The Future We Were Promised Never Existed
In Lynn Steger Strong's new novel "Want," as in life, doing everything "right" doesn't count for much
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Lynn Steger Strong’s highly-anticipated new novel Want plunges us into the psyche of a woman for whom the intertwining nature of existence is more fraught and urgent than usual. That makes the book sound complicated, but really it’s simple: the protagonist, Elizabeth, is a person being pulled in many directions, practically, ethically, personally, and professionally, and she can’t stop thinking about it.
Like Elizabeth—and, indeed, like Strong, whose fiction nods heavily in the direction of her excellent personal essay series for Catapult—I came of age in a generation that was taught we could be anything we wanted to be, and that our careers would be the place we’d find the deepest satisfaction. That, indeed, “to be” was to be employed in some spiritually (and financially) fruitful activity.
I talked over email with Strong about how these promises have and haven’t panned out, and how she managed to render such a moving and relatable portrait of a woman for whom peace of mind is a swiftly moving target.
Adrienne Celt: Can you talk about how you placed this novel in the historical moment? Your protagonist Elizabeth talks about 9/11 and the recession as events that disrupted the world she thought she’d inherit, but also says “that world never existed.” So, how does history connect to financial mobility (upwards or downwards) for you and your characters? And how, in the wake of this year’s events, do you imagine their (shall we say) spiritual-economic condition continuing to unspool?
Lynn Steger Strong: This is maybe a different conversation, but I don’t think any book lives outside of the historical moment or the politics in which it’s being written, whether it admits it or not. But this book is very much placed in a particular space of rupture, both for Elizabeth and for a certain group of Americans. I think (and I would put both Elizabeth and myself in this category) there was, for a long time, a group of us who felt sort of inured to historical ruptures. We were engaged, maybe. We had ideas about how we thought the country should be. We felt sad and angry about choices that were made by our government, but we had also largely been cloistered from the consequences of so many of the system’s failures and flaws. But then here we were, in our 30s or 40s. Maybe we had kids and jobs. We went to the right schools. But, for a lot of us, none of it was what we were told it would be.
An important part though, at least for me, of this moment, is that for most people in this country, it has never been the thing we thought it was. The horror and the precarity that people like me felt gobsmacked by with the confluence of the gig economy, student debt, the tearing and tattering of the social safety net, the 2016 election, the seeming feeling that any sense of stability we had was crumbling, had long been just a fact of living in this country for most people.
I think the more recent and more jarring rupture of this virus is in many ways an extension of that. For years, we’ve been watching for the final frayed and tattered thread of the systems under which we live to break and for all of us to go into free fall, and now here we are. It’s hard for me right now to see forward, but the one thing that’s sustaining me right now is the hope that there might be a massive structural reckoning on the other side.
AC: I’d love to hear you talk about how you approached Elizabeth’s intellect and physicality. Running is very important to her, but I’m also thinking about how her emotional life comes differently alive when she’s discussing books with colleagues vs. when she’s with her children, and how sex is a release and a sort of political crucible for her. Once or twice, you describe nursing as the baby “eating”—not drinking or even, simply, nursing—which I had a really visceral reaction to. How do these elements balance for you—how is Elizabeth differently aware of herself (the personal, political, intellectual) because she’s balancing these elements? How does her physical being alter, and perhaps enhance, her intellect?
LS: I guess, and this makes me think a little of the first question, I feel sort of adamantly that they are all—the personal, the political, the intellectual—inextricably linked. Maybe the body is the space that connects them all; maybe, even though I studied political philosophy in college, that’s why I decided I wanted to tell stories instead: to watch bodies interact and react and move through space feels to me to be the one of the most useful ways to see how all of it is mixed together and overlaps. I’m not sure I’ve ever taught a workshop that has not at some point involved me saying—too loudly and no doubt with aggressive gestures—that we have to see and feel the bodies, that if you watch the bodies, and let them act, everything else will come.
I think the female body, in particular—acting and being acted upon, having sex, making and feeding babies, reading and thinking—is most interesting to me: it is all deeply personal, but also political, it can also be intellectualized. Hormones, biology, chemicals; none of it happens in a vacuum. My experience as a reader and a writer was forever altered by what happened to my brain and body when I became a mother, when I spent so many nights not sleeping, when I was nursing, when I was reading or writing or teaching, but still thinking of my children all the time. It was important to me that Elizabeth still be nursing, that she be, literally, physically, not just emotionally and intellectually, sustaining her kids. I think that’s where “eating” came from. I wanted the image to be substantive and physical, not liquidy and light. It was also important to me that they all get sick at some point, that there be vomit and fevers and that sort of feral desperate state of vulnerable bodies trying to care for one another and themselves. When she gives to Sasha, I wanted that, too, to be something physical and concrete. I think part of the project of the novel was to show how often our attempts to navigate feelings or ideas as abstractions wholly separate from the body can prove useless in our actual lives.
AC: “Remember the bodies” is such excellent literary advice (and not bad moral advice, tbh). Can you expand on your thinking about how this relates to Elizabeth’s femininity, especially by way of her motherhood? There are elements of the “personal vs. political” divide (or lack thereof) that apply equally to any gender, moments in the book that could be essentially unchanged with a male protagonist—and then there are moments of great difference.
What I’m getting at is, you elegantly forefront different structural inequalities (racial, socioeconomic, gender, etc.) at different times—so can you talk about how you moved between them, particularly in very intimate spaces? Do you believe there are moments when our political personas drop in the face of immediacy—whether moments of desperation, or moments of grace? Do we ever get to calm the fuck down in private, or no?
LS: This might shock you, having read the book, but: it is very very hard for me to calm the fuck down. I think, in some ways, this book was me building a plot in which the driving force is both a desperate drive toward and an overwhelming fear of just calming the fuck down. And some of this, the fear especially, I think is structurally built and perhaps particularly feminine. We have been taught this strange game of performing perfectly in order to maybe, maybe get to a space of solidity or stability, but if we stop, even for a second Being Vigilant, Doing What We’re Supposed To, there is an extraordinary fear, at least for me, that it will be taken from us or we’ll be found to be a fraud.
I think the sex is connected to this: for Elizabeth, withholding sex from her husband is this safe space to use her body as a political act of being something other than she knows she is supposed to be, but then it also shows the personal ramifications of the political: she likes her husband; she likes having sex with him. It’s not a reasonable or effective act of protest, but it’s what she has.
I wrote a good portion of this book in the summer of 2018. It is, as we talk, April 2020. The COVID-19 deaths in New York City reached 12,000 today, and our President just announced that his daughter and his slumlord son in law will be heading the “reopening the country task force.” Yesterday, my phone told me that I’ve been checking Twitter roughly 5.5 hours of every day. We are living in a time of extraordinary rupture, death, destruction, terror. There are these glaring, devastating, structural inequalities. But, to me, and I think this does come back to “Remember the bodies,” what is most devastating about all of this is the way it makes it impossible for so many people to experience those, as you say, small moments of desperation or grace. This book is my attempt to show a life informed by the knowledge of these inequities while not being touched by all of them, to show the constant subtle ways that our own desperation, combined with our constant overwhelming knowledge of the desperation of everyone around, can make it hard to just like, wake up, make breakfast, live your life.
Again, that’s why I am trying to work all of this out in fiction, because I want to go to all those spaces that are supposed to provide those moments, the daily mundane ministrations, and show how, in the face of this underpinning of anxiety, it can be impossibly difficult to stop your brain from rattling.
With regard to Elizabeth’s femininity and motherhood, I guess it only all gets messier, the rattling sort of ratchets up. It feels differently important (and also maybe political) to be present in one’s body for one’s children. In this strange moment of quarantine, it feels necessary to me to find and hold those small moments with our children, even as the world feels like it’s burning all around. It feels important not least because if we were to fall victim to this virus THAT is the thing I’d be most sad to lose, those minutes with them, their specificity and strangeness, their yelling at me and making dumb jokes during “homeschool,” their morning smell.
AC: I think your fear of calming down is palpable in the book, and (at least I found it to be) deeply relatable. There’s always so much in the world to be aware of. And yet awareness is not enough.
One way this awareness manifests in Elizabeth, which I found really interesting, is her relationship to her parents: she’s very aware that her financial situation comes in part from her rejection of her parent’s money and values, and yet it’s deeper than that: like the way her family struggles is also evidence that her rejection was correct (or anyway, valid). She talks about how she and her husband were so inappropriately insulated from reality that they “didn’t feel the first hits” to that insulation—9/11, etc. We tell ourselves stories in order to make sense of the world, and in order to survive, but sometimes—often, maybe—those stories can calcify, become harmful, and then shatter. How do you relate to those stories? Why is it so hard to change them, even inside ourselves? Why do we feel so much shame?
LS: I think the short answer to that question, at least for me, is that knowledge is not nearly as powerful as we wish it was. I know the lies I’ve been told in order to protect me, in order to fuck with me, in order to implicate me in systems I would never have been implicated in had I known; I know the ways certain narratives around what and who I am, that I did not create and that I reject, are bullshit, but that doesn’t mean I am capable of obliterating them. I think the tricky thing about those calcified, foundational, familial, societal stories is that they live inside us. And this brings us back to bodies. The stories that we’re given and that are told about us before we know enough to stop them haunt us, embed themselves within us; they have been used to construct us, and, just because you reach a point at which maybe you understand that they’re just stories, it’s not like you can rid yourself of them. It’s not like you suddenly know what to be or what to tell instead. I think my shame comes both from knowing all the problems with the stories I’ve been told or have been telling, but not being able to do anything to stop them or to fix them, feeling deeply about things, but also knowing how worthless those feelings are. It comes from knowing stories about myself that I wish that I could overcome but sometimes I’m too tired or too scared or just don’t have enough power and I can’t.
AC: Going back for a moment to the topic of sex, sort of: You do a beautiful job navigating the erotics of female friendship, particularly between Elizabeth and Sasha—and I’m curious if this was a topic you set out intending to write towards, or if it was a natural outgrowth of Elizabeth’s friendships and thoughts about power. I’m thinking here of the desire to possess or even embody one’s beloved, which is not quite sexual (or, not only) and thus not quite queer, but is in fact a deep intertwining of the spirit; how young women often lose track of where they end and their closest friends begin. Does that sound true to you?
LS: I like what you say, “sex, sort of,” which I think, with Sasha especially, was exactly my intent. I think this is one of those moments when stories, and bodies, and language are all sort of at odds and overlap. I don’t think gender or sex are anywhere near as clear as the language we’ve been given for them tells us that they are, nor are most of the stories we’ve been told about them; but I do think, I hope, that one of the jobs of stories can be to make space within the language we’ve been given to re-consider the sorts of bodies that exist and how they interact.
Depending on where and when and how you grew up, what you were exposed to, and the stories you were given, if you were young and had a female body and it felt compelled toward another female body, you might have assumed that you wanted to be this girl’s friend; you might have thought you wanted to look or dress or act like her; you might have fantasized about becoming her somehow; and that was probably some or all of what that feeling was, but maybe also, you didn’t have the stories or the language for what else it might have been. Alternatively, if you were compelled toward a male body in that place, at that time, you might have assumed you wanted to have sex with him; you might not have acknowledged that you might also want to be him, to inhabit or deploy some of his powers, or to engage with his intellect, to be his friend.
It’s impossible, I think, to separate our bodies wholly from the stories we’ve been told about them. This is different though not separate from sexuality in that I think there are these hard lines delivered to us by virtue of a lack of language and a lack of stories for our feelings, even as our bodily experience might be more fluid and complex.
AC: Finally, I’d love to hear you talk a bit about tenderness. Throughout the novel, Elizabeth is alternately prickly and devoted with/to the people in her life, but she has a great deal of trouble extending that tenderness to herself. (She seems fine with extending the prickliness.) Do you feel tender towards Elizabeth? Do you think that it is, in fact, important to feel tender towards oneself, or one’s fictional characters? Is your tenderness for her manifest in her tenderness for others?
LS: This has to do with the running, I think. The running is the closest that she can get to any kind of tenderness to herself, which, by itself, I hope, is telling: the way she runs is brutal. She doesn’t jog. She goes for hard fifteen mile runs in the dark and freezing cold. And because of this, because her body is so clearly Working, I think it is a way she’s able to stay steady, to slow the constant anxious brain-whirring, which is not the same as tenderness but is maybe as close as Elizabeth can get. The fact that she is only able to give to herself in this way has to do with a certain kind of person, I think often female, who is wary of getting anything for which she does not also pay a price.