by Jeremy Russell
Reading Lidia Yuknavitch is like watching someone marking a map of America with black dots on all the toxic waste dump sites. You aren't quite sure how she knew to mark those particular spots, but know only that her aim is unerring. And with each successive denotation, the black dots are closing in. A swath of them is bearing down it seems on the one spot on the map that you don't want there to be a mark, the spot where you are standing.
One of Yuknavitch's primary talents is to make the deep, often hidden, flaws of our culture—those toxic waste dumps—explosively manifest. The words on the page obey their own gravity. Even when you do not understand the direction or there is no narrative to follow, they drag you along. Skip around in Liberty's Excess and wherever you set your eye is an invitation.
There are so many different techniques, however—innovations as well as the begged, borrowed or plain stolen—that the work is uneven, inconsistent, surprising and daunting, then abruptly beautiful, meaningful, terrifying. In the semi-science-fiction "Citations of a Heretic," which switches abruptly between prose and poetry stylings throughout, Yuknavitch describes the talents of certain actors and her description is a fairly apt description of her own work:
How the players play is not very consistent. Some of the women are bad actors, and so they are pathetically reduced to mimicry and mime with bits of pleading here and there; like so many idiotic parrots fluttering and screeching. They are of little use to us. They are killed quickly—the rush is quick and fades immediately. But there are those few who rise like fluttering, wrestling angels to meet the voice and corpus of their past, and in an irreducibly physical clash they shake the stage with an echo which surpasses the thing itself . . . and the rapture is sublime.
Truly, the rapture is sublime, but do not plan on getting all the way through Liberty's Excess in one sitting. Although she has the skill to make the morbid mocking and the disturbing humorous, Yuknavitch prefers sick irony. The truth is not pretty and it's not fun, not the truth Yuknavitch has such unflinching access to. Rather than a quick read, Liberty's Excess is something to be savored one drop at a time, like a poison to which you are building an immunity.
Take for example the story, "Beauty," which starts with a description of the main character's cancerous conditions—"Beauty had a tumor pulsing behind her brain, near the left earlobe, near the surface of the skin"—and ends with her death. The story is a litany of symptoms, a list of pestilences. Gorgeous descriptions of disgusting diseases mount. Like Job, Beauty has been blighted with all manner of physical ills and the only relief from the awful reality of her plight are her musings on a new Hollywood film she is composing in her head. "Near-corpse that she was," notes the droll narrator, "she knew enough that this, I mean her story, would make a superb TV drama." She knows that her story has a chance, because the media have made heavy weather of the recent increase in abandoned newborns, which somehow means that "a uterus-less, tumor-headed, breastless, cancerous, lopsided, burned-out pregnant woman might have a shot in there somewhere." Beauty may die, but her movie is made and is up for an Academy Award at the end of the tale.
The figure of the tortured artist repeats throughout Liberty's Excess. Usually that figure appears as a male, the husband of a particular woman, an academic (here perhaps is a hint of autobiography, as Yuknavitch teaches Creative Writing and Cultural Studies at Pacific University and San Diego State). The wife is an ex-junky, and the tortured husband apparently a drunk. In "An American Couple" he is described as sneaking bottles of wine into his studio to drink alone and cry. His art is "a series of abstract portraits, faces coming apart, eyes, mouths bleeding into forms and color. Screams and smiles indistinguishable from one another." When a guest at his opening asks him why all of his faces look tortured, like they are in pain, the wife (and narrator) watches as "he says, the next time you are in a passionate kiss with someone, open your eyes. Think about what their face looks like. That close. That familiar. So familiar you can't bear it. Then he walks off, taking one of the bottles from the table with him."
There are more fictions dedicated to these two characters than any others in the collection, though other recurring figures include a female heroin addict or former addict, a woman who is burned alive at the stake, and the archetype of the wanton academic. But there are several fictions that do not function on the level of figures at all; instead they inhabit a form akin to journalism. Take From The Boy Stories, a series of sketches in which Yuknavitch imagines what was going on in the heads of actors like Harvey Keitel, John Malkovitch and Johnny Depp while they were making some of their most powerful films—Bad Lieutenant, Dangerous Liaisons and What's Eating Gilbert Grape in these cases. The best of these sketches is, however, the one that breaks this pattern to describe "Chuck Palahniuk talking to Lidia Yuknavitch about Brad Pitt talking to Chuck Palahniuk about Fight Club." Memorably, Palahniuk says:
[Brad's] breath is jackknifed in his lungs and his face is nearly flying off. He leans down in that heavy breathing and his face is in mine and he grabs my shoulders, my shoulder rising a little up to meet his hands, and he says, "Thank you for writing this fucking part. This is the best fucking part I've ever had in my life."
Which, whether truth or fiction, is entirely too plausible. As is much of Liberty's Excess.
The book is a catalog of frog mutations—here's one with five legs, here's one with three eyes—displayed for your perusal. Amazing, if sometimes depressing. And if you never really cathect onto anything, it is because many of the fictions are more intellectual puzzles, literary origami, than narrative. The best of them combine both the puzzle and narrative aspects, as does "Cusp." "Cusp" is set in a town in Texas on the very edge of the desert, at a home directly next door to a brand new prison. The story's main character, a nameless young heroin addict, is inextricably drawn to the prison as if it came equipped with its own gravitational field. Soon enough her life is orbiting around its inmates, as she alternately spies on them and slips them drugs and/or sex during visiting hours. She becomes more and more arrogantly attached to the world she imagines inside, until her brother turns up as a prisoner and delivers a shocking revelation. As you might expect from a Yuknavitch fiction, the truth does not set her free.
"Cusp" elicits the broadest range of emotions in the entire book—fear, empathy, sorrow, and anger. Elsewhere, the main emotions that these fictions express are impotence and despair, if not quite ennui. And some of the stories try too hard, scream too loud. For instance, in "Waiting to See," a janitor is creating a complex futuristic cityscape in miniature from the junk he finds while cleaning a planetarium after the weekly laser show. Then, one day, he finds a severed arm. The arm supposedly forces him to realize that the future he envisions is going to be totally inorganic and therefore inhospitable and horrible. But wouldn't a potted plant have been just as out of place under one of those chairs surrounded by Coke cans and potato chips? And couldn't it have caused him the same epiphany? The arm only serves to shatter the suspended disbelief that the janitor could be a hidden genius. Nevertheless, other pieces are like diamonds, perfect effective tools for cutting through the glass between the reader and the read to leave themselves lodged like a splinter in the mind's eye, never perhaps to be removed, painful in their naked truth, burrowing deeper the more you ponder them. Though you must reach through the shit of the world to get to them and may feel like wiping your hands on your pant leg every time you turn a page, there are many gems in Liberty's Excess.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001