Notice is a difficult book. But not in the sense that it is an obscure work, some kind of experimental literary leviathan demanding to be mastered. Rather it is difficult because you will understand it all too well. It will make you uncomfortable. It will make you almost unbearably sad. From the very first page it will get under your skin and then burrow deeper and deeper, compelling you to examine places inside yourself that most of us know are there, but that we would prefer not to see. It will force you to notice emotions, desires, and interactions most of us devote time and effort to keeping hidden from ourselves and from others.
The plot of Notice, while unusual and absorbing, is simple enough. An unnamed, young, upper-middle-class girl, left alone at home in a typical suburban setting, turns to prostitution. But not because she needs the money or is suffering from some kind of Belle de Jour ennui. Rather because she must. Because it is, somehow, who she is or believes she is. Very quickly she falls into an abusive relationship with an older couple, a relationship she knows is harmful to her but in spite of which—or more accurately because of which—she cannot bear to end. Soon she is in a rehabilitation center and forms a bond with a female therapist. Because of the protagonist’s inability to relate to people any other way, this relationship too turns sexual. Furthermore, the protagonist’s desires tend to contaminate those around her, drawing them in, and in this case prevent even this lone person who cares about her from becoming anything more than an accomplice. From here, the work goes on to explore these initial relationships, unfolding them like poisonous flowers, eventually disclosing the inevitable consequences of exposure to their secret interiors.
But Notice is not so much about its story as it is about the desire for self-destruction, for annihilation in the true sense of the word. For the protagonist, the only alternative to death is to lose herself in sex, to disappear in other people’s desire for her. She experiences sex as a way to relate to people, to understand who they are, but also as an act of obliteration that condemns her for asking others to destroy her and them for desiring to do so. What makes it a brilliant and startling book in our modern American climate of outward blame and determined inward health is the fact that, in spite of everything forced upon her, it also acknowledges the true beast is inside her, driving her ever onward to oblivion.
Often the work seems to be a road novel of the human viscera and Lewis’s descriptions of the places the protagonist visits on this journey are photo-realistic in their details. “Seen all the holes in my system—in me—and how apparent they were to anyone who cared to notice,” says the main character at one point. Lewis depicts the places inside us and the spaces in between human communication in a style that is continually rolling, revealing, and discovering. Her language is both comfortable and familiar, but employed in a manner so fresh, so precise, that every paragraph twists, turns, and then suddenly falls like a heavy but unerring blow. Lewis speaks what is unspoken with spectacular accuracy, expresses what is never expressed with uncommon honesty and sincerity. If great art can be defined as one person’s expression of his or her reality without the obfuscations of ego, then Notice is a defining work.
When what pursues you is internal, there is no escape. There are no victories, no concessions. Lewis does not avoid telling you something simply because you would rather not hear it. The book’s finale is shocking in a way few narratives are today because, by then, Lewis has dragged you down with the protagonist, making you identify with her so closely, the ending is almost too much to bear. When you think you are done with Notice, you will discover weeks, months, possibly years later, Notice is not done with you.
Tragically, there is one more thing to say about this work. In his afterward, Allan Gurganus refers to it as “a suicide note of genius.” In 2002, Lewis took her own life. And while ordinarily it might be said that the life of the writer should not color the reception of his or her work, this case may be different. According to those close to her, the book’s emotional course is so close to that of Lewis’s life, the protagonist’s and her own psyche so similarly at war with themselves, that in this case, we perhaps should not ignore the fact that the promise Notice made, Lewis kept.