Every Woman Extends Backwards: On Alexis Landau’s “The Mother of All Things”

Lisa Locascio Nighthawk reviews Alexis Landau’s “The Mother of All Things.”

Every Woman Extends Backwards: On Alexis Landau’s “The Mother of All Things”

The Mother of All Things by Alexis Landau. Pantheon. 336 pages.

I KNOW I’M a mother because my Instagram feed is terrible. Recently, I was served a multi-slide “poem” titled “Dear Husband (the future can wait).” It went on to spool out an anodyne and maudlin promised future in which the kids are grown up, date night has “no curfew,” and the house is clean again.


In its worst cultural use, motherhood is a drain down which to pour the ambiguity and anxiety of human existence. The history teacher I loved in high school suggested that motherhood would finally connect me with the pack of female friends that had and has always seemed to elude me. So far, though, having a baby has yielded only a handful of desultory Mommy and Me classes in which I couldn’t wait to escape the women who received my complaints about my pelvic floor physical therapy co-pay uneasily—especially the instructor, who informed us on our first meeting that she couldn’t be expected to learn our names and would be addressing us all, interchangeably, as “Mom.”


Can there be a collective women’s experience in this fraught moment? The protagonist of Alexis Landau’s third novel, The Mother of All Things (2024), is too tired and angry to hope for one. At the book’s start in 2019, Ava Zaretsky has lived through #MeToo and most of the Trump Administration. When a fellow mom, arriving at Ava’s house to pick up her kid from a playdate, eyes a copy of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist (2014), Ava tries to connect, joking, “I’m a bad feminist. What kind are you?”


The answer contains all the exhaustion and relentlessness of the past decade: “Who cares?”


¤


The jacket copy of The Mother of All Things makes the novel sound like a version of Donna Tart’s The Secret History (1992) for moms, promising Ava “a chance encounter with her fierce feminist mentor from college, which changes everything.” It’s a savvy marketing ploy for a book that actually thrives in its accretion of quotidian detail. By embedding us in the colors and textures of Ava’s days, Landau brings readers to share in her protagonist’s craving for sensory engagement and fulfillment beyond her anxieties—to say nothing of the grinding frustration and boredom of the kind of parenting that, in the title of her 2014 book, Jennifer Senior termed “all joy and no fun.” This capacious novel takes its time, carving out space for reflection on the stages of motherhood, the terrified obedience of Ava’s childhood—captured by the indelible image of the “thin red patent leather belt” that Ava, unbeknownst to her parents, wore under her clothes as a child, every few days tightening it another notch—and the murky nuances of her marriage.


Throughout the novel, Ava ponders the source of her deep, rarely expressed anger. For readers, the answer seems obvious: Ava carries the whole of her household’s domestic labor, managing the survival of her children Margot and Sam and husband Kasper, who, however loving and kind, is completely absorbed in his work as a film producer.


But Ava is not only concerned with the woes of her present life. An adjunct art history professor living in the isolated, upscale bohemian enclave of Topanga Canyon, near Los Angeles, she is at work on a book that marries research with historical fiction to recreate the life of an ordinary woman in ancient Athens. Sections from this book-within-a-book are interspersed with Ava’s chapters, unfolding a parallel story in which femininity is numinous, vibrant, and shared. These bursts of insight from the deep past function as an oracle in Landau’s novel:


We communicate this in one thrumming heartbeat, the stars shawling us, the forest breathing through our hair, harboring the sensation that every woman extends backward into her mother and forward into her children, our lives stretching over generations reverberating with this one perfect truth: we make the world and we can destroy it too.


The ancient sections of The Mother of All Things have a luster like hammered metal; in them, the writing is gnomic, intense, and liberated from the anxiety-driven cycles that animate Ava’s sections. Ava herself is torn between the desire to care for her children and the urge to run away to a monk’s life in the mountains. Meanwhile, in the old world, a woman bravely obeys the custom that requires her to abandon to exposure a child born of rape: “She swaddled him and gently laid him down on the ground. He stretched out his arms to her but she forced herself to walk away without a backward glance.”


Ava is always looking backward, scanning the horizon, assessing threats. When she departs the hard-wrought safety of her home, she is confronted by vistas of bare misogyny. The following scene unfolds as she stands in line with her children at an airport:


Ava noticed a gray-haired Italian man wearing ironed slacks and a crisp linen shirt, his gold-rimmed glasses resting on the bridge of his nose as he watched a video on his phone. The volume was on low but she heard gagging sounds. […] On the screen, a naked woman was bound to a chair with duct tape covering her mouth and a thick black cloth tied over her eyes. Her head flopped to one side as a man in dark clothing beat her with a leather strap.


Worn out though she is by endless, necessary efforts at protecting her children—particularly her inscrutably powerful 13-year-old daughter, Margot—from the world’s ugly hungers, Ava also grapples with her own. The same chapter that contains her peek at the stranger’s disturbing public pleasure also holds Ava’s tentative attempt to parse her own appetite for mainstream pornography. I appreciated this small admission of vice; it’s a gesture towards a humanitarian acceptance of the contradictions inherent in the consciousness of such a tightly wound protagonist. Like all mothers, Ava is subject to her own rigorous standards and fears, even in her desire for and pursuit of hedonistic escape.


¤


Should Ava feel ashamed? This is one of the questions that animates the novel. If our world offers so little satisfaction to a woman of her estimable means, what hope do more marginalized women have? Given the vagaries of Ava’s career as an adjunct professor, we can only infer that Kasper earns enough to support their family’s comfortable existence. The novel carries a certain vagueness around money, a notable omission in a text otherwise committed to diligent, minute exploration of contemporary family life. Although the hiring of the nanny who cares for Ava’s children is depicted in one of the book’s many flashbacks to her early experiences of motherhood, I found myself wondering why Landau’s characterization of the famously unremunerative work of adjuncting wasn’t a bit sharper—is Ava’s career, too, a luxury available to her because of her elevated socioeconomic position? If so, why can’t she get a couple of hours a week to herself?


That many families occupy a unique-to-our-moment class position in which they might enjoy homeownership (in California, no less) and its many attendant comforts and yet still be barely able to afford full childcare coverage is a specificity I would have loved for Landau to portray. Still, The Mother of All Things provides a sensitive, open portrait of how even a family of relative privilege is made vulnerable and isolated by our culture’s dismissal of communal experience. In her day-to-day, Ava is a solitary laborer, constantly in motion: teaching, grading papers, dropping off and picking up her children from school, keeping a running tally of which sundries are in low supply.


Despite, or more exactly because of, the extractive price of the relative security and ease of her lifestyle, Ava is plagued by dissatisfaction with her marriage, her career, and her experience of motherhood. She has spent the entirety of her children’s lives attempting to balance her overwhelming workload with her keening soul-desire for pleasure in her marriage, happiness in her family, and satisfaction in her career. After Kasper leaves to shoot a film in Sofia, Bulgaria, Ava embarks on three months of solo parenting—a grueling, rage- and anxiety-filled tour of duty compellingly encapsulated in one apocalyptic morning, when mother and children wake into the orange light of wildfires and make their way through thick smoke to school.


Come summer, Ava and her children join Kasper in Sofia. There, she finds that her husband has regressed in the bro milieu of the film set:


Kasper caught her eye and smiled with slight embarrassment as if her silent presence jogged the memory that he still had a wife. His expression reminded Ava of when she used to walk in on [her son] Sam playing with his action figures […] and then suddenly he grew aware of Ava standing in the doorway, oddly torn between his reality and the one that existed outside himself.


Insights like this one are representative of a novel unafraid to be lurid and weird, as well as cutting in its excellent social examinations and microcommentaries. Its dinner party scenes are particularly astute, brutal in their rapid-fire assessment of the pageant of vanities that populate Kasper’s creative team. Everyone on set seems to float in a certain unreality, one that feels appropriate to filmmaking and European vacations but less functional in the necessary work of raising children and keeping house.


Almost immediately upon enrolling her children into summer camp in Sofia, Ava has the promised chance encounter with a galvanizing and controversial professor from her undergraduate years. (Is it any surprise that as soon as the mother gains reliable childcare, her selfhood begins to take up more space?) Professor Lydia Nikitas is a scholar of the ancient world who advanced a provocative hypothesis about an ancient matriarchal religion worshipped across cultures, a chimera of real-life archaeologist Marija Gimbutas and controversial NYU professor Avital Ronell: renowned and maligned for her iconoclastic thesis about history, disgraced and ejected from her American university for impropriety with a student. When Ava was her undergraduate student, Nikitas encouraged Ava to write her own thesis about Nikitas’s theory of the “Great Mother,” which the impressionable and unsure Ava was talked out of by a male professor. Furious, Nikitas severed their relationship, haranguing Ava at her thesis defense. It is one of many rejections that populate the young life Ava recalls throughout the novel, a series of wounds and losses that, by her mid-forties, have left her angry, uncertain, and more alone than she ever thought she would be.


For Ava, meeting Nikitas again brings up all the insecurity and shame of this experience. She quickly slips back into wanting affirmation from the teacher—who, for her part, insinuates herself into Ava’s family’s routines, setting up for a conflict with Kasper that unfolds perhaps a bit too predictably. When Nikitas invites Ava to participate in a reenactment of the Eleusinian Mysteries, ancient rites practiced by Greek women whose specificities have remained elusive to modern scholars, the quadrants of Ava’s life that she has fought to keep separate—family life, marriage, career, her innermost wishes, dreams, and fears—begin to collapse and collide. Nikitas’s reimagined rites are sometimes moving, sometimes goofy, yet always magical. These new Mysteries become the organizing principle, the central churn around which a galaxy of women and their concerns are constellated. Finally, the communal is possible.


¤


The Mother of All Things is both humble and stratospheric in its ambitions. It’s a careful accounting of tasks and concerns (at moments, it recalls Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles). It also dares to suggest that collective rites of grief and rage can loose an elemental female experience that contains within it the cure for the malaise that has always oppressed the oppressed. By the time Ava and Margot travel to Greece to reenact the Mysteries, the experience itself almost doesn’t matter. Presented with the opportunity to take space and time for a project that does not primarily serve the needs of others for once—although Landau writes Nikitas as so seductively domineering that Ava’s automatic desire to please her former teacher contains more than a little ambiguous charge—Ava is able to have an experience that centers her selfhood. The space she has demanded from identities of mother and wife enables Ava to claim her anger, face her trauma, and initiate the healing she seeks.


The narrative spirals into Ava’s greatest pain: the stillbirth of her first child. The pages that detail the loss and its aftermath are the most accomplished in the book, sustaining the painful epiphany of mortality and life’s brutal antilogic in a way that finally makes the stakes of Ava’s fury known. Over a decade later, in the thick of family life, her doctor’s careless words upon discovering the lack of a heartbeat haunt her still: “You should have come earlier.”


The charged and liminal space afforded by the Mysteries provides Ava, if not release from her pain, recognition of its shared nature—a realization that joins her to the collective consciousness of women across time, including her own creation, the ancient forebear she has conjured in the pages of her manuscript and whose story has alternated with Ava’s own throughout The Mother of All Things. At the novel’s apotheosis, this woman of ancient Athens offers Ava the words of comfort she has been denied in her waking life:


“It’s not your fault,” the Greek woman said, parting the oceanic darkness. “You came as quickly as you could. You’re a good mother. I know you are.”


Opening her eyes, the coffered ceiling swayed above her and the torches blazed, illuminating the edges of the temple.


The woman took hold of Ava’s shoulders, her grip firm and insistent. “He’s waiting for you on the other side, in golden fields. He knows that you love him. That you will love him forever.”


In Landau’s novel, many things can be true at the same time. A summer trip can be a lavish vacation and a frightening trial. The fulfillment of a man’s artistic fantasy can be traumatic for his family, and the time a woman needs to complete her book project may require “hooking up” her children to their iPads until they are “transformed into glassy-eyed drones.” A child can be alive and dead at the same time, in the same mind. The world can be unjust, and one’s position in it unjustly elevated, and yet that same person can be a valorous survivor, continuing on despite a deep, soul-rending wound that deserves sunlight and air.

LARB Contributor

Lisa Locascio Nighthawk is the chair of the Antioch MFA and the executive director of the Mendocino Coast Writers’ Conference. Her work has appeared in Alta, The Believer, The New York Times, and Electric Literature. Her first novel, Open Me, was published by Grove Atlantic in 2018. She writes a newsletter called Not Knowing How.

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