Monday, April 10, 2017

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

Hardcover, 224 pages Pub March 14th 2017 by Random House ISBN13: 9780812996937

Ariel Levy always believed she could be a writer. Her mother told her it was a good idea, a normal thing for a pre-teen to aspire to, something for a teen to aim for. She was in her late teens when she wrote for New York magazine about a bar in Queens where enormously heavy women danced for men, and presumably women. The women wore brightly colored clothes, high heels, and sequins for anyone who lusted for heavy. It made the women feel desired.

Levy was allowed to grow up thinking that sexuality was not always obvious; that one might, in fact, be in love or lust with someone not one’s spouse. One might even consider all the world to be possible partners, not just someone of one’s age and race and perhaps not even of the opposite sex. If some might think that would add to the complexity of decision-making—who would take one’s virginity and when—to Levy it made things easier. Decisions about who to sleep with wasn’t difficult. It was easy to undo. One could just change one’s mind.

I grow anxious with so many options, and have difficulty embracing such a cultivated sophistication about the possibility of lust for everyone I meet. Levy’s descriptions of her sexual life and gender fluidity gave me the feeling of viewing a Diane Arbus photograph: fantastic, queer, different, other. I think I may have convinced myself that gay and trans love and sex was like straight love and sex, only with different partners, but listening to Levy makes me reassess. I find I don’t really want to know. Please don’t tell me more. It makes me uncomfortable. Do I need to know to be fair?

When Levy writes some kind of magic happens. I heard an excerpt of her memoir very late one night on the radio. She told us about the death of her infant while she visited Mongolia. The story made me feel sick, but it was as fascinating as it was grotesque: I couldn’t not listen. I think of her traveling around the world, picking people to marry. The man she chose after she lost her baby she describes as having no family left at all, his parents dead, his wife divorced, his children in college, and his country, South Africa, in the throes of a government change. He was living and working in Ulan Bator.

That kind of rootlessness is something very edgy, and not comforting. Only people that are forced would choose that space. Who goes into something always looking for the back door? Isn’t that a way to fail trying?

Ariel Levy is a terrific writer, but I can't say I really like reading her. The exact way she describes how we discover alcoholism in someone close to us, how it feels new, constantly surprising, and always denied made me feel foolish for having been taken in so many times, just like that. It is just all so hard to believe. We just doesn’t understand, the way it presents. It looks like something else. We want to believe the lies—what a mess it will make—until one day the mess is already a fact and impossible to avoid. It just makes us feel so stupid. Human failure. The ways we sabotage ourselves. And all the time, it is worse for the alcoholic. Because it will never go away.

This woman is too much, just like she says in the beginning of this memoir. She thinks the world is just there for her, and she will use it up. She will use herself up. She will use us up. When her spouse admits to alcoholism, Levy feels betrayed. Yes, but, we protest, it is worse for the spouse. She is the one who can’t get out of the hole. But Levy keeps intellectualizing it as if the bad things that happen are targeting her.

Levy's struggle leaves me feeling like I went through much of it, too. Chris Abani writes fiction the way this woman writes nonfiction. I listened to the audio of this, produced by Penguin Random House and read by the author. Levy has an expressive voice and is able to put emphases in the work where she wants to push us a bit. She is something quite outside my experience.

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