WWhen musician Liz Phair sang her 1991 song, Fuck and Run, I couldn’t help but marvel at the irony of her choral lament – “Fuck and run, fuck and run / even when I ‘I was 12’ – lyrics that claimed something akin to the agency in a situation that would normally be considered exploitation. In doing so, it becomes a form of self-protection: I did it so you didn’t.
Bodies of Light, Jennifer Down’s second novel, is a meditation on what it means to experience this vulnerability. Its narrator, Maggie Sullivan, is institutionalized, caught up in a world of “foster families, group homes and residential units,” “scheduled meal times, bath hours, sleep hours and sleep. intertwined joints of gear and grilles at the windows ”. Her father is a drug addict, imprisoned after injecting himself and killing a friend of his when Maggie was young; her mother died when she was two, doing OD in a public bathroom. At the age of 4, she was attacked; at age 11, she was assaulted again.
Maggie’s voice has the verisimilitude of memories. When she remembers “showers in the dark and lithium and brass exploring my asshole with a dime and sucking on lollipop snakes to get the taste of cock out of my mouth,” we credit her feeling of bitterly nonchalant shock. Maggie is someone who has learned to be on guard and has become adept at making herself as small as possible: “Picture me in this summer tablecloth, newly fifteen years old and looking for a hollow to fall into.” . At the age of 19, she entered a psychiatric ward (“clinical depression, catatonia, psychosis”); in her twenties, she suffers from postpartum depression. We follow her in adulthood and in her late fifties, witnessing incidents that will literally transform her life.
Maggie is designed to invite sympathy: “I thought about what it must be like to have siblings, to see your likeness in someone else’s face, to share memories of a other. Down asks the reader to take on this role, soliciting the kind of emotional investment that novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life or Douglas Stuart’s Suggie Bain have lobbied for. Here’s Maggie, recalling her childhood and her predatory intrusions:
At home, I examined myself in the large speckled mirror on the back of my bedroom door. I hadn’t grown up, but my legs had a sinister, feminine shape where my thighs had swelled. There was new flesh on my stomach and hips, the places where the elastic in my panties left little wrinkles. I flattened my breasts under my palms, I tried to redistribute their weight in the cups, I tried to make them as small as possible. I twisted to pace my buttocks, my thighs, lightly padded. I wanted to get my girl’s body back.
There is a wealth of pithy detail in this passage. This single adjectival “speckled” making the mirror – vulgar, vaguely dirty, suburban; a surface that will never frame anything totally glamorous or transcendent – tangible in the mind’s eye. To attach “sinister” to the idea of a “female figure”, a maneuver that is both disturbing and disconcerting. Maggie’s pale lines and swollen thighs and her stealthy attempts to make it all “as small as possible.” The cumulative effect of the statistical, quasi-scientific language that she uses to see for herself, to map what has been damaged (note the adjectives: “redistribute”, “investigate”; as if to calculate the losses that the youth and childhood have occasioned the question of what could reconstitute a body). How it all comes to its poignant conclusion: the desire for a “girl’s body” that Maggie has never had the chance to inhabit and can never have in return.
Every now and then Down emphasizes too much of Maggie’s detached confusion between trauma and the mundane. Upon meeting a boy she loves at the movies, Maggie feels like, we are told, “to sit next to him and watch him work like I used to watch daddy play pool at the Southern Aurora. or shoot in the children’s plastic pool. This kind of naivety is not consistent with the character that we are asked elsewhere to engage with, a woman who studies arts at the University of Melbourne and works her way through the classics in a public library; a woman who is capable of observations on lollipop snakes, which are plausible in their anger, their bitterness given the plausibility by the context. Down asks the reader to believe that Maggie would see her boyfriend as a father throwing himself into a kiddie pool, even if that reads as naive, unsophisticated, and crudely ingenious, qualities that Maggie does, due to her experience and his cunning, just isn’t. Down writes in Maggie’s voice, thinks about Maggie’s thoughts, sees through her eyes; but it requires the ventriloquist writer what would be true for his characters to say, feel and think; to hold back the microphone of the intrusive author’s voice.
Yet few writers can resist the pull of stylistic license. Even taking into account that Maggie weaves her way through Middlemarch, Beloved and David Copperfield – arguably a narrative device designed to allow Down his more expansive flights of lyricism – would Maggie really write something with the beats and rhythms? consciously literary cadence of this: “our names tattooed in the foundations of a chamber of the unknown [ …] So many rooms, or almost, empty and dreadful rooms [ …] disgorging wall insulation [ …] we curled up, warm-blooded, between a picnic mat and a fleece blanket ”. The reader may be forgiving; the thrill of this clever “tattooed” and “disgorged”, the “almost-pieces” and “hot-blooded”, are certainly seductive. Yet some of those flourishes couldn’t be Maggie’s voice: “I was mesmerized by the shapes of things, the spine-shaped outlines of ferns, the solemn beacons by the side of the road, whatever came out of it. ‘to be consecrated with silvery silence.
Bodies of Light is a remarkably empathetic, bildungsroman book in the style of Jane Eyre or Of Human Bondage. His characters are credibly invested with hopes, convictions, dreams and desires. Maggie shows us how, whether we’re ‘fucked and run’, or ‘fucked and run’ – or can’t really tell anyway – we live and continue to live. Maggie’s is a life the reader cannot deny; as she reflects towards the end of the novel, wrapped in the sweater of another romantic partner whom she cannot trust, she will know for a long time: I was always waiting for a time when I would miss it.