Lo Countries

My Heavenly Favorite by Lucas Rijneveld, translated from Dutch by Michele Hutchison. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 344 pages. $28.

The cover of My Heavenly Favorite

LO. LEE. TA. This is the trip the tip of the tongue expects to take when reading a novel from the point of view of a man currently incarcerated following the rape of a teenage girl he’s groomed. And at the tender age of thirteen pages into Lucas Rijneveld’s My Heavenly Favorite, an attentive reader may indeed murmur “Lolita!” when the unnamed narrator, a former farm veterinarian from the Dutch countryside, refers to the titular “favorite,” also unnamed, as “the fire of my loins.” So far, so Lo.

Initial press for the novel, originally written in Dutch and translated by Michele Hutchison, has fed the frenzy of Lolitapalooza. It’s been called “a modern Lolita,” “a novel that wears its debt to Lolita . . . pinned on its chest with abject pride,” “a queer and profane take on the Lolita archetype,” “Lolita-esque,” “a cowshit-splashed Lolita.” Someone who picks up a copy and skims the blurbs might wonder if we really need another male-authored Lolita from the first-person perspective of the pedophile, no matter how spruced up with shit, no matter how daringly different.

And at first, the difference doesn’t seem that daring. The narrator is a somewhat more humdrum Humbert Humbert, lumbering from farm to farm, cultural references sloshing in his head along with hebephilic fantasies, mixing memory and desire like the mingled odors of Axe shower gel and manure that eventually envelop him in the favorite’s farmhouse bedroom. He’s less high-minded, more heavy-handed than H. H.: Nabokov’s narrator desecrates Proust by burlesquing the title of one of his volumes; Rijneveld’s does so by ejaculating into the pages of In Search of Lost Time while daydreaming of his own teen Albertine. But his narrative voice, like Humbert’s, is mesmerizing and hysterical, incriminating himself, as well as his readers, with style. He sometimes interrupts himself with apostrophized outbursts (“I ran, dear judges!”) to those he knows are finding him guilty, morally or legally. The phrase “fire of my loins” flares up twice more in My Heavenly Favorite, but in the context of agricultural veterinary medicine, a profession that often thrusts our protagonist elbow-deep in a cow’s vagina, the expression loses some of its literary luster, falling closer in connotation to a venereal disease afflicting livestock that has made a zoonotic leap.

The action takes place over the summer of 2005 in Het Dorp, a fictional rural community haunted by trauma. An outbreak of bovine foot-and-mouth disease, requiring massive culling, has sunk the local economy and led at least one farmer, a client of the narrator’s, to take his life. The fourteen-year-old favorite, whose father’s farm the narrator regularly visits to tend to cows and sheep, is mourning the death of a sibling. The narrator has nightmares about the suicided farmer, whose body he found when he, the proximate cause of woe, came in from culling the cattle, and about his mother, who sexually abused him when he was the same age as the favorite is now. On the farm, he is undeterred by the unsexy surroundings (“hairy foot warts,” prolapsed sheep uteruses, “yellowish colostrum”) as he milks his time with the favorite for all it’s worth, often talking about books and music; she calls him Kurt, as in Cobain. It becomes clear that she, sheltered by her conservative Christian upbringing, lacks basic sex ed. Increasingly ill at ease in her body, she expresses a growing wish to possess a penis and believes Kurt can give her one—a desire, and an ignorance, he exploits. She is tortured by the idea that she caused the collapse of the World Trade Center; an unconventional thinker even by the standards of 9/11 trutherism, she believes she is a human plane, and at one point jumps off a silo to test her aeronautical engineering. She spends hours deep in imaginary sessions with Freud and has heart-to-hearts with a hallucinated Hitler, with whom she shares a birthday and like whom, she fears, she will cause untold destruction.

This is all recounted over rolling hills of stream-of-consciousness prose, that hypnotic parataxis that works as charmingly as a siren song for readers of European fiction in English translation. You feel borne along by the flow of language, the language of flow, knowing you’re supposed to feel like this seamless stream, which suddenly you’re drinking, goes down too easy—and “you,” referring most often to the favorite but also to the judging reader, are the narrator’s primary addressee. (The dedication, creepily, is “For You.”) Rijneveld’s reviewers tend to jolt themselves out of a style-induced reverie to assure us they were appropriately unnerved by the content. His previous novel, an International Booker Prize winner also translated by Hutchison, encodes both jolt and reverie in its English title: The Discomfort of Evening (2020). What if evening, diurnally ordinary, contained a discomfort that evening can’t even out? (In that novel, the content that must be ritualistically repelled as “repellent” includes sexual experimentation between very young siblings.) Like the narrator of My Heavenly Favorite, who “slowly crawled under your skin like a liver fluke in a cow, there isn’t a more pleasant way of putting it: I was a parasite,” and who compares his first time kissing her to jamming a syringe of antibiotics into a reluctant ewe’s mouth, Rijneveld favors a method less subtle than subcutaneous.

Lambing season, Oosterenderweg, Texel, The Netherlands, 2011. Photo: Wikicommons/Txllxt TxllxT.
Lambing season, Oosterenderweg, Texel, The Netherlands, 2011. Photo: Wikicommons/Txllxt TxllxT.

But lurking beneath those relatively superficial shockers, deep in the bile ducts of your brain, is something more discomfiting about My Heavenly Favorite: the creeping understanding, if you decide to start Googling midway through reading, that Rijneveld has slipped into the role not of narrator but of nymphet. The more you know about Rijneveld, who switched from they/them to he/him pronouns in 2022, the less he seems the sinister shadow behind his narrator and the more he shares with the figure of the favorite. Both were assigned female at birth and started fantasizing in adolescence about having a boy’s body; both grew up in a devout family on a Dutch farm; both lost an older brother in an accident; both typed out the entirety of a library copy (forbidden by father, illicitly filched, secretly returned) of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone; both were born on April 20, 1991, though only the fictional character, to my knowledge, cultivated an imaginary friendship with her genocidal birthday twin. (The Discomfort of Evening also draws its setting and some identifying information from Rijneveld’s childhood.) Whatever uncomfortable biographical similarity exists between Nabokov and Humbert, two roughly middle-aged European men of refined tastes living in American exile, has been overwritten by a differently uncomfortable similarity between Rijneveld and his Fauxlita—and yet, at least until The Annotated My Heavenly Favorite is published, this hermeneutical cheat code has been written in invisible ink, not even an inkling in the mind of any reader who isn’t, Humbert-like, obsessively following quilted threads of clues. You thought you were unsettled because you were reading a cis man rewriting Lolita, but then you’re unsettled because you realize you were reading a trans man writing from the perspective of a cis man sexually preying on a gender-dysphoric child. If this is autofiction, Rijneveld is driving it in manual.

Rijneveld does not, as far as I can tell, quote Lolita anywhere beyond the three “fire of my loins” incidents, and he never cites title or author—an elision that perhaps wouldn’t be worth ruminating on if not for the active bibliographical network that populates My Heavenly Favorite like a bovine gut microbiome, as if to help narrator and reader alike digest his heavy crime. The two main characters exhibit intimate knowledge of a wide array of literary and popular novels, poetry, the Bible, film, and song lyrics, name-checking Jean-Paul Sartre, Moby-Dick, the Psalms, Samuel Beckett, Lars von Trier, Leonard Cohen, T. S. Eliot, Stephen King, Proust, and others. The flickering flames of Humbert Humbert get lost in this citational haze, perhaps because the novel’s basic outlines are so self-consciously derivative of the greatest pedophilia story ever told that we hardly need more explicit reminders. The plethora of citation may itself be citational: Lolita is, famously, an enchanted forest of allusion in which one could hunt forever. But the narrator, who at one point worries he’s “read too much of Swann’s Way” recently and that it’s making his style “too Proustian,” never betrays an anxiety that he’s overly influenced by Nabokov. Proust doesn’t pose a real threat, either. The narrator gets bored after the first volume, which failed to change his life as advertised, and in any case, he only really has one book on his reading list: “That favorite book was you, my sweet darling, you read like the story I had always wanted to read and I dreaded the day I’d have to close the book for good.”

There’s another literary source that goes unnoted within the text, revealed only in an acknowledgment at the end: Rijneveld himself, who wrote (in English) the lyrics that the favorite, an aspiring singer-songwriter when we meet her, sings on an album released years later that the narrator now sometimes hears on the prison radio. (The lyrics are credited to Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, the name the author used while identifying as nonbinary.) Not entirely unlike Lolita, budding actress by the end, here the survivor is the one who gets to be the artist. But Rijneveld doesn’t give us a feminist revision of Nabokov (like Pia Pera’s Lo’s Diary), or even a transmasculine revision of Nabokov, so much as the record of a love affair with revisionary intertextuality itself. Intertextuality, according to Freud, one of the favorite’s favorite interlocutors, is also the condition of love: we transfer old fantasies onto new people like a modern author rewriting a fairy tale. The citationality of the pedophilia plot turns this psychic reality into a sick joke. Behind Rijneveld’s favorite lies Lolita; behind Lolita, Humbert’s doomed childhood sweetheart, Annabel Leigh; behind her, the doomed childhood sweetheart in Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” herself perhaps modeled on Poe’s teenage bride. This story never gets old.

Katie Kadue is a critic from Los Angeles. She teaches English at SUNY Binghamton.