Book review Thrust by Lidia Yuknavitch
There is a tidal movement towards “Thrust”, whose chapters ebb and flow over 200 years in and around New York Harbor. At the opening, we see a vision of immigrants working on a colossal new monument designed in France and shipped in pieces to the United States. With allusions to Walt Whitman, Yuknavitch gives voice to the multitude. “We were carpenters, ironworkers, roofers and plasterers and bricklayers,” intones the narrator. “We were pipe fitters, welders and carpenters… We were cooks, cleaners, nuns and night watchmen. We were nurses and artists and janitors, runners and messengers and thieves. Mothers, fathers and grandparents, sisters, brothers and children. They are, in short, the whole panoply of fresh Americans from all over the planet, and they crush 31 tons of copper and 125 tons of steel into a towering statue. of a woman in a dress holding a torch aloft to light the way to freedom.
But even before this breathtaking metal sculpture is complete, its design has already been compromised, its meaning already corroded. “Small cracks began to appear in the story,” the narrator says, “just like in the materials of his body and our work.” Yuknavitch suggests that Lady Liberty was originally meant to hold broken chains in her hands, signifying the hard-earned end of slavery in the United States, but this central element was dropped at her feet and then obscured under her dress, lest the fragile feelings of White Southerners be offended. And who exactly was she hosting in a country that had already become so xenophobic, so resentful of new immigrants? And what about the irony of a lady celebrating freedom in a country where real women can’t vote? “Some of us would not be fully counted,” says the narrator. “A fear crossed some of our necks – that maybe it wasn’t ours, or that we weren’t theirs – but no one wanted to say it out loud because we needed to earn our life.”
Turn the page and history jumps more than two centuries into the future – 2079 – when the effects of climate change kickstarted by the Industrial Revolution washed away much of the East Coast. After what is called ‘the great rising waters’, survivors still risk crossing the harbor by boat to see ‘a sinking wonder of the world’, the arm and head of a giant woman almost submerged beneath the waves .
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In this dystopian vision of our drowned future, government functions have collapsed except, of course, for the rabid pursuit of immigrants; this cause persists, the last quivering movements of the dying body politic. In the midst of this hellish landscape, we meet a strange little girl named Laisve, whose name means “freedom” in Lithuanian, her frightened father hiding from the Raids. Yuknavitch’s descriptions of Brooklyn – now simply called the brook – are incongruously precise and impressionistic, mixing the concrete details of a dream floating in a cloud of terrors.
Laisve is no ordinary girl. For one thing, she’s not afraid to roam the deadly streets or jump into the water. (Obviously, there’s a touch of autobiographical projection here. Yuknavich, an avid swimmer, once wrote, “Put me in water for just ten seconds, and I’ll prove to you that a body is whatever you want it to be.”) on his wanderings, Laisve says things like:Bad is just Direct go in a different direction. People need to learn to better understand backwards. Words. Objects. Time. People get stuck too easily. And with the help of a talking box turtle, she travels back in time.
No, I haven’t seen this coming. I have not seen any of this upcoming surreal novel. Actually, I won’t say too much about the plot because I’m afraid I’ll accidentally reveal how little I followed it, but hang on to that turtle!
As “Thrust” progresses, Yuknavitch drifts through several different storylines, separated by decades but linked by Laisve’s helpful visits through the vast history of America’s wavering struggle for freedom. We return to those mid-19th century laborers – women, gays, former enslaved laborers and more – toiling on a monument welcoming them to a land that despises them.
But the most gripping sections of the novel concern the friendship between Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the man who designed the real-life Statue of Liberty, and a woman Yuknavitch invented as his inspiration, a sexual libertine named Aurora. Yuknavitch creates their passionate correspondence in letters inspired by the story but not bound by it.
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In the more cerebral passages, Aurora pushes Bartholdi to rethink the meaning of his giant female statue by considering how women’s bodies are remembered and dismembered. Her discussion sways around a dazzling array of topics, including Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Darwin’s theories of evolution, the feminist critique that anticipates the work of Hélène Cixous, and, most ominously, her own amputated leg. Aurora is also a great protector of people so effectively consumed by the machinery of capitalism. “The sunk cost of mechanizing America, creating the fiction of freedom, included the shrinking of the bodies of women and children,” Aurora told Bartholdi. “How the hell are we ever going to get whole from this?”
One of his solutions is to create a clandestine school where young people can escape from the factories and acquire an education. But her other solution to America’s psychic abuse is considerably less orthodox: she maintains a house whose many rooms give space to the most forbidden erotic fantasies of her adult clients while leading them to something beyond. boring parameters of heterosexual intercourse – to push the flesh beyond. the silly limits of the ridiculous reproductive impulse. It’s part of his crusade to speak out about what’s been silenced, to liberate what’s forbidden, to lead America away from its deadly hypocrisy. “Those who enter my rooms do not come out with banal love or lust,” she told Bartholdi, “but with a desire to exist, again and again, in a much more interesting and intense space.”
After all these years of reviewing contemporary fiction, I didn’t think I could be shocked, but I was wrong. This hilarious and provocative book cover is just the start. Sniff the air – you can already smell that Texas burnt romance.
Readers who fully indulge in Yuknavitch’s watery story will understand strains from Jeanette Winterson and David Mitchell, but there’s nothing derivative about its insightful reverie. Yuknavitch provides nothing less than a revised past and future of America with a vast new canon of associated mythology. You might lament the novel’s amorphous form, its recurring vagueness, or its multiple details, but I read “Thrust” in a state of troubled fascination and ended up wanting to dream it again.
Ron Charles book reviews and writing Book club newsletter for the Washington Post.
July 7 at 7 p.m., Lidia Yuknavitch will talk about “Thrust” at Solid State Books, 600 H St. NE, Washington.
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