To Be Engulfed: On Sarah Gerard’s “True Love”

August 23, 2020   •   By Emmalea Russo

True Love

Sarah Gerard

“EITHER WOE OR WELL-BEING, sometimes I have a craving to be engulfed,” writes Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse. To be engulfed, according to Barthes, involves an “outburst of annihilation which effects the amorous subject in despair or fulfillment” and for Nina, the troubled protagonist of Sarah Gerard’s True Love, engulfment is the mechanism by which she annihilates herself — mostly in despair and occasionally in fulfillment. 

True Love, at once love story and annihilation tale, opens with Nina’s mother reaching out to her attempting reconciliation three years after she said: “Why don’t you cut yourself, take some pills, starve yourself, drop out of school, and suck some dick, Nina?” The book follows Nina through a string of hookups, outbursts, and revelations in Florida and New York, the opening scene setting the frenetic, emotional, and sexual multitasking mood. What is love, addiction, marriage, divorce, and sexuality in the age of screens? True Love reminds that we are all always proxies of ourselves, many places at once and also nowhere at all — hovering in the deadening buzz betwixt invisible infrastructures.

In the opening scene, she recounts her mother’s recent email attempt at reconciliation to her friend Odessa on speakerphone. She holds her phone up to her crotch and sends Brian “a picture with my underwear pulled to the side.” Nina slips seamlessly between her chatty conversation with Odessa and her sexting session with Brian, who we later find out is the guy she’s cheating on her boyfriend with:

“Have you responded?” says Odessa.

“No.”

“Are you going to?”

I touch myself and send Brian a picture of the gloss on my fingertips. “I don’t know why she would come here if she knows I’m leaving in a month,” I say. I place my fingers in my mouth.

After a picture of Brian’s dick appears on Nina’s phone, she tells Odessa to hang on: “Seth is texting me.” Right away, we know that our protagonist is a liar and a swift multitasker. Later that night, she meets Brian on the beach before heading over to her boyfriend Seth’s place, an artist who says things like, “The polemic push of the organism against the uncontrolled dynamics of his environment can be very generative.”

We slowly learn about Nina through her various relationships and how she maneuvers them. She moved to New York from Florida and wound up back home in Florida at a “Tampa facility named after one of the twelve steps.”

My official diagnosis was drug addiction, but I was never picky, and any numbing of mood-altering agent would do. Weed, wine, sex, starvation. I signed up for trauma counseling because I felt something had happened to me, although I was unable to articulate a single event. Others in the group shared stories of incest, combat, rape, dead children.

I was unable to articulate a single event. Nina’s gnawingly spectral pain remains. We meet with this ache again and again in her environments, lovers, and self-annihilation. It engulfs her. It’s a mood. It’s a present absence. Gloss on her fingers. In Florida, Nina’s pain is mirrored in the red tide:

A storm is blowing in from the Gulf. It could wash the red tide out or spread it around; there’s no predicting. They’ve identified the culprit as chemical runoff from agriculture and phosphorous mining. Greed selling us out in Tallahassee. It could take months to dissipate, and there’s nothing they can do to speed it up. You can’t Monistat the ocean.

We watch as Nina gets engulfed by her own red tide as it spreads and as it spreads, it overtakes others — the reader, too. The luster of True Love lies in its ability to hold a tenor, a mood so much so that it becomes a character, living and breathing. Nina herself is not a particularly likable character: she lies, cheats, puts others through grotesque amounts of pain. As the reader, I feel chosen, as I’m invited into Nina’s most personal thoughts — the rationalizations behind the actions. She knows what she’s doing. But it’s easy to see the ugliest parts of oneself in Nina, and so it’s not hard to love her. The red tide in the gulf. The gloss on her fingers. She is most endearing when she tries to earnestly heal herself and in moments of deadpan humor, which the book has in droves. At the hypnotist’s office:

“Love is a trance.”

“Is that a song?”

“A trance is an ‘inwardly directed, selectively focused attention.’ It’s a story in which you become so absorbed you can’t see anything else.”

True Love is Nina’s trance, and I, as the reader, am eerily invited into her burdensome nature. She’s not a sympathetic character, but I can’t help but sympathize with her. She is entrancing, hypnotic via the sheer volume of her predicament. True love. The red tide. Some people wade out, even in the chemical spill. Disgusting, Nina observes. “Engulfment is a moment of hypnosis,” writes Barthes. Is love a trance? Engulfment? Annihilation? Addiction? A saving grace?

Nina and Seth-the-pretentious-artist move to New York together. They get a shitty apartment in Bed-Stuy, and Nina works as an assistant to a bad-yet-best-selling writer before entering the gig economy. Eventually, she leaves Seth for Aaron, an old friend and filmmaker with whom she’s started sleeping with. They seem to be in love. True Love is also the name of the film that Aaron and Nina are writing together. At some point, they get married and Nina hopes that this commitment will save her.

When Nina says love, it’s as though she’s looking for a receptacle in which to sweep the terribly seductive pain of her unnamable engulfment. She seems to love everyone and also no one at all. She uses the word love eagerly, tacitly, directing it at several men throughout the course of the novel. She wants to be good for Aaron, perfect, selfless creature:

I learn while filling out our marriage application that Aaron is a Pisces. An inexplicable change occurs on the courthouse’s cheap plastic dais when I look into his face and know that he is forevermore my husband. I am younger and older than I’ve ever been. I am sinking into a new dimension of joint selfhood. I make myself a clean and perfect creature, the most perfect, selfless creature.

Nina’s self-awareness, like her unnamable engulfment, is heavy. I recognize it as the paralytic self-awareness of many millennials. Her thought processes reveal she’s awake to love’s nuances, human interactions, and the ways people lie to themselves and others — how a word can alter everything, can sweep up a whole mood. Love. Marriage. Red tide. Addiction.

At the dark core of True Love swirls Nina’s fear that relationships — that true love — cannot save her. That she watches herself get engulfed, knows intimately the nature and temperature of her engulfment, is what propels the book forward alongside the faux containers of contemporary life: cold technological pits, dumb plastic jars, phones filled with lies, partners, search engines, plastic aftertastes and heat.

Nina watching her mother in the kitchen:

“She threw out the plastic jar. It landed hollowly in the bottom of the trash can.”

Nina on the beach in Florida:

“I light a cigarette. My mouth feels pasty after I take a drag, and I reach for our bottle of water. It’s been heating while we slept and I enjoy the plastic aftertaste.”

Nina receiving a gift from Aaron:

“The book is wrapped in brown butcher paper, tied with a black ribbon. It’s a worn green hardcover with The Hollow Earth printed in gold on its spine.”

Nina musing on the purpose of partnership:

“A partner is a conduit for conducting a certain dimension of one’s experience, a way to collage and create oneself, like a walking, breathing search engine: it’s expedient to have one, affords one’s life content and depth and authority and direction. Plus I have no idea how to do it alone.”

In one of the final images of the book, Nina witnesses a woman carrying a full bag of laundry out of her apartment building: “Free & Clear detergent tumbles out of it, followed by several intimates. The detergent tumbles into the gutter and breaks open.” The reader can easily imagine the detergent as it spreads out in a pool, perhaps gleaming for a moment before engulfed in the darkness of a New York City gutter. This image visually echoes a question Nina will ask herself after taking a writing workshop, and this question may be at the center of her engulfment: “What is the nature of my protagonist’s darkness?”

¤

Emmalea Russo is a writer, artist, and astrologer living in New Jersey. Her recent writing has appeared or is forthcoming in ArtcriticalBOMBThe Brooklyn RailCosmopolitanHyperallergic, and SFMOMA’s Open Space.