Modern Lovers by Emma Straub

I heard Emma Straub speak before I ever read anything of hers. The topic was “American angst” and she was on a panel with two other authors with recent publications.

She opened with a brief reading from Modern Lovers. Instead of starting with the beginning or choosing a selection heavily into the book which would be poignant or funny, depending on what she was aiming for, she started with the beginning of one of the early chapters, the first one narrated by young Ruby, who has recently been rejected from every college where she applied due in large part to her essay on why she didn’t want to go to college.

Ruby is filled with ennui, sick of the blandness of her everyday life in a privileged position in the nice Brooklyn neighborhood where her family lives. Her mothers, Zoe and Jane, own a chic restaurant nearby and are oblivious to her state of mind as well as her relationship with dead-end Dust. Zoe and Jane have been having their own issues, for years it seems—Jane is solid, dependable; she loves food and Zoe. Zoe, however, is (and always has been) wild.

In her youth, she was bandmates with Elizabeth, her best friend then and now, Andrew, Elizabeth’s husband, and Lydia, who went on to become a solo star who died a tragically young death after giving voice to generations of angsty teens. Elizabeth and Andrew live down the street from Zoe and Jane; their teenage son Harry is only a year younger than Ruby but of course he’s hopelessly obsessed—he’s the good, studious kid, and she’s the star burning through the sky. And yet they’ve always orbited each other, played naked as toddlers. It seems right.

Andrew is from money, which he largely still has. He’s unemployed, which seems to be a normal habit for him: he’s lost his passion in life and goes from dabbling in one career to the next. As the book develops, he becomes increasingly involved with a yoga/kombucha/etc studio. Elizabeth is a wildly successful real estate agent who is maybe a little too obsessed with her friendship with Zoe and whose relationship with Andrew is firmly grounded. After all, she’s incredibly stable.

And yet, and yet… among her regrets (by the name of achievements) are her song, the song which catapulted Lydia to fame: “Mistress of Myself,” something Elizabeth has longed to be and has, at times, believed she was. A movie studio is chasing after the trio left alive from the band, Kitty’s Mustache, because they want to make a movie about Lydia’s early days. Andrew balks, Zoe couldn’t care less, and Elizabeth is excited because somehow hearing Lydia sing her song gives her some control over the world. She’s always been the good girl and, while she’s content with that, the song expresses her edge.

The book catapults from character to character as it covers the course of a summer. Trying to keep spoilers vague, the following happens: an affair, public sex, a cultish con artist, a fire, forgery, house sales, SAT class, some beaches. Well, some of those don’t happen so much as have things happen on them or make things happen. But still. For a book that opens with, variously, a neighborhood women’s book club, the disenfranchised voice of a privileged Brooklyn teenager (private school) whose goal is really just to shock people, a teenage boy who’s been stuck in one role his entire life, a bored “house-husband,” the stolid woman still astonished her wife married her, and the captivating woman who has always been a light to the people-moths surrounding her, it becomes pretty intense at times.

Yet Straub’s voice is, ultimately, nonchalant. While most characters have similar voices/tones if different ways of referring to themselves, it’s an engaging style. It’s self-reflective even in the moments when the characters don’t recognize themselves and it certainly pokes at society as it is today. I can see why Straub was on a panel about angst, though the conversation among the panelists certainly veered from there (if only I’d written down what type of sandwich she said she would be).

The book is slow and fast at turns. It feels a bit like a summer even though I read it in the dead of winter; it has the sense of laying out in the sun and contemplating life and what the use of obeying the norms is. With startling turns of phrase, Straub lays the dignities and indignities of a privileged life in a well-funded suburb bare. Yet there’s a bit of punk there too; let’s not forget Lydia, the unkempt rock star who overdosed young and the memories three of the adults have of being the disenfranchised teenagers back at a time when that somehow meant more, no SAT preparation classes to distract them.

The narration is interestingly versatile. While it primarily remains in the present, brief moments of flashback reveal a more wanton past, journal entries and pictures give glimpses into long-lost memories, and the biopic of Lydia reenacts history. Hearsay and speculation, not to mention gossip, become concrete facts. Being “Mistress of Myself” is something anyone can theoretically do and is something everyone strives toward without truly reaching.

I would firmly place Straub’s writing among the literary. While it takes on the mundane in order to reveal the inner depths (and in some cases shallowness) of various characters, there are yet elements of the horror story or of the dissolution of marriage or of the experimentation of youth. There’s love and complacency along with distrust and distaste. Everyone’s bodies seem to be fully disparate from themselves; it’s as if some of the characters eventually reach a deep nihilism where nothing matters until suddenly it does.

Decisions, when made, are rapid. If a character thinks, it doesn’t happen. But in some ways, this is truly reflective of life: these characters are so stuck in their lives, in the roles they’ve created for themselves and forced themselves to maintain, that they can only seem to survive in split second decisions.

I don’t know what I’ve told you about this book. Honestly, I don’t know what I needed to tell you. Reading this book wasn’t quick, even though (as I said) it felt like summer. It felt like a long afternoon, dozing off on the beach, waking up tired and considering life as the sun set. And then, maybe, because someone happened to walk past, going out and getting a tattoo, just because. After all, it’s nighttime on the beach, and what else should you do? Sounds right.

What I mean, ultimately, is read this book.

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