Strained Days

Tea, Stacey D'Erasmo's closely observed first novel, leaves the reader with the hyper self-awareness one feels after seeing a film intensely focused on one or two characters: In the afterglow, you stand up, walk, take a pee, conscious of every movement and somehow distant from it, as if you too were an actor embraced by a bright eye. It hardly seems coincidental that Tea's protagonist, Isabel—a girl interrupted as a child, an adolescent, and a 22-year-old within this triptych narrative—from the start considers herself an actress; that her mother, who kills herself early on, was a fledgling actress before she became an unhappy nurse obsessed with watching unhappy nurses on General Hospital. In Tea, characters seek the adoring witness of the camera in the absence of a more personal unconditional love.

D'Erasmo tenderly details this game of pretend, while at the same time critiquing it. The task she sets for her protagonist concerns turning the camera eye around. Tea follows a woman who becomes discontented with the role of a passive fan—or critic—of culture. It's written by a woman who would know: D'Erasmo was a senior editor at the VLS and for years a thoughtful, articulate reviewer before entering Stanford's M.F.A. program. This foray into a new form is admirably multilayered and engaging. Yet Tea is also somewhat inconsistent and overdetermined, unfolding with images by turns terrific and too neat or explanatory—as if the creator were not yet confident enough to let fiction do the cultural analysis.

And perhaps that's appropriate, because it is confidence that Isabel's mother, Cassie, steals from her, and not only when she "takes herself out," as Isabel eventually terms the suicide. Tea's first section chronicles a grade-schooler's experience with a mother spiraling down from depression to death. In scenes as jumbled and fragmentary as memories, Cassie can't (or won't) bother to mask her melancholia: She sleeps hours on the couch, barely parents her children, even tells Isabel—with no little melodrama—that she wants to die. In this Philadelphia of 1968, Isabel grabs at popular culture and playacting to steady herself. Distant from her father, wary of her mother, she buries family keepsakes in their old yard, achingly resolved that somebody someday will excavate, study their loss-filled lives, and find them momentous.

Stacey d'erasmo: her heroine is discontented with the role of passive critic.
photo: courtesy of Algonquin Books
Stacey d'erasmo: her heroine is discontented with the role of passive critic.

Clearly, the one person who would be so moved is Isabel herself, and she is whisked away to the freshly made suburbs after Cassie's death. The middle section, the book's most fully imagined and resonant, follows Isabel in her 16th year as she struggles to replace her blood family with one of affinity. If the young Isabel acted a supporting role in Cassie's tragedy, here she's caught between two scripts, and two leading women: the suburban tanning, drinking, and driving route with fearless best friend Lottie; and a scruffy downtown theater scene involving sexually adventurous players, especially one hairy-legged, gently lefty dyke. D'Erasmo describes Isabel's earnest, erotic awakening with wondering humor, and some wry jabs at '70s lesbian iconography. There's also a lovely evocation of Isabel's turn as a horse (via Equus), which leads to this typically plangent questioning, typically a sentence or two too long:

What use is grief to a horse? Isabel had no answer to this question, which was a ridiculous question, anyway....Grief was a horse, Grief was a dog. Grief was a table with four chrome legs, designed to always look new. They each rode something different, or maybe it rode them. Like Dennis and Marjorie, it was hard to tell who was riding whom. Grief was a paper spike that blinded you. Grief was a bullet, and the actress it shot.

The novel's last third drops Isabel six years later into the East Village—big-booted, ragged-haired, and forever planning, with a magnetic Greek girlfriend named Thea, to achieve fame through the creation of an avant-garde film about capitalism and the female burden. From an outsider's perspective at least, this satire of an arty New York postmodern underground seems too broadly drawn. Where before D'Erasmo's characters struck poses at once original and telling, Thea and her cohorts never climb out of the museum display window marked "Bad Girl, 1981." At her day job, Isabel reads banally bizarre grant proposals from, say, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who pierces her tongue to illustrate issues of language and imprisonment. People and settings pile up more like prosaical evidence for an argument than full-figured story elements that happen to represent a critical point of view. Which makes for an unfortunate loss of momentum on the way to a provocative drama about, yes, language and imprisonment.

In the end, it makes sense that the New York scenes read so artificial and arch (although that's no excuse for the characters' inertness): We're meant to see that Isabel has been increasingly fumbling the snappy lines of cultural scripts that promise acknowledgement and fame, scripts that have always fooled her into thinking she's acting (and with great importance) when what she's doing is paying to play a bit part in somebody else's production (her mother's, Thea's, pop culture's). What she discovers, when she sinks finally into the darkness of her own head, is that no one is watching Isabel but Isabel. And that the languages she's been taught—of acting, of consumerism, of criticism—have walled her away from a grounded, if humble place among, per a Hegel quote she prizes, "things in themselves." D'Erasmo's heroine learns to trust her own eye, to create significance from it. D'Erasmo is getting there.

 
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