Pictures from an Institution

Life Is Everywhere by lucy ives. minneapolis: graywolf press. 472 pages. $18.

The cover of Life Is Everywhere

IN A VIRAL VIDEO from last October, Jamie Lee Curtis repeats the word “trauma” ad infinitum on the press circuit for Halloween Kills. The comedy comes partly from Curtis’s unorthodox pronunciation—trow-muh, not trah-muh—but also from the supercut’s temporal absurdity, how a word uttered repetitively and uninterruptedly misplaces meaning. The context of the slasher flick raised additional hackles: we’ll exploit trauma to elevate just about anything. The video appears, in hindsight, to be an early indicator that the tides were turning: now there was a slapstick, tacky sensibility to trauma’s discursive hypersaturation. As The Body Keeps the Score became memeified, critics censoriously reevaluated A Little Life. As an exhausted aura encircled trauma narratives, the Depp-Heard trial became an inescapable circus. What has been termed the “post-#MeToo era” might be more usefully recognized as a moment of political, legal, and cultural backlash. That #MeToo is no longer fashionable does not entail, of course, that we have been witness to the end of sexual violence—nor to the lingering provocations of the movement. The stories of #MeToo are shifting, yes, but persist. 

A mystifying sexual scandal inaugurates Lucy Ives’s third novel, Life Is Everywhere. In a fictional New York university’s humanities department, cleaning staff find a female graduate student beneath the faculty desk of Roger Herbsweet. She is catatonic, half-clothed, on all fours—sexual objectification par excellence: woman-as-furniture. As the department reels, what follows is, chiefly, irritation among the faculty (she is one more dull heap of paperwork to be got through) and gossip for staff and students alike to indulge briefly in before buttoning the situation up. Was it an affair? A sadomasochistic arrangement between an obsolete but entrenched professor and a lackluster, ambitious student? 

The trouble is partly categorical. Surely this signals an abuse of power, but everyone seamlessly skirts the terminological abyss of the word “rape.” As a female faculty member and the department chair attempt to get ahead of the situation, the former muses that she “knew what the words dean and police meant. It’s just that you had to believe this was going to blow over. These things always did. Roger would deny everything, and it would be this person’s word against his. If she even gave her word. Much of the time, they didn’t.” The student’s prone form is a body of fact: something happened. But decontextualized, the question is what? Signifiers retain meaning—“dean” and “police” remain invested with institutional authority—but the woman’s experience elides definition. The institution’s concern is tamping down this irruption of trauma. She is anonymized, another wordless, violated woman to be silenced and disgorged so the academic apparatus—and the violators and facilitators it shelters—may chug on, unobstructed. 

A stream-of-consciousness indictment of the academy—conversant with #MeToo-era sexual politics—isn’t unrecognizable in the contemporary literary field. In fact, Ives’s previous novel, Loudermilk, lampooned MFA programs and the kooks who people them. But she’s doing something stranger here. After its first forty pages, Life Is Everywhere turns heel (ostensibly), leaving behind The Incident to follow Erin Adamo—a doctoral candidate and writer in the department—across an interminable night. In its span, Erin unsuccessfully seeks help from a female faculty member swept up in the scandal, is berated over dinner by her dysfunctional parents, and gets locked out of the apartment where her marriage has recently, irrevocably dissolved. Erin returns to the university library (a monstrous “void”), where she spends the night’s remainder in a hallucinatory sequence. 

The Incident and Erin’s overnight bookend Life Is Everywhere, but more than half the novel—its middle two hundred and fifty pages—is made up of material from three books Erin carries in her bag. Two are Erin’s own manuscripts: one, a Ferrantean novella of toxic female friendship; the second, an autofiction of Erin’s marriage to an emotionally abusive, alcoholic, unfaithful man. The third is Roger Herbsweet’s dissertation, an attempted historiography of the mysterious author of a nineteenth-century French picaresque. The novel we thought we’d been reading—#MeToo scandal rocks university!—disassembles itself, becomes something else, and something else again. When we return at the novel’s close to The Incident, it is complicated further, left insistently, uncannily unknowable. 

Adrian Kay Wong, Behind Locked Doors, 2020, oil and acrylic on canvas, 29 7/8 x 26 3/4". Courtesy Galerie Tracanelli
Adrian Kay Wong, Behind Locked Doors, 2020, oil and acrylic on canvas, 29 7/8 x 26 3/4". Courtesy Galerie Tracanelli

It’s no happenstance Ives prefigures these redirections with an epigraph from Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1986 essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” in which Le Guin posits a deceptively radical possibility: that the receptacle, not the weapon, was the first tool of early humans. How else would tribes have gathered and transported provisions to their communities? Narrative, she notes, often prioritizes what Le Guin calls “the killer story.” “It is hard,” she remarks, “to tell a really gripping tale of how I wrestled a wild-oat seed from its husk, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then another, and then I scratched my gnat bites.” We find ourselves instead amid “the story the mammoth hunters told about bashing, thrusting, raping, killing, about the Hero.” Le Guin reimagines story as carrier bag—a container for the experiential multitudes that constitute our humanity. The killer story is not antithetical to the novel but must be kept from supplanting it. “That is why I like novels,” Le Guin writes. “Instead of heroes they have people in them.”

Life Is Everywhere formally literalizes Le Guin’s carrier bag: texts cite further referents, self-divide, replicate, and undercut one another. The narrative recursively dehisces itself. Erin’s novella refigures Hamlet. We read Roger’s study only for Erin to later see it disproven wholesale in a paper written by another of his escaped girls. (Even the boundaries of Life Is Everywhere do not hold: the name of the terrible husband in Erin’s autofiction, Cody, is the selfsame name of a nearly identical terrible ex-husband in “Scary Sites,” a story from Ives’s 2021 collection Cosmogony.) To say stories are intertextual is not revolutionary; what fascinates about Ives’s maneuvering is these interstices and echoic functions are where the psychic and narrative excesses of trauma—its “untellable” too muchness—are reckoned with. To the hero, rape is a data point, but trauma, like story, nests and wriggles, reemerging in unanticipated ways, a wild-oat seed being wrestled from its husk again and again. 

And trauma, too, is everywhere. A native New Yorker, Erin’s coming-of-age is coincident with the fall of the twin towers. The event itself is delineable, but what follows is totalized: surveillance, precarity, catastrophe. “Everything was still here, yet something irreplaceable and ineffable was gone.” Mirroring the world’s disintegration, Erin loses time and power over speech. She becomes an expert dissociator. After being drugged and repeatedly raped on holiday in Melbourne, “She tried to think in words”; by the time she decides to leave her husband, “she was simply a brainstem on legs.” This elsewhereness insulates her from abuses suffered in marriage. Her husband’s demeaning of her, his rampages and affairs, are merely symptoms of him behaving “strangely.” This “was her husband, a horror.” Like horror he exceeds the knowable. Another category error. 

It isn’t Erin alone. Her high school friend is assaulted on the subway. Erin’s father is abusive, and possibly a philanderer; her mother excuses, ignores, facilitates. Erin’s husband, too, was subject to some unnameable childhood happening. The novel suggests perhaps there is more trauma in life now than before—or at any rate, the digital age exposes us to more of it. Maybe it’s that the membrane holding everything together was dissolved in some irreversible rupture. For Erin, 9/11 is a symbolic fall, but the chaos is omnipresent, ineluctable. Needless to say, for women, living as we do under patriarchy, the problems are worse. 

Perhaps #MeToo’s central success was its exposure of sexual violence’s relentlessness—what Rebecca Solnit terms a “pandemic” of rape. Drawing from the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, Solnit writes that “Roughly 3,000,000 rapes over a decade is a lot of raping, and the figures are . . . a very low, conservative estimate.” Op-eds fretting over the “overreaches” of #MeToo appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and the Washington Post nearly synchronous with the movement’s Trump-era explosion. And yet. Access Hollywood, Brett Kavanaugh, Tara Reade, Amber Heard—to my mind, it might be more useful to ask not where #MeToo went too far, but where it didn’t go at all.

Similar moves have begun to cohere in literary criticism. Recent splashy features in the New Yorker, Gawker, and New York magazine argue that novelistic accounts of trauma are being weaponized as deus ex machinas to retroactively “solve” problems of character and plot. When applied to individual texts the argument is not wholly without merit, but when utilized to dismiss representations of trauma out of hand, the rather dangerous effect is, to borrow one of these critics’ terms, flattening. It is a stark reminder—in the moment of the cultural reactionary’s ascendance—that criticism often braids itself with the powerful. But if we accept the statistics, if we survey the vast spectra of novels in the past half-decade grappling with assault, we must accept, too, that to taxonomize “the” #MeToo novel is a Sisyphean task, for the stories are functionally infinite. 

Of course, Ives couldn’t have predicted this turn. But Life Is Everywhere speaks back to it, recognizing not only that organizing against endemic sexual violence has stalled, but also how #MeToo shored up systems that laboriously silence and shuffle off survivors. Who gets prioritized? What kinds of narratives are made possible, are foregrounded? Trauma is a haunting that exceeds the horizons of storytelling; rape severs the subject from her body, disorients temporality. Ives represents this as a formal problem, attempting to narrativize trauma again and again, allowing these attempts to be messy, to falter, to fail. We must allow the novel to be capacious, to hold many different kinds of reckonings, many traumas. With the twinned blows of the Depp v. Heard trial and the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe earlier this year, the future of bodily autonomy and integrity feels dire. Life Is Everywhere reminds us that institutions have the advantages of accumulated power and the time to wait us out. But the rupture has happened. The cracks in the system are exposed, opening opportunities—we just have to take them. 

Jamie Hood is the author of How to Be a Good Girl (Grieveland, 2020). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in SSENSE, The Nation, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Vulture, the New Inquiry, and The Drift.