Sometimes it’s actually worth reading the jacket copy — a lot hides there. Lidia Yuknavitch’s debut story collection, “Verge,” is, apparently, “a group portrait of the marginalized and outcast in moments of crisis.” Yuknavitch apparently “offers a shard-sharp mosaic portrait of human resilience on the margins.” The blurbs on the back of the book have more to say about this theme: the novelist Dorothy Allison writes that “I know these people, I know their dilemmas, and where I don’t recognize them, I believe them.” The essayist Melissa Febos offers that the stories “showed me how resilience is forged through survival, beauty through brokenness, joy by fire.” In the acknowledgements to the book, Yuknavitch writes, “to everyone anywhere living in the in-between of things: I get it.” As it turns out, this use of the term “marginalization” is used in a slippery, broad way; it encompasses anyone who is in a position somewhat illegible from the point of view of normative society. Yuknavitch writes about both war refugees and women frustrated with their relationships, incarcerated people and people who, dissatisfied with bourgeois life, begin to identify with elsewhere. The key is a sense of incongruity with the dominant narrative of what a person should be doing.
I am focusing on this peripheral material — jacket copy, acknowledgements, blurbs — because it necessarily primes readers for the text, and because Yuknavitch herself doesn’t frame these stories, yet they clearly go together. “Knowing people” and “believing them” are functions of compassion — the statements in the packaging of the book indicate an ethical bent to Yuknavitch’s fiction, one where bearing witness to the lives of marginalized people is a way to find out about “the world we live in now.” Empathy seems to be the function of this book, its rationale. In this book, we as readers will bear witness to the stories of the resilient outcast, broadly defined; we will have compassion for them. This framing material is basically an insistence on Yuknavitch’s ability as an author to shape these particular experiences into a form that readers will be able to understand.
I’m interested in the assumptions inherent in empathy, especially as an ethic of literature, especially when “literature” means $26 books published by an imprint of MacMillan. I feel like an audience is implied when a book claims to be a vehicle for empathy. This is to say, two groups of people are created by books like this — the readers, the ones who empathize; and the subject, who is empathized with.
This, of course, is common in fiction. The way Yuknavitch writes about her subjects is often troubling, though. The opening of one of the shortest stories in the collection, “A Woman Going Out,” is a minutely detailed description of a woman shaving her legs in the second person: “Take the razor up smooth against the slight resistance of stubble, flick the wrist at the top, dip the head into the water, swish it around, then back down to the ankle for the next run. Flesh smooth-appearing in a track through white foam. Do it again.” Like the flesh appearing from under the leg hairs, Yuknavitch likes to slowly reveal her subjects at the beginning of the stories, starting disorientingly close and then slowly zooming out. This story, which is less than a page long, reveals the woman’s genitalia in a moment that feels like it was meant to trip up the reader. “Over the knee to the thigh, pause; same with the other leg, pause; scrunch it inch by inch up the thighs to the balls pushed back up into the cave, to the penis tucked tight between the legs and secured with a thong…”
We do not, in fact, see the trans woman going out. It stops here, in her bathroom, letting the body signify in place of the woman’s mind, personality or actions beyond the cosmetic; it effectively erases her personhood as separate from her body. The story relies on the reader experiencing the trans woman’s genitals as surprising and alien; the story gets its narrative shove from the othering of the titular character. I’m not mentioning this story because I take special issue with Yuknavitch’s fictional treatment of trans people. I’m mentioning it because outside of the context of the collection’s thematic umbrella, this story would be fully visible as a mechanism for othering a person. I found myself wondering after this story about how much of the depiction of people on the “verges” of things requires establishing their state as abject.
This same kind of othering appears in different stories in other guises. In “Second Language,” a Lithuanian woman is engaged in prostitution in Portland. She doesn’t understand English very well, and navigates her new country in a dissociative haze. The prose style Yuknavitch uses is intensely bodily and feels slightly unmoored from reality. “The front man lived near a freeway — what freedom was it meant to have? — in a snot-colored two-story house with black plastic in the windows where curtains in the windows where curtains should be. When she knocked on the door, her throat cords braided and her vertebrae rattled.” There is an intense fixation on this woman’s body, even outside of the sex scenes, the story is full of pale wrists, neck veins, intestines. The story’s fixation is on how the experience of prostitution robs the woman of her ability to understand herself or her world, her lack of fluency in English just another way she feels displaced. Her body becomes the only thing that signifies, and all it signifies is a use value — the meaning of this woman’s life is stripped away by the new country, her experiences there. It’s more than a little painful to read. The ending is unsatisfyingly redemptive — the woman tells a Slavic folktale as a way of furtively hanging onto some aspect of her self-definition (“There was one thing besides her body that she possessed — a story, in a foreign tongue but still a story”) and in the end Yuknavitch’s story takes on the character of a folktale. The woman guts herself with window glass and spills her entrails onto the pavement, and in doing so calls down greywolves from the mountains surrounding Portland, who avenge her against her clients and her pimps. The ending of the story is something like the statement of a moral: “I tell you, do not go near that place. Do not go near it. Greywolves guard the ground there. Girls are growing from guts, enough for a body and a language all the way out of this world.”
The story’s bizarre voyeuristic bent aside, what kind of resilience is this? The destruction of this woman’s self is what the story sets out to accomplish; this is the precondition for the fairy-tale ending. In other words, Yuknavitch insists on the obliteration of this woman’s subjectivity, so that the fantastical ending is justified in the creation of a “body and a language” to give voice to these women whose stories are otherwise erased by their condition. In other words, Yuknavitch, as a storyteller, restores to the woman (who feels like a stand-in of sorts) the dignity that was taken away from her via the act of telling her story. The commonalities between this story and “A Woman Going Out” are mostly in their attitude toward their characters; the same basic condescension. Stories that have to be redemptive, that have to stand in for the experiences of a certain group of people, always end up robbing their subjects of their specificity, turning them into puppets.
There’s another, deeper question: Why does a sizable segment of the bourgeois reading public seem to want stories of resilience? What is all of this fiction for? I can’t help but conclude after reading this collection that reading about suffering serves some cathartic need for people who are safely outside of the jaws of the late-capitalist death machine; a need that has very little to do with the actually existing suffering in the world. I’m reminded of Susan Sontag’s “Regarding The Pain Of Others” — “Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” It’s hard to come away from this book with anything but bemusement; it’s hard to ignore that the function of books like this one is to transform compassion for the disadvantaged (or those we insist on othering) into a kind of consumable product.