IN HER ESSAY “Lonely in America,” Wendy S. Walters writes of traveling to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina to help her Aunt Lou salvage what she can from her wrecked home. Walters was feeling lonely before her sojourn, but the scale of the devastation leaves her overwhelmed and numbed at the loss. “This is when I realized my loneliness had deeper roots than I had initially suspected, and that, in addition to personal disappointments, it came from having a profound sense of disconnection from what I thought America was, and who, in that context, I knew myself to be.” A historical loneliness, a sense of not being a fully vested participant in the American ideal has come raging to the surface in these months of quarantine and uprising. The writer Raven Leilani evokes that intergenerational loneliness again and again in her debut novel, Luster.
The heart of Luster is Edie, a 23-year-old Black woman living in New York who longs to be an artist. She works an undemanding job in publishing, lives in a crappy apartment with a barely present roommate, and drifts through life. Her many liaisons at work and around town feel more like something to pass the time than desire. She’s hungry, but she doesn’t know how to satisfy herself. Edie’s moorings have come loose in more existential ways — both her parents have died — the details of which she relays in hints and asides throughout the book. Above all she seems deeply alone in life, though she puts a careful distance between herself and the reader: “This is not a statement of self-pity.” She wishes, above all else, to be a painter but keeps her canvasses in the closet and her longing private.
The book opens with a new love, Eric, a 46-year-old white archivist from the suburbs, who claims to be in an open marriage. He waxes eloquent about his rural childhood outside Milwaukee. Edie mentions only of “the happy parts” of hers. They spend their first date at an amusement park and Edie observes the “Tweety Bird balloons, the plastic, soulless eyes of the Taz mascot, the Dippin’ Dots. As we enter the gates, I feel the high-fructose sun of the park like an insult. This is a place for children.” Their power imbalance — age, money, race, job security — courses through their interactions, causing Edie to second-guess herself. Though she constantly asserts, in a way that feels less convincing as the book progresses, that the “age discrepancy doesn’t bother me.”
Eventually, Eric takes her to his home for sex. When he ghosts her for 10 days, Edie returns for answers. There she encounters Eric’s wife Rebecca, a forensic pathologist at a veterans hospital; she chases Edie through the yard before declaring, “I know who you are but I don’t want to discuss it.” Things get stranger from there.
Edie’s unctuous boss at the publishing house, another past fling, fires her. None of her colleagues sticks up for her. Leilani has an absurdist streak; the exchanges between Edie and her lovers often make art seem twee or tired, instead of something often used against Edie by men who know how to get what they want. In Edie’s catalog of slights and office anecdotes and intrigue, Leilani captures the desperation and precariousness of her life, and the sickening drop of stepping off a high wire without a net. Edie has no friends to call upon, no family — only Eric and Rebecca with their sprawling green lawn and mortgage and teenage adopted daughter, Akila, who happens to also be a young Black woman marooned in the suburbs. While Eric is off on a work trip, Edie moves in.
The home is an unhappy one. Rebecca veers between aloof and furious. Akila engages the other members of her family as little as possible, preferring video games in her room to dealing with Rebecca. Eric — still on a business trip — frequently texts Edie, who replies from the guest room of his own house, a fact she omits. From this miasma of discomfort, Edie begins to paint again.
Leilani has written a book of surfaces, beheld as a painter approaches a subject. Long stretches of smoldering silence fraught with hidden meaning characterize the novel. The seething emotion in each of these characters, four very intense people beneath their calm veneers, is walled off from one another. They’re deeply broken but unable to reach each other, unable to ask for help. As Edie drifts through the big house, she paints household objects and applies for jobs online, trying and succeeding in making herself more invisible than she already was. She attempts several times to paint a self-portrait, each time without success.
Luster evokes Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, not necessarily for Ellison’s political meanings, but for the state of going unobserved, unknown in a society. One approach to art is bringing the unseen to light, and Leilani’s project reveals the contours of Edie’s life and the carelessness of society toward vast swaths of individual experience. Edie says of her high school years, “I was not popular and I was not unpopular. To invite admiration or ridicule, you first have to be seen.” Leilani draws on a long lineage of invisibility, from Ellison to Toni Morrison to the haunting spirits of Jesmyn Ward. Edie recognizes the absurdity of her situation, its unfairness, while still mining it for wry humor, the ridiculousness of rushing along on a roller coaster with a man old enough to be her father, while still enjoying the ride.
Leilani captures the consumerist nihilism of Edie’s world by combining the sacred and profane on the same plane, a cubist flattening. It feels like an especially confusing, degrading time to be young, though perhaps that’s how youth has felt for decades, or always. Beneath the Mario Kart and preparing for Comic-Con and a CVS job interview, Edie has moments of clarity. “I think of all the gods I’ve made out of feeble men. I go to my room and get stuck in a Wikipedia hole about religion on Tatooine. I finish my costume and sit in the dark in my metal bikini, and in the morning I stumble to the bathroom and take the pregnancy test.” It’s jarring to imagine a woman alone in a metal bikini, a costume for public display if ever there was one. Everyone in Luster is playing various roles. The suspense lies in whether they’ll ever be able to reveal their true natures.
The lack of communication and conversation between characters can make some sections of the book feel as inert as the corpses upon Rebecca’s slab, awaiting excavation. But perhaps that’s the point, a generation of young people suspended between Walters’s “profound sense of disconnection” from the promises of America and the reality and depth of their loneliness. Some deaths are quiet. Paradoxically, the parts where Leilani’s writing comes most alive are in Edie’s recollections of her deceased parents. “When I get up in the morning, I look in the mirror and I see only my mother’s face.” The omnipresence of her mother in her own reflection casts her inability to paint a self-portrait in a different light. By remembering her parents, Edie views herself through the lens of their finite, tragic lives even as she struggles to break free. She recalls exercising with her mother, who could never be thin enough to satisfy herself.
We were bonded in our mutual hatred of our bodies, though my hatred was adolescent and hers was infinitely more developed, partly a trick of her newly sober brain, which found in food a substitute for the narcotics that had kept her lean. By the time she killed herself, she would still be eleven pounds shy of her goal.
When these passages abruptly end and the narrative returns to the present, the blank space on the page contains a hurt so deep it’s as though both Edie and Leilani look away.
Take, for example, this passage in which Edie recollects her father’s pain and loneliness.
The way he would stand before the mirror and practice his smile. The way he was exact and vain, particularly about the creases in his trousers and the part in his hair. As he dressed for church, he rehearsed his testimony under his breath. He weighed each word carefully and searched for the most effective places to apply stress. Like a comedian, he came prepared to handle the fickle demands of a room; in church, these rooms were full of women. They leaned toward my father, awed by his grisly accounts of war. They competed fiercely for his favor, and he happily indulged the most vulnerable ones. By then, my mother was already a husk of herself, and I was seven years old.
He has abandoned his family to play a role. A broken man rehearsing the face of a happy one, father to a daughter nobody sees, one unable to paint a picture of herself.
In one long stretch of the book, no other character says Edie’s name in so many pages that it can seem as though she’s an unnamed character. Reading Leilani’s book in the midst of the uprisings across the country, the names of the slain in newspaper headlines and on handmade signs, the absence of Edie’s name from the pages of her own story, from the mouths of the people she’s living among, weighs heavily. Can’t we see the living in front of us, can’t we say their names? In his 1959 essay “Nobody Knows My Name,” James Baldwin wrote that “[t]he artistic image is not intended to represent the thing itself, but, rather, the reality of the force the thing contains.” In Luster, Leilani does what Edie cannot. She captures the force of desire in a portrait from which you cannot look away.