Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

Ultraluminous: A Novel BY Katherine Faw. MCD. Hardcover, 208 pages. $25.
The cover of Ultraluminous: A Novel

A woman with a set of fake names—Kata, Katya, Kasia, Katushka—has returned to New York after eighteen years in Dubai. Glass towers now crowd the Williamsburg waterfront and women yell at her to get out of the bike lane. Bodega cigarettes cost fourteen dollars and smoking in bars is against the law. It’s unclear why she’s come back, and even more unclear why, at eighteen, she left in the first place. “New York wants to trick me, make me think it’s gone soft,” she thinks. But bricks of heroin still come stamped: VERSACE and HERMÈS, then DRONE, RIHANNA, ISIS. She still works as a prostitute. “I have given myself a year to quit: heroin, whoring,” she announces, but life slides by all the same. “Again and again on a different day I wake up in New York.”

Ultraluminous, Katherine Faw’s second novel, envisions a life lived at the intersection of valuable and expendable. The book tracks the slight shifts and changes that its many-named protagonist—"K" for short—makes in her life as she half-heartedly wrestles with the forces that both ensure her survival and hasten her demise. In Faw’s cruel world there’s little to hope for, but plenty to fear. K wants a different life, but her days creep along with enough success to warrant surrender. In a universe trending only toward chaos, the novel seems to ask, how can you risk change?

K soon finds clients in New York and assigns each one a day of the week. Every one of them works in finance, and all want basically the same thing: to show her off in public, to dominate or humiliate her in bed, and to impress her with their wealth. She seduces each with the same tricks: the same carefully curated nude photo, or the same idiosyncratic text (“where is my Christmas present, what the fuck?”), sent simultaneously to five different numbers. Between dates K sticks to her own limited pastimes. She goes to one woman for bikini waxes and another for manicures; eats Duane Reade sushi and Polish diner food almost exclusively; becomes a regular at a cop bar and drinks nothing but Cherry Bombs. It’s there that she meets the ex-Army ranger who becomes something resembling a boyfriend (she sees him on Wednesdays).

Though this romantic development seems to suggest the beginnings of a plot, Faw devotes no more time to K’s boyfriend than she does to her appointments and her downtime roaming the aisles of Duane Reade. In its equal treatment of its characters, the novel’s style is radically democratic. Rather than fleshing out what might, in another book, be central scenes, Faw provides fragment after fragment: Here’s K getting galaxy nails. Here she is giving a hand job in a movie theater. Here she is remembering a Dubai orgy. The impression is of a life without a through line, propelled forward by habit. “A good whore is an empty pattern like me,” she thinks, because even a deadening routine is life-affirming in a world where all surprises are bound to be violent and unpleasant ones. K no longer waits for anything better but is always on guard against something worse. “We’re just adding days, not value,” she tells a client. “Every day we’re alive makes it harder to die.” The novel’s obsession with compulsive pleasure and the insufficiency of human relationships is reminiscent of Michel Houellebecq, whose work Ben Jeffery has categorized as “depressive realism”—the belief that a depressive or pessimistic outlook yields a more realistic perception of the world. Faw, like Houellebecq, gives us little to believe in beyond mere survival.

One client, her most violent, loves eating animals. She calls him the calf’s brain guy—CBG for short—and charges him an extra thousand when he punches her in the face. Together they eat bone marrow, wafers of dehydrated pig’s blood, fried chicken served in a birdcage. When she finally, against her better judgment, agrees to be his for an entire month, it’s over a plate of Achilles tendon. K gives in because she knows this expanse of time, holed up in a hotel room waiting for a man’s morning and evening visits, is the most predictable of all: sleep, fuck, wait, fuck, sleep. There’s just one variable. “Now all I have to do all day is think about you,” she tells him. “You’re welcome,” CBG says.

“I found my tone as a whore almost immediately,” K thinks. “It is false submission.” Her tone as a narrator seems similarly calculated to give readers the illusion of access—mocking observations, flashes of childhood trauma—while withholding her most private self. The reader is inside her head but stuck in a sort of antechamber, plied with signs of personality while waiting for an emotional vulnerability that never emerges. The implications of this distance are obvious: both reader and client hope to possess K more fully. But it also means that, at times, K reads like little more than a vehicle for glib observations. Without enough insight into her past or her motivations, it’s hard to know where she’s headed.

Faw litters the novel with cosmological imagery to express K’s ideas about herself and her future. When a man she calls the Sheikh tells K about ultraluminous x-ray, an astronomical phenomenon that “exceeds the possibility of luminosity . . . radiating as it’s sucked into a black hole,” she immediately sees it as a grandiose metaphor for herself: a cold and distant beam of light succumbing to the dark. It’s possibly the only compliment she pays herself, one that both glorifies her self-destruction and gives it a ring of destiny.

K’s Dubai memories always come back around to the Sheikh, who wasn’t a sheikh, wasn’t rich, and wasn’t a client. “There was something cheap about him that I liked almost immediately,” she reminisces. “He was at the sushi buffet only eating the cucumber rolls.” He taught her how to cook khabeesa, how to belly dance, how to compartmentalize. He also made bombs for a man known as the Saudi, “then he had no idea where they went.” She was bothered by this lack of control, but no more bothered than the Sheikh was by her work. They were together for seven years, then he left for his family’s Eid celebration and never came back. She found a Qatari man who bought her services for an entire year. “I was grateful to him,” she remembers. “He made it possible for me to wallow in my grief.” At the end of that year a new man tried to kill her, barely missing her femoral artery.

Faw has a thing for women and girls who, by all accounts, should be victims. In her 2014 debut Young God, thirteen-year-old Nikki usurps her estranged father in the drug-dealing hierarchy of their rural North Carolina county. She must murder him to do it, but, Faw seems to argue, she has no other choice. Nikki is so powerless that only violence can protect her. K’s options are similarly circumscribed. “A few times I have practiced stabbing melons,” she thinks. “All I have is surprise. If a man wants to pin me down by the neck he will.”

One morning after a weird few weeks and more heroin than usual, K shoots her client, the junk-bond guy (JBG), in his living room. She soon picks off the next three (calf's brain guy, art guy, and guy who buys me things), leaves the rest of her money in her boyfriend’s mailbox, and makes her way to the wealth-management floor of Deutsche Bank with a pressure-cooker bomb. She feels a little bit sorry for the bankers as she marches past their desks, “but I can’t just shoot the men because then it would only be a domestic dispute between a whore and her clients,” she explains. The sudden swerve into a revenge plot is as startling as a turn from realism into science fiction. Only in retrospect do we realize the extent to which we had been buying into a genre convention—the self-destructive woman’s inevitable doom. The variously addicted protagonists of the loosely plotted and repetitive novels such as Jean Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight to which Ultraluminous bears a strong resemblance invariably meet either bad ends or no end at all. In these novels, inertia becomes its own end, and redemption seems somehow beside the point.

The very decisive end of Ultraluminous, on the other hand, is outrageous, and immensely relieving. Rather than falling prey to her own worst impulses and those of the men around her, K outmaneuvers everyone. The novel similarly exploits our own low expectations and casts suspicion on the pessimism that’s so often dressed up as unsentimental realism. What would be the point of plausibility here? Faw seems to argue that realism can no longer redeem reality, that there might be more to gain from fantasy than from a faithful reflection of a deadening life. We already know, after all, that life offers little resolution. But the force of the surprise ripples back through the book. A narrator can’t conceal a plot of that magnitude and retain their credibility. In the end, the reader had less access to K’s consciousness than it seemed; maybe none at all. Faw quickly trades her limited value as a character for her strength as a conceit. K was always meant to be sacrificed for an idea.

When we learn the Sheikh left her with explosives, her personal revenge transforms, awkwardly, into a grand political gesture. What’s the difference between enacting revenge against your bosses and enacting revenge against capitalism writ large? The novel uses sex work as an apt symbol for our broader economic system, but it reduces K to a symbol, too. Faw ultimately has little use for her other than as a cipher of resistance, leaving only bare facts in her wake: She went to the Middle East, then came back for the banks. Behind her act looms a strange presence: Whose decision was this?

Jordan Larson is a writer in New York.