Blood and Agency in Raven Leilani’s LUSTER
By Candace Walsh •
Raven Leilani’s Luster is a craft and theme kaleidoscope, every turned page yielding a new configuration of angles and juxtapositions. What happens in this novel—twenty-three year old Edie, a Black woman artist manquée working slackly in low-level publishing, meets art conservator Eric, a middle-aged married white man from Milwaukee, who is in a newly open marriage; this leads to an enduring collision between Edie, Eric’s staggeringly competent coroner wife (also white) Rebecca, and their adopted Black tween daughter, Akila—is certainly compelling, but the plot is spun within a holographic and deeply palpable complexity of craft.
The phrase craft kaleidoscope refers not just to aesthetic pleasure for the reader, but to the novel’s interrelatedness of elements: how they work together to set the story in its societal, intersectional moment.
Blood runs through these pages, and is also an elemental commonality of the human condition. Leilani’s repeated motif/extended metaphor of blood is also an insistence of the bodily sovereignty and integrity of African Americans, who are surrounded by a culture that refuses to acknowledge and effectively dismantle systemic racism. Black people die every day from structural racism as carried out by police who mistake shower heads for guns and health practitioners who minimize and dismiss Black people’s symptoms. Racism suppresses Black people’s opportunities to succeed in realms of education, the workplace, media representation, and housing, to name a few.
I could have written about the use of vocation as a tool for characterization and character arc, because Luster is a novel about first-person narrator Edie’s struggle to come into herself as an artist, in a world with a dearth of Black women artists; or about the ways she interrogates being mothered and mothering inside but mostly outside of biological connections, because Luster interrogates mothering (and to a lesser degree, fathering) through various lenses as a verb. I could have focused on the novel’s intersections of sex, violence, consent, and race as a twain-fest of both the depiction of the Jungian shadow of characters and society, and an obdurate middle finger to respectability politics; or about Edie’s enduring difficulty with straightforwardly seeing herself in reflective surfaces as a metaphor for the ways people are seen or unseen in society based on levels of privilege, and the way humans internalize that. I could have analyzed the way Leilani deploys the run-on sentence as a way to strap the reader into various roller coasters of intensity; transitions between current action and retrospective, gimlet-eyed paeans to Edie’s parents and first lover; or her depictions of women’s bodies gleefully inclusive of bowel disorders, rabid horniness, miscarriage, bad breath, and tauntingly unsating masturbation.
This turning of Luster’s various facets to the light reveals the novel as a rare Hope Diamond–level thing, wrought of the earth’s pressures, cut and polished with precision, talent, and confident, merciless aplomb. And it’s most definitely a blood diamond. Not because Leilani produced it immorally, but because the immorality is not optional. It is inextricable from the world her characters are born into, our world, latticed with systems that cosset white people and torture and kill people of color.
And still, we humans love, desire, ache, and bleed across the lines that seek to pen us apart.
Early in the book, Edie recalls a past affair with Mark, a co-worker. Her attraction to him was more about her desire for the art department position he holds than sexual chemistry. She dated him as a way to sublimate and get closer to the process of her artist-becoming. Marc is a white man; Edie notices the smug ease with which he owns his artsy role, as well as the mediocrity of his work. Leilani nests a motif into Edie’s recollection: “There is a painting that I love by Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes. In it, two women are decapitating a man. They hold him down as he struggles to push away the blade. It is a brutal, tenebrist masterpiece, drenched in carotid blood.” This is the kind of passage that leaps off the page once the entire novel has been digested and is arrayed in the mind with second-read insights. Although the putative love story is between Edie and Eric, it becomes clear that the most mutually transformative and significant bond is the one that grows like a symbiotic rhizome between Edie and Rebecca. The two women, in spite of all that would pit them against each other, upend the love triangle that would otherwise subjugate them below Eric’s whims, libidinal interest, ego huffs, and nerdiness about his vinyl collection and museum conservatorship. Symbolically, Edie and Rebecca slay Eric, a man who does not, consistently or reliably, give either of them what they need and want. This is more than a situation of “You go, girl” or dual flipped birds to the patriarchy. Edie and Rebecca, in the organic ways they see each other, correspondingly tend to each other, reflect each other, tough-love each other, and ultimately save each other, reduce Eric to the level of archetypal décor.
When Edie is fired at work, she walks into Mark’s office because she thinks he was behind it. During the course of their conversation, she takes his Japanese sword off the wall. At a moment that might otherwise go in a homicidal direction:
I take the katana, maneuver the blade between my fingers, and press it down into the flesh. Directly after the act comes a clarity so sharp it feels enhanced, the room ballooning such that his shout reaches me belatedly as I squeeze my hand into a fist and watch the blood well between my fingers. And even then, I feel nothing. But when I look at the carpet, the spot there is excellent, is proof, spreading into the shape of a smile.
Amid the horror of this extreme act, the hara-kiri gesture holds agency within self-injury, and aestheticization of pain and suffering. Yet, Edie receives “clarity” in the midst of the emotional maelstrom that accompanies being fired, defying the institutional dictum to slink away with one’s tail between one’s legs.
After Edie loses her job and her rent goes up, Rebecca invites Edie to live in their suburban New Jersey home without consulting Eric, who is out of town at the time. Edie falls into an initially wary, progressively warm relationship with Akila, supplementing needed nurture in all the ways her well-meaning but clueless adoptive parents fall short racially and generationally: hair care, picking up on a math tutor’s racist microaggressions, video gaming, and a shared love for ComicCon. When a racist “Karen” neighbor calls the cops on Edie (at the time in the early stages of an undisclosed pregnancy) and Akila, and the policemen question them about their right to be on the property, Akila tells them that she lives there, and one of the policemen throws the tween girl to the ground:
This is my home, Akila says, and I know that the moment between when a black boy is upright and capable of speech and when he is prostrate in his own blood is almost imperceptible, due in great part to the tacit conversation that is happening beyond him, that has happened before him, and that resists his effort to enter it before it concludes.
With this reference to the imperceptible through Edie’s first-person narration, while situating this event within countless murders of Black men by police, Leilani points out the blindness our dominant culture affords systemic violence and correspondingly the blindness it affords white terrorists, who are deemed sympathetic “lone wolves” instead of exemplars of white supremacy.
Edie sees that Akila is physically injured: “her lip is bleeding. When I draw her attention to it, she is surprised. I can’t feel it, she says, covering it with her hand, and when I get the first aid kit and tend to the cut, she says it again in a small, disembodied voice.” The numbness of shock, the same numbness Edie cuts through with the katana, arises in Akila’s character arc.
An officer also throws Edie to the ground and presses his arm into her neck. That night, Edie miscarries: “when I turn on the lights, I am covered in blood…I feel the beginning of a terrible abdominal cramp.” Rebecca takes her to urgent care, stays with her as she has a D&C, and cares for her during her recovery: “in the wake of this bloody and preposterous thing, everything else can be put aside.”
While Edie is uninhibited by the D&C’s medications, a nurse asks her what she does and she tells her, “I am actually an artist.” Edie has been painting obsessively in Rebecca and Eric’s home, finally with a room of her own that is not, like her previous apartment, vermin-ridden and chaotic; this moment when her self-doubt is allayed by a sedative is well-earned. Soon, Edie will be in her own apartment again, outside the mixed-bag, funhouse mirror, sweat equity artist’s residency that Eric and Rebecca’s house turned out to be. It is clear that Edie’s identity is set now. She is an artist, not camping out near it, not dating her ideal calling, but inhabiting it.
CANDACE WALSH is a second-year creative writing (fiction) PhD student at Ohio University. She holds an MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College. She is an assistant fiction editor at New Ohio Review. Her prose has appeared in Entropy, CRAFT, Fiction Writers Review, New Limestone Review, Brevity, The Complete Sentence, and Pigeon Pages, among other publications. Walsh’s story, “The Sandbox Story,” was published in Santa Fe Noir by Akashic Books. Cleave, her novel in progress, was longlisted in the 2018 Stockholm Writers Festival’s First Pages Contest.