Bibliophilia, the love of books, is a rare affliction that strikes only 2% of the American population (statistically the remaining 98% read one book or less per year), but it can be horrible, as books accumulate like malignant cells and gradually consume the bibliophiliac’s time, money, and available living space. As the ailment progresses one finds another emerging symptom, a creeping numbness of the sensibilities at the unrelenting sameness of so many authors, leading the patient to develop abnormal attachments to those wordsmiths capable of actually provoking a reaction within him or her.
I know of what I speak. My name is John, and I am a bibliophiliac. Although reading takes up a substantial portion of my daily life that might be better used to wash the car, balance my checkbook, or pay attention to my wife and children, very rarely is that time spent reading words that actually move me, and when I stumble upon a writer who can cut through the fog, I regard that writer as a friend. I’ll cheerfully buy Harry Crews a drink or twelve, invite Kurt Vonnegut to put his feet up, take Angela Carter and Katherine Dunn to the circus.
And I’d gladly exchange mash notes and war stories with Lidia Yuknavitch anytime. Yuknavitch, professor of literature and cultural studies and co-editor of the excellent ezine two girls review, deals out fourteen shots of tender yet gut-punching fiction in her collection Liberty’s Excess, almost all of which manage a seemingly effortless balance of raw feeling and lean, accomplished prose that unquestionably pulls the plow.
Yuknavitch’s stories are assembled in four sections, each header a mile-marker as she ventures outward, from grounded, semi-autobiographical pieces at the beginning to the kind of high-concept, non-linear explorations that are Fiction Collective 2’s stock-in-trade toward the end. In the first story, “Bravo America,” Yuknavitch’s narrator ruminates on the idea of a neighborhood, people’s need for community and the underlying paranoia that is an inescapable component of the social weave. She observes from her window as her neighbors form a watch committee, as a working-girl and her pimp parade back and forth and she must accept that they are part of the landscape too, and as she addresses the secrets in her own house that she dares not reveal. Fences, sadly, do make good neighbors. As close as we may want our communities to be, it is ultimately proximity not closeness, not touch that we want.
The need for touch, for feeling, is a pervasive thread that runs through this collection, the desire for something to cut through the fog and numbness that insulate us. A teenage girl in a shithole of a small town in Texas tries to liberate herself from the oppressive day-to-day emptiness of her life, drinking and shooting smack, harboring ever-larger and ever-less-satisfying fantasies, until they build a prison in her town and she finds her purpose, as a sex-and-drugs mule for the prisoners (“Cusp”). A lonely man in an Alaskan fish cannery finds warmth and satori in the beautiful bodies of summering college boys (“The Garden of Earthly Delights”). The mistress of the Marquis de Sade writes of her torments, grateful not for how they made her feel, but that they made her feel (“Sade’s Mistress”). There are glancing references throughout the book to past heroin addictions, and while it’s always a gamble to ascribe autobiography to such references, they suggest a powerful connection to disconnectedness into which Yuknavitch has tapped.
The body is Yuknavitch’s medium, and she puts it through its paces here. Her most powerful stories subject their protagonists to extremes of delight and torment when these characters feel, they feel in spades. Three stories in the book’s third section involve women subjected to vividly rendered violations. “Blood Opus” is an exercise in Orwellian horror and absurdity set amidst a nameless war in a nameless country it could be Northern Ireland or Croatia or Oceania as a female street guerilla is mentally and physically tortured with the assorted methods exclusive to the ruthless interrogation of women. The eponymous heroine of “Beauty” treks cross-country, her body simultaneously (and graphically) ravaged by terminal cancer and pregnancy, mining her deteriorating body for ideas for screenplays. The collection’s best piece I will courageously use the term tour de force here is “Citations of a Heretic,” set in a future where criminal trials are staged as historic reenactments, and a young woman accused of sedition against the State is given Joan of Arc’s tribunal, with the inevitable result described in visceral detail:
Before the kindling and
wood was ignited the various forms of
burning were executed. Molten lead was
poured directly on the chest. Boiling oil
was poured upon all exposed flesh. Burning
resin, wax, and sulfur were administered
and they melted together into streams of
liquid fire. It seemed as though the flesh
was beginning to peel away from the body.
The sulfur was lit and the top few layers
of skin roasted away. A faint burnt honey
smell was recorded. The wood was then lit
and the flames leapt up the length of the
body. The flesh seemed to drip from the
bones and the face was especially flayed, as
if somehow the features had melted into a
We could almost feel our own hands grasping at our
own hearts. We could almost touch the vision of it.
The truly satisfying thing about Liberty’s Excess as a whole is the consistency with which Yuknavitch manages to run this gamut, the ease with which she seems to wring out these harsh concepts. She employs a mixture of street language and scholarly references with remarkable fluidity and gratifying irreverence one story begins with a discussion of Susan Sontag and ends with an orgy without flippancy or posturing.
Lidia Yuknavitch has done something remarkable here, a collection of assaults on numbness that in turn cut through the desensitizing effects of bibliophilia and life in general, and while I don’t actually expect to trade mash notes and war stories with her in person, her words, reflective of a wise heart and wicked mind, are always welcome in my home.