Ariel Levy Has Written a Thoroughly Modern Memoir


“I felt like this very fortunate beneficiary of the women’s movement,” she said during a recent interview in her bright, one-bedroom walk up in Chelsea. “I got to have all these choices, and the rules” — biological, historical — “did not apply. So it was a very shocking experience to find myself, childless and alone at 38. I felt like a complete failure, on the deepest level.

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Ms. Levy’s memoir, which was released this month.

“Some of it was like someone in a Jane Austen novel, getting her comeuppance, but some of it, most of it, was feeling like a mother, but where’s the baby? There is no child. Then you’ve got a little identity crisis on your hands.”

Ms. Levy bought the apartment during her marriage, when she and her former spouse, now a recovering alcoholic, separated for a time. She lives there alone, attended by two amiable, rotund cats. On a Friday afternoon, she was preparing for an appearance at the 92nd Street Y, where she would be interviewed by her friend Lena Dunham.

“This thinking that you can have every single thing you want in life is not the thinking of a feminist,” Ms. Levy told the audience that night. “It’s the thinking of a toddler.”

“T-shirts!” Ms. Dunham said, “T-shirts for all! Hashtag toddler.”

A thoroughly modern memoir, the elements of “The Rules Do Not Apply” seem plucked not from the script of “Girls,” which has also been exploring reproductive issues of late, but “Transparent” — even “Portlandia.”

When Ms. Levy, at 30, marries her girlfriend, her left-leaning parents are put out not because she is a lesbian, but because they are against the square traditions of marriage. “Are you impressed with how cool I am about all this?” her father said when she brought home her first girlfriend. She has a gothic affair with a brutish and unhinged transgender man who hacks Ms. Levy’s computer. When Ms. Levy conceives a child with the sperm of a dear friend who is rich enough to pay the child’s college tuition but wants a hands-off relationship to parenthood, you imagine a sort of Michael Cunningham utopia for Ms. Levy and her wife in their house on Shelter Island. Or perhaps a reality show. Simon Doonan and Jonathan Adler, colorful exemplars not just of same-sex marriage but also of Manhattan’s creative class, are their neighbors.

Of her generation, Ms. Levy writes: “Sometimes our parents were dazzled by the sense of possibility they’d bestowed on us. Other times, they were aghast to recognize their own entitlement, staring back at them magnified in the mirror of their offspring.”

Ms. Levy, who in person speaks in the vernacular of her era — “dude” and “girl” are her preferred terms of address — presents a memoir often festooned with self-mocking irony. It’s her second book. “Female Chauvinist Pigs,” out in 2005, wondered just how liberated the heroines of “raunch” culture actually were. She knows she is a different sort of cultural cliché, a bisexual Wesleyan graduate who never quite learned to mind her pronouns. She wears her Jewish-urbane sensibility lightly. Before her wedding, Ms. Levy writes of trying to woo her wife’s Minnesotan mother, whose strongest expression of emotion was the phrase, “Oh, honestly.” In conversation one day, Ms. Levy lets loose an “Oy vey,” startling her soon-to-be mother-in-law. As she writes, Ms. Levy had to explain, “That’s what my people say when we mean, ‘Oh, honestly.’”

She grew up, in Larchmont, N.Y., as an outlier. She was the only child of 1960s-inflected parents who didn’t fit in with the suburban ethos of her neighborhood: her father wrote copy for Planned Parenthood, Naral and NOW, among other organizations; her mother worked with Down syndrome children and opened an after-school day care. And there was a family secret hiding in plain sight: Her mother was engaged in a long-term affair with a grad-school classmate who would appear periodically, camping on blankets in the living room.

By her account, Ms. Levy was a brash, overly-verbal, unpopular child who took to her diary for companionship, using a notebook to puzzle her way through a hostile social environment at school and the weirdness at home. “That was my lifeline,” she said. “People didn’t like me, I was loud and aggressive. People can take it from a 42-year-old, but when you’re a little kid, and people are like, ‘You’re loud and awful,’ you think, ‘I guess I am awful,’ so writing and figuring out how to put things into words was the way I felt better.”

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Lena Dunham, left, and Ms. Levy backstage in 2014 after a discussion as part of The New Yorker Festival.

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Thos Robinson/Getty Images for The New Yorker

Not long after college, she got a job at New York magazine, where she was mentored by the editor John Homans. David Remnick, editor in chief of The New Yorker, hired her away after a lunchtime courtship during which Ms. Levy suffered a bad case of flop sweat. When she tells her father about her new job, he says, “Well, nowhere to go but down.”

Ms. Levy has spent much of her career profiling women who are, in her words, “too much,” like Caster Semenya, the African runner with elevated levels of testosterone who upended the way the Olympics thought about gender; Lamar Van Dyke, a founder of a band of lesbian separatists from the 1970s; and Edith Windsor, the octogenarian lesbian whose suit against the United States paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Last week, Ms. Levy profiled the photographer Catherine Opie, once an S&M aficionado and darling of the Whitney Biennial, circa 1995, unpacking her homey radicalism.

While a gay or bisexual woman like Ms. Levy would seem to be the ideal image for what is now called “intersectional” or multilayered feminism, Charlotte Shane, a writer for The New Republic, recently accused her of second-wave feminist sins — or the “dangerous failures of neoliberal feminism” — in a piece headlined “Ariel Levy’s Infuriating Memoir of Privilege and Entitlement.”

“It’s unlikely many black women or Arab women or undocumented women would presume a similar degree of permission and mobility,” Ms. Shane wrote, “regardless of their exposure to Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan.”

This line of argument amused more than rankled Ms. Levy.

“If one of my students at Wesleyan tried to take down a writer,” she said, “I’d say, ‘white and from Larchmont’ is a good start but you need more of a case.”

She added: “I think it would be difficult to argue that I’m a net-negative for womenkind. I’ve tried pretty hard to bring in unusual female voices and perspectives. Not just young women and not just white women, either. I don’t know that I’m the best target for improvement. I don’t know that I’m the problem.”

Her friend Mr. Doonan would label Ms. Levy a first-wave feminist, like his own mother, who served in the Royal Air Force during World War II. “She’s like those fearless viragos,” Mr. Doonan said of Ms. Levy. “She’s uniquely intrepid. Tremendously grateful for opportunities and never complaining. That isn’t in a way a contemporary thing. People tend to see things through the lens of victimhood, but Ari takes full responsibility and carries on.”

Ms. Levy is deferential to her ex-spouse, whose alcoholism arguably tanked the relationship, though Ms. Levy said, “We made a fine mess together.” She gave her a pseudonym, Lucy, and she also gave her the manuscript to read before she showed it to anyone else. Lucy suggested no changes. “She said, ‘It’s your story, I’m not going to censor you,’” Ms. Levy said. (The identity of the baby’s father is even more veiled, in keeping with his wishes, she said.)

“I don’t come from addicts,” she said. “My parents never drank. What I did know about was something being amiss in the house, there being a secret, and knowing — knowing — something’s off.” When she attends an Al-Anon meeting, reluctantly (because its jargon irritates her), she learns a “profound concept,” she said. “The idea that you’re off the job, that it doesn’t matter if you figure it out, you can try and persuade the person at the center of it that there’s a problem but you’re never going to get anywhere, so just punch your punch card out. You’re done.”

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Ms. Levy is a staff writer for The New Yorker.

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Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

She added: “It’s not that I have no regrets, but I no longer think, for example, I shouldn’t have gone to Mongolia. It wouldn’t have mattered. People say, ‘Oh, it would have been better to have miscarried in New York.’ I’m not sure about that. There’s no way your baby is going to die in your hands and you’re going to be, like, ‘Well, that worked out well!’”

When “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” landed on his desk, Mr. Remnick said he read it right away, against his habit. “I couldn’t get out of my chair,” he said. “It’s not as if I hadn’t known what had happened; we had been talking even when she was still there. The world is full of personal essays. My illness. My divorce. My delight. They are everywhere. Arguably there are too many. Among the average ones, there’s a kind of grasping aspect to them. When they connect, as Ari’s did, there’s really nothing like it.”

She is a joyful person, and a joyful writer, he added. “No question she has an absolutely magnetic personality,” he said. “One imagines Joan Didion hanging around the Doors and Haight-Ashbury was a recessive presence. Ari ain’t recessive.”

As it happens, Ms. Levy’s adventures fit into an older tradition than the memoir/exposes, “the autopathographies,” as James Atlas wrote, introducing the wave of literary memoirs from the early 1990s — Mary Karr, Susanna Kaysen, et al — that have dominated the form for decades. When her marriage finally ends, Ms. Levy strikes up a correspondence with the handsome South African doctor John Gasson, who had treated her in Mongolia.

The memoir ends ambiguously, with Ms. Levy pondering a flight to South Africa. But in real life, she and Dr. J., as she calls him, conducted an epistolary romance through email that continued to blossom. There would be setbacks, as Ms. Levy tried — “400,000 times,” she said — to get pregnant through IVF treatments, until “my heart was broken and I had no money and I was like: ‘Girl, it’s done. Let it go.’”

“Not everybody gets everything, but you get some stuff,” she continued. “You get other stuff.”

She and Dr. Gasson, a rotational doctor whose work schedule at a clinic in Nigeria is five weeks on, five weeks off and who also writes, are engaged. If either one of them can get it together to file the paperwork, she said, they will marry. As to where they will live, she added, “We’re going to be mobile. The fact that I cannot bear a child works rather well with that. Given that I have no choice in the matter, that’s the upside.”

And so, despite all the postmillennial complications of Ms. Levy’s coming-of-age tale and her sexual fluidity, in the end she gets the guy. Who says modernity killed the marriage plot?

Or as Ms. Dunham put it, Ms. Levy “fully is like hitting it with the hot doctor in the book.”

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