Devotion – Stevens

With Devotion, Madeline Stevens joins the ranks of millennial women whose recent novels describe their heroines living in toxic states of body and mind in New York City (think My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Severance, Normal People, etc.). Most of these novels comment successfully on notions of privilege and success, which these women crave.

Why do we like reading about the millennial woman who has questionable actions and morals, questionable self care, questionable relationships, and questionable attitudes towards privilege and self? Why are these novels so popular in this particular moment? Perhaps they are realistic in their portrayals for the most part, which, if not a depressing fact is certainly a telling one.

These novelists in any case should be applauded for their honesty and wit, for their unapologetic ability to describe the body hair, the embarrassing sexual experiences, the misuse/abuse of substances, and desires that often come with being a 21st-century woman.

Stevens develops this popular new story line into an initially plausible account of a young woman finding a job as a nanny for a wealthy family. She’s literally eating nothing at the point she accepts the job, so she is in really no position to reflect on whether or not she truly wants the job, whether she can even be a good caregiver to a toddler (she fakes her resume to get her foot in the door).

As in most of these novels, the selfishness and self-absorption of the protagonist is just a side note, and the plots of these recent stories differ radically. Devotion reflects the life of the nanny and relationship towards the employer. Exposing the relationship between the ultra privileged and the… ? Well, what do you call it? The lesser privileged?

Stevens, in her novel, seems to imply that Ella is underprivileged in many ways, that her life could have been more successful, had she had the opportunities granted to her employer in early life. In reality, she is from a (mostly white) average rural town in the Pacific Northwest, unremarkable for significant crime or poverty, and despite some unfortunate conflict between her parents and eventual abandonment by her mother, she has a caring father and a home to which to return, should she choose. (Her childhood friends have all moved to other small rural towns, she tells us, happily married with children, living simple lives). We can see that starving in New York City, sleeping with a stranger for food, is truly not her only option.

At one point, upon seeing her employer return from yet another doctor’s appointment, Ella reports that she grew up “in a family without health insurance,” so she received medical attention, “only if I was very sick.” This is certainly not the most comfortable experience, but it is more than many can say about their upbringing. Does her health suffer to this day because of her lack of frivolous medical visits? Not that we can tell. Further, would she really have become a successful (and also wealthy and beautiful) writer should she have gone to a nicer school, or summered in the Hamptons, had a nanny, or had a doting family physician. Likely not.

As a result, the initially promising moments where Stevens reflects on privilege are ultimately cliche and have no real significance behind them. A surreal visit to the Hamptons at the climax seals the fate of this promising theme in her novel.

The novelist in this genre has the chance to present either a provoking discussion about the subjectivity of privileged experience, or exemplify how a particular generation, including, possibly, the author herself, has entirely lost sight of what it means to be underprivileged.

Stevens’s descriptions of how Ella becomes consumed by her employers’ family are engrossing and emotionally captivating. At one point, losing track of the child, she catches herself thinking (“where’s my baby where’s my baby where’s my baby”). The lines and personal boundaries between the employer and the employed become increasingly blurred. Ella does not actually care about her small charge, however. She is more interested in inserting herself into the lives of this family. She will happily become dangerously intoxicated at night, even when it is clear that she is the primary caregiver for the evening.

Reviews of the novel so far have tended to focus on the book’s “thriller” aspects, one going so far as to claim that descriptions of the salacious events (affairs, theft, etc.) elevate “the mundane days of a nanny.” Really, the strength of this book is located precisely in those mundane days. Had Stevens forgone the temptation of domestic thriller in favor of her remarkably skillful descriptions of the nanny life (based on her own experiences), this novel would have benefited greatly.

What are her motivations in her obsession with this family? Any young woman who has left her dilapidated apartment in the morning, making the trek to a nice townhouse or mansion in the city, using her assigned key to open the door into a world of wealth and beauty and apparent freedom, can tell you the unconscious wave of desire that takes over. For stability, for wealth, to be the mother who hires a nanny only to focus on herself for the whole day.

In this way, the mostly-privileged white female in her 20s working as domestic help is a particularly ripe microcosm on which to focus when considering the millennial American woman.

Devotion by Madeline Stevens

Fiction – Harper Collins Publishers – 2019

Another Life

Another Life discusses issues in adolescence and religious practice and how these topics converge, particularly in the domain of an evangelical Christianity.

For those who grew up with the looming presence of a conservative church experience, Haller’s book may be an engaging read for the purposes of reminiscence and reflection. In a moving scene, a teen from one of the more conservative families in the church community confronts her peers in a speech valuable in both its naivety and passion. What is the purpose, she asks, of the type of comfortable, American Christianity they are practicing? Why not leave everything and “feed the hungry,” as is directly commanded by the bible, instead of going to college and attempting to live the American dream. Her speech is cut short, however, and she is led off stage by a church authority figure.

The book may just as easily be a disappointment for those looking for a novel involving converging characters, marketed as literary fiction.

Yes, these characters’ “paths collide,” but at what cost to the plot of the novel? There are so many voices in this book that the reader is often left wishing for a guiding light (who here is running the show?). Any of Haller’s expertly-crafted characters would have served well as the main narrator, but he trades this stability for the chance to tell a remarkable number of stories in an average-sized novel.

As if to justify its foray into the adolescent sphere without actually marketing the book as YA (a puzzling publishing decision without a doubt), Another Life persists in trying to pull the adult world into its wings in the form of improbable and unnecessary side plots involving adult affairs with younger parties.

As well, Another Life‘s attempt to write the High School Teen Lesbian Romance and the Recent Graduate Lusts After High School Math Teacher are extraordinarily stereotypical, and at their worst, bizarre fantasies of these sexual encounters.

I would delight in seeing Robert Haller’s next book written and marketed as YA, showcasing his talents at describing the minutiae of adolescent experience and its significance to the big questions that come from the way we live our lives.

Thank you to Blackstone Publishing and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Another Life by Robert Haller

Fiction – Blackstone Publishing – 4 June 2019

The Need – Phillips

It was a third-year university course in metaphysics that introduced me to the theory of possible worlds. Immediately I was absorbed by the storytelling potential of this concept. Books and films which can effectively incorporate a parallel universe into their plots seem to persistently captivate audiences. A recent Netflix show, The Society, reinvigorates the idea (at least presumably, in the first season). The message from literature and film, however, is that finding an alternate universe rarely leads to positive results.

The Need, by Helen Phillips, strategically uses a parallel universe to tell her story of Molly, a paleobotanist who is haunted by its negative consequences. The science fiction aspect of this story is the part that glues the reader to its pages and gives the novel its heart-pounding quality.

Like some of the best science fiction, however, it is the mundane, human aspects of the novel that ultimately bless the story with its resonance and beauty.

The Need spends an extraordinary amount of time describing the dull work of a mother: putting apple sauce in bowls, forgetting a diaper and cleaning poop off the floor, remembering to feed one’s child at least two prunes a day, breastfeeding when the baby is indifferent, etc. etc. Phillip’s brilliance lies in her ability to make these moments of drudgery feel precious. These are the moments that build a life. We have historically tried to avoid them through childcare and technology, but they are still there.

The terror of this book comes from the persistent question that remains long after Phillips’s story is finished: is there a world where my children are no longer my children? Is there a world where I am no longer a mother?

The Need by Helen Phillips

Fiction – Simon and Schuster – 2019

Permission – Vogel

A recent episode of Radiolab discussed the connections between the notion of consent and the systems in place to protect participants in the BDSM community. It was clear that, in many cases, proponents of BDSM often have rigid guidelines to ensure consent is established prior to any activity between two people.

It was also unfortunately clear, from firsthand accounts described in the podcast, that these systems can sometimes malfunction. As Saskia Vogel states in her debut novel, Permission,

We might play at power, exploring roles not yet available to us outside these four walls, but for the space to be sacral, it had to be held sacred by us all.

This perceptive reflection from the narrator of the novel has far-reaching implications, certainly beyond the walls of BDSM and even beyond sex itself.

In many ways, it seems as though the understanding and awareness of fantasy and desire on one hand and reconciling our sexuality with the reality of our lives on the other can lead to a more effective system of advocating – and therefore consenting – for ourselves.

Vogel has explained that she turned to literature after her time working as a reporter for a porn industry magazine, suggesting, however, that she continues to explore many of the same questions about discovery, awareness, and acceptance in her current work.

In a lecture about the porn festival, Viva Erotica, Vogel recalls trying to find a way to get audiences to “look at porn as part of, and not separate from, popular culture and the art of cinema.” This project is apparent in Permission. The prose of this novel asks and then demonstrates how the elements of erotica and literary fiction can merge, overlap, intertwine. In many ways, the composition of this novel mirrors life itself.

Reflecting on one’s own sexuality and sexual history in the wake of #MeToo can often be deeply connected to all of the complexities of one’s life and identity. Using the character of Echo, Vogel has the perfect opportunity to explore these connections.

In the novel, Echo is navigating three aspects of her life: a recent family tragedy, complex memories from her adolescence connected to her sexual identity, and the conflicted past and precarious present she has with the entertainment industry. As she confronts each of these facets, she is drawn into the world of her family’s neighbor, Orly, who helps Echo discover herself and reflect on her experiences.

In writing this novel, Vogel has drawn comparisons to Joan Didion. While a comparison to Didion’s writing may be a bit overblown, there is definitely some truth to a thematic link between the two. Like Didion, Vogel locates danger and tragedy in the Californian landscape. There are movie stars and glamorous lifestyles, but there are also jagged cliffs, the impending doom of the San Andreas fault, and disappearances in the Los Angeles canyons. Echo is “forever waiting for tragedy.”

When discussing landscape, the idea of distance is never far off. In Los Angeles, distance is everything. For Echo, the distance between her parents’ home in the canyons and her downtown apartment is vast, though only a car ride away. Even the short distance between neighbors’ homes is prohibitive. It is possible to never meet the person living right next to you.

In Permission, Echo learns that in order to understand herself and cultivate intimacy, she must be willing to eradicate the distance between two bodies, to truly “merge,” as she recalls at one point. In a strikingly surreal sex scene, the physical borders of the body are ripped away; two bodies completely engulf each other.

For a novel that is this brief, there are some odd preoccupations: In one case, Echo repeatedly thinks about the pre-made deli counter food that she eats directly from the containers in her mother’s fridge. Various pre-made salads are given more attention than necessary. The narrator regularly reflects on her mother’s German identity, frequently mentioning her pronunciation of words and desire to move back to “the continent”. While these traits of her mother could provide some valuable insight into the depths of this character, they are not delved into deeply enough for them to be clearly relevant to the story.

In some areas, descriptions venture towards eye-roll territory: “My sheets did not yet smell like sorrow,” or “Alongside my orgasm, sorrow and fear coursed through me.” In general, however, Vogel’s ability to think about the erotic as a legitimate literary technique is encouraging and commendable.

This novel will make a huge impact on the way we consider genre in literature, and it will certainly provide a significant contribution to discussions of sexual identity, desire, acceptance, and consent.

Thank you to Coach House Books and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

Permission – Saskia Vogel

Coach House Books – Literary Fiction – Release Date: 9 April, 2019