(Grove Press, 2000)
I first read Darcey Steinke’s Suicide Blonde at some point in the 1990s. I was around the same age as Steinke’s protagonist, Jesse, and although my life had taken a different trajectory, I remember recognizing too much of myself in Jesse. Rereading the novel, I no longer see myself in any of Jesse’s actions or her confused and contradictory views of the world and her own sexuality, which is exactly why rereading books can be such an important practice—not only can we learn more about the book and its place in the world, but it can also be an important journey of self-discovery.
When Suicide Blonde was first published in 1992, the novel was both heavily lauded and heavily critiqued. Critics either seemed to love or hate Steinke’s characters, her prose, and even her use of metaphor. Much of what was described by critics in the 1990s as “sensational,” “shocking,” or “daring” can read as pretty standard literary fiction in 2017. This is partly because in the past two decades more women have written about women having sex and being aware of their own physical and emotional desires, and partly because the bar for what is deemed “shocking” has risen significantly.
Jesse’s journey through the underbelly of San Francisco’s Tenderloin was a gritty read in 1992, and while it’s still gritty in 2017, of more interest is Steinke’s creation of a female protagonist who refuses to see the power of her own sexuality or her own body as operating within someone else’s moral framework. This can make for uncomfortable reading—particularly for some male book critics.
Certainly Jesse seemingly moves from one bad choice to another, while often appearing to view the world at a distance—as if she is watching her own life play out on a TV screen (images of static-filled television screens are abun- dant in the text). Jesse is, as one of the novel’s characters accuses her, in many ways a voyeur of her own life. And while there is an element of depression in Jesse’s response to her world, a certain passivity in a series of choices she makes that suggests a tendency to self-destruction, there is also evidence of feminine power in her struggle for self-awareness. Jesse makes choices in her life that young women in novels often are not allowed to make.
In one scene in the novel, Jesse decides to leave her male, bi-sexual, and deeply self-obsessed lover Bell, and we actually see her packing up and walking out although she has nowhere else to go. Jesse’s trajectory throughout the novel is not just a function of desperation or depression but an expression of her will to live, her search for not just love (as happens so often with female characters in fiction) but reciprocated desire.
That Jesse goes looking for lust in all the wrong places is not only a brilliant writing of her own quest for knowledge, but speaks directly to the life many young Americans chose to live in the late 1980s/early 1990s. Jesse goes through an odyssey in the seediest parts of San Francisco looking under metaphorical rocks and behind doors that many of us would never open. Behind one of these doors, Jesse finds “Madame Pig” (a formerly glamourous but now obese drunk) and behind another, Pig’s ex-lover and/or daughter, Madison (a vicious, heroin-abusing, streetwise beauty).
Throughout Jesse’s travels there is none of the anxiety-ridden desperation of poverty that many similar novels present: Jesse has no money and nowhere to live but this is not her primary concern. At one point, she agrees to work for Pig, helping her bathe and dress but mainly acting as a companion, someone to listen to Pig’s stories and complaints. Pig serves as a site for Jesse to reflect on aging, denial, self-abuse, and to make cruel observations like, “Fat people couldn’t hide their weakness or sorrow like most could.” Arguably, heroin-thin, often-naked Madison is just as bad at hiding her sorrow as is Pig. While Jesse inwardly mocks her, Pig serves as an important symbol and a catalyst in the novel. Her body and house are both symbols of the impossibility of retaining beauty: Pig’s body is a ruin of her former self; her house contains “an inner logic of abundance” but is surrounded by urban devastation, “Every other house on her street had been demolished…the ground pockmarked with deep filthy puddles…houses were boarded up, adjacent lots filled with trash and sofas swollen with rats.” Pig’s house is not an oasis; it is a study in denial.
It is also Pig who sends Jesse in search of Madison and though Pig describes Madison as her “daughter,” it becomes apparent they were lovers even before Madison describes them as such. Madison is brutal, unable to love; her violence destroys everyone who comes near. Jesse, of course, falls for her in a sort of “I love her/I want to be her” infatuation. Steinke’s descriptions of bar life and the brutal sex scenes enacted in the brothel above the bar are both vivid and perfectly wrought. There is a filmic quality to Steinke’s prose that etches characters and their actions deep in the reader’s psyche. When rereading the novel more than two decades later, I remember Madison as vividly as if she was someone I used to know. And in many ways, she is: the young women who find ways to “kill all” their “soft parts” in order to survive in a world where young women are often reduced to objects for sale whether to Pig’s “motherly” lust or to the men who frequent the strip bar and bordello in the novel.
In her introduction to the 25th anniversary edition, Maggie Nelson concentrates on Steinke’s “gorgeous prose,” and it is telling that on the novel’s initial release few reviewers comment on Steinke’s writing. Instead, they focused on a woman writing about a young woman’s sexuality and how shocked they were. But it is exactly because a woman wrote this book that it actually rings true and that it works even twenty five years later; and it is because Steinke writes so very well that Suicide Blonde is as valid today as it was when it was first released.