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If you read one book this year, it should probably be The Swallows by Lisa Lutz. I was annoyed by the description of the book--"battle of the sexes," something I associate with Real World/Road Rules Challenges, a game/challenge show for (usually) losing contestants of these other two reality shows. And yet "game" and "challenge" might be the best words to describe aspects of what may be Lisa Lutz's book yet, and being one of her best books yet, this also makes the novel one of the best books of the century, and likely all time. In Lisa's hand, a "battle of the sexes" is no longer limited to platinum blonde women with breast implants commenting on how, once they win this challenge, they won't have to marry rich, they'll have money. What these women don't admit--and this affects them too--is the position they've been put in where often women choose to be homemakers not by actual choice but because it's the only option they have in many different types of cultures and societies within American and within America as a whole, or how this option and so other limited options are things women are considered to be what women should strive for, and fight for. At Stonebridge, a small prep school/boarding school/high school in Lisa Lutz's newest book, the young women in the book, in part catalyzed by the arrival of a woman with her own past, and in part feeling ashamed by the men who sexualize them and punish the young women on campus for not being what they should be--all of this sparks a sort of revolution, which burns and flourishes in its own right, for better and worse. I think what scared me most about "battle of the sexes" is how black-and-white this phrase is, and how Lisa Lutz has always been a writer who, no matter how passionately she feels about an issue, will take a step back and look at every person and every issue, and describe everyone as they are, as they've want to be, and as others see them. She will point out the flaws and dangers of so many things in our society: how we judge women by looks and any other qualities which might make them attractive to men, how we expect women to be both sexual and virginal all at once, and how women are not expected to take issue with these expectations and voice how they want to be, how they want to be seen, and how their choices should be their own. What's so important about the way I've listed these qualities is, for the most part, they are decided by men and for men, and this is where the real danger is: how can a woman truly be independent (a throwback, perhaps, to the Destiny's Child song for the Charlie's Angels reboot years ago) and how women can have a sense of self if they are always shaping and molding their lives to please men. Don't get me wrong, my own argument has been said and done, and one could argue the issue of women having any autonomy or control over their selves is a topic so many books have tackled, and are least appealing when they state the issue so directly and forcefully. And while I would argue this is an issue hard to approach from a nuanced, delicate, angry, and ultimately beautifully presented point-of-view, Lutz does just this, tackling the issue of the "battle of the sexes" and turning it on its head.
Every character in Lutz's book, no matter how despicable (or perhaps on the other end of the spectrum lovable) they may be, they are so attractive and draw the reader in with the strongest voices, all completely different and overwhelming and compulsively readable. No matter how much Lutz or the reader may hate a character, she presents them in a way where we cannot stop reading, even if a section of the book is narrated by someone we view as antagonistic, to a character we love or even to ourselves. Lutz's true gift is her inability to write a flat character. Every character is shaped, rounded out, developed, and made to be understood by the reader. When I first met Lutz, she sent me something so kind, so generous, I couldn't believe a person who barely knew me could be this kind. And while I still don't know Lutz the way I want--I admire her endlessly, and look forward to meeting her in person one day and seeing how truly amazing she is in real life, as I've heard her described. Lutz is a person who practices empathy the way other people practice tennis or a mean check toward checkmate in a chess tournament. She has the ultimate gift--and possible curse--of understanding so many people in so many ways beyond their surface appearance, and in doing so she's able to shape a novel in which a problem becomes real, complicated, and without a concrete resolution. This novel--perhaps battle of the sexes, perhaps love story, perhaps coming-of-age story, perhaps revenge tale--is not to be classified as one simple thing, and never offers easy answers for inequalities between the sexes, and what goes beyond inequality: rape, sexual abuse, and the scariest part of all--how far women will go to get validation from the men in their lives, and why the hell must these women get validation from men, what about our society makes it so that men are the ultimate source of validation for women?
There are many men and women who narrate the book, and one question the reader might ask is who is the protagonist? Perhaps, when targeting women as protagonists here, we might think Gemma or the new-to-the-school Ms. Witt, 29 with a famous writer for a father--a writer who may only be famous, or perhaps remain famous, because of his ex wife and because of his daughter, Ms. Witt. There are the many girls, all young women Gemma gathers to help battle the men on campus, the way they target and destroy these young women, and the way the women are made objects instead of people by the select and popular men on campus (although, as you go through the book, the reader has to wonder if any of the men--and some of the women--are all culpable in this practice of the destruction of the life of each young woman). The issue of revenge remains questionable--as each person questions the revenge, their motives, and how far they are willing to go to destroy an institution, and if, even destroying a particular institution (think Veronica in season 3 finale "The Bitch is Back" in Veronica Mars) will actually make a different in a long, drawn out game and plan for these women. The book follows these characters through a different type of mystery as it escalates: in crime fiction, we too often forget how rape and exploitation are major crimes and destroy lives and, if you read the news, cause the deaths of many women and also men who are raped or in other ways sexually targeted. As the book escalates, as tension builds, you cannot stop reading. This is Lisa Lutz we're talking about. Have you ever read a book by Ms. Lutz which isn't profound but compulsively readable? Lutz offers so many questions, and some answers, although even with her answers there are more questions, and she recognizes this--but more importantly, Lutz has the reader thinking and continuing to ask the questions for themselves and try to view the world inside the novel as something they see in their own lives. Lutz grabs the reader and doesn't let go, or perhaps the reader doesn't want to let go of Ms. Lutz. It's almost criminal how long we've waited for Lisa Lutz to give us another book--and it is a gift, and not something she is required to do. Lisa Lutz puts her fiction ("fiction") out there for the world to see and read when purchasing a book (buy a copy now) or checking the book out from your library (request the book now if your local library has not already ordered it, when they should have). Lisa Lutz gives us the gift of this epic, sweeping, generous novel, confusing us with all the questions we have to ask ourselves and we too are without concrete answers, and providing a literary triumph that will be remembered throughout the century and hopefully until the end of time. This is not a #metoo book, simply reactionary to a movement which truly has had no effect. Lutz's book is the movement, and not just a companion to other novels by women and men looking to make bank in response to an issue so many people, again especially women, are facing in our country. Lisa Lutz is not here for gimmicks. She's here for art. And she's here to point out the rapists, the lying bastards, and the people who protect rapists and defend their actions even while claiming they are not a part of the problem.
I've spent a lot of time talking about Lisa Lutz and her work, but in a more general sense, and not focusing on the novel itself. The Swallows is, to date, the ultimate Lutz novel. Reading the book, which again really is compulsively readable, something you cannot put down and something you will want to read again as soon as you finish (if only there was more time!!). There's the extremely funny and terribly cutting (and brilliant) wit of the Spellman novels, the camaraderie of How to Start a Fire, one of Lutz's genius books often overlooked because it's in between her two more specifically crime novels, and then of course there is the thrill of The Passenger, a landmark book which has influenced so many books which have come after it, changed the lives (literary and personal) of people like myself, and now we have this wonderful book the nation, and soon the world, is so lucky to have. We see Gemma, a girl with secrets, a young woman fighting a system, male privilege, and the destruction of women just because (and she states, possibly) she needs something to fight for. There's Ms. Witt (Alex Witt, if you prefer, although her titles are usually labeled "Ms. Witt"), a woman with her own past and secrets who is trying to remain professional but save the girls in school. There's one teacher who helps narrate the book, someone who doesn't seem to recognize how he is a part of the problem, and how he is destroying the women in the community, even as he believes he is trying to save them. And finally there's Norman, a young geek who may be romantically attracted to a girl Gemma is working with in her mission, and who joins the mission for many selfish and selfless reasons. The book is complicated when we see the problems laid out, issues and crimes committed by each character no matter what their motivation is (the path to hell is paved with good intentions) and seeing how each character believe what they are doing is right when often they do so, so many wrong things, the reader is forced to turn around and look inside themselves. Are any of us not culpable, if not in a school campus like this then in real life? Lutz's book focuses more on the marginalization and destruction of the female body and any power a young or older woman might have, but this novel can easily be stretched to look at so many other issues we as a nation, we as a world face today. Lutz's genius is to keep us reading, make us believe in the characters and the good they try to do and the overwhelmingly horrible things they don't realize they are doing necessarily, or at least the impact it will have, and finally we see through these lovable and readable characters how many people we know are flawed in such severe ways, and how we are flawed too, even if we may not realize this at the time.
I need to stop going on about this book. By now you're like, "I get it, Matthew." Please preorder this novel or perhaps call your library and request they purchase a copy to be available upon publication. Call multiple times in the hopes they may buy multiple copies. Believe it or not, these libraries listen to you, even if the men of this world, as well as any group stifling your freedom as a marginalized person, may not listen. Libraries have many jobs, and one is to focus on ordering books their community wants and needs. Make your wants and needs heard, and understand how much you need Lisa Lutz in your life. Please feel free to comment here with remarks and questions. Please feel free to contact me here or privately (or on Twitter or Facebook) and discuss the Blowchart, the cleansing fire of revenge, and if you'd like, the incredibly warped librarian inside the novel (although please, again, get your library to order copies). I look forward to hearing from you about this book which is so impeccable and unbelievably good, I am going to stop talking now for fear of going on about it too long.
Lisa Lutz is back, with instructions regarding blowjobs, Molotov cocktails, the fragility of young love and friendship, and the ways we try to live and cope in a world that not only often doesn't seem to want us, but sometimes seems to not need us at all. Look at our goddamn president for example. And when you're disgusted, every time you're disgusted, buy another copy of this book, read another copy of this book, and jump out your skin with the joy of reading a rare book like which comes along once every few decades. Like I said, Lisa Lutz is back, and this time no one will be spared.
Now in the 21st century, we are allowed to begin a new canon, a crime canon for the 21st century. Assuming this is true, it's easy to place Alison Gaylin's What Remains of Me as the most significant and game-changing Hollywood novel in the crime genre, the definition of The Hollywood novel, The Hollywood novel all Hollywood novels will follow and try to beat. And likely the same can be true about Gaylin's last novel, the Edgar-winning If I Die Tonight, a book that has redefined how novels (and more specifically crime novels) approach technology, perhaps the most definitive tech-crime novel since Patricia Cornwell's, but benefiting from qualities only Gaylin can provide, an expert in humans, humanity, and empathy beyond all others.
The newest novel by Gaylin, Never Look Back, somehow combines the nostalgia of What Remains of Me (which, by the way, should have won the Edgar, but I won't argue that here) and the modernity of If I Die Tonight. Never Look Back screams love in the middle of the blackhole of noir and crime, the desperation and love and how they can mirror each other, or perhaps be the same thing. Gaylin rips emotions, memories, and truths from her characters only she can. She is a grand looker, someone who observes the world and draws from it every truth other people can't understand. You see a psychotic killer who pursues victims because of a dead sister, brother, friend, mother, or father? Gaylin sees a killer who is dark from the beginning, who discovers a darkness, who never forgets this darkness and is just ready to unravel it at the word "Go." Gaylin is an expert at understanding how anyone works, including so many people who aren't her. I admire the positive aspects of #OwnVoices, but to dismiss anyone advocating for writing and understanding voices outside oneself is criminal, especially when dealing with Gaylin, who happily flips between gay men and young women in love with gay men and women dealing with the tragedy of never knowing herself or her parents--so many people who aren't necessarily Gaylin, and yet she writes them as naturally as she might a diary entry. Only, with Gaylin, reading any of her books, we feel as if Gaylin understands these people better than she would her own diary entries. We never feel we get characters in Gaylin's novel. These are people trapped in pages. These are horrors not confined to black ink, as they do not simply stay on the page, but leap at you, grab you, choke you, make you scream. Gaylin is here to remind you of the utter love and brilliance of humanity, and also how destructive and vicious humans can be, and how far we go to get what we want. Gaylin knows people better than people know themselves. She pulls back their skin and reminds them of the tissue inside, the things they destroy with fast food and Red Bull and desire and loneliness.
Here's the thing. Gaylin may have, with Never Look Back, tapped into the biggest game-changer of a novel since Hitchcock's Psycho (note, I am referring to his filmic version, and not the novel or the remake) or Kevin Williamson and the late Wes Craven (RIP)'s Scream, the film to bring slashers back into fashion but also remind everyone that we are getting boring. The 90s were fairly stiff, books that could have remained the same outside a few, the exceptions being Donna Tartt's The Secret History, some claiming Patricia Cornwell's debut (although maybe we can beg to differ), and the welcome of a few great authors who would become greater, like the fabulous Laura Lippman, among others. Gaylin is now nodding to the entry of the 2020s, to a world where we may or may not be destroyed by Trump or find a hopefully happier future, but acknowledging that so many authors are doing the same thing. The Wife Who Got Away. The Woman Who Stabbed Herself with a Fork Because She Was So Fucking Tired of this Title. I Don't Trust My Husband Dear Fucking God. We Aren't Girls Anymore. Generic Title with Your Least Favorite Female Family Member. We Use Titles to Confine Women in Fiction. I'm fed up. Gaylin's fed up. So now maybe writers will up their game. They'll drop bombs like Gaylin does in this miracle of a novel. She switches between characters in a miraculous way, keeping the third person feeling like third person and never confusing or boring the reader. No one is safe for Gaylin. Everyone is expendable. That's how life is, no matter how much you root for them, no matter what you hope for, and if I had to make an argument I'd say Gaylin is the most heartbroken of all the writers, and maybe a broken heart and a dead body are the same thing.
Perhaps Gaylin won't receive the Donna Tartt treatment. But this book is a sign of many books to come: Gaylin is growing, combining subgeneres, challenging any writer who wants to beat her, and letting everyone know the time is up. She's on par with Alex Marwood and Laura Lippman. She writes a book similar to Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, although sometimes her dark places are darker, matches with luminous saccharine sweet heights only Gaylin can bring for you. Gaylin does not confine herself. There's no one person who will get all the answers. There's no one happy ending. My therapist has a saying--a saying lots of therapists and people and yes writers use. "Every relationship ends in heartbreak. There's no way out of that." Am I here referring to our relationship with Gaylin, her novels, or her characters? Perhaps all three. Gaylin works on the assumption you think you're reading a basic bitch crime book. She works on the assumption you think she's confined to her own world, and will never listen, will never learn, and will never write something remotely outside herself. Instead, Gaylin is one of the bravest people writing today, not just ready to listen and learn and understand other people, but then violently kill them off in her book. It takes a lot to try and understand something and then destroy it. And Gaylin does this so well.
Does anyone come out on top at the end of the novel? Are all the loose ends tied up? Will there ever be a book quite like this again? Perhaps it's a strength, writing a new book each and every time, but this could also be her weakness, not able to repeat the same book ever. Either way, Gaylin is winning. Her standalone are heartbreaking and earth-shaking and you will never forget them. For me, I still love What Remains of Me. It was my first Gaylin, and I think everyone remembers their first Gaylin. But never before has she reached into my brain like this, grabbing hold and refusing to let go. During rereads I have found myself fighting sleep so hard as I try to finish a page, a paragraph, a sentence.
Then there's the appearance of Brenna Spector. She just shows up to remind us of Gaylin's origins, and maybe something more. Perhaps we can have an all female original crime fighting Avengers-type thing, what with Laura Lippman's Tess, Alafair Burke's Olivia, and so many more? I would be. fan of this too. I would be a fan of any collaboration between these powerhouses. Fingers crossed and remember: Gaylin's books will knock you dead, just probably not as dead as your favorite characters.