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Hunger Feeds the Artist in Raven Leilani’s “Luster”

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The phrase “aging millennial” is sure to bum anyone out. Maybe you’re one of them, as I am, and are reading this having filed your weekly unemployment claim and waiting to hear back about that remote position you found on Twitter. Global pandemic notwithstanding, the future was always bleak.

In a 2017 Huffington Post article titled “Millennials Are Screwed,” mature millennial Michael Hobbes writes of our plight, “Salaries have stagnated and entire sectors have cratered. At the same time, the cost of a secure existence—education, housing, and health care—has inflated into the stratosphere.” The oldest millennials are turning forty at the heels of another thwarted progressive revolution. Many are abandoning notions of child-rearing or property ownership altogether. Off we go, then, aboard Citi Bikes and Toyota Camrys, to embrace this new serfdom we’ve dubbed the gig economy.

But the desire for the good life, or some semblance of it, is a stubborn flame. Raven Leilani’s sultry and sharp-witted debut novel, Luster, is brimming with the potential energy of a young person and artist battling precarity. Leilani, an aging millennial at twenty-nine, revisits the tragicomic indignities of one’s early twenties through her protagonist Edie, a painter who’s not painting much these days. Edie’s dead-end job as managing editor for a children’s imprint—a sadly poetic place for someone in arrested development—pays enough to cover student loan installments and rent in a rodent-infested Bushwick apartment.

Edie simmers with creative frustration and constantly gets her libidinal wires crossed. After her third rejection from the publishing house’s art department, she falls in bed with its director, an accomplished artist who sports a duster and “keeps fresh orchids in his office.” Leilani writes frankly about the unsavory reality that, in this country, gender parity and meritocracy seem to exist only for those already born into wealth. For the rest of us, access to the finer things is still predicated on labor exploitation—or on fucking or marrying up and the costly reputational and physical risks that come with it. “There are men who are an answer to a biological imperative, whom I chew and swallow,” Edie observes. “And there are men I hold in my mouth until they dissolve.”

Of the latter is Eric, a digital archivist in his forties whom Edie sexts while on the clock. He works uptown and claims he’s in an open marriage. Edie is drawn to older men like Eric for “having more stable finances and a different understanding of the clitoris,” and she revels “in the excruciating limbo between their disinterest and expertise.” At night, she lies awake on her futon and imagines Eric in bed with his wife somewhere in New Jersey. “It’s not that I want exactly this, to have a husband or home security system that, for the length of our marriage, never goes off. It’s that there are gray, anonymous hours like this… when I am ravenous, when I know how a star becomes a void.”

Edie’s affair with Eric evokes that particularly millennial flavor of masochism, a potent cocktail of loneliness and generalized dread.

The first half of Luster moves at breakneck speed, crackling with Leilani’s biting and timely commentary. Edie’s affair with Eric evokes that particularly millennial flavor of masochism, a potent cocktail of loneliness and generalized dread. Edie does not protest when Eric withholds sex for the first 52 days of their courtship because “maybe he is the only friend I have.” When she shows up at Eric’s home uninvited and slips into his wife’s dress, goading him to hit her, she welcomes his blows before getting on top of him and taking command of her own pleasure. Leilani also pokes fun at the artful dodge that is American racial discomfort. Edie recognizes it “in how cautiously [Eric] says African American. How he absolutely refuses to say the word black.” 

Eventually, Edie loses her job to the only other Black girl in the office who, unlike her, has mastered the art of being “black and dogged and inoffensive.” On the verge of losing her apartment, Edie joins the throng of food couriers and taskers picking up after the professional-managerial class. One of her dispatches, for lobster bisque and a bone saw, happens to be for Eric’s wife, Rebecca, an uptight medical examiner. In a baffling move, Rebecca invites Edie to stay in their home, suggesting that she mentor their Black adopted daughter Akila. From here, the novel enters the domestic at a leisurely pace, and not always for the best. The four inhabitants move about the house like planets on separate axes, never colliding to crack open their vulnerable cores. Leilani also loses interest in Eric in the novel’s final chapters, and her vérité portrayal of the convoluted motivations of desire, especially in today’s social and economic conditions, diffuses into the inevitabilities of the emotionally withdrawn, midlife man trope.

But there’s a silver lining in Rebecca, who steps in to offer Edie a glimpse at a brighter future. She shows genuine interest in Edie’s art, offering critique and encouragement in even measure. The synchrony they develop doing yoga side by side in front of the television carries over into private sessions in the morgue where Edie practices painting the cadavers Rebecca methodically takes apart for work. Their connection isn’t romantic, but neither is it platonic, and Edie is left inspired by this inscrutable thing. After years of insecurity and struggle, Edie finally sees in her canvas “whatever soft, human calculus makes a thing alive, gives a painted eye roots and retina and makes it look like it can see.” Precarious as ever, she is moved to create. Gazing at a finished portrait, she muses, “I’ve made my own hunger into a practice.”

 

Raven Leilani will be in conversation with author Lisa Taddeo on Wednesday, Aug. 26, at 7 p.m., hosted by Enoch Pratt Free Library in partnership with the Ivy Bookshop

 

Books can be purchased locally at Greedy Reads and the Ivy.

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