Published in The Saturday Paper, 20 July 2019
Going the way of all things, New Journalism is the Old Journalism. What originator Tom Wolfe deemed “glorious chaos” in 1972 – seismic journalistic techniques of authorial intervention or literary scene-building – has long been subsumed into the mainstream, becoming the house style of cultural bastions such as The New Yorker. It’s perhaps surprising, then, how rare the nonfiction novel remains today.
Is it more difficult to swallow the genre’s claims to narrative truth now its founding father, the author of rollicking psychedelic trip The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), has been unmasked as a Republican who himself abstained? To tell other people’s stories with that level of detail – while paying heed to the ethical quandaries inherent in the task – takes a staggering amount of work.
Successful examples of recent years were written at great personal cost. Katherine Boo lived in a Mumbai slum for three years to write Behind the Beautiful Forevers (2012), conducting 168 interviews to create the final scene alone. Adrian Nicole LeBlanc immersed herself with a family in a New York ghetto for more than a decade to write urban saga Random Family (2003), a process she admitted eclipsed her own life.
Placing Lisa Taddeo’s much-hyped debut, Three Women, in this literary context makes it an even stranger beast. To write “a book about human desire”, Taddeo says, she drove across America six times, spending eight years with the selected female subjects and moving several times to understand their mundane milieus. Taking a genre bent on truth and turning it on something as ineffable as yearning – the age-old question what do women want? – seems an affront to a genre dominated by gonzo machismo.
To bastardise Dr Freud’s aphorism about the cigar, sex is of course never just about sex. Aged 23, Maggie has brought charges against the teacher who seduced her as a high school senior, though a part of her just wants to see her paramour again. Housewife Lina strays from the husband who refuses to touch her and into the arms of her high school boyfriend. Beautiful, rich, elegant Sloane fucks other men of her husband’s choosing while he watches.
Detailing the desires and proclivities of the “ordinary” woman has overtones of a Kinsey study, but Taddeo insists Three Women surpasses our prosaic perversity (though there’s a lot of that too): “… whereas the man’s throttle died in the closing salvo of the orgasm, I found that the woman’s was often just beginning … it was the female parts of an interlude that, in my eyes, came to stand for the whole of what longing in America looks like.”
Beginning and ending with anecdotes about her late mother, an Italian peasant who “never spoke about what she wanted”, Taddeo implies that these are the women whose stories we refuse to listen to: the broken, the poor, the resented and scorned. We soon venture into sketchy territory, however, for now we are separating the ordinary and the… who? Remarkable? Intellectual? Sated? The question soon arises: are the desires of women like Taddeo any less obtuse?
Boo and LeBlanc proved it’s still possible to render the illusion of objectivity if a writer’s research and craft are precise. Taddeo instead adopts a voice-driven ventriloquism, addressing her subjects in second person or describing them in a painfully close third. Sometimes Three Women is uncomfortable to read for the shame of recognition: the way romantic myths are weaponised; how we can persuade ourselves the desires of others are our own; the petty longing for exes to desire us still.
Other times, it is the book’s mixed metaphors and overwrought prose that make it agonising. Maggie is prone to Orwellian portmanteaus: her face flushes “shamehot”; she oscillates from “lovecrush” to “angerlove” to “driftlove”. After Mr Knodel breaks her heart, she “passes the rest of her senior year like a kidney stone”. At Lina’s therapy group, women pitch forward “like soup tureens in an earthquake”. Sloane’s “face is like a sorority girl’s; it has the look of making out”.
Taddeo’s emphasis on adolescence – here, particularly traumatic ones – suggests that desire is preordained. Sloane, a recovering anorexic whose mother fed her diet pills at age 10, goes into the restaurant business. Maggie is still unpacking the notion that her broken heart could be the aftermath of sexual abuse – “Everyone seems to know this but you” – where her “manfriend” has manufactured her isolation. Lina desperately searches for love in men she knows will never give it to her, still the teenage girl who doesn’t want to cause a fuss when she’s gang-raped.
So, in the maelstrom of rapacious male desire, the cycles of trauma, the suffocations of gender and class and geography, the judgemental gazes of other women, what are Maggie, Lina and Sloane allowed to want? Are they ever able to break free?
For a book so desperate to insist that these women are individuals with agency, Taddeo is prone to grandiose statements about Men and Women: “Throughout history, men have broken women’s hearts in a particular way”; or, “Men come to insert themselves, they turn a girl into a city. When they leave, their residue remains.” The heterosexual pact is laid bare, but there’s nothing radical about this vision.
Taddeo has picked subjects and situations where gender roles are inviolable. These are women whose options for yearning are limited: bright young Maggie hopes her teacher will offer an escape from her alcoholic parents. Lina only ever allows herself to articulate her longings through romantic love. As much as Sloane thinks she’s liberated, her desire is to satisfy the desires of men.
So where is Taddeo, the desirous woman who has presumably overcome her mother’s self-denial? To write is to speak, to insist on being heard. Yet we are denied the chink of sunlight where Taddeo herself finds a voice, channelling eros into writing rather than playing out gender roles established in Eden. Taddeo’s portrait of “desire as it is right now, the beast of it, the glory and the brutality”, is familiar, sure, but also sadly unimaginative.
Bloomsbury, 320pp, $32.99