The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue

Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet, Or, The Origin of the World By Lucy Ives

In an October 2017 BOMB Interview with Tan Lin, Lucy Ives speaks on the issue of satire:

Lucy Ives
Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet, Or, The Origin of the World
Soft Skull Press, 2019

Satire is a mode of writing and speaking related to irony, with the difference that it’s supposed to be constructive. It has much to do with perception and little to do with political agency. But maybe it has become the way we do politics. It isn’t that politics is satire, but that we no longer know how to talk about what we would like to be the case and what is the case without recourse to it. Nothing could be more obvious, and yet I think this illustrates the mode—and mood—we find ourselves in. It’s good we still have some broad version of satire, because this means there’s some possible connection between what we want and what is the case. If there is no longer such a connection, then satire will cease to have meaning—and the impossibility of satire is, to my mind, the impossibility of politics. We are getting close to such a state.

Her newly published book, Loudermilk, a satire, explores a complex web of plot and episodes, thick descriptions, biting character arcs, poetic and philosophical precision, stylistically different stories/poems within stories, the nature of time, and the mirage of power (or the possibility of unveiling politics, and cracking open agency). By employing a classical theatrical technique of dramatis personae, rather than “realistic” novel characters, perhaps Ives is able to move between so many registers that enable her unusual “mash-up” to excel as at once philosophical and planted in the mud.

Though Ives’s interview emerges from her previous novel, Impossible Views of The World, it applies to her latest work. In Loudermilk’s afterword, Ives writes she “unknowingly” was “reproducing a trope from the libertine canon. I was rehearsing a situation-comedy format I had first learned about by watching the 1987 film Roxanne.” The film retells Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac. Ives’s rendition presents the dramatis persona Loudermilk, a beautiful, rich, white male, who uses a gifted dweeb, dramatis persona Harry Rego, to score a poetry scholarship to the most elite MFA writing seminar in the country (presumably the University of Iowa; however, in reality, The Johns Hopkins University uses the moniker “The Writing Seminars” for its equally-elite graduate writing program).

The Emperor has no clothes.

Ives’s style of satire shatters the dichotomy between meta-narrative and human empathy. Breaking such a distinction requires rare observational skill, patience, and multi-genre flexibility and curiosity. While unveiling the sham of “literary genius” and the institutions that perpetuate or create a literary star or any tower of power (never mind he is a heterosexual cis-male), Ives uses a hoax situation (so deeply embedded in the social world, she doesn’t realize it until after the fact).

Literary hoaxes have many stories to tell, and since Ives mentions film as a reference, a few notable contemporary films have touched on the topic of literary trickery for power, fame, or unresolved professional or personal needs. Recent movies dig into questions of mistaken identity, literary intention, and inadequacy around authorship: Can You Ever Forgive Me (2018), Marielle Heller’s biopic about forger/biographer Lee Israel; and three flicks exploring the literary persona of 1990s author Laura Albert, aka JT LeRoy (JT LeRoy [2019] by Justin Kelly, Author: The JT LeRoy Story [2016] by Jeff Feuerzeig, and The Cult of JT LeRoy [2014] by Marjorie Sturm). Though these films are stylistically and philosophically distinct from each other, the question of persona and the literary impostor is timeless in cross-media storytelling (regardless of the message). Even Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale (2005), while not a literary hoax, delightfully explores the narcissism and emptiness of the “New York writer” and adolescent literary fraud (the pathology of being the son of two published authors) through a character-driven coming-of-age story in Park Slope (with repeated references to European art film). The point: “the writer” offers endless material for representational consideration. (Cross-check Adam Wilson’s 4 Columns Loudermilk review for astute literary comparisons.) Ives’s scrutiny offers clarity, punctual comic timing, and practiced contemplation.

The vitality of the book’s writing-blocked and ambivalent Clare Elwil remains an essential link to pull off Ives’s ambitious task. Her constant reminders of how time and narrative work or fail to tell a tale formally ground and unsettle the concepts and the social contexts. Is she Lucy Ives’s doppelganger, posing beautiful and comical language and situations, while questioning the uneasiness of institutions and power? In chapter fifteen, The Reason, the narrator states about Clare: “Everyone knows it’s hard being a writer, but what they don’t know is that it’s hard being a writer because you have a past. As a writer, you will have used this past to write things and now, in the present, it’s difficult, not to think about what you have done.” Is the narrator Ives, Loudermilk, Clare, the structure of the novel (any novel), or the nature of time and history itself? Loudermilk (the book) while so specific, also leaves us with questions. It is a promptly dexterous combination.


Elizabeth Block

Elizabeth Block is currently writing a feature screenplay and a book. She is making a film under fiscal sponsorship of Film Independent. She recently received grants from Artist Relief and Poets & Writers. Find her on Substack at THICK DESCRIPTION.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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