Shooting the breeze, a novel
It feels that printed in invisible ink above the first line of Sarah Schulman’s novel, Girls, Visions and Everything, is “Once upon a strange time.” Lila Futuransky, the book’s protagonist, is introduced with that air of a character in a magic kingdom: she “always knew she was an outlaw,” but is unsure of “which one.” She “endlessly [perseveres],” is young, and “[has] time.” These immediate allusions to Lila as not beginning but ongoing convey that her and her community’s life, lesbian life, has been around in New York City for a long time and requires defiant struggle.
Schulman’s method of tying Lila’s story to the greater magic kingdom (a gentrifying East Village in the 1980s) is to embody her observations in characters with demonstrably different backgrounds and then situate them in the same neighborhood. It is her vivid and unapologetic animation of these characters—how they handle poverty, discrimination, sex—that delivers an affecting portrait of life in the city; and because of their palpability the book’s societal critiques never feel pedantic or contrived.
To unite her characters and social commentary, Schulman gives Lila a proclivity for touring town. She loves to “walk the streets for hours with nowhere to go except where she [ends] up,” admiring or criticizing her block and talking with folks on the corner. She “[runs] into” a diverse palette of characters, and the chance meetings provide Schulman myriad opportunities for a colorful paragraph of backstory or Lila’s opinion. The strolls are reminiscent of the role played by the interlude chapters in The Grapes of Wrath: like Steinbeck pauses the plot to paint the road to and through Depression California, Schulman’s encounters with drug dealers, immigrants, men, and bigots (categories which often overlap) vivify city life. But where Steinbeck waxes poetic, Schulman is conversational, colloquial. She shows that New York City’s soul is in its inhabitants and their brief, usually banal chats. But Lila’s encounters are never truly shallow: through them we learn about characters’ experiences of addiction, racism, and homophobia. Their ordinary, midday banter is the poetry, and it reveals the fault lines in Schulman’s New York.
Lila is also well-equipped for the limited third person perspective Schulman employs because she is both ruminative and adventurous. This combines her serendipitous city strolls with an acute inner monologue. When Lila sees a neighborhood-watch sign that reads “’Clean Up Our Street’,” she muses that “any group of people who want to ‘clean up’ another group of people [is] usually bad news.” A downtown protest against intervention in Central America affords the observation, “in the U.S. people are allowed to be political as long as they don’t actually have an effect on anything.” Lila approaches Emily, the character with whom she falls in love and around whom she then centers her commentary on relationships, on a whimsical rebound: “Hi Emily…I just got humiliated by a woman…Want to dance with me?” Schulman weaves the exchange between broad experience and deep reflection into Lila’s personality from the get-go, giving the story an natural ability to cover an eclectic range of scenes and ideas.
The most potent method Schulman uses to explore ideas is dialogue. In addition to her casual-yet-expository streetside chats, in lengthier and more personal conversations Lila and her friends broach weighty subjects. To a poet friend, Lila proposes an idea for a story about “parents who only want…their child to fail so that they can prove…they were right all along.” This would be a provocative statement by itself, but Schulman amplifies its resonance by situating it at the end of a conversation about the poet’s mother, who disapproves of her published works. The line (“parents who only…”) draws additional power from its adherence to the natures of the conversating characters: Lila is brash, a writer, and rather open; the poet, Lacy, righteous and honest. Because it feels these people really would say what they say, their co-condemnation of unloving parents springs from the page. Schulman’s dialogue consistently hits this balance of naturality and congruence within a scene and, as a result, delivers complex ideas simply and forcefully.
That dialogue is the novel’s strength reinforces its central theme: community. Schulman makes clear that life as a low-income lesbian in gentrifying, 1980s New York is dangerous and difficult but, by focusing on the tightness of her circle, she demonstrates that “even when shit is hitting the fan, people can still have good times.” We see that the members of Lila’s community support each other not only because no one else will, but also because they are, simply, good friends. They share thoughts on food, love, and sex; they drink, smoke, and joke together; they wonder about life and grasp at answers. Their conversations about these things intimately communicate the importance of community for everyone, not just the subcategory of Lila’s identity, time, and place. Suffering is a feature of Girls, Visions and Everything as it is a permanent feature of human nature but, as Schulman reminds us, so is friendship. Better to share that.