The Mirror World of Counterculture: On Lauren John Joseph’s “At Certain Points We Touch”

Sally McGrane reviews Lauren John Joseph’s debut novel “At Certain Points We Touch.”

By Sally McGraneJanuary 23, 2023

The Mirror World of Counterculture: On Lauren John Joseph’s “At Certain Points We Touch”

At Certain Points We Touch by Lauren John Joseph. Bloomsbury. 384 pages.

LAUREN JOHN JOSEPH’S novel At Certain Points We Touch starts out at 4:30 a.m. in Mexico City. The first-person narrator — unnamed but addressed throughout the book alternately as JJ, Bibby, and Liza Minnelli — has just picked up a handsome American at a house party. On the way to breakfast at an all-night taqueria, the two get lost, “stumbling out of the crumbling residential streets” and wandering “onto a massive six-lane highway which [tells] us we [have] gone too far. Gargantuan heavy goods vehicles, massive petroleum tankers and enormous Coca-Cola trucks thunde[r] across the dying night, bellowing diesel through the city, causing the pavement to rumble beneath our feet.” The pair stand “stock-still, dazed, in shock, in front of a shuttered mechanic’s shop, agog at the sight of this impenetrable traffic, regarding each other with an attitude of, Well, what now?


As it turns out, a pharmacy’s digital date, time, and temperature clock provides the answer: the narrator realizes that it’s February 29th. A leap year:


That was when I felt it.


‘I have to go,’ I say.


‘Where?’ he asks.


‘Home,’ I say. ‘Do I have your number? I’ll call you tomorrow, later, tonight.’


He looks confused, and says, ‘OK …’


I can see he is put out. He thought he was going to get a fuck, but I don’t much care, I’m already hurrying away.


You see, it came over me like a compulsion, like food poisoning, like a scream in the dark tearing me violently from a dream: the exhortation to finally put this down on paper.


February 29, it transpires, is the birthday of one Thomas James — addressed, alternately, as Tom, Leapling, and, most often, “you” — an ex-lover whose accidental death left all unfinished business between the two of them permanently unfinished. Tracing, or rather excavating, this relationship from its beginnings a decade earlier up to the present day, as the narrator sits at a kitchen table in Mexico City covered in old letters like “an endless tundra speckled with cigarette ash and dotted with cans of Coke,” is a task the book accomplishes with virtuosic skill.


Tom — a.k.a. “Leapling,” a university and party-circuit acquaintance — is a classic Mr. Wrong, a talented aspiring photographer who shoots everything from wedding gigs to brutalist buildings to fellow dancers at gay clubs using film stock that may or may not still be viable. He’s described as selfish, professing both to kinks and to political views that are either ironic or despicable. He breaks hearts and doesn’t wash his sheets. But he’s brought to life so three-dimensionally that — even as a reader who knows as well as the narrator does that it would be better to stay away from this “handsome bastard” — it’s hard not to see his deadpan appeal. Take one early encounter, described by the narrator:


I’ve been performing, and so I’m dressed as some sort of nymphomaniac Christ; I have on a pink bra and a crown of gold laurels, strappy high-heeled sandals, and a burgundy sash which I’ve fashioned from a bedspread, or a curtain. I also have a streak of fake Halloween blood from a tube under my nose, though I don’t know why. You regard this ensemble quite apathetically, with that upwards bob of your chin, the same kind of gesture you see from an otherwise static buyer bidding on antiques at an auction house.


‘Alright Bibby?’ you offer, in no hurry.


I nod, ‘Yeah, good — you?’


With your right hand, you extend what I first read as a gesture of a gun towards me, then you wrap the two straightened fingers around the twisted strap of my bra and say, ‘What’s all this then?’


But while the affair with Leapling gives the book its structure, the beating heart of At Certain Points We Touch is the first-person narrator’s journey — an epic exploration of the world, the self, and the coming-into-being of an artist.


We first meet the young, red-haired, green-eyed narrator, who has inherited their love of words, like their tendency towards depression, from their mother, in London. Life there, we learn, had been dull until a chance encounter at a post office opened up “a mirror world of counterculture” — salons in basements, parties held in petrol stations and graveyards, and the advice, immediately followed by the narrator, to forget writing and take to the stage instead. Despite the attractions of this mirror world, and of Leapling, who is at home there, the narrator finishes university and takes off as quickly as possible for “acid-soaked Northern California” — a destination not so much chosen as accepted: “[A]s all butterflies abide by their predestined migrations, it was in my queer genes. I was looking for a place to be reborn, why else choose San Francisco?” There, living rent-free above a laundromat with a couple of semi-employed Berkeley students, the narrator survives on gifted half-burritos and performance art, and finds a “golden-age drag mother” who encourages the trio’s performances and imbues them with the hopes and dreams of the Haight-Ashbury era.


In classic bildungsroman fashion, we follow the narrator from San Francisco back to London, then into New York City’s demimonde — a high-wire life subsidized, barely, by table dancing — and then to London again. Excursions into the self lead back to a difficult childhood in Northern England, to snowy and depressive Berlin, to a sun-filled Greek island. The shift from performing onstage to becoming a writer will happen much later — namely, when that pharmacy clock in Mexico City, with its reminder of lost Leapling’s birthday, forces the narrator’s writer self — the only “I” with the fortitude to face this kind of loneliness, as the narrator puts it — to the fore.


Meanwhile, the narrator embarks on another internal shift — one for which, even years later, Leapling remains a touchstone:


Would it insult your pride to know that I began to entertain your advances because I wanted you to replace Lulu with me; so that I could, in a way, become her, even if only in my mind and in your arms? So that I could take on the beautiful transgender body that I still could not admit to wanting.


And at another point, addressing the lost Leapling: “I wonder if you would have come to hate me if I had left the final residuals of maleness behind me during your lifetime, during our love affair? Or would you, in participating in this transformation, have come to love me better?”


All along, there are friends, artists, art, parties, performances, lovers, collaborations, heartbreak, betrayal, more art, more performances, and more parties. Joseph draws these various worlds and relationships vividly, with heart and humor. But this book is also an excavation of the world we all live in, a depiction of the ways in which love affairs reflect and refract political circumstances and beliefs, and an exploration of how technology has changed and how it has changed us. It’s a kind of millennial time capsule, describing a love affair that begins with an email flirtation and ends with a lost cache of messages and images:


It is maddening to know that there were other pictures, many more, now destroyed. I wish I had clicked-and-dragged them all onto the desktop, opened up a new folder, and stashed it on my hard drive along with all the filth you sent me in private messages. Now it is all gone. But why should a Myspace profile be preserved when whole civilisations have been annihilated to boost the egos of European monarchs? When currently the whole planet is being destroyed? Everything is momentary, a digital life is wiped out without any more ceremony than a physical life, it is simply so.


Lucid and libidinous, At Certain Points We Touch is a tender documentation of a love affair, and of a writer’s life. The narrator describes Leapling’s photography as “an experiment in seeing the world,” carried out with old cameras and even older film, such that the images might either come out beautifully or result in a series of completely black frames, streaked with red. Luckily, Joseph has chosen a medium sturdier than flea-market film to accomplish the same goal in this excellent debut novel.


¤


Sally McGrane is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of Moscow at Midnight (2018), a spy novel, as well as another, Odesa at Dawn, which takes place in Ukraine shortly after the annexation of Crimea. Odesa at Dawn came out in summer 2022 in the United Kingdom and is one of German public radio’s top 10 crime novels of January 2023.

LARB Contributor

Sally McGrane has written about topics from culture and politics to business and travel in Russia and Ukraine for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Monocle, and others. She is the author of two spy thrillers, Moscow at Midnight (2016) and Odesa at Dawn (2022). She lives in Berlin.

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