I watched with pleasure and interest, a story about a 19-year-old woman, who escapes to Berlin from an arranged marriage within the Satmar Hasidic sect in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It is based on a memoir by Deborah Feldman. As Esty, Israeli actor Shira Haas is brilliantly alert and luminous in all her scenes, coming to consciousness that her life is untenable, while feeling a protective loyalty to the post-holocaust mission of her sect–to keep Jews alive in the world. Almost all the dialogue is in Yiddish, and I loved feeling the language wash over me, the familiarity, I don’t know all the words of course, but this was the language of my mother, especially speaking to my grandmother. My mother was born on the Lower East Side but did not learn English until she went to school at 5. It was still her first language in some ways, the secret language spoken with my father, the language of curses and affection, often interchangeable. All that said, here is the thing I want to underscore: although the thing Esty must escape is an intolerable and cruel form of sexist control, in which every moment of her bodily existence is proscribed and degraded by rituals and laws, and although the series dramatizes this, it does not speak about misogyny directly either in the script or the documentary that follows on the making of the show. That focus is on the complexity of Jews escaping religious confinement in the US and seeking freedom in Germany, the site of their planned extinction in a former age. It’s as if confronting misogyny within Orthodox religious life might be construed as antisemitic, although not naming these practices as human rights violations, wherever they exist, is the way the larger culture licenses and sanctions misogyny. It all has to go, whether inside or outside religions, the control of women’s lives and bodies by males in charge and by their female colonels–the mothers-in-law who gain a modicum of power by tormenting younger women and by the good-girl-wives, who live within a Stockholm Syndrome mindset, in which being a thing to be used and acted upon is an identity. The approach of the show, by focusing on one woman’s plight, makes it seem like a personal story rather than a huge social condition. Esty keeps saying, “I’m strange, not like other women.” She is not strange. She is exactly like every other woman in such a lockdown. Those women, too, hate the lockdown, while hating and fearing something more than their own subjugation.
I have a new book out, published last month by a small press located in Greensboro, North Carolina. The book is called Everything is Personal, Notes on Now, a chronicle of how we’ve lived since November 2016. I don’t want to send books into the void, and you don’t want more books to offload from your piles. I thought I’d offer some reasons I might want to review this book if I were in your position. If you are disinclined for any reason, please let me know, and I will entirely understand.
How the book came to be:
It wasn’t my idea originally. Steve Mitchell, co-owner of Scuppernong Books and co-director of the small publishing company Scuppernong Editions, had been reading my posts on Facebook and thought the writing should reach a larger audience—or at least a book-buying audience. He called. We met at a coffee place in NYC that is also a plant store, and in an hour or two we’d hatched a plan. Two men were reading my posts about #MeToo and felt included, somehow, in feminism, the reboot, rather than worried their heads would be next on the chopping block.
Facebook posts as a literary form:
I wrote on Facebook the way I write everywhere—combining memoir, social commentary, fictional narrative, and art criticism—and drawing the reader into what feels like a conversation. My following grew. Readers felt I had invented a new form. Maybe I have. Social media was the incubator for all of the writing in this book, much of which developed into pieces I published elsewhere, primarily in n+1 and Women’s Review of Books.
A critique of feminism, the reboot:
Trump gets in and five minutes later Harvey Weinstein becomes the predator people can nail. At last large numbers of men can identify with the commonplace for women of being held under a boot. It was exciting to see a version of feminism with social power. It has also been something of a mission of mine to examine the category mistakes I see driving #MeToo rectitude and the leveraging of virtue. #MeToo is thrilling when it exposes criminals and acts of violence. It is chilling, however, when the target of a #MeToo campaign—for lack of a better term—has committed no crime or readily identifiable harm and has, rather, caused offense, or rattled some people, or triggered them, or made them feel an emotion they didn’t want to feel. Sometimes the emotion is arousal. I weighed in on whether a call for punishment or decirculation in the name of feminism actually expanded—or crimped—freedom for women. I thought about the benefits of people, ideas, and insitutions remaining in circulation.
About the press: Although Scuppernong Editions is a small press, it is distributed nationally through Ingram, offering bookstores the same discount and right to return books as trade and larger presses.
Some encouraging comments from Emily Nussbaum and James Lasdun:
Laurie Stone’s “Everything Is Personal” is a galvanic account of our era, a trumpet blare aimed at sleepwalkers. In essays and diary entries that are sharply observant, grieving and generous, Stone seeks links between 1968 and now, meditating with wit and complexity on her own intimate and intellectual history, the question of separating the artist from the art, sexual violence, romantic love, friendship, comedy, television and more. She meditates on the life of Valerie Solanas and the trial of Brett Kavanaugh; she wrestles with her frustration with the “good-girl-ism” embedded in modern feminism and celebrates the messy, unquenchable power of desire. A voice unlike any other, she’s a fearless thinker in an age submerged in fear. –Emily Nussbaum
“Laurie Stone’s exhilarating, unclassifiable book brings the stinging wit and ferocious political engagement of the feuilleton tradition of Joseph Roth into the age of the Social Media thread, with its built-in fluidity and openendedness, to brilliant effect. I can’t remember when I last read anything as alive, alert, self-questioning and independent-minded as Everything is Personal, whether in its quick glances at lovers, strangers, houses, movies, skies, or its extended montages on subjects such as Valerie Solanas or the cultural ramifications of #MeToo. It’s a wonderfully generous book too; magnanimous even in its wicked asperity, and above all a celebration of the physical and intellectual pleasures that make life worth living and battles worth fighting.”—James Lasdun, author of The Fall Guy” and It’s Beginning to Hurt.
I have also received glowing blurbs from Meg Wolitzer, Michael Tolkin, Mikhail Iossel, Vivian Gornick, Diane Seuss, Steven Dunn, Phillip Lopate, David Shields, and Joseph Keckler.
Below is a link to an appreciative essay about the book published in the Los Angeles Review of Books:
Please let me know if you would consider writing a review, and you will have the books as soon as Steve can get to the post office.
From The Women’s Review of Books, January 2020
Three Poems By Hannah Sullivan
Reviewed by Laurie Stone
Hannah Sullivan thought she might write a novel about being a sharp-elbowed young woman in New York—raising an arm for cabs, kissing a girl, and getting a Brazilian waxing before saying ”I love you” to the wrong bastard she will remember for the rest of her life. She mentions this in a YouTube clip filmed after receiving the T.S. Eliot Prize in 2018, adding she didn’t think she had anything original to bring to the novel form. So instead she turned the material into the verse chunks that comprise her exhilarating debut collection, Three Poems. Sullivan, a Brit, is thirty-nine and has one of those career carving, back-jacket bios—Harvard PhD, teaching jobs at Stanford and Oxford, awards and short lists up the wazoo—you would have to be dead set against her for. You can’t be. With her buzzing mind and technical brilliance, she deserves what she’s racked up, and her book asks us to think about the freedoms different genres afford writers.
Composing poetry in small bursts and dispensing with the nag of a narrative arc freed Sullivan’s voice of breathless, moment-to-moment consciousness. She could have done the same thing in the form of a novel, which would then have been called “a novel-in-prose-poems,” the way some books are called “a novel in stories.” These days I think we care less and less about the genre attached to a book. We care about narrative momentum and the layering of thought in a scene more than whether a story arrives at an ending somehow imminent in its launch.
Sullivan is right about the ordinariness of her life passages. The first poem, “You, Very Young in New York,” looks back to the time you prove how young you are by notching your belt with forlorn experience you think is adult. The second poem, “Repeat Until Time,” meditates on repetition from the perspective of noticing it for the first time. The third poem, “Sandpit After Rain,” jump cuts between the death of the poet’s father and the birth of her first son. Most stories sound trite when summarized. The power of Sullivan’s writing is in its no-limits subject matter and riotous experiments with language. She freely admits to the autofictive component of her poems, but she’s not engaged with stuff because it happened to her. She’s engaged with what language can generate in the reader, and stuff that happened is what she hangs language on.
She has mentioned Joan Didion’s memoir “Goodbye to All That” and Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City as prompts for “You, Very Young in New York” and her use of the second person pronoun—an inclusive you (really a distanced variant of I)—that can feel cozy one moment and presumptuous the next. When men use you, they are doing what they always do: unconsciously assuming their readers are male. When a female writer uses you, she subversively implicates the male reader in female experience, and it’s thrilling, especially in the hands of a writer like Sullivan, who likes to push the reader’s face into the bodily.
“You, Very Young in New York” speeds like walkers on Broadway, capturing sudden intimacy that is also anonymous, capturing a time of life when you take vitamins without wondering what will happen if you stop. (Answer: nothing.) Whatever else the poem is about—writers sitting in Starbucks “Picking like pigeons at the tail of the mourning croissant”; a vibrator with low batteries that “rotates leisurely in your palm”; shorting the market; and feeling the tongue dry up as Ritalin kicks in—it’s about a doomed affair that sharpens your movie-scene recall.
In preparation for the potential fuck that awaits, Sullivan’s narrator says, you “take two Advil and lie/On a table in Chelsea holding yourself open, ‘stretch it’ she says,/Irritably sometimes, and ‘stretch’ as lavender wax wells/Voluptuously in hidden places, and ‘turn’ as you kneel on all fours/So she can clean you up behind and, still parting you open, her fingers/Spend one moment too long tissuing off the dead wax with almond oil and/’All done she pats ….” Finally, when the bastard shows up on a rooftop, “he says, ‘you’ve lost weight, you look great’ which is true/(He dumped you) you think of elderberry and magnolia, quietly pulling/At the silver-starred skirt, pulling it over the ripple of your thighs./But when he says one more, for old time’s sake, you say why not/And sit rigidly in a cab, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge beside him.”
Almost any experience can stir philosophical and historic associations for Sullivan. It’s what she’s after. In the second poem, contemplating a still photo from the 1961 movie The Black Cat, she notices an older woman “Squeezing her cat like a tantrum,” knowing “that 1960 was the future and JFK is in office” while a blond kid “in a tapestry waistcoat … is waiting for the sixties to start, for the violence to be real./He looks like David Bowie on the cover of Young Americans,/Uranium-bright hair, a softly permed disco halo.” The second poem is set in San Francisco, where Sullivan lived while teaching at Stanford, and the third poem is set in England, her home and where she now lives, but the book feels like one long Alice in Wonderland dream of expansions and contractions.
Sometimes her fever of images is show-offy and doesn’t add anything to the moment contemplated. We don’t need to know, for example, that the look of lights going out in a high-rise across the way reminds the narrator of a Mondrian. Other people don’t seem real to her, even her dying father. Being a good writer does not make you a good person, and hats off to that. In the practice of writing, you don’t care about anything but the effect the writing will produce in the reader, and Sullivan bets she can net you by describing the “gristle” she pokes back into her father ’s neck rather than by measuring the meaning of his departure from her life. Sometimes, though, you have to pretend to be more human than you really are, lest the reader find you too cold, clinical, and fancy with your techniques. You have to stop with the writer-y writing in order to trick the reader into thinking you are an actual human with emotions you don’t have when you are writing.
She manages this often and perhaps most brilliantly in the third poem, first dwelling on the limbo plight of a saltwater eel in a suburban restaurant:
It wants to be rid of the tank, the shriek of lobsters,
The monotonous view of leatherette banquettes, The off-duty industry folk, greedily appraising, ‘Let’s do it half sashimi-style, half dry-fried-spicy’, And also not to be rid of the tank, to remain forever Chosen and not yet chosen, neither living nor dead, Eddying between two walls of bubbling glass. Learn something about indifference.
A few pages later, in a jump-cut to the Caesarian birth of her first child—a pregnancy that has forever banished the poet from limbo—she sympathizes with her unborn baby’s reluctance to leave his tank:
Under a tangle of capillaries,
A baby is dreaming of his old home.
The Sunday morning swimming pool
Of far-off children.
Then yellow glows in the curtains And his mouth snapdragons open
. . . .
This is the world:
The street-cleaning machine
The slow lob of rubbish
What can narrative offer if it lacks plot? It prints the shape of a mind looking at the world, and from that a pattern takes shape—which might be another word for personality. In all three poems, Sullivan masterfully follows the best recipe for narrative: start in the middle, fail to arrive, remember to love things, make the reader hot, and make the reader laugh. She knows there are no good endings. All endings are bad. That is why it is difficult to end a story, and you have to stop before the end. The standard ideas about endings, she doesn’t buy. Arrival, no. Death, no. Marriage, no. A baby, no. Love gained, no. Knowledge acquired, no. You have to look for the next tank.
I was prompted to see the movie after reading a long thread of mostly negative reactions on Facebook. Many of the comments faulted Noah Baumbach for writing about his own experience because it was the experience of a straight white male raised with financial and cultural advantages. The gist of the remarks was: We’re tired of your world, we’ve heard enough from your side of things, stop looking at yourself, use your imagination and do something else but whatever you do don’t write about experience that isn’t yours, either. Don’t be a narcissist on one hand. Don’t be an appropriator on the other. Just, shut up and go away.
I don’t believe these are fair or useful ways to speak to artists about their work. These are not the right categories to go after people with.
I didn’t enjoy the film, and I don’t think it’s good. It felt false from beginning to end and like a piece of self-congratulation on the part of the director/writer for giving the female character her due. He doesn’t. Her position is witless and makes no sense within the terms of the breakup and as a result makes everything she says about feeling pushed around and used sound like a sudden tantrum, a spurt of #MeToo juice directed at her husband, who hasn’t really done anything. Baumbach allows that the husband has had a small, meaningless affair with a member of his company, but in a screaming fight justifies this by saying the male character and his wife didn’t have sex for a year.
There is a giant, missing elephant in the picture: in reality Baumbach started a relationship with Greta Gerwig while he was still married to Jennifer Jason Leigh. To the degree that the wife character, played by Scarlett Johansson, represents Leigh’s plight, she would have had reason to leave New York and return to LA because her husband was no longer with her. Without this provocation, the husband character, played by Adam Driver, looks like a man who woke up one day to find his wife and son missing. We’re supposed to feel sympathy for him throughout: poor guy has an irrational wife who suddenly dissents about everything he thought she liked; poor guy has to negotiate a divorce with shark lawyers in California; poor guy has to jeopardize his great chance at a Broadway production (Broadway??? is good??? to an avant-garde director??? with a Macarthur????) in order to visit his son across the country. Poor guy has to hear the rhetoric of the dominated woman who has not been coerced into anything, and we are supposed to understand why he is rolling his eyes. The movie is saying: What do women want? What do women want? They’re so mysterious and confusing. I thought you liked that. You mean all those years you were faking it? Poor guy.
The story is the husband’s and what kind of story is it? It’s a victim story. He is the one who is done to. Victim stories don’t work unless the person begins to wonder how they came to be so easily beguiled, what was in it for them to believe situation A was really situation B? The Driver character asks none of these questions. Even if he did, they aren’t relevant to why the marriage came apart. It came apart because the man fell in love with someone else. These things happen. It’s not a crime. The question is: In what ways has anything happened to you you can channel into your art so it is rich with complexity and has a chance of moving people because complexity is what moves us, complexity and contradictions that can’t be resolved.
I met a woman at a party on the west side of the river. She was reading my Facebook posts and messaged me to say her husband was a contractor. This is a way the world is better. Everyone’s art is an expression of personality. I am a scrounger. I get on whatever plane is leaving the airport. I make meals from whatever’s in the fridge. Arizona was always an airport lounge to me. The house in Hudson is where you go to from the airport. People on Facebook are beating up white male filmmakers and white male writers for focusing on the inner and outer lives of male characters just like them. These men are being asked by people on Facebook to make art a different way. To make art that would interest the people who are unhappy. You can’t ask artists to do this. Art is not a takeout menu. You can’t order the hamburger with a salad instead of the fries. The only thing you can do is recognize in any moment whether you are moved by something you encounter and opened to the world. These men have lived their entire lives betting on the understanding that everyone was interested in them. Everyone was was not interested in them, but only now, during the last three years—and you know why this is—is everyone saying to these men, “Your way of working and thinking about what is cause and what is effect makes no impression on me. I don’t believe you. I’m not moved by you, and you take up too much space.” On our road is a farm with sheep, and each day as we approach the farm, we wonder whether the sheep will be standing or sitting in the snow, inside their enclosure or wandering about their pens. Richard’s interest in the workings of the house have become my interest. It’s like discovering unseen rooms in him—secret basements where pipes and wires crawl across the ceilings. I can’t tell if I am recovering from my back injury at the same speed I would have when young, or if my body is taking longer, or if the injury was so horrendous I should be happy I could right myself like a turtle and scuttle off at all. In Arizona, I would lie on our bed and look at the pictures arranged on the opposite wall. They were mounted like postage stamps in an album, and I never tired of looking at the different color mats or the images inside the frames. I never know why I am chosing an image, but I always know what image to choose. Now the pictures from the bedroom are spread around the new house, and I remember the beauty of their former composition and all the fruit I would pick off the trees as I walked. I thought Richard would forget his life in Arizona after we left, and he has, just as I have forgotten my former lives that in retrospect seem a little like stage sets. Things happened in these spaces, but it no longer matters because the world is entirely changed, and I am entirely changed. Our house will be a place no one has ever seen before.
When we went down to the basement one day with our realtor, he unfolded an old, blue plastic tarp, and out jumped a commune of black spiders. I said, “What are they?” He said, “Poisonous.” I said, “Should we kill them?” He said, “You could.” I have taken to wearing pink iridescent gardening clogs. Every step matters. We have taken to falling asleep at 10 and waking up at 4. We are learning about the house after the fact, the way I have learned about every relationship I have ever been in. In the basement, I picked up a circular metal thing I guessed served an electrical purpose and felt a sudden jolt of pain in the pillow of my thumb so surprising I didn’t know what kind of pain it was or what had caused it. I dropped the thing on the metal table I had picked it up from and walked away. Then something clicked below consciousness and I walked back. It couldn’t have been a shock, so it must have been a sting or a bite, and sure enough when I inspected the metal thing again, the head of a wasp or hornet peeked out. The insect was indolent, one of those bugs past flying that scuttles along improbably on a cement floor. I hit it several times with the thing it had been living in because I was angry and afraid, and a few moments later saw myself as witless and cruel. The sting did not hurt very much. Everyone who looked at the house before us was stopped by the serial killer aspect of the basement with its corroded metal shelves, duct tape remedies, and decades of mounded dirt. The first thing I thought when I saw the tragic carelessness of the banged out wall between the two basements, the bloody, chipped-tooth, broken mouth aspect of the hole in the wall was, I can make it beautiful. I was thinking the other day, Any man with a sexy mouth is going to have a better life. I was thinking there are no good endings. All endings are bad. That is why it is difficult to end a story. You have to stop before the end, because the end is always bad. The standard ideas about endings–just no. Arrival, no. Death, no. Marriage, no. A baby, no. Love gained, no. Knowledge acquired, no. Today I bought a cotton mop and two pails and Pine Sol.
This morning in bed, Richard and I listened to Joni Mitchell singing “Case of You,” and I thought about some of the lyrics and ways they might be interpreted in #MeToo‘s framing of sex and female suffering. I know there is no such thing as a #MeToo philosophy you can nail down, but bear with me in my attempt to think about a thrust from feminism, the reboot that misses some of the subtlety of sexual desire mixed with drunken passion for another person you are lucky in a lifetime to feel even once. That’s what the song portrays, these feelings felt by a woman for a man. It’s widely known Joni was writing about her love affair with Leonard Cohen. The lyrics that struck me were these:
I met a woman
She had a mouth like yours, she knew your life
She knew your devils and your deeds and she said
“Go to him
stay with him if you can
But be prepared to bleed”
Oh, but you are in my blood you’re my holy wine
You’re so bitter
Bitter and so sweet, oh
I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
I would still be on my feet
The woman with a mouth like Leonard’s is his mother. So here is a mother–not Joni’s, but a woman of an older generation instructing a younger woman about how to shape herself around an attractive but clearly difficult man. From our perspective now, you could wonder why Mom doesn’t think her son needs to reshape himself to fit better into Joni’s needs. In 1971, when the song was composed, the women’s movement was in full throttle and plenty of us were thinking these exact thoughts. But Joni wasn’t a feminist and has said numerous times she still isn’t a feminist, damn her, but put that bit aside for now. I am. Back to young Joni and young Leonard. Young Leonard is already a star and very sexy. He just had a sexiness about him that came across in his writing, a man awash in sex in ways women could identify with. Me, anyway. I don’t know if he was actually good in bed, but never mind that, too. Leonard can probably have sex with anyone he wants whenever he wants to, and who is going to resist that? (This is a rhetorical question.) The thing I love about this song and this particular lyric is that Joni/narrator doesn’t care about getting wounded. She is “prepared to bleed” because we always have to be prepared to bleed in these kinds of encounters in life. There is no safety that any amount of reforming men can assure, and even if there were, then there would not be “the case of you” to drink. The “case of you” is the sense of sweptness you feel in a passionate erotic relationship, however long it lasts, and it doesn’t last long like this, in my experience. The point I am making and I think I am making a point is that the song understands the stakes of these kinds of feelings and that they are joyous to celebrate. They are joyous for women to express that they feel. Joni is in control of every note.