Reviewed by Roger Marheine
Luster. By Raven Leilani. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. 2020. 227 pages
An Inscrutable Thing—Raven Leilani’s Luster
December 20, 2020
Luster fascinates and irritates simultaneously. At the end of her novel, Leilani acknowledges, “So I’ve tried to reproduce an inscrutable thing” (227).
For most of the book, Leilana makes it difficult to like Edie, her first person narrator, a twenty-three year old black woman, who’s an on again, off again painter seeking upward mobility.
Edie works briefly as a low level editor at a publishing house. She usually brings a decanter of gin to her job, and seemingly has had sex with most of the men at work: “Maybe the problem is that I am an office slut” (23).
She competes half-heartedly with Aria, the only other black female at work. Edie observes: “We both graduated from the school of Twice as Good for Half as Much…” However, Edie comments, “[Aria] still arranges herself, waiting to be chosen. And she will be. Because it is an art—to be black and dogged and inoffensive. She is all these things and she is embarrassed that I am not” (22-23).
Edie’s work relationships deteriorate to such an extent that she is terminated. She seeks numerous odd jobs and subjects herself to doing online porn as she sits half naked in front of her computer. Leilani’s first-person narrator is a neurotic black female seemingly on a quest for self-destruction.
Edie strikes up an affair with Eric, a married white man exactly twice her age; the sex hits torrid, graphically detailed heights, including Eric’s punching Edie in the face. When it suddenly ebbs for a week, Edie decides to show up at his house. Eric is at a conference, and apparently no one is home. She enters the unlocked door, samples items from the refrigerator and rummages through a bedroom closet filled with women’s clothes. We are in an absurd universe. She is interrupted by Rebecca, Eric’s wife. Thus, the main plot line begins.
Edie moves in with Eric, Rebecca and their adopted daughter, Akila, a black teenager. At this point, a reader might want to put the book down. A menage a trois, an exercise in sado masochism, a commentary of debauched suburban life, a reflection of white savior complex? Where is this thing going?
Soon Rebecca becomes a maternalistic mentor even as Edie continues her sexual encounters with Eric. Is Leilani replaying the plantation relationships of slavery in which the master dominates both the black female and the white master’s wife? The bond of Edie and Rebecca has little rationale to it.
Edie’s biological mother has gone from drugs to Seventh Day Adventism, and ultimately to suicide. Edie’s father, a Vietnam veteran, suffers from PTSD and has abandoned the family There are touching moments when Edie assists Akila with her hair and provides big sisterly advice, just as Rebecca mentors Edie. Edie becomes pregnant with Eric’s child, but she will miscarry. Rebecca takes her to the hospital, conspiratorially urging, “Don’t tell him.”
The novel’s plot explores family dysfunction and alternative family units. However, Leilani’s choice of a white suburban family as her neurotic character’s redemption and restoration would seem strange indeed.
Luster is a novel of depression, and if not outright psychosis, certainly a hopeless neuroticism in pursuit of titillating sex accompanied by the pervasive fear that it’s all going to come crashing down soon.
In several instances, Leilani reflects on the meaning and function of art (the inscrutable thing).
She drops a hint: “art is subjective, and technically that is the moral of the story, though it also implied that everyone…thinks her art is bad, which –if she is making art that is meant to be seen by others—a serious tough-titty, the comfort of audience subjectivity pretty much null when the audience…and everyone has decided, subjectively, that the art is bad.” (114). Yes, the book is just that confusing.
Leilani’s strength is her image making, but it’s also her downfall. Her clustering of minutiae, the detritus of every day life, is at times stunning. Thus, she exhibits coy imagistic pop culture commentaries when describing New York’s Comic Con sequence:
“There is a feeling of conspiracy, glitches in the matrix abundant and kept like an inside joke…the villains who gather to admire themselves, universes flattened and set beside each other, long anime sagas truncated by the overlap, nine Gokus and three Kid Flashes, some costumes so professional you might believe a bandicoot might be able to wear jeans”(204).
Goku a character from Japanese comics and Kid Flash a DC Comic character who morphed into The Flash represent Leilani’s impressive familiarity with young adult comics and their various permutations.
Comic Con’s decadent tribute to fantasy and comic caricature invites a Mikhail Bakhtin analysis of “carnival” with its proclivities to deny class and indeed objectivity itself. Whether catharsis or escapism, Comic Con has become one of the great tributes to the commercialization of childishness.
The pretense is the real, and caricature is the substance,in a hugely profitable example of modern capitalism’s management of the imagination. All are in on the game, the fantastic and the frenetic. Eric attends dressed as Captain America (of course!), but gorges on mushrooms and vomits. He all but disappears from the plot. Leilani’s best when skewering the excesses of decadent abandonment.
After a point, however, we are weighed down by incidental images, an obsession to describe everything, never to leave anything out, even if irrelevant. In one passage, Edie, looking for Eric, goes to the wrong library, yet Leilani describes its current holdings, smells, and exhibitions only for Edie to leave and travel to her primary destination…and begin describing its current holdings, smells and exhibitions.
Luster is a work of too many images and not enough insight. Out of the imagistic piles, there is no epiphany, certainly no resolution—only the psychic sigh of nihilism with all its entropy and despair.
Luster falls within current Afro-pessimism as reflected in the work of Calvin Warren, Frank Wilderson, and more famously, Ta-Nehisi Coates. As a cultural expression, Afro-pessimism rejects narratives of ascent, and asserts a fashionable nihilism. Certainly, critiques of simplistic upward mobility and American dreamland mythologies are welcome. However, to rid ourselves of illusions should not lead to disillusionment with social struggle itself.
Racism and police brutality are mentioned but only in one small section, almost as an add-on late in the book. Leilani and Afro-pessimism’s adherents casually disregard Black Lives Matter (BLM) and other social justice movements as not necessarily irrelevant, but worse, a tease to once again rope Blacks into a movement doomed to fail.
Luster and Leilani have received extravagant praise from the mainstream capitalist critical establishment. Her professor at NYU, Zadie Smith (author of White Teeth), helped launch Leilani’s career.
The final passage sums up Leilani’s notion of art and the creative process. Leilani’s Edie views herself as a part of humanity’s oldest pictorial creativity in which “The pigments [are] drawn from sand and Canterbury bells, the carbon black drawn from fire and spread onto slick cave walls” (227). And further, Leilani states art’s purpose is “A way [that is] always made to document how we manage to survive, or in some cases, how we don’t” (227).
Poetic documentation is however not a resistance. Artists can be swallowed up by their personal ambition, seasoned with a gross sense of imminent failure. This is however, the art of self-absorption, a creativity turned inward which has little regard for external realities.
Luster could be read as a critique of misguided middle class individualism with its obsessive, even compulsive need for success in the capitalist market place. Or, it might be the portrait of a frustrated artist as a young, alcoholic woman who resorts to a fentanyl patch and a quest for a father figure. Or, it is portrayal of the precariat, a millennial’s long journey into the abyss. Ultimately, it questions the illusions of upward mobility, but it provides only a minimalist individualized response.
Luster for all its imagism, does not dare to imagine any alternative future beyond the degraded and decadent moment of neo-liberalism in which the individual artist seeks only to be an artist. Frankly, our times demand so much more.
Roger Marheine is retiring after 40 years of college teaching at Pasadena City College in California. He is a past president of his teachers union.