Wcreators treat language in different ways. Some go beyond it to serve a plot, the electrical possibilities of the words themselves are kept under control or even go unnoticed. Others give it a little more space, so that language and history go hand in hand. And then there are the writers who live in the cathedral, who pray as an act of worship to the feats that words are capable of; I’m thinking of writers like Vladimir Nabokov, Arundhati Roy, Toni Morrison and Mary Gaitskill, who have hailed the debut novel by American newcomer Raven Leilani as “a brilliant work of art.”
Other descriptions that are often applied to this type of writing are “ornate”, “decorative” and, all too often around the work of black women, “lyrical”. Here this word definitely does not apply. There is no song, no exotic hum you can imagine in the background. Gloss is a cold, hard look at life in a dirty 21st century metropolis for a young woman fighting for stability and tenderness, mercilessly caught at the intersection of capitalism, racism, and sexism. There is this phrase, for example, from a scene in the New York subway: “I turn away from my reflection and a man masturbates under a tarp.” Or: “I’m not in the L, smelling someone’s warm pickles, wishing I was dead.”
This is Edie speaking: an inactive 23-year-old painter facing imminent unemployment due to her depressing editorial work, on her first date with Eric, a white 40-something digital archivist who is in open marriage with his wife Rebecca to explore other vaginas . After having electronic sex through their computer screens, he takes Edie to a theme park, some of the fun clothes Leilani wears to increase the age gap between them. Another is his contrasting associations around a 1977 disco tune playing in his car: he knows the original, Edie shows it. After all, she’s only about 10 years older than her adopted black daughter Akila, the fourth character in this awkward foursome, who comes together under one roof when Edie is evicted from their cockroach-infested shared apartment.
Although Edie has a lot to complain about – her mother committed suicide one day after painting the kitchen mauve, Eric is violent towards her, has IBS and trouble making friends – there is very little self-pity on these pages. Rather, Edie offers the identifiable but unsentimental facts of her suffering with an eye on the outside world, what it looks like, how it is felt and experienced by the black female body, this one in particular. The indefatigable specificity of Leilani’s considerable powers of observation – the August air “dense with Drakkar Noir, old pollen and overheated Spam,” for example – seems to work against any inclination to paint or perceive a marginalized identity with a homogenizing stroke. She brilliantly presents an absolute and singular subjectivity while highlighting the great space of structural inequality that works to stifle it, rejecting a generic reading.
Some of the novel’s funniest moments occur while navigating this great space, such as the publishing house and its Diversity Giveaway of slave narratives, urban fiction, and East Asian cookbooks. When it comes to choosing between Edie and another neater black colleague with “carefully empty eyes,” the latter wins, giving Edie a short farewell lecture on the futility of her reality, her unfortunate and unaffordable mediocrity. “Actually, there’s a short window where they don’t know how black you are,” he tells Edie, “and you have to go in there. You have to get into the room. “It is Edie’s inability, not rejection, but sheer messy humanity that makes it impossible for her to enter the room, which is the streak of success in history. It is a great gesture of empathy towards who cannot and should not coincide with the myth of the superwoman.
Overall, there’s not much relief for Edie’s troubles, but in the context of her warped role as a resident lover in Eric’s suburban home, she finds mutual comfort and a modicum of fleeting brotherhood in the scathing Rebecca and the lonely Akila, and Most importantly, she has started to paint again. Leilani does wonderful things with color, evoking distressed hues and brushstrokes (she is a painter and writer herself). Visual descriptions are a notable feature of the beauty of this particular cathedral, with its crisp, crystallized prose segments. It envelops you, it is even a little claustrophobic in its darkness, but you could stay there all day, wrapped in the magnificence of its language, the surprises of the phrases and its psychedelic, unexplored destinies. Each travels to a place of value and seriously considered, carrying history on their back, leading the way. This is a book of sheer finesse, exceptional.
• Diana Evans’ Ordinary People is published by Vintage. Raven Leilani’s Luster is a Picador post (£ 14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
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