MAY 24, 2019
IN DECEMBER 2017, a short story published in The New Yorker, Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person,” went viral. I’m not particularly plugged into the internet, but I experienced my own version of it going viral — texting my sister to ask if she’d read it at the same time that she was texting me asking if I had. The story focuses on a date between a 20-year-old girl and an older man, and most particularly on the sex that they have. We stay in close third person as Margot decides to have sex with Robert, even though she doesn’t want to. The narration continues through the shifting emotions and conflicts that Margot experiences during the sex — wait, I don’t have to describe this — you probably already read it. “Cat Person” is a great story, but I would argue that its viral nature was as much a response to its content — its focus on the real, messy, emotionally conflicted battleground of the sexual encounter — as to the story itself. As readers, we are hungry for this kind of emotional explicitness. As women, we feel relief at seeing our own complexity laid bare. We see ourselves in Margot, or if not in her exact experience, in the shifting, tumultuous emotions and reactions embedded in the sexual encounter, an encounter so often depicted as smooth and cohesive in literature and, more notably, television and film.
I’ve been reading Jardine Libaire since 2004, when a friend gave me a copy of her first novel, Here Kitty Kitty. It tells the story of Lee, a Brooklyn party girl just hovering at her peak — the drugs, the sex, the late nights aren’t working the way they used to. I was fascinated by Lee, by her hedonism, her bad manners, and her sexual appetite. I read the book again and again.
I also followed Libaire’s career as a freelance writer. She wrote a bunch of short pieces for Nerve.com, and I was always struck by how bravely she talked about sex. She even wrote a short piece for a men’s magazine describing the female orgasm. I taught her essay “Embracing the Inner Call Girl” to my freshmen students at Ole Miss, much to my delight and their discomfort. Sex is, at the end of the day, an intimate affair, which is part of its enduring appeal, and also what can shroud it in so much shame and mystery. To read a novel, of course, is also to engage in a form of intimacy, so why shouldn’t there be some sex in the mix?
Jardine’s latest novel, White Fur, is the story of Elise and Jamey, a pair of mismatched lovers who meet in New Haven in the ’80s. The obstacles to their union are mostly socio-economic: Elise is a runaway of Puerto Rican descent; Jamey comes from New England old money. The spark between them is initially sexual — Elise seduces Jamey by giving him a blow job in his car. From sexual obsession, a relationship is born. But part of the strength of this novel is that the story doesn’t resolve with them coming together. In White Fur, the hookup is just the threshold. Their love story is never quite on equal ground: first he towers above her, regarding her with a mix of desire and disgust, then later, as his demons start to rise up in him, she emerges as the beacon of strength, the one who guides them. It’s an honest, deep, and thorough investigation of love. Libaire takes us down the winding, treacherous, unexpected path that all lovers must tread. True to life, sex is the stage on which many of these negotiations take place. The way in which these lovers long for each other, reject each other, preen for one another, ignore the other — all in the space of an evening — it’s almost shocking how rarely we encounter this kind of truth in our storytelling. It is heartening and compelling to come across. Take this moment from early on in the couple’s relationship:
When he gets to Elise’s bedroom tonight, she’s wearing a cheap red negligee, and while he built himself up before coming over, he now feels sorry for her and her trashy nightgown.
Dammit, he thinks.
“What?” she says.
“Nothing,” he says, deflated.
They make love, and lie in bed.
Half a scene of pillow talk later, we observe the lovers again.
He tastes her neck, kissing, soft as a cream puff. He moves so slowly that she’s the one who arches her back, starting over, finding his mouth with hers.
And here they are again, and it hurts but that makes it pungent, evil, and good. “Wait — wait for me,” she tells him sternly at the end, teeth gritted, and he does.
They’re spent. Bodies light as ash.
“Dayum,” she says a few moments later.
And for a while, the room isn’t grim, the paint isn’t cracked, the sounds of toilets flushing and dogs barking and people fighting don’t make it through the disintegrating walls. Their golden chamber is oily with incense, studded with jewels and stars and thorns, hidden from the city, the floor covered in fur rugs.
Her red negligee is divine.
I met up with Jardine in Los Angeles to talk about her books, her inspirations, her take on class discrepancies, and the role of female sexuality in literature. That noisy, interesting conversation didn’t survive the transcription process, but I followed up with some written questions, and she eagerly obliged.
CLARISSA ROMANO: Freud says that sexuality and society can’t coexist — that sexuality has to be repressed in order for civilization to flourish. Do you think this is true? In White Fur in particular, the sexual attraction between Elise and Jamey is the catalyst for their union and for bridging their social divide. What are your thoughts about this?
JARDINE LIBAIRE: A wonderful question! In a way, yes, White Fur contradicts Freud because this story depends on the capability of sexuality in helping to erode social barriers, and I think fewer social barriers make for a more beautiful society, not a less flourishing one. But I also believe Freud’s statement implicitly allows for certain figures in society to do whatever they want sexually, while the rest of the citizens need to keep their urges and identities in check, and then society works perfectly well for those in power.
And then, in turning this question around in my mind, I keep coming home to the idea that sexuality is impossible to entirely separate from life, from love, from general vitality, from a sensual presence in the world, from friendships, from violence on occasion, from exercises in private fantasy, from ideology, from animalistic existence. Where does sexuality begin and end? From his theory above, I’d think sexuality could be carved out from the rest of our human experience, like fat off a piece of meat, and that doesn’t seem possible to me. But how we recognize and direct our own “life force” is a responsibility and an adventure, and those choices can surely affect civilization in magnificent or negative ways.
White Fur is a very erotic novel (as opposed to an Erotic Novel). The sex scenes are vivid, lush, and reveal character and emotional nuance. Have you always written about sex? What are your thoughts about sex scenes in books?
It’s funny for me to reread poems I wrote as a kid, before I had any idea about anything, that include phrases and symbols and situations that seem innately sexual. Just in that they represent the profound interaction and access that sex can create — like a poem about a girl sliding into a lake, the water taking her completely, or a penguin conducting an orchestra with a cigarette and all the women in the audience opening their handbags for the ashes. Weirdo preteen stuff! But these little middle school notebook meditations foreshadowed the knowledge of how sex lets us leave our own selves to join with another self, or helps us break the delineation that marks our places in the world, or enables us to collect bits and elements of others to store within our own souls.
And I’ve always been interested in writing sex scenes that are not just about the act but about all the metaphysics that often go unacknowledged in our sexual lives. I feel like there’s an established and very limited vocabulary for sex scenes, and by some antique rules, we’re supposed to stick to it. There’s a different language permitted of course for pornography, and also for softcore, and for bodice-rippers, than for literary fiction, and the facets of the American imagination and morality allow for these different lexicons but don’t like them to overlap. Writing about sexuality still feels like a controlled part of an art form that otherwise encourages experimentation, and it’s exciting to break the law of “polite” sex writing and what is appropriate for a “literary novel.” It’s even fun to co-opt the phrases and patterns of porn writing to use however I want, especially because that’s often a culture where a woman might not have power; subverting all its language is just a happy rebellion. Mainly though, I’m always struck by how real-life sex is not necessarily beautiful or logical or consistent but sex scenes in books often unfold as if the act is a tried and true and lovely thing that everyone experiences in a fairly similar way. Those scenes often read airbrushed and sanctioned, calcified into a familiar and unthreatening story — but there’s such a spectrum of feelings and sensations and ideas located there, it’s a forfeiture not to explore it and try to convey it in new and raw language. Sometimes that means the prose is “graphic,” and sometimes it’s not even remotely physical, but at least it’s fresh.
This approach though is deeply offensive to some readers. There are reviews on Goodreads, for example, that seem to want me burned at the stake for writing “filth.” It’s particularly fascinating to me too that these are people who might watch a brother and sister getting down in Game of Thrones and feel quite good about it. I wonder why it’s “immoral” to write graphically in a novel, or to combine high and low — like putting poetry next to crude physical detail — while it’s fine to be dirty elsewhere in culture. I agree that if pushing the boundaries is just done for shock and attention, it’s shallow writing. But if it’s done to diligently mirror the strange world we live in, the strange human animals that we are, the strange act that sex is, doesn’t that sort of writing have a chance at being valid?
One of the most remarkable things about White Fur is the way in which the dynamic between Elise and Jamey shifts: originally, she’s struck with absolute certainty about wanting him, while he harbors a deep ambivalence. Over time, especially once they’re in New York, Elise emerges as the strong one, the independent one. Did you intend for this kind of trajectory? What was planned, and what surprised you about your characters while writing this?
I did plan for them to have separate arcs and a combined arc that would sort of stagger forward and backward, side to side, and I did know that while she is set up from the beginning to be a potential Eliza Doolittle, I always wanted to subvert that exact model. She does grow during the book but she’s not changed and cultivated by him to fit into a “higher” society. Instead, in some way, they make their own society. What was very surprising to me was how they got there. I knew they’d have a long and wild and arduous and surreal journey, but I didn’t know what the stations along their path would be. It was really fun to find out, and at times bewildering or frustrating. Her background was fleshed out while writing the story, as was his, and while I started out knowing she had far fewer material goods than he did — but more love in her past — I didn’t know what exactly that would look like. So that was an exploration. It was a matter of writing a couple into the future, and then also discovering where they came from. I knew too the story should hold the contradictory moments between lovers — when he’s disgusted by her, when she’s bored by him, the power fluctuations, the minor ignorances, the epiphanies — in the net of overall love, and those moments too had to be discovered along the way.
Both Lee (from Here Kitty Kitty) and Elise take advantage of men’s desire to get what they want. Yet both women seem to really enjoy sex. Do you think you’re in a tradition of writers treating women’s desire in this way? Are you conscious of breaking new ground?
Both Lee and Elise do enjoy sex, and sometimes use it manipulatively, and they’re often engaged with men whose agendas are as complex as their own. Elise and Lee also hate sex at times, fear it, get destroyed a little by it, destroy others with it, submit, conquer, have fun, get primal, get elevated, get disappointed. So often when I do see women truly enjoying sex in film and TV and books, it’s often slightly suspicious — they’re nymphomaniacs and pathologically obsessed with sex, or something simplistic like that. What I’m very interested in is the more complicated and imperfect way a woman can enter into a sexual experience, and how desire — as a massive and hard-to-track thing — works its way through our daily lives. It’s thrilling to make a portrait of a woman who is sexually active and yet is not a man’s traditional and objectified fantasy of a sexually alive woman. The writers who have broken this ground for me in my reading life are an erratic crew — Colette, Jean Rhys, Kathleen Collins, Clarice Lispector, Kathy Acker, John Rechy, Elena Ferrante, David Wojnarowicz, and poets like H.D. or Audre Lorde or Louise Glück or Thom Gunn. They all make me feel like I’m reading a secret textbook on sexuality and eroticism that is full of common but forbidden truth. It’s not just how those authors empower characters to want sex, but the ways their work shows sexuality connecting to everything else in life, to class, to race, to mortality, to sickness, to spirituality, that makes me feel like they lead the way for what I want to look into. There are visual artists too, like Marilyn Minter and Betty Tompkins and Cindy Sherman and Robert Mapplethorpe and Carolee Schneemann, who have inspired me to write about sexuality and desire on the part of female and male characters in a way that feels honest. Menstrual blood, cellulite, irrational disdain for a lover — these genuine details make the scene stronger for me. They do alienate some readers, that’s for sure. But my idea of what is exquisite rests on a foundation of immediate and tactile and honest detail, and I can’t change that, so I seem to always write that way.
New York is a recurring character in your books. What is it about New York as a place that inspires you as a writer? How did writing about New York in the past (the ’80s) change your perception of it?
New York! I grew up on Long Island, where everyone called Manhattan “the City” as if it was the only city in the whole world, and it was to us. In the mid-to-late ’80s, I was just becoming a teenager and I was enthralled by and terrified of the wilderness of Manhattan. I could see and feel the chasm between wealth and poverty just by walking down the streets there, when it was hidden in the somewhat pastoral South Shore town where I lived. It really felt dramatic, and writing about it and researching it filled in a lot of the blanks or confirmed feelings I’d encountered before I understood what was happening. For example, getting off of the bus at Port Authority when I was 13, I remember a man giving me a rose and asking if I wanted an escort to the taxi line, and I knew there was so much more he was asking me and telling me, but I couldn’t fully understand what it meant. I knew enough not to go with him, but now I know more about what happened to the 13-year-old girls or boys who got off the same bus and said yes.
I wrote the pivotal scene that takes place in Trump Tower before there was any sign Trump might become president because I had this animalistic repulsion to the building. Researching and writing about it helped me define why it’s always been an icon of greed to me. Mainly though, looking at hours and hours of home video on YouTube from 1980s club kids and Greenwich Village families and roller skaters in Central Park was so fun that I gleefully spent way too much time doing it in the name of research. There’s also such a gorgeous inimitable archive of photos of New York City in the ’80s to examine and consider: Maripol and Nan Goldin and Jamel Shabazz and Ken Schles and Steven Siegel and Thomas Hoepker. The city then was a hotbed of sex and art and identity, and the documentation of that place and time is too.
White Fur is in many ways a novel about class, which is a very Victorian concept. There are 20th-century exceptions, of course, but many people would argue that class is no longer a thing in our society. It comes together beautifully in your book, but I wonder if you had any doubts or questions about the relevancy of the class divide as you were writing or conceiving of this book?
Class is difficult or impossible to define in the United States, particularly because we are a country theoretically founded on the idea of absolute social mobility. And that many people deny a class system in this country makes the sting of being relegated to a “lower” and likely constricting class more painful. What I wanted to explore, setting out to write this book with more questions than answers, was a place that we can call class, a place where race and money and education and culture intersect to form a system that can — without anyone saying a word out loud — shame a person, keep her down, raise him up, move her forward, hold him back. Part of me believes human beings are innately hierarchical and will always establish some kind of tiered system, but what that looks like and what it’s based on would always change. The other part of me dreams of living class-free, but I have no idea what that would be, since it is so unfamiliar, and unprecedented. When I started on the book, about seven years ago, it did seem like class in America was not a mainstream discussion. Because of the turmoil since, and the way we’re perhaps more obviously pitted against each other, it seems that “class” is used more and more often to try to explain why America is in-fighting. It has never seemed irrelevant to me, but rather an under-articulated conversation that, if pursued far enough, could unlock some of the mysteries to our modern lives. Being able to understand the nature and function of class in our country might not solve problems, but it would give us more tools for communicating about solutions.