“Destroyed and Remade”: Adventures in Sam Cohen’s “Sarahland”
By Rebecca SchultzMarch 9, 2021
Sarahland by Sam Cohen
Sam Cohen’s brilliant, delightful story collection Sarahland gave me all these pleasures. It was the first time I’ve seen the Jewish American Princess in a work of fiction since Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus, and it’s wonderful to have an update on her condition. In the title story, which opens the collection, the speaker, a college student in what seems to be the early 2000s, has “fallen into a group of Sarahs — Sarah A., Sarah B., plus me.” The Sarahs are “five foot zero and bird-boned, with dark hair.” One eats microwaved broccoli with I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter; her room smells “perpetually of microwaved broccoli and Febrezed-over farts.” They live in a private off-campus dorm that’s entirely Jewish, though the narrator “never understood how these things happened. Nowhere on any of the dorm’s advertising materials […] did it say the word Jewish, but it seemed wherever I went in my life, everyone was Jews.”
Though the narrator flees this milieu for something freer, queerer, and more ethnically diverse, the subsequent stories taking place in this wider world, Sarahs refract, prism-like, throughout the collection. In one story, Sarah is an English major turned sex worker who excels at pretending to be dead for a necrophiliac client. In another, she’s a fan fiction writer who becomes heartbroken when the person she’s in love with, a PhD student she met at a Buffy the Vampire Slayer convention, transitions, because, “if you’re not some gross girl why would you want to date some gross girl?” In another, she’s a side character, part of a chorus of speakers gossiping brilliantly about the possible sexual, systemic, and astrological reasons why their friends’ relationship didn’t work out. In another, Ry and Jamie, two poets taking the day off, transform into various celebrity Sarahs (Schulman, Jessica Parker, Michelle Gellar, et al.) thanks to an arcade game in a Little Tokyo–like section of a Los Angeles–like city that’s too expensive, now, for poetry or days off.
The best stories in this collection are thrillingly ambivalent, and illuminate paradoxes of Sarah-ness without solving them. The title story is one of these, rendering the rituals of JAPpy college-girl life with a hilarity that’s at once wicked and tender. The Sarahs’ nights out are always boring and violent, but Cohen also grants them moments of grace: “Tonight, it’s blizzarding excessively. Luckily, we have scarves with us, which we wrap around our heads and necks, like babushkas, Sarah B. says, and run screaming in our stilettos through the wind and snow into the pizza place.” The narrator longs to escape: she’s drawn to Sarah A.’s bell hooks–reading, girl-kissing roommate, Sasha, and to a “group of kids with Kool-Aid hair and fingerless gloves standing around outside a coffee shop smoking.” But is it freedom, and a longing to figure out better ways to live, that draw her, or is it whiteness seeking otherness, or it the other classic American pull of assimilation: a dream of rising above her tight-knit clan with its arcane rituals and its new-money tackiness? Similarly: Is she fleeing the masochistic rites of being a girl in a heteronormative culture, or her own “gross” female body? All of the above, and that’s what makes the story so thorny and so true. Part of Sasha’s appeal is that, unlike the flat-ironing, dieting Sarahs, she has “naturally straight” hair, and that for her “eating involves neither shame nor calculations, and she still ends up a super skinny girl.” She’s also exotic: “[R]aised in a Jewish suburb, but […] born in the Caribbean,” and she dates a Poli Sci grad student with “a little golden fro.” That is to say, in addition to being queer and smart and interesting, she’s at once whiter and less white than the Sarahs, prettier and less concerned with being pretty, and a beacon of freedom to the narrator for all these reasons.
Cohen is wonderful at this: reveling in femme spaces while examining these spaces’ precariousness, stagnancy, and sadness in a way that’s dexterous, rich, funny, and empathetic without ever going easy on anyone. “Naked Furniture” is the perfect follow-up to the title story: Sarah’s new sex-worker colleagues are like the college JAPs through a rabbit hole; their realm is at once more fantastical and more real. “They were all shiny bobbing ponytails, pink and blue candy manicures. […] Maybe, Sarah thought […] she’d make some friends who weren’t living off microwave popcorn while spending all their energy pretending they weren’t treated as merchandise.” The high-femme world of sex work is a box Sarah was forced into, but it also offers her freedom from the contradictory injunctions of middle-class girlhood, and it gives the story a gorgeous, sticky aesthetic, a sparkly, jewel-tone palette that extends, forgivingly, over everyone, even the necrophiliac client who “probably [wanted] all women dead,” and who also:
Was her favorite client, she decided. He leaned her against a wall in the corner. She let her body slide and crumple, and he hoisted her back up, positioned her more carefully. She loved being attended to so closely, loved knowing she could fall and fall. Sarah did not feel judgmental toward this gentle human who had been forced to look at plastic magazine girls his whole life, who maybe even grew up in a house of dolls, who wanted totally docile pretty girls he could move around and pose.
“Exorcism, or Eating My Twin” is just as layered. Again we get an aimless Sarah compelled toward a fantastical girl-island, albeit of a different kind. Her love interest — whom Sarah calls her “twin” — is doing graduate work on “reclaiming parasitic lesbian relationships” depicted negatively in novels and film because, “We all just want to live in and on each other, transforming each other and feeding off each other. So why can’t we just own that?” This question is the story’s too, and its answer is marvelously ambivalent. Is the kind of fusion that Sarah craves with her lover/“twin” in fact utopian, a thrillingly boundary-crossing way that women are capable of being together, that withers gender roles and bestows “magic power”; or is it an unhealthy crutch for a clingy, ill-defined creature whose self-image is constructed by the “patriarchal gaze,” a self-described “gross girl” for whom lesbianism is a safety blanket, and the testosterone her “twin” takes is scary, because “they’ll be, like, more advanced”? Thrillingly, yes and yes.
Stories further into the collection move away from the particularity of these Sarahs and from the unresolvable nature of their condition. They shed their uncertainty. Some become parables. In “Dream Palace,” “you are Sarah,” and you turn off the highway and end up in a funhouse-version of the womb. In “Becoming Trees,” Sarah and her partner are aging lesbians who decide to become trees because “no one told the plants they had to be one thing or another.” In “The First Sarah,” we get a retelling of the Biblical Sari, a girl who has “genitalia like a young summer squash,” and whose Edenic sex- and sun-drenched honeymoon with Abraham and then with Hagar is violently interrupted by a patriarchal god’s penchant for legacy-building, which boxes everybody in, turns Sari into a Sarah, and creates warring nations that slowly strangle Mother Nature. In the collection’s final story, “The Purple Epoch,” Mother Nature is in fact dead, as are all the Sarahs, and a new life form named Sah-wah breathes radioactive air and walks a plastic and foam planet that wondrously resembles the previous Sarahs’ most ’90s-girlhood, Lisa Frank–ian fantasies: purple seas, a dolphin skull. I love and believe that Sarah’s fate is mixed up with the fate of the planet, that the same force that, in one story, makes Sarah feel “unsafe all the time — exposed, vulnerable, blurry” is the one that, in other stories, dries up the streams and silences the forest. And I love the lushness and playfulness of these stories. But they’re also thinner than the earlier pieces; they seem to have the answers, in a way the early stories don’t. They’re less wondrously uncomfortable; their politics are more internet-friendly. I agree with them; I’m not shattered by them.
It’s as if the collection takes the same journey that Sarah does: growing up; coming out; finding herself; shedding blurriness and heaviness. In two of the later stories that aren’t parables, “Gemstones” and “Gossip,” the non-Sarah characters are smart and cool and spectacularly un-basic; they live in a bigger world with fewer rules than the Sarahs did, and they also have the language to discuss the rules that shape them. They speak this language with an exhilarated irony, a simultaneous glibness and depth that makes me want to be friends with them (“That’s so disgusting,” Minhee says, swirling her vodka and lavender cocktail. “Hippies are gross, they’re like the straightest of all straight people. They have to bring the fantasy of yin-yang sex, of magical babymaking into every fucking interaction.”) Then, the penultimate story, “All the Teenage Sarahs,” is like the collection in miniature: we start over again, with a Sarah whose ’90s girlhood — Sarah from The Craft, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and a vision of a girl-utopia where girls brush the tails of wild Misty of Chincoteague–like horses — sparkles in front of her like a mirage, making it impossible to figure out how to grow up. But she finds the way in the end: she’ll go west; she’ll “see a drag show in North Dakota,” and “know what it is to pull wild garlic out of the earth.”
I’m happy for her, but I miss the earlier stories’ sad, runaway JAPs, who had no way out of themselves. They kept things ugly and high-stakes and true. I wonder if there’s a slight cop-out in the movement of the collection, that prevents it from having to ride the wave of certain difficult but crucial aspects of Sarah’s Sarah-ness: that prevents this from being, in part, a book about whiteness, about a particular flavor of whiteness. I don’t know if Cohen would like being compared to Philip Roth, and I feel very square forcing a Jewish patriarchal lineage on her, but the comparison is revealing regarding Sarah’s origins, and perhaps her destiny. Here is Brenda, the Radcliffe girl with the nose job, from Goodbye, Columbus, digging through an attic full of old, cheap furniture in her lavish suburban home:
“What money?” I said again.
“The hundred-dollar bills. From when I was a little girl…” and she breathed deeply. “When I was little and we’d just moved from Newark, my father took me up here one day. He took me into this room and told me that if anything should ever happen to him, he wanted me to know where there was some money that I should have. He said it wasn’t for anybody else but me, and that I should never tell anyone about it, not even Ron. Or my mother.”
And then here are the Sarahs in “Sarahland”:
I didn’t understand these purses, what they meant, but I sort of understood they had to do with the Holocaust. These girls’ grandmas wanted them to know that here in America they could not be turned into soap, and these bags proved it. […] Prada bags were little markers of belief in liberty and the pursuit of happiness in the land of the free. Granddaughters could send pictures of themselves standing in a row of flat-ironed and haltered girls, each with a Prada bag, and their bubbes would feel, these girls were so safe.
Fascinating, how little has changed. These 2000s Sarahs, like 1959 Brenda, are invested in, spoiled, safe, and thereby trapped at the end of someone else’s journey to prosperity, their princess-ness a badge of ancestral trauma they know not of, but that limits their imagination for another way of being. And our Sarah, the main Sarah, is like a Philip Roth alter ego, a Neil Klugman or Nathan Zuckerman: full of restless imagination, self-hating, trying to free herself from the trappings of her class and her ethnicity, in addition to her gender.
All of which, we know, is in fact inescapable. It never will change. Sarah’s suburban middle classness, and her position at the end of an ancestral journey toward American whiteness, are surely unshakable components of her self-described grossness, of her aimlessness, of her way of heralding and surviving ruined cities, a ruined planet. But these are allowed to fall away, or to become things we look at from the outside instead of the inside, in the abstract instead of in particular, as the collection moves forward.
I love, for instance, in “Naked Furniture,” when, as a sex worker, former English tutor Sarah is “sort of fascinated that she was recognized as a worker”; it’s such a weird, true statement of an icky, contemporary form of middle-class privilege, the kind that comes with education but without money or a place in the world. It’s more difficult and more intimate than, in “Gemstones,” “they would get giant bowls of noodles and make bad theater and imagine worlds outside of capitalism and gentrification!” A line that’s also a statement of a complex relationship to class, because Ry, the character who says it, has a partner who participates in capitalism so Ry doesn’t have to. But still it’s glib, it’s shorthand, we don’t feel it. I find myself wanting to break open the arcade game and get our Sarah out. I have a feeling that the Sarah version of this story, Sarah’s way of being a gentrifier who hates gentrification, would force the writing into stranger, harder, more cutting places. To put it another way, Sarah might get to pull wild garlic out of the earth, but her touch will scorch that earth: will tame the garlic, turn it artisanal, colonize the land around it, and she will know this and feel gross. Her wild garlic is like Brenda’s hundred-dollar bills, is like my smug superiority at a family wedding: an escape hatch that’s really just part of the maze. Cohen knows how to hold that complexity, and I longed for it in the later stories.
But maybe I’m just being greedy. I loved Sarahland. Like the best fiction, it both articulated and deepened what were for me previously unspeakable, but urgent mysteries, including why feminine and/or feminist utopias are always half-beautiful, half-grotesque; how the world ends; and where American class aspiration and the quest for freedom meet, which is to say, what a Jewish girl from the suburbs who wants out is chasing, what she’s fleeing, and how far she can really get.
Rebecca Schultz is a writer who lives in Los Angeles. She graduated from the MFA Programs in Writing at UC Irvine, and teaches at the University of Southern California.
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