I am not what people mean when they say good woman. By people, I mean the good Christian kind.Â Sarah Palin calls them real Americans. I have lied (especially to hide) and cheated (twice). I smoke andÂ swear and drink. Iâ€™m not heterosexual or white or wealthy. I swim through storms of anxiety and cruelÂ shifts of mood. I have broken a small number of American laws. I have let men do things because I wasÂ terrified or because I wanted to become that thing they thought I was or just because a teenage girlâ€™s bodyÂ is a minefield. I am not what people mean when they say good woman. This is something Lidia Yuknavitch and I have in common. This is the smaller reason why Iâ€™m in shameless wasps-in-my-stomach fuck-I-need-a-cigarette brain love with her.
And this brain love is brand spanking new. Seeing the cover of The Chronology of Water here is the first time I ever saw her name. The Chronology of Water is the kind of bookÂ that makes you want to hug it to your heart, kiss its cover, run your fingertips over the edge ofÂ each page. Let me tell you: this is one fucking high quality paperback.Â Hawthorne Books should be commended for providing suchÂ delightfully sensual casing for Yuknavitchâ€™s hellish, hypnotic prose.
Yuknavitch has this uncanny ability of making me feel like sheâ€™s reaching out of the book and past myÂ skin and into my ribcage and then thereâ€™s her fist around my heart, synchronizing my pulse with the paceÂ of her prose. Itâ€™s cutthroat, nonlinear, distilled and expanded at will, like human memory.Â The way our minds collect and remake memories is fascinating, and Yuknavitchâ€™s memoir explores thisÂ extensively.
I thought about starting this book with my childhood, the beginning of my life. But thatâ€™s not how IÂ remember it. I remember things in retinal flashes. Without order. Your life doesnâ€™t happen in any kindÂ of order. Events donâ€™t have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. Itâ€™s all a series ofÂ fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common.
The driving metaphor of this book works beautifully: the way we are made of water, can be unmade byÂ water, the way our lives move in fits and starts, in days curling and unraveling like waves. Yuknavitchâ€™sÂ life as a swimmer, as a survivor, as a woman in the world, is relayed in this way.
The way she plays with language like a diver swimming among a school of koi could be calledÂ experimental, but Iâ€™ve never been a big fan of that term. I enjoy Amelia Grayâ€™s recent definition ofÂ experimental writing as a reaction to something, so in that sense I wouldÂ call The Chronology of Water an experimental memoir. Her chapter â€œDistilledâ€, a breathless, ball-bustingÂ summary of her second marriage, is a particularly evocative example of this.
Itâ€™s hard for me to critique a memoir, because it feels as if Iâ€™m reviewing a person and the way theyâ€™ve livedÂ their life. I canâ€™t help feeling this way, but this fear is ultimately false. A memoir is an object, somethingÂ in the realm of truth but ultimately a controlled work of art. This is what Yuknavitch wants you to know,Â and how she wants you to know it. The sexual and physical abuse she endured at the hands of her fatherÂ is known, but no gratuitous details are givenâ€”there is the simple truth, and with Yuknavitch, that is moreÂ than enough to grip the readerâ€™s heart. This is her life transformed, like my life is when I talk about it, likeÂ your life is when you tell a story to your lover, to a friend, to a leaf of paper or a word processor. We are allÂ composing our lives are we remember them. Yuknavitch is simply an exemplary composer.
Yuknavitch takes the reader on a heart-smashing journey through a menagerie of memories, startingÂ with the birth of her stillborn daughter before taking us on a series of laps through her complex, dark,Â frightening, beautiful life. The reader is intimately aware of the body, her body, and what bodies goÂ through. The blood, the cum, the piss, the shit, the snot, the skin, the injuries and healing and loving andÂ destroying and dying. She will not let us forget that bodies do die. We are holy and whollyÂ vulnerable. Even writing is relayed as a physical act, a clit-hardening passion from the brain and throughÂ the hands and pulse, pulse, pulse in the meat of a single heart.
My first book came out of me in a great gushing return of the repressed. Like a blood clot had loosened.Â My hands frenzied. Words came from my whole body, my entire life, or the lives of women and girlsÂ whose stories got stuck in their throats came gushing out. Nothing could have stopped the stories comingÂ out of me. Even though my hands and arms and face hurtâ€”bruised and cut from falling from a trainâ€”or aÂ marriageâ€”or a self in the nightâ€”I wrote story after story. There was no inside out. There were words andÂ there was my body, and I could see through my own skin. I wrote my guts out. Until it was a book.Â Until my very skin made screamsong.
I say, goddamn.
I know why Yuknavitch says that writing saved her. This is not a naÃ¯ve statement or false sentiment.Â Writing is her lifeblood. Screamsong. A word I want tattooed on me now. The Chronology of Water is aÂ vital bookâ€”a book that will be, as Kafka famously demanded, the axe for the frozen sea within you.
The Chronology of Water is published by Hawthorne Books.