The Harpy – Megan Hunter

Photo Credit: Grove Atlantic

There is a moment in Megan Hunter’s The Harpy when the narrator, a work-at-home mom in her 30s, hears someone say her name: “Mrs. Stevenson,” they call repeatedly. As she listens, the narrative abruptly shifts perspective. An omniscient narrator takes over, rendering Mrs. Stevenson as the object. A woman sits in a room, hearing herself be named. This shift, this sudden loss of control is a theme at the heart of The Harpy.

In this forthcoming novella, it is the loss of self to the role of wife and mother that directs the action and permeates the mental states of the characters. The mother’s loss of agency is palpable here.

Lucy Stevenson, mother, wife, writer, neighbor, are pieces of a self that become molded, stretched, and rearranged. “Like dough,” Hunter writes at one point, emphasizing the malleability of the self, of who we are and what we’ve done. Even the relationship with her husband feels “borderless,” their selves seeping out and into each other. “Mrs. Stevenson” is a woman “who would never be a real person again.” Unresolved trauma from her childbirth and the hint of a sexual assault in her young adulthood, combined with a sense of feeling “invisible” form Lucy’s mental state, compel her to plead with an imaginary harpy to “get the ones who hurt me.”

Despite the straightforward labels that Lucy wears, she is insistent that she not become the cliche of any of them. When she discovers her husband’s affair, she dreads playing out “those TV shows,” narratives “that seemed to have greater texture than my own existence.” In her struggle to not perform the expected routine, to not “say all the things we’d both seen,” she instead finds herself pushing the categories of herself away, finding that she is becoming the self that she was destined to become.

Hunter’s slow-burning novella will pull readers into the tempting glow of its relatable and tangible domestic sketches, and then shock them with its intensity.

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for the advance copy of this title.

The Harpy by Megan Hunter

Fiction – Grove Atlantic, Grove Press

Publication date: 13 November 2020

The Learning Curve – Berman

The Learning Curve, the forthcoming second novel by Mandy Berman, might as well have the subtitle, “a modern parable for the privileged woman,” such is the impression the reader has after finishing this ambitious and, ultimately, frustrating novel.

Among the dizzying amount of information covered in the plot, Berman’s characters navigate personal traumas, sexual politics, frat houses, European countries, visiting professorships, motherhood, alcohol abuse, crushes, failing marriages, failing research projects, failing relationships (romantic and otherwise), etc., etc.

In fact, Berman’s novel covers so many topics that it feels like walking into the brain of an author working on five different novels at once. One need only to read Berman’s acknowledgments to see the surprisingly multifarious research that went into writing The Learning Curve.

In some ways, the parable-feel of the novel is appropriate. During a college seminar called “Sex, Sentiment, and Sympathy,” Fiona and Liv, the two student characters, learn about 18th-century stories that cautioned their readers about the consequences faced by women who dared step outside social norms. Fiona reflects later that these cautionary tales apply to our current treatment of women (Monica Lewinsky is her example). Indeed, the connections between these 18th-century “coquettes,” and the characters themselves are engaging, and one wishes Berman would have spent more time on these developments, rather than swiftly moving on to new territory.

Strikingly similar to this novel is The Red Word, by Canadian author Sarah Henstra (winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award). The two novels both place the female student in dialogue with seemingly incongruous campus circumstances: advanced literary seminar vs. raucous frat party, feminist declarations vs. questionable sexual encounters with sketchy dudes, hagiographies of beloved female professors vs. obsessions with “bad” boys. Henstra’s novel is triumphant in portraying contradictory scenarios and deftly abandoning the reader to weigh the ethics of the characters and their decisions. Berman’s novel, on the other hand, pushes the reader to inauthentic conclusions (i.e. “lessons learned”), using characters who are too busy filling their assigned roles to really resonate.

The stimulating discussions of Berman’s characters and their self-reflective thoughts are lost in an excessive amount of exposition: two sisters share a glass of wine while having a personal conversation. Is it really necessary to justify why one of the women is drinking? (She’s in her third trimester, so it’s safe, Berman tells us.)

Readers looking for a drama-filled campus story will find pleasure but will get lost in the many digressions Berman takes. Those looking for more social commentary and fully articulated characters will be disappointed.

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

The Learning Curve – Mandy Berman

Fiction – Random House – Publication Date: 28 May 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