Anna Marie reviews Girls, Visions & Everything and The Gentrification of the Mind 

The cover of Girls, Visions, and Everything as well as Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman

Over the summer I set myself the challenge of reading one Sarah Schulman book per month – my interest had been sparked because my queer platonic partner had written her dissertation on one of Schulman’s novels Girls, Visions & Everything and the dissertation was really great! I ended up reading 4, one each month of summer with a bonus one in july! The other three were After DeloresThe Gentrification of the Mind and Empathy. Here are reviews of my two favourites, both of which I gave 5 stars to.

Like I said, girls, visions & everything was the first book I read, and I read it in about two days whilst I was on holiday, by a pool soaking up the heat. My setting perfectly mirrored the books sweaty summer time atmosphere. At that time it was the dyke-iest book I had read so far in 2018 (I think it’s now been slightly eclipsed by Sarah Waters’ book tipping the velvet). The story gives us a brief glimpse into dyke-about-town, Lila, who lives in new york city and is exploring and finding new relationships and making art. It’s unapologetically queer, sexy and sharply meaningful. The prose is really beautiful, like drinking water: simple and clear. As a character, Lila has stayed with me, and the lessons she learns in the text are relatable and sweet. The book includes some moments of harassment & discussions about sexual violence.

The other five star book I read of Schulman’s was not a novel, and in fact I think it was probably the best nonfiction book i’ve ever read! It was the 2012 book the gentrification of the mind: witness to a lost imagination. The book is about the ways that gentrification was affected and accelerated by the AIDS crisis both in terms of its physical & financial affect on life in New York City, but also in how it lead to a gentrification of the mind – of art and artist practice and community space too. it’s very tragic, but it honestly blew my mind as i read it, and it really made me consider and question my role in continuing gentrification(s) and inspired me to make active choices about the art I make and the spaces I encourage and support with my presence and my money. It is focused on the US and I live in the UK, but I still found it to be pertinent and interesting to my gay life. I definitely think if you’re an artist you should read this book!!

I’m excited to read more Sarah Schulman books, especially Rat Bohemia, and her first novel The Sophie Horowitz Story. If you would like to hear my thoughts on all four of the books I read I made a video about them here.

Bessie reviews After Delores by Sarah Schulman

aFTERdELORES

Sarah Schulman is a writer and ACTUP activist. Her novel After Delores was published in 1988. It’s a mystery set in the aftermath of a breakup, with the narrator trying to understand how to exist in the world now that her lover Delores has left. She creates a vivid portrait of New York City at the time, while also offering timeless observations about mourning a relationship.

The New York City Schulman writes about is downtown and dirty. No one is very clean or good-looking, and those who come close aren’t to be trusted. Schulman is interested in what it means to be a lesbian in a city like that. In the introduction she writes about the danger that came with living openly as a lesbian in the 70s and 80s, which “produced a kind of desperation, a desire to exist when one was not supposed to, especially on her own terms.” One character says that, “It’s too easy to be gay today in New York City. I come from times when sexual excitement could only be in hidden places. Sweet women had to put themselves in constant danger to make love to me.” In the past the danger was romantic, while in the present it’s just rough.

The mystery plot about a missing girl shows just how dangerous the city can be, and gives the whole novel a noir tinge. The mystery gives the novel forward momentum, driving the protagonist to go out and do things instead of wallowing in her heartbreak. It plays with the language of hardboiled investigators and femme fatales, but twists it, having women play all the roles.

Early on in the novel the protagonist acquires a gun, which she is fascinated with. Guns are an obvious phallic symbol, and one question hiding in the novel is what does it mean for a lesbian to bring a gun around?  Shulman is teasing out how to romanticize a gun in a non masculine way, what it means for a woman to hold that weapon and bring it into situations with other women. Whether guns should be romanticized is another question, but what she does in this novel uses a symbol in a profoundly different way. The gun is a weapon, and a prop, and a symbol of power. Schulman writes,

I slipped the gun into my right hand and posed, Wyatt Earp style, in the ladies’ room. I wanted to see exactly what Delores would see if I stepped in front of her one afternoon clutching that little piece of metal. Except for the mouth I looked exactly like myself, but happier somehow. And it was all because of the machine in my hand could make her shut up and listen for once.

The very act of having a gun leads to the possibility of using a gun. It doesn’t really provide security, but creates an opportunity for more violence. The gun drives the protagonist further into the mystery, allows her to operate on its level.

The protagonist’s preoccupation with the mystery helps distract her from the pain of her failed relationship. Delores has left her for someone else, and the whole world has started to fall about. Her heartbreak is everywhere and all consuming. When she puts the grip of the gun in her mouth she finds that, “it smelled like stale licorice or polished wood and it tasted like Delores.” It all goes back to Delores being gone: everything connects back to that loss. When she’s sitting alone in the bar, “Somebody played Patsy Cline on the jukebox and that made me even sadder, but in a pleasurable melancholy way, not a painful Delores-type way.” The hurt and preoccupation is present on every page. It hurts.

If we only ask for positive representations of lesbians we’ll never get books like this: nasty, mean books that ring true. Lesbians can be terrible people, can be terrible to each other, can do terrible things.

Yet, at the end, when the mystery is unraveled, there’s a man as the real villain, which isn’t surprising. As roughly as lesbians might treat each other, it’s still men who cause the most damage because they start off with the most power and influence. Schulman resists a sentimental ending, is not at all interested in any vision of sisterhood or unity. She articulates something much more subtle and desperate: that while lesbians can be terrible to each other, ultimately we need to stand together in solidarity against patriarchy and homophobia that can kill us so easily. Schulman sums it up beautifully:

I’ve trained myself to avoid all potentially unpleasant situations with men, even though I walk into them constantly with women. Once I realized women could be pretty nasty, I actually considered boys for about five minutes until I remembered they bored me very quickly, and if someone you love is going to bring tragedy into your life, you should at least be interested in them.

It’s a very honest novel. The writing is very direct, and very lovely. I love all the small details Schulman weaves in, details, observations like “Under her leather gloves were five long and polished nails on her right hand and three long polished nails on her left. The index and middle were cut, not chewed, to the cuticle.” My favorite part of the whole book might be the thought that, “The only thing that happened in the last two decades that made any sense to me at all was Patti Smith. When Patti Smith came along, even I got hip, but then she went away.” That’s just cool.

Danika reviews The Mere Future by Sarah Schulman

This was a puzzling book to me. The Mere Future takes place “In the future, when things are slightly better because there has been a big change.” I was expecting a dystopia, but I finished the book still not certain whether things were, in fact, slightly better. “The big change” is a political one, involving housing costs plummeting (eliminating homelessness) and a ban of chain stores and public advertising in New York. Also, the “Media Hub” provides almost all employment.

The characters, however, seem to be sacrificed to the satire. The main characters are unlikeable and self-obsessed. Their relationship is dysfunctional to say the least. This isn’t inherently bad, but I didn’t feel any personal investment in them or their relationship. They seemed to just be vehicles for information about the reality of the “big change”.

The plot also seems to be secondary to the message. Not much seems to happen in the first two-thirds of the book, other than revealing the consequences of the “big change” (which is fine, because it’s a small book and there’s enough there to pull it along), but then suddenly there’s a murder and trial involving side characters. It seemed sudden. I suspect it was to emphasize the downsides of this “big change”, but to me the consequences didn’t seem to naturally follow.

This isn’t a bad book by any means. It’s written well, and it’s definitely clever. I spent most of the book feeling like it was going over my head. And although I wasn’t into the “dystopic” (or utopic) elements to begin with, they stuck with me. I found myself thinking about them after I finished the book, and discussing them with other people. I’m still debating the merits of the “big change”, and it’s a change from the usual dystopias I’ve read, which are unequivocally bad.

This is the first Sarah Schulman book I’ve read, and I definitely plan to read more, but this one isn’t a perfect fit for me. I definitely think there are lots of readers who would really enjoy it, however, especially if you’re looking for an intellectual read.

As a side note, the main characters are a lesbian couple (of course, that’s why I’m reviewing it!), but as I said to my partner while reading it “You don’t really want them on our team…”