Is This Really What We’re All Supposed To Want?:
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
One of my favorite moments in Karolina Waclawiak’s second novel, The Invaders (Regan Arts 2015), concerns one of the book’s narrator’s Cheryl, who once was a young beautiful wife to an older, successful man, though when we meet her she has aged and their love has collapsed. She’s reminiscing about how she grew up, and more, how she grew into the woman she is. She remembers watching her mother get ready to go out with all types of men, watching these men come and go from the home. And then she plays at being the woman she sees her mother being, her earliest instruction in such things:
“My mother always dyed her hair a brassy blond and when she wasn’t entertaining, she put it up in curlers with a thin, gauzy scarf wrapped around it. But when she unwrapped the curlers and pulled her fingers through the loose waves, she looked beautiful….Her slender calves and shapely hips filled in her dresses just so as she wandered the house night after night. As I got older, I would put on the laciest of her bras and imagine taking them off for someone.”
What Cheryl is remembering is a kind of game. The game of playing dress up. Then soon enough, it isn’t a game any longer.
She remembers that heady early teen time when these men who had once called and come for her mother begin to pay attention to her, and eventually to call and come for her instead. To be a young girl is also to hint at the woman that girl will become. Along with her mother, those men who notice young Cheryl become teachers in a way. It’s a bit chilling but also unblinkingly honest, the truth about how we learn to be women from the women and men we watch and who watch us.
It reminded me of a moment in Waclawiak’s first novel, How to Get Into the Twin Palms, about a young Polish woman, Anya, trying to pass as Russian in order to be accepted into The Twin Palms, the hangout of seemingly glamorous women and brusque, tough men. In this moment, Anya is narrating her walk by a group of Russian men who hang out at the titular club:
“I know what they want to ask. Polska? Ruska? Svedka? Or maybe just Amerykanska. They can’t tell with me. They won’t ask, instead they stare; whisper something to see if I turn. Flick ash near me to see if I quicken my pace. They want to know if I’m used to men like them. I keep moving slowly because I want to see if it’s working.”
What I love so much here is the detail that they’ll flick their ash near her to see if she is scared. It’s both sensual and sinister. And it’s as elemental as much as it’s a game. Waclawiak excels at uncovering both the truths that makes us flinch and the secret desire that drives us. And I’ve been a fan of her take on the world since I first read her.
I emailed some questions I’d been wondering about The Invaders to Waclawiak and she graciously responded.
Diane Cook: I’ve always admired the way you capture not just the male gaze but the female knowledge, understanding, and complex yearning for it. The totems of womanhood that we have access to as girls build our sense of self early. Cheryl is wary of it now but admits to having felt a power from it. It’s complicated. Like a burden, a glory, or both. Are you looking for something definitive about a kind of femininity?
Is there something definitive to say about femininity? It’s a powerful drug.
Karolina Waclawiak: I was talking to David Shields about his book That Thing You Do with Your Mouth and the narrator in his book, Samantha, is both worried that her sexual trauma and her sexual openness has somehow been passed down to her daughter, very nearly on a molecular level. I was saying to him how interested I am in where we get our ideas about how to be a woman from. I do think it’s from watching our moms or other, older women around us. They’re passing on their ideas of femininity to us, and we are imprinted by them. I guess from an anthropological standpoint, I’m obsessively curious about how performative femininity is — especially in terms of acting out as a sexual woman from a young age. We know it’s expected of us from a young age — to be cute and charming — but we’re also punished if we go overboard. We are, of course, putting on this performance for someone else and when we realize we’re being looked at, we start to perform our femininity or sexuality to an even greater extent. It’s working! we think as young girls, and so we perform harder. Knowing we have the attention of boys or whoever suddenly gives young girls a blush of sexual power and then we’re off. I seem to always want to look at that balance of power and how feminine power shifts over time. Is there something definitive to say about femininity? It’s a powerful drug.
DC: I love Cheryl’s comebacks. Thinking specifically about her interaction with Tuck at a boring neighborhood party. She’s strong, sarcastic and quick. She owns the moment. I want to be her in that moment. Then there is this other Cheryl, frightened, frustrated, self-loathing — because of the situation she finds herself in, attached but unloved, judged and not fitting in. The difference feels stark but as the book goes on it feels familiar, reminds us that we all carry contradictions. Did Cheryl always have both sides?
KW: I think she did always have the two sides. The side she wants to reveal — the person she is — versus the person she’s comfortable showing. I feel like Cheryl is the type of person who is always worried she’s going to get in trouble. She’s always on her toes because she thinks everyone’s waiting for her to make a misstep. She isn’t going to give anyone any ammunition to take her down and so she behaves. I think that in this neighborhood, and perhaps neighborhoods like this, people are cracking from the pressure of suppressing how they feel. It’s a sort of “we have to keep the peace” mentality, i.e. these are our neighbors and we have to live in this weird, warped cage with them until it’s time to go to Florida so don’t make waves. And in the midst of this is Cheryl, who has always been relegated to interloper status, and who has moments of clarity where she acts out verbally — mostly with her neighbor Tuck because he feels safe. Someone recently likened the community in my book to a cult, which made me think about the book in a new way. Yes, of course it’s a cult. All these communities are cults where you are taught to act, speak, and live in a certain way. And Cheryl’s misbehaviors are of course going to get her kicked out of the cult or worse. So maybe she’s my Katie Holmes, testing the waters and looking for a way out.
DC: The novel is narrated by Cheryl and by her stepson Teddy, in an alternating structure. I had the pleasure of reading an earlier draft where Teddy seemed a more minor character. Now he kind of steals the show — his voice is so pitch-perfect. Talk about how he came to life.
KW: Teddy was so much fun to write. He was the entrance point into this whole world for me, to be honest. I had written a version of his character years ago. I thought about guys I had grown up with in Connecticut who came from wealthy families but had less-than-stellar work ethics and I wanted to see what could happen to someone like that in my world. At first, I had him pretty evenly an asshole throughout, but as I developed the book further I realized I wasn’t letting myself get to know him by keeping him at arm’s length. I had to fall for Teddy in order to truly understand him and make him empathetic. And it took coming to terms with the fact that these guys are just as wounded as anyone else (surprise!) to do so. He spends the entire book trying to keep you at a distance, and often, he does, but I like the idea of characters betraying themselves and unwittingly letting the reader in on their secrets. His brief stint marooned on an island was the moment that he really betrayed his true self to the reader. And I think from that point on, we understand his motivations for self-protection better. His bravado, his swagger is all self-protection.
DC: Cheryl’s successful, older husband Jeffrey is a really interesting character. I want to think of him with this broad stroke. He’s a jerk. His gaze is the one the book and Cheryl rail against but are also ruled by. So, it feels in some sense that he’s the problem. But he’s not really. In a neighborhood that follows its own worst instinct he is often a voice of reason, saying the thing you as the reader might be thinking. He seems pained yet entitled. Unhappy too. One moment I loved was when Cheryl jealously notes a woman, mid-peel of laughter practically sitting on Jeffrey’s lap at a party, and then she notes how bored he looks. This makes her happy. That’s not the typical male, self-centered character. How did you modulate Jeffrey, as both a kind of villain and also deeply human? Do you know what he’s looking for?
One day you wake up staring down at the fact that you no longer love your spouse and what are you supposed to do about it?
KW: In a way, every character is me, or has some part of me in them. I think it was Aleksandar Hemon who recently said the same thing in an interview and it’s so true. For me, I’m playing out some of my worst tendencies through my characters. That isn’t to say it’s a book about me. It’s fiction. However, I understand Jeffrey’s desire to pull away from a relationship that is falling apart as much as I understand his wife Cheryl’s desire to cling to it. I wanted to write Jeffrey as someone who falls out of love with his wife. Not because there’s another woman, though it feels easier for Cheryl to think that there is someone on the sidelines, but just because. I’ve been wrestling with the question of where does the love go for a very long time. I can imagine there are many, many people who have fallen out of love with someone and from the outside it may seem villainous, but it happens. One day you wake up staring down at the fact that you no longer love your spouse and what are you supposed to do about it? Let that person down by telling them to move out and you want a divorce or go through the motions because that’s what seems easier at the time? There is a certain numbness to this book and it all swirls around this feeling of, I didn’t think my life was going to end up like this. Jeffrey doesn’t know what he wants, except maybe to go into the life that he had mapped out for himself. This book is probably a reckoning about aging in general, and ending up in a life you didn’t plan for.
DC: Especially in the environment they are in. The book makes it clear that all these characters are weighted under the pressure to be and feel a certain way. Jeffrey must want a certain kind of woman, and even as the woman grows and changes, his desire can’t. Teddy is testing out what he thinks he’s supposed to want and it is bewildering to him. Cheryl is supposed to want to be a part of this world and yet she doesn’t. They all fall into a malaise that seems to come from not being able to be who they would naturally be outside of the structure they find themselves in. How much of the small world of this privileged town is to blame? Could they all run away together and find a kind of happiness, or is this a bigger force, impossible to escape, one we are all a part of?
KW: I think in this stratosphere you can’t really be who you want to be but that’s the price of admission. I can imagine their secret lives all function as a pressure valve for them. Would Teddy ever tell his friends he has a thing for 40-year old women? Doubtful. And though I think the town has blame in their being trapped, they are also living in self-made prisons. I think that could be true for anyone. What would really happen if you started exerting your real desires in a more overt way? These people are all trapped by their wants and needs and feeling those desires are out of the realm of possibility for them. They have come to believe that they have no control over their own lives so they give up. Is it different anywhere else? Not if you are too terrified to open yourself up to living how you want to live. That’s probably why people live how they want to live anonymously, online.
DC: You grew up in Connecticut, near areas like this and when I saw you in conversation with Michelle Tea at your reading at Green Apple Books in San Francisco, you mentioned that people from home think you’re writing about their town or the people there. Which, you’re not. But I imagine you’re writing about something that seems familiar, or that you recognize. As though, now that you’re older you have context for what you witnessed growing up. And it’s coming through. Is there something to that? Or is there some other impulse?
I am the product of the American Dream, but I also question our values. Why is the American dream suddenly now just having stuff?
KW: Growing up in a beach community in Connecticut was a miserable experience for me. I felt like there was a whole world out there that everyone was consciously shutting themselves off from. Class was a big thing that I noticed — who had money and who didn’t — and it was apparent right away. The kids in these towns were holding strong to the same hierarchies their parents were holding on to — who got to be in and who was cast out. While exploring the feelings I had growing up was the impetus for the novel, I went well beyond those initial feelings to build a world I’d seen in many different place I’ve been. I’ve heard people say, oh this feels like the Palisades, or I’m from Massachusetts and this is my community. The thing about it is, these kinds of communities make up America. In the novel I am asking the question, is this really what you want? Is this really what we’re all supposed to want? I get it, it’s the American Dream. The American Dream is why my parents left Poland. I am the product of the American Dream, but I also question our values. Why is the American dream suddenly now just having stuff? And, more so, the pursuit of stuff. I work in Beverly Hills and I see tourists taking pictures of all the stores on Rodeo Drive every day. We are all worshipping at the altar of wealth and stuff and it’s perverse to me.
DC: Was there a book or piece of culture you thought about a lot when you wrote The Invaders?
KW: I read two books while thinking about and writing The Invaders. The first is Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, which of course is a classic book about the suburbs. And I also read Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls, which is also a masterpiece and totally off the wall — it features a depressed housewife who falls in love with an escaped man-sized sea creature named Larry. Those two books about suburban dread made me start thinking about how I could approach the suburbs. That, coupled with the pervasive fear of “the other” that continues to grip the nation, made me want to write this book. It’s disturbing to see Trump on the campaign trail yell at everyone who doesn’t belong here to get out. It’s even more disturbing to see people at his rallies cheer that sentiment on so vociferously. The world of The Invaders is just a microcosm of what’s going on in the country and in the world, actually. We’re on high alert for threats, but we’re not even sure who the threat is anymore — everyone who isn’t white, I guess.
[ed. — Jason Diamond wrote for Electric Literature about the suburbs in Karolina Waclawiak’s work here.]
DC: I heard one of my favorite writers, Carolyn Chute, discussing the troubling way her characters were talked about in public. She took offense at the offhand classification that they were “white trash” our shorthand for a certain kind of rural white living in poverty. We forget the meaning of the words and it just becomes a term. But she said basically (and I’m paraphrasing here), “When you call someone white trash you’re calling them garbage. They’re not garbage. They’re people.” I feel that books which look at the wealthy or trophy wives are usually send-ups, we read them to cackle, feel good about ourselves because they are no longer people, they are just puppets of the term. Yours isn’t a send-up though because we see the inner lives of people. They are round and full and at odds with the rules they are living under and we hear that struggle.
KW: I’m glad you say that. Thank you. It pains me to hear people be dismissive of the people in the book. Or to say I’m skewering them. I didn’t want this to be a send up at all. For me, everyone here is trapped. Whether they know it or not. And it’s a tragedy.
DC: But an interesting twist is that the characters we get to know the best sometimes label those around them. We laugh easily at some or disregard others because the characters we’re aligned with do, as though to remind us of that reality — that way we can look at people without remembering they’re people. This layering of the trope showed the kind of mess we get in, the social game we play, railing against what binds us, while binding others. Was it hard to modulate these layers and keep the key characters feeling complex and real, which they do and so the despair hits even harder?
KW: I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being cruel in the way I was writing the book, even if the characters happen to be cruel to each other. That was difficult to do and took many, many drafts of trying to find small ways to humanize the minor characters and big ways to humanize the main characters. Everyone is playing off of each other and maybe not everyone is “likable,” but that doesn’t mean their actions don’t come from a place of real need and fear. I think that’s something that feels really true about people — most of our actions come from a place of need or fear, and, in some cases desperation. Layering that need and fear throughout the book made sense to me and I think it helped make the characters feel more complex.
DC: So as I said, I was thinking a lot about villains when I read this book. First because while all the characters behave badly in ways I still always felt sympathy for them. And like I just mentioned, even for Jeffrey, who could easily have come off as a caricature but doesn’t. And second, because I was thinking about the culture’s predilection toward easily defined characters. I remember some feedback you got from different early readers was that Cheryl was too unlikeable. I wonder what to think of the idea that we don’t want unlikeable characters when we love villains? We love those murdering, thriller girls. Aren’t they the runaway hits of the book world? Women behaving badly? We love the fantasy of this woman on a rampage but we reject the more real premise of a woman making small transgressions against the society that entraps her. And we don’t forgive her poor behavior, especially when it doesn’t free her in the end. A failed attempt is booed. Even though that trapped character is more like us than any cartoonish villainess. Why do we love to hate some characters and hate to hate others and so, hate them more?
Tiny transgressions and misbehavior on a smaller scale feel more damaging than a serial killer on the loose because it is a small voice saying this could be you.
KW: I’ve said before that the unlikeable complaint is most often lobbed at women so it’s inherently gendered and total bullshit. I do not give a fuck if people like my characters, or would make the same choices. But I do want you to turn the page to see what happens to them. I’m not looking for life affirmation in the books I read so I can’t really comprehend people who want to read something in order to have their morality nurtured and affirmed. As to why some unlikable characters are more popular than others, I think because extremes don’t seem as terrifying as someone who could maybe be you, even a little bit. I think we read extreme characters like psychotic women in a voyeuristic way. She could never be us, so she feels safe. We’re just along for the ride. Holding a mirror up to someone and asking, Are you happy? Could this be your life? feels more invasive and so there’s a more offended response. I don’t want to think about those things, some readers have said. Books that are not so extreme in their transgression make you think about how you act and the choices you make in your life. What you’ve given up to live how you live. That asks more of a reader than say, watch this wacko sociopathic woman get revenge. Think about popular shows on TV — they are morality plays. There are killers and there are good guys and at the end everything is made right in the world. The universe gets put back on its axis. Tiny transgressions and misbehavior on a smaller scale feel more damaging than a serial killer on the loose because it is a small voice saying this could be you. That’s really uncomfortable to some people and so they turn away from it.
DC: I’m very curious about the idea of redemption and when people feel they’ve seen it in a story and how indignant they can get if they don’t. As though the whole goal of living is to be redeemed somehow. Or to find a happy ending. (Is it that we want villains and happy endings and not much in between?) Do we need redemption in what we read? Is there redemption in The Invaders? (I feel like this is something a trick question but I’m hoping you have something smart to say about it because I personally hate the weight of this mandate and also understand there is something very human about the desire for it and so, creatively, it can feel like a trap…)
KW: I hate this mandate! I went on a tirade about redemption on a previous question, but I will just say one more time, I think it’s absurd to ask writer to pencil in some redemption at the end so the reader can walk away feeling all is right in the world. Not everyone is looking for redemption, not everyone wants to find a way to get clean. I think it comes down to people wanting the world to fit into these simplistic moral narratives. You are bad, you get in trouble, you get what you deserve. Or, you are bad, you realize you’re bad and you go find a way to be good again. The only redemption I see in The Invaders is that the characters finally find a way to be free. Some people don’t agree with my method of finding freedom, but that’s okay. I’m okay with that. Some of us aren’t looking to be saved by someone else. Some of us will go to an extreme to save ourselves in any way we see fit.