Wednesday, April 05, 2006

You can call it synchronicity

or killing many birds with one stone or perhaps just laziness. I read and completely fell in love with Heather Lewis's novel House Rules at the beginning of January. Blogging about it led me to accept invitations from Mark Thwaite and also the folks at Serpent's Tail to write (a) a review of her other novels and (b) an appreciation of her writing for the new re-vamped publisher's website. And then I've been sitting in on this Derrida seminar and for the last day we were all bringing in "two texts" in the spirit of Derrida having Hegel and Genet, and I had been thinking about Lewis for this for a long time. So I'm going to paste in a few paragraphs below of what I wrote for the class (my two texts ended up being The Second Suspect and Notice, which exist in an extremely strange relationship of parasitic dependence--the second-published-but-third-written of the three novels is really a bizarre rewrite of the second-written-but-only-published posthumously--but I'm keeping back the meaty part of my comments for the piece for Mark. I'll link once it's up, but it may not be for a little while.)

And some other Lewis-related links, in no particular order but all worth a look: Dale Peck's New York Magazine piece, a short essay by Lewis on television noir, Nic Kelman's review of Notice for the Village Voice, the first few paragraphs (I must re-subscribe! I was waiting till I move home again...) of Stephen Elliott's review of Notice for the Believer, a reprint of Allan Gurganus's afterword for Notice over at ReadySteadyBook.

Here's some of what I wrote this afternoon, anyway, as a teaser for a real review to come:

Heather Lewis: author of three novels, House Rules (1994), The Second Suspect (1998), Notice (2004), the last of which was written second but rejected for publication—too dark, too disturbing—and released posthumously after Lewis took her own life in 2002. (“Took her own life”: a strange expression, but “died by her own hand” strikes me as at once archaic and melodramatic, “committed suicide” too medicalizing in a Foucauldian way.) The novels work as a kind of trilogy, but perhaps trinity is a better word, there is something almost theological about the weight of the family here (and Lewis writes the most angelic prose, the prose of lost innocence, her first-person narrators soiled and violated but somehow through it producing the cleanest words imaginable, words unstained by squalor/sordidness/violence).

Anyway, I came to House Rules in January and thought it one of the best novels I had ever read. Talk about female noir. . . . Flattened-out first-person narration, teenage girls, show-jumping, absolutely brutal sex scenes (some of the most disturbing but also erotic I've come across), cigarettes and bourbon and doping (horses and people): this book will not suit everyone (it literally made me feel sick to my stomach, it's that intense, and I have an extremely strong stomach), but I have never seen anything quite like it.

The next time she made sure I didn’t move. Held my head so my face was pressed into the crook of her arm. The worst part was how she put it in. And how once she got it down, she drew more blood up and then sent that in, cleaned the ampule with it.

This was more hydromorphone and so I’d thought it’d take time, but between how long she’d taken and where she’d put it, the blast hit before she had the pin out. I think I pulled it out pulling away, yanking my head from her arm. I needed badly to put my head down and when I did, the stuff made me come. Well, that thing about this that’s like coming, but isn’t quite.

I turned on my side and crossed my legs, squeezed them together. Did this before I remembered my leg. The hot sort of hurt there felt like the gauze it was wrapped in. Felt good. Hurt in a way I liked. The same dull open ache Linda’s hand gave me. The kind of pain that kills pain.

Like Genet, Lewis is a poet of sub- and abjection, only this time it’s all girls all the time, plus the figure of the father-abuser who comes into all three of her books in one way or another. So: Derrida, Hegel-Genet; Davidson, * * * * * *-Lewis (and part of my brain was working to fill in the blanks with one of the guys I write about in my real life, my academic life, Locke or Hume or Godwin or Bentham or Derek Parfit or . . . .).

I was now obsessed with Heather Lewis but I was also afraid that if I read another one of her books it would make me start smoking again so I put off reading the other two until I felt more mentally stable. Then it dawned on me that the moment was not going to arrive any time soon and so I packed The Second Suspect to read on the flight to Montreal last week for a conference on Shakespeare in the eighteenth century (I got it used from Amazon, it’s one of those out-of-print hardcovers that’s discouragingly available, marked down with a series of stickers: cover price $22.95, marked down by Powell’s to $14.00, then a $4.99 Goodwill sticker and in the end I got it from greatbuybooks for $2.19 plus shipping, a depressingly material reminder of the difficulty of making one’s name as a novelist and the heartbreaking collapse of Lewis’s own career). I did not pack the other because (a) the cover of Notice has a depressing naked-woman-turned-away photograph that is the kind of thing that prompts undesirable strangers to make conversation with you if you read it in a public place and (b) I had to read three books by Joyce Carol Oates for a piece for the Voice Literary Supplement and (c) I thought I had better not push my luck on the mental-health front.

(to be continued....)


  1. I've added _House Rules_ to my reading list. Sadly, I am a slooow reader, so it might be years before I read it, but I will!

    Have you read Mary-Lou Zeitoun's _13_?

    It's also about the teenage theme, and I enjoyed it very much.

    It was great to see you in Montreal!


  2. Please let us know when the Serpents Tail site goes back up...are they going to re-issue Lewis' books? I remember reading your post about her back when and that is what got me interested in her work.

  3. I have not yet read either Heather Lewis or Sarah Gran (have both queued) but reading your HL post does remind me of your SG post of the other day. Are they similar in any way? Certainly the suicide and depression are similar, and from what you say they address similar dark themes in their books? (Though more sex-savagery in Lewis?)

    Know what you mean about the Amazon pricing. I have bought many books for 1p and I always feel bad doing so but these are often out of print. They usually turn out to be ex-library books. I have this fantasy of the books being so well-read at the library that the library has to "retire" them. Then I imagine all these sweet book-lovers coming to rescue the books and take them home so they are not pulped, and selling them for 1p (or 1 cent) on Amazon to keep them alive.

  4. Heather Lewis and Sara Gran cover some similar ground/subject matter but the styles are very different--it's hard to explain, exactly (you would know right away if you picked up the books and opened to the first page), but imagine Lewis as skewing more like Beckett and Gran as skewing more like Graham Greene. Lewis is aggressively, disturbingly transgressive; Gran slyer and more stylish.