Though I can no longer recall how I came to know her, this I can tell you: When you want to meet Daphne Gottlieb, you make an appointment and get on the calendar. She’s not the kind you run into just by chance on the street—in part because she’s a shut-in, shut in with her animals and her collection of things in jars. She will occasionally emerge with a manuscript that will slowly wrap its claws around your guts and pull on them just hard enough to make you remember that there have been a few painful moments when you wish you were never born because of some things you decided to do to help make yourself feel alive.
The author likes it that way. She’s the furthest thing from a credible narrator and even though we are a match in that regard this I can also tell you because I encourage you to read her for yourself: Gottlieb carries around more dead girls than anyone else you have ever known.
The latest one is S, and in Gottlieb’s brilliantly conceived epistolary novel set in the heyday of sex ads on Craigslist, readers will indulge in the sick pleasure of watching a young woman try and fail to run a gauntlet of usual and unusual violence between 1982 and 2013. Her name remains unknown, but the title of the novel is Saint 1001. In this one-sided correspondence with her first love—her first lover? Boyfriend, statutory rapist, abuser, adulterer, pick what you want.
S writes to J through their romance and breakup, his moving on and growing up and messing up, her moving around and growing agoraphobic and messing around. Her eventual death with the final turn of the page is as inevitable as any classical Greek tragedy. S knows it, the reader knows it, and the author knows how to deliver it. “I know exactly how to find you in the alphabet,” says S to J, says Gottlieb to us as we edge along the abyss of her endlessly hot spook (182).
Kathy Acker died in 1997. Gottlieb’s first book, Pelt, was published shortly thereafter (Odd Girls Press, 1999). So all of her work is post-Acker. But right now, I’m a little obsessed with the fact that Acker was 50 years old when she died, and Saint 1001 is the first book Gottlieb has published since she surpassed the age of 50. Don’t so many people often wonder what Acker would be writing now?
Gottlieb has already won the Acker Award for Excellence in the Avant-Garde. Also the Audre Lorde Award and the Firecracker Alternative Book Award. You know what she hasn’t won? A Lammy. Daphne Gottlieb is the Susan Lucci of the Lambda Literary Awards. Five times a finalist and never a winner. At this point, Lambda Literary’s failure to recognize Gottlieb’s work is damaging to the general credibility of their awards.
I wonder whether it’s because her content, in Saint 1001 as in her other books, is equally accessible to and beloved by a heteronormative audience as it is to her legion of queer readers. The primary relationship depicted in the novel is a straight one and so are most of her one-liner portraits of Craigslist sex seekers. It hurts to say, but I fear that the good people at Lambda Literary are sitting around their virtual conference table and muttering old-fashioned dismissals of Gottlieb’s oeuvre as somehow “not queer enough”.
The very suggestion is absurd, and we can begin to undermine it by examining one more age-related numerology issue: Saint 1001 begins in 1982 when the character of S is 14 years old. I’ll give you one guess how old Gottlieb herself was in 1982.
Is this novel Gottlieb’s Bell Jar? Is it just barely falsified and sensationalized enough to count as fiction? The author has a history of inserting herself into her manuscripts in a variety of deceptive and obvious ways. She did so most obviously in editing Fucking Daphne: Mostly True Stories and Fictions (Seal Press, 2008), more deceptively in writing Dear Dawn: Aileen Wuornos in Her Own Words (Soft Skull Press, 2012). Gottlieb’s entire collection of published work has remained focused on all kinds of violence against all kinds of women. To entertain the notion that this invigoratingly exhaustive catalog of harms against us is not “queer content” is dangerously insulting and laughably inane.
Or if her content isn’t where Lambda Literary has lost its way, perhaps it has something to do with Gottlieb’s forms. She is always a hybrid operator, uneasily resting in any category. That’s pretty queer in itself. She leaves clues and jokes in her footnotes with a delicious sense of campiness that Susan Sontag would’ve appreciated, like when S refers to something bad, such as a dumpster fire and the footnote just says “Cf. p.1-245”, indicating that the entire story of the novel depicts a dumpster fire.
Indeed, she composes a fully-fledged cut-up novel like Acker did so many times in her life, but for my money, to a much more clear and readable effect than Acker herself ever did. For example, the 13 footnotes on page 12, which alternately utilize bits ripped from Fifty Shades of Grey with bits from Fatal Attraction. In the section taking place in 2012 that begins on page 117, one side of the page follows S’s email correspondence with J while the other side of the text swaps out female pronouns for male ones in a mixtape full of nothing but gross songs about grizzled rock ‘n’ roll dudes loving underaged girls. Sprinkled throughout the text are sketches and photographs of things that euphemistically or symbolically stand in for different kinds of sex.
This book is complex and complete in its forthrightness and its fragmentary nature. You will definitely wonder whether the author herself is all right. She is. Probably. It’s a murderous novel, not a murder novel. “I have no idea how to do death,” writes S, “even though I’ve done so much of it” (159).
Here’s to another sublimely bloody, painfully sexy piece of magic from an indispensably original gangster of cult classic queer literature. And here’s hoping the cannon blast of Saint 1001 finally rockets Daphne Gottlieb onto the suspicious pedestal that is Lambda Literary’s idea of our canon.