially insecure. It also makes her concerned about filth, disease, and death, an anxiety that must pass for love, as she experiences no other sense of connection with the baby. This creature has no personality and he is never described. She hears him crying all the time, but when she goes to check, he is silent in the crib. Indeed, he is scarcely human: “I don’t know what we’re doing with our tiny deformity, with our flesh. What we’re doing with our conjoined entrails.” She lives surrounded by an orgiastic animal world. She is “a mother on autopilot,” as Popkey’s narrator is a mother on bourbon—the difference being that, in Harwicz, this mechanistic maternalism is loud with arousal: “Desire is an alarm I can’t turn off.”
Her husband spends his time looking at the stars, and he pisses, usually outdoors, more than he speaks. She kills insects. She shoots an injured dog. One day she tries to act out her pain in the locked bathroom: “[I] make spastic movements. But there’s no audience. My husband needs to take a dump.” When she looks in the mirror, she does not see “a mother.” This is similar to the moment in Topics of Conversation when a character says, “As a mother I did not—recognize myself.” It is hard to know what a mother should or might look like; it is a relationship a woman might expect to find reflected not in the mirror but in her baby’s gaze. The only gaze in Die My Love, however, is the “stag’s golden eye” that locks onto the narrator from the surrounding trees.
Characters are permeable, scenes fragment. There is no stable surface to give the narrator of Die, My Love respite. Her relationship with the other woman in the book is not covetous so much as penetrative: “I understand my mother-in-law so well that I want to run over and climb into her chest. Stick my fingers into her eyes.” “Now I am speaking as him,” she says, as the point of view switches to that of the passing stranger on his motorbike, who glimpses her in the garden for a “few fatal seconds.” “An image poisons you…and just like that, it’s too late.”
The stranger on the motorbike is the neighbor with whom she has an affair. He is, as a psychiatrist later says, “the figure of the unknown man,” against whom her husband feels powerless. This man stalks her or is stalked by her, they have sudden sex in the garden, “and from within my darkened body, he killed me.” The clamor of death in this untamed landscape is both sexualized and antic. It exists alongside the life described, “since even before being born, and for the whole time my husband’s been shouting with jealous rage, I’ve been dead.”
This parallel existence of life and death in the novel undoes any possible sense of hierarchy. There is no need to speak of submission or of passivity when you can be simply dead, or assert that you are dead, even when you are not. Besides, the angry body is always ready to interrupt. Toward the end of the novel, after she has spent some time in a mental hospital, she looks at her unhappy husband with a feeling that borders on regret, “but I need to piss and you can go fuck yourself,” she says. “I’ve been horny since I met you, horny and neurotic and cursed.”
At one point the narrator, who spends a lot of time sitting in the car outside the house, hears a woman on the radio talking about Mrs. Dalloway. For a moment, her useless education flickers back into her mind. She considers the idea that a critic might say her writing “dealt with ‘the interconnectivity of human existence,’” and the thought makes her burst out laughing.
Die, My Love is impressive for the force of the narrator’s insatiable rage, which fragments the boundaries of the self. There can be no control over the story, or even over the language in which it is told. The book cannot serve as an aesthetic object when the sense of surface constantly gives way. In an interview with the blog neverimitate, Harwicz said that she wrote the novel “immersed in that desperation between death and desire.” In a way she was not writing at all. “I wasn’t aware I was writing a novel. I was not a writer, rather, I was saving myself, slowly lifting my head out of the swamp with each line.” That she is writing for herself does not mean the reader is irrelevant, however. “I am always interested in the reader,” she said. “The reader is everything, is a sacred figure, is the one who will tell me whether what I write is dead or alive.”