In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The thirteenth in our series is NBCC member Brendan Driscoll on Jade Sharma's Problems (Coffee House).
The first thing that hits you in Problems, Jade Sharma's depiction of a young woman's swerve into heroin addiction, is the distinctive voice of its narrator. Maya is disarmingly candid and delightfully vulgar, offering us her deepest anxieties and most carefully-guarded secrets alongside wry commentary on bodily functions, sexual proclivities, and all of the irony and stupidity that constantly surrounds her. When we meet Maya she is up late masturbating and snorting drugs while her “beautiful idiot” husband Peter sleeps in the next room. She fantasizes about Ogden, the older professor with whom she is having an affair. She tells us about her father's death and her mother's multiple sclerosis, about how she sometimes lies about being Indian-American, and about how her college boyfriend, who may have been her soul mate, preferred Leonard Cohen records to sex and used to eat his boogers. Heroin suits her. It comports with, and facilitates, the disinterested detachment with which she engages with the world. The drug's warmth spreads through her body, “like pee on a blanket.”
Her problems, it turns out, are just beginning. After a disastrous Thanksgiving at his parents' house, Peter leaves her, and Ogden rejects her as well. An eating disorder flares up. She loses her job at the bookstore, and the next job after that. Her heroin use escalates. “Just be a junkie now,” she tells herself, seeking solace in the moment in an addict’s life when all other problems become secondary to the one big problem. She starts having sex for money with people she meets online, aggressive bankers and rich hipsters and talkative loners, and she surprises herself at how easy it becomes. She makes crass, and funny, observations about the weirdness of male desire. “I bet there’s some guy who jerks off by rubbing his cock on books,” she says, “he cringes in pain but he kind of loves it more than anything in the world.” Eventually, Maya overdoses, in what might have been a suicide attempt. She ends up in rehab, where she chafes against mandatory bra-wearing and other stupid rules. When they tell her to write poetry she plagiarizes a Counting Crows song. But before long she’s back home, back online, and using again.
Maya’s complex blend of vulnerability and ennui is enthralling, and her abiding fascination with bodies—sex, sensations, shortcomings--keeps her commentary lively even as her life careens out of control. Given such diversions, it’s perhaps easy to miss the big picture: the invitation that Sharma is extending to readers to reimagine the possibilities for what a “heroin novel” can be.
Setting this particular heroin novel in a contemporary millennial-generation context, with overeducation and underemployment and Starbucks and Netflix and Craigslist all essential facts of Maya’s existence, is in itself something of a refresh. It's not at all inaccurate to describe Problems as HBO's Girls meets Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, as the publisher does on the back cover.
But there’s more to it than that. Maya wonders whether Peter’s stinginess caused him to select a “thrifty, generic brown” wife instead of a “name-brand white one,” because he wants “the same parts” at a lower price. She talks frankly about her sexuality, as when she declares Ogden to be her “conquest,” she makes money by “thinking with her crotch,” and she observes differences between her male and female friends' responses when she informs them about her sex work. And when Maya lashes out at mothers her age posting baby pictures on Facebook, she reveals that her will to oblivion may somehow be related to a deep ambivalence about procreation and the limitations it might impose. Maybe someday she'll get her act together and be a cool mom that smokes pot with her kid, as she dreams of doing, but for now she's mostly alone, snorting heroin off of a copy of the Bell Jar, as she does in one heavy-handed but memorable scene. In steering Maya in such directions, Sharma brings themes of race but especially gender powerfully into to the foreground in a way that most heroin novels do not. Problems may be a heroin novel, but it can and should be read as a work of feminist literature as well.
There’s also the matter of the ending. Heroin novels, following the inevitable logic of their subject matter, typically end in either sobriety or death. But Problems doesn’t choose either. By the story’s close, Maya has recognized that heroin addiction is boring. She has a new, clean roommate and is writing productively again. A life free of the ups and downs of heroin seems like more of a possibility than it did before, but she isn’t quite there yet, and maybe she won’t ever be. Real change might strain the detached, couldn’t-care-less stance Maya tries to maintain, even when her tenderness manages to show through. This, too, represents an interesting subversion of the genre. Can you have a heroin novel in which the protagonist recovers only a little and grows maybe even less? A coming-of-age novel in which the coming-of-age is tentative, hesitant, fragile? This edgy, important book insists that you can.
In November, National Book Critics Circle members will begin nominating and voting for the fourth John Leonard award for first book in any genre. In the run-up to the first round of voting, we'll be posting a series of #NBCCLeonard blog essays on promising first books. The twelfth in our series is NBCC member Susan Comninos on Nadja Spiegelman's I'm Supposed to Protect You from All This (Text Publishing).
In 2009, Nadja Spiegelman, then a 22-year-old intern for the Jewish Forward, interviewed me because the newspaper was publishing my poem “pecan, rodef, clam,” a look at a fetus posing a threat to its mother’s life, which Jewish law says can be aborted till the point of crowning. The poem explores the struggle over whose existential narrative — mother or child’s — will take precedence.
What I didn’t know then was that Spiegelman — the daughter of Art Spiegelman, whose Pulitzer-winning graphic novel, “Maus,” shows his parents’ survival of Auschwitz-Birkenau — had begun exploring a theme of unwilling parenthood on the maternal side of her family. During her off-hours, she was laying the groundwork for her notable debut memoir, “I’m Supposed to Protect You from All This,” the result of her interviews with her mother, Francoise Mouly, the art editor of The New Yorker, about the latter’s painful upbringing in France, as well as the pair’s fraught mother-daughter relationship.
Born to a cosmetic surgeon and his beautiful wife, Mouly experienced her own parents, who ultimately divorced, as narcissists, who valued their egos and extramarital affairs over their children. (Her mother even began a fling with the father of Mouly’s first fiancé, collapsing her daughter’s engagement). To escape her parents’ orbit, Mouly fled from Paris alone, and at 18 years old, to New York City, where she met her husband. After their first child, Nadja, was born, “I realized that I could reinvent motherhood,” Mouly later said. As with the family’s Soho loft, which she’d single-handedly refurbished, she initially papered over the past so well that her little girl thought that her maman was magic.
“When I was a child, I knew my mother was a fairy,” Spiegelman writes, and her admiration — for the mignon Mouly’s creative mightiness — never flags. “On weekends, she put on safety googles, grabbed a jig saw, and remade the cabinets in her bedroom. She ran a hose from her bathroom to the roof to fill my inflatable pool. She helped me build a diorama of the rain forest, carving perfect cardboard birds of paradise with her X-Acto blade.”
But their relationship changed. As Spiegelman approached adolescence, Mouly grew increasingly angry, and her daughter felt the target of her rage. Triggers included Nadja’s changing body (where Mouly was oxymoronically thin — “She never ate, then she ate like a wolf” — Spiegelman was overweight). Further, the girl’s sense of reality was straying from her mother’s own. Accusations followed: Nadja had thrown away all the spoons, eaten treats meant only for her brother, moved her mother’s papers. (“‘Stop lying,’ I was told. And yet I was incapable of apologizing for things I had not done.”) The petty nature of the complaints aside, Mouily’s wrath — her daughter suggests — could explode into violence, followed by a disturbing maternal amnesia.
“‘You’re exaggerating, Nadja,’ she would say, a week later. ‘How could I have kicked you up the stairs?’” Confused, Spiegelman would turn to her diary, inscribing the events with a coded “R,” to verify for herself that the raging — even physical — brawls were real.
To better understand her mother, Spiegelman, in her 20’s, began exploring the dynamics that had driven Mouly from France — even relocating to Paris to hear her grandmother’s side of the stories. There, she made an unexpected discovery: her maternal line had been marked by girls born out-of-wedlock. A resulting shame had trickled down from one generation to the next, staining a series of mothers’ stances toward their daughters.
As for Spiegelman’s own model: readers familiar with her father's “Maus” will see the parallel between her memoir and his comic-strip masterpiece. Art Spiegelman began their tradition of interviewing family members — in his case, his father, Vladek, who outlasted the Nazis — but about much higher stakes.
Still, it wouldn’t be fair to say that his daughter considers their two projects to be morally equivalent. She doesn’t — and it’s while hunting down her maternal history that she uncovers a grotesque irony in the family tree. Where her Jewish grandparents were victims of the Nazis, some of her French forbears engaged more-or-less intimately with Fascists.
For better or worse, family history repeats itself, and Spiegelman’s first-hand discovery of this fact gives meaning to her struggles with Mouly. “[N]ow that I knew her past,” she writes, “I saw all the ways in which she worked to be a very different mother from her own. And I also saw how much the past, so long kept secret, pulled us into formations like a deep ocean current, from so far below that we barely knew we were not moving on our own.”
At times, her memoir strays from its focus, with a segment about 9/11 feeling inserted to give the story more gravitas. But the book doesn’t need it. Like her father’s “Maus,” Spiegelman’s “I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This” goes far beyond its roots as a post-trauma memoir. Marked by curiosity and a gift for storytelling, her work fulfills a literary ambition all its own.
Susan Comninos is both an arts journalist and a poet. She’s covered books for The Atlantic Online, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and Haaretz English Edition, among others. Most recently, her poetry’s appeared in Subtropics, Rattle, Spoon River Poetry Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts and The Tishman Review. She recently completed a debut book of poems, “Out of Nowhere.”