Sitting on a bench in the rear of an outdoor amphitheater on a summer evening in Portland, I watch Lidia Yucknavitch make her way down to the podium. From underneath her long skirt I catch glimpses of a shimmery gold with each step. Sure enough, once at the podium she announces with a little grin: “I did a bad thing today,” and kicks one foot out to the side to reveal glittering gold boots, but the chunky variety, maybe Doc Martens. She has been on tour for her new novel, Thrust, and somehow she was separated from the suitcase with the shoes. . . so, she shrugs, what’s a gal to do?
After a long grin, she switches gear. She thanks everyone: first the behind the scenes people who manage the sound system, make the food, clean the meeting rooms and bathrooms, tend the landscape, make this place both beautiful and functional; then the event hosts, the fellow authors/readers, and us, the audience. She pauses, opens a book, and without preamble begins reading:
We dreamed we were hers.
Thirty seconds in, I am thinking: I want to write like that. Two minutes in, I realize that what has begun to seem alarming like someone excavating body parts is in fact a person deep in the hold of a ship opening boxes to find body parts of the Statue of Liberty, traveling across the ocean from France to the US in pieces. The narrator of this section, Kem, is one of the workers tasked with shepherding this body in pieces across the ocean and then putting her together on site. He and his co-workers live and love and yearn for so much as they make Lady Liberty whole.
I only know that we built her in pieces from our bodies . . . She carried us in her.
Or we thought she did...
The foreboding is palpable. Kem notes that originally the statue was to hold aloft broken chains symbolizing the end of slavery, but a decision was made to tuck them at her feet, half obscured. I have recently been to New York and toured the statue and the Ellis Island exhibits of immigration stories. I had read this fact, but forgotten it. (Note to self: This is another reason you read novels, not just historic plaques - one sticks, like song lyrics.)
[We would] talk about what it would have been like if the woman we built had really represented emancipation. If the broken chains had stayed aloft, in her left hand, for everyone everywhere to see…The original story. Instead of the story that came.
When Yucknavitch finishes reading, I go directly to the back and buy the book. I stand in line for an autograph. She writes: “For Ann, Be Oceans.”
I take this to mean: Be vast. As in Whitman’s, “I contain multitudes.” Yucknavich is that sort of vast. Her writing also echoes Whitman in its rhythmic listing ode to teaming humanity:
We were woodworkers, iron workers, roofers, and plasterers and brick masons . . . When the the winds in the harbor grew too strong, we had to abandon scaffolding... We dangled ourselves around her body, swing around the pieces of her, like the swoop and lift of acrobats, or birds, or window washers - though all of us were tethered to her body.
And, as a champion swimmer, she often speaks in water metaphors. One of the reasons I adore Yuknavitch is her love of water. I am not a great swimmer but years ago, when I needed refuge, I started keeping aquariums with lush plants and tropical fish. They continue to speak to me of a silent peace that seems unattainable out of water. If this novel - which starts with an ocean voyage - will continue to be both Whitmanesque and water-centric, all the better.
After the reading, I walk back to my car, toss the book on the passenger seat and take a longer look at the cover. An unclothed woman sits astride a gigantic turtle. The turtle seems to be swimming upwards; the rider is leaning back. A rope winds loosely around both of them. The person’s body is smooth, like polished stone, made generic and a-sexual. The head is stylized and flat, like the imprint on a Greek coin, a profile with snaky hair flowing back. The saddle seems antique, with a high back in deep red velvet and long low saddle flaps of some sort of green brocade, perhaps Moorish or Russian? A person riding a gigantic turtle says we will take a turn towards the fantastical, a futuristic tale or perhaps myth. But the coin head and the saddle say we will look at the past. And then there is the sense of forward motion: the title, Thrust, with its implicit sexual energy, written in a strong cursive, leaning forward, and the turtle paddling towards the surface, both aiming up and to the right, as our rider leans back, hair flowing. They are moving fast. (We will return to that rope later.)
Once I start reading, sure enough, the story jumps quickly from the past to a dystopian future of tyrannical raids and massive sea-level rise. Here, the Statue of Liberty is all but drowned, just her hand with the torch still above the waves. We meet a young girl whose name, Laisvė, means liberty in Lithuanian. Laisvė survives in the shadows of this risky world.
When she needs to escape, Laisvė goes to water. Water becomes the medium she moves through to save not only herself but also others – a surreal conduit to different places and times. In this watery world, Laisvė becomes the traveler who can effect change, and perhaps salvage a future from a very broken past.
Yucknavitch is in top form, moving quickly between a multitude of timeframes and characters. She sets a brisk rhythmic pace (reminiscent of our title?). Part a futuristic dystopia; part an honoring of unacknowledged immigrants and others who create and maintain what is publicly recognized as important; part a truth-telling of how we give lip service to the concept of liberty but continually undermine and flat out deny that possibility to so many. Part pure whimsy: yes, there is a talking turtle!
Yucknavitch doesn't shy from listing horrific facts of genocide and specific acts of abuse. In part this is a witnessing of the damage done. But more than once it called to mind Moby Dick, another great water quest story with compulsive listing. Like Melville, Yucknavitch digs up many little known facts and stories and shares them all (well, probably not all, but quite a lot, more than is strictly necessary to make her point) with obvious passion. They may not all be necessary, but darn it, they are interesting! Look, she seems to say, look at this! And this! The sheer volume of information can be overwhelming.
Are you thinking now this book might be too hard to read, too disturbing? It might be. But there is the beautiful language, the powerful voices, the pathos, the wild pace, the riveting interwoven plots, and then there is Laisvė. Laisvė is a glimmer of hope that threads through the novel. Despite the drowning statue and the many damaged and lost people, Laisvė is charming and quirky and able to act. She becomes a powerful agent of change. By the novel’s end, something is salvaged and a new way of being, small and tender and uncertain though it may be, begins.
Thrust, Part Two: The Rope
After finishing the novel, I find myself again studying the cover art. It is quite perfect really. The artist, Lauren Peters-Collaer, has melded a composite of images borrowed from wildly different sources: stock photos, art galleries, and museums. The composite feels right since so much of the novel is about coming apart, being in pieces, the challenges of reassembling, and the non-linear relationship of events in time. The rope, it seems, is the only artwork not borrowed from somewhere else; she has looped this rope around and about her collected images from other places and times. The rope ties it all together? And . . .
Let's face it: when you’re reading Yucknavitch writing about the denial of liberty, well . . . rope can mean only so many things. I’m not surprised when bondage rooms appear. I walk in gingerly, curious and a little worried. I manage to stay. A central character, Aurora, has created many rooms featuring a startling variety of restrictions. The room’s participants find kindness and a sort of freedom of the ‘pain is pleasure’ variety, but I think she is making a case for something more. Aurora says we have misunderstood and oversimplified the relation between pain and pleasure. I suspect Yuknavitch agrees.
Most reviewers skip over the whole theme of bondage in this novel.(In fact the only one I’ve found that even touches on it, is this very excellent review by Ron Charles in The Washington Post ) How can they ignore it? I mean, the title? The sheer volume of it. But it is dicey stuff. I don’t blame them, but in doing so they skip the compelling relationship between Aurora and the statue’s creator, Frederic. It is among the most interesting relationships of the novel, given to us in an exchange of letters, where they explore a wide range of topics linked to bondage and power and art. I suspect I don't fully understand what Yucknavitch is doing here, but it seems important and so carefully crafted that I try to understand. The nearest I can come is this: we are tied up, in at least a metaphoric sense, and the literal tying up can be a way to process this reality, maybe own the pain of what has happened to us, or perhaps, absorb how it has now become an intrinsic part of who we are. Maybe we can claim and transform it, from something deadening to something vital. By leaning into it we discover more complexity in who we are and can be. Maybe the rope can help us not just get through it, to the other side of it, but create new meaning, a new self. Rather than let it shut you down, can you find a way to open up? At one point, Aurora say, “Between inert and pervert, I choose pervert.” The bondage rooms become a way to not just survive the damage done to you, but grow out of it, a bit like the way horticulturists graft the branch of one fruit tree onto another, and new fruit grows from that grafted branch that is not the fruit from either of the trees but a third type, more than a mutation, something akin to an alchemic reaction. Aurora has taken the damage done to her - which was horrific, you are warned - and devised a way to continue on with vitality and creativity and passion. She will never again be who she was before that event, but she finds a way to thrive, a way some consider perverted, but she would say, at least she is fully alive, maybe more so than most.
This is a novel about coming apart . . . about how completely we are coming apart - as individuals and as a society. We do attempt to put ourselves - and each other - back together. But if we are going to manage it at all, the job might involve a transmutation to an “us” strikingly different from the original.
Here is where we land: Thrust is a dystopia, and a history lesson, a paean to the unappreciated people whose work scaffolds our daily lives, a claim that we possess a depth and complexity of being that is routinely squelched. In this broken and crooked world, our potential to be so much more lies deeply hidden, repressed, almost gone. Almost. At once fantastical, historic, and didactic, most fundamentally Thrust tells us that we live in a world where liberty is a mirage, a statue sinking fast. Yucknavitch takes a hard look at the dream of liberty and the price we pay for its denial and abuse. Then she makes an heroic effort to imagine what it might take to change course. To this task, Yuknavitch brings an impressive acrobatic imagination punctuated with an impish smile and glimpses of glitter peaking out from under the hem. It's a wild ride.
I hope you will read it and let me know what you think of it.