Left Wanting

Want: A Novel BY Lynn Steger Strong. New York: Henry Holt. 224 pages. $19.
The cover of Want: A Novel

Authors have long asked whether fiction is useful in times of crisis, a question that has been especially pronounced in the past four years, following the election of the current president, the advent of coronavirus, and the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. What can a book do in a time like this? It’s a question central to Want, Lynn Steger Strong’s second novel. The narrator, unnamed until the penultimate page, asks herself throughout the book: Why did I study English? Why did I think that sharing books with people was a worthwhile way to spend my life?

The disaster at the heart of Want is slower moving than coronavirus, less newsworthy than the threat of fascism, but is no less relevant to our time, and no less widespread. The narrator and her husband are in the midst of declaring bankruptcy. Their tale is one of downward mobility, of the casualties of capitalism, of all the ways that Americans are set up to fail.

“On Twitter, the world is ending. A nuclear war is threatening, ice caps are melting, kids at school are shooting other kids at school,” the narrator comments. Then, the tone shifts: “At work, I wear collared shirts and cardigans and black wool dress pants and clip a set of keys around my neck and no one makes much mention of the world outside.” She sets a scene we all know well. The world is crumbling, but we’re still going about our lives. Still complaining, still exhausted, still drinking, still trying to pay the bills.

The narrator has a Ph.D. and lives in gentrified Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters in a too-small apartment. She teaches full time at a charter high school and is an adjunct instructor at an uptown university. She works, she spends time with her children and her husband, she runs in the morning, and in her few moments of free time, she reads. But as the novel progresses, she finds herself questioning the value of literature: Has a book ever changed a life?

Lynn Steger Strong
Lynn Steger Strong

Literature certainly can’t assist the narrator and her husband as they file for bankruptcy. She sums up what led to their financial predicament with dry concision: “We were eighties babies, born of plenty, cloistered by our whiteness and the places we were raised in—his parents didn’t have much money, neither had a college education, but we were both brought up to think that if we checked off certain boxes we’d be fine.” The narrator notes that the she and her husband “had principles, or something.” She continues, “We made so many choices based on what we thought the world was, what it wasn’t any longer, what we’d been told it was but what we finally understood that it had never been.”

Though these snippets can come off as naively didactic, they’re rare within the overall narrative. More often, Strong’s protagonist worries, wanders, thinks about books, her kids, her husband, and a childhood friend.

As her financial situation grows increasingly strained every day, the narrator thinks about turning to her parents for help. But, as the book illustrates, even immense privilege won’t save you if your parents are assholes. Her father tells her that lending her money would be tantamount to throwing it away; her mother makes repeated comments that perhaps the children would be better off elsewhere: “She has threatened to call authorities, to check in.” Her father shows her a happy family video from when she was five, and says, “Is this the childhood that made you do such awful things to us?”

The plot moves like the movement of life: leaving one job early to have an hour to walk alone before reaching the other job, a child’s birthday party, countless morning runs, arguments between the narrator and her husband about sex, money, both, neither. She sleeps past her alarms, gets in trouble for being condescending to a twenty-four-year-old male colleague. She mentors a student at the high school and attempts to field student complaints about a coworker at the college. After the bankruptcy filing, a wealthy couple that the husband has worked for asks the narrator and her husband out to dinner. They accept, thinking they’ll be discussing another opportunity. Instead, the couple says that they admire the husband and want to buy his sperm for $20,000. The wife tries to cozy up to the narrator, but she isn’t having it. Weeks later, the narrator calls the wife, only to learn that the couple has decided to go with another donor. This is where debasement glints most brilliantly: She thought they were above this, then she decided they weren’t, and came back begging, and now they can’t even have the thing they didn’t want.

One thing the narrator had always wanted was a life of the mind. But her relationship to literature has taken a backseat to parenting, teaching, and just keeping it all together. Still, being a reader is so crucial to her identity that it comes up whether she’s wiping up vomit or arguing with coworkers. Her graduate work was focused on Penelope Fitzgerald, Anita Brookner, Jean Rhys, Nella Larsen, Lucia Berlin. She reads Paris Nocturne, The Plains, Secondhand Time, rereads The Lover when she can’t sleep, communicates the plots in digestible observations: “there’s a car crash then almost nothing happens.” She talks with her students about the power of passivity in Magda Szabó’s The Door, about the political backdrops of fiction, about how like and dislike aren’t useful words for literary analysis.

Aside from her relatable bookishness, though, my favorite quality of this narrator as a reader is that she’s ready to confront the idea that literature is not as powerful as she’d imagined. Of her years in graduate school, she says, “there was a time when I thought giving books to other people—showing them their richness, their quiet, secret, temporary safety—could be a useful way to spend one’s life.”

Beyond books, the narrator’s most enduring obsession is a friend from her youth named Sasha. Sasha is brilliant, beautiful, vibrant. The narrator looks at a photo of her on Facebook and remembers: “Twenty-year-old Sasha stares at me, over and over, too much how I remember: defiant, careless posture, perfect face, her too-big eyes.”

We don’t really get to know Sasha beyond her supposed brilliance and beauty. Of course, this partially comes from the narrator’s relationship with her being mostly distilled through social media. But her stories and memories of Sasha still lack a certain specificity—we’ve seen Sashas before in literature. She’s every friend who is too vivacious to live, too perfect to comprehend. I don’t dispute that the narrator may have seen her that way, but I want to believe it, too.

Sasha and the narrator eventually move on from Instagram likes and stories and begin speaking again. Sasha is pregnant, afraid that she’s not capable of being a mother. This sets up more diving into their younger years, when the narrator and Sasha travelled abroad, and Sasha got pregnant in Taipei. A doctor pressures her to get an abortion, but Sasha wants to go home and have the baby. The narrator stays behind and continues the trip on her own. Soon, she begins feeling the guilt that will chase her for years about her inability to stay present in friendships in times of crisis.

In one of the rare, vivid moments when Sasha is more than an idealized image on her Instagram feed, she spits at the narrator: “What in the fuck . . . have you ever done for anyone but read and speak and think?” This is a bit of a cheat. The narrator has been asking herself this question the whole time.

Becca Schuh is a writer living in Brooklyn. She is one of the founders of the Triangle House Review.