Review by Ben Arzate
Neva, often referred to as the people who know her as “the lesbian,” has a seemingly supernatural ability to make anyone around her love her on the condition that she loves them back. This results in her gathering an almost cult-like following at the Y Bar that she frequents. Her lovers include the alcoholic Richard, the bartender Francine, and a transwoman named Judy. Judy’s boyfriend, a retired policeman named J.D., grows jealous of her relationship with Neva and starts digging into Neva’s past to try to find a way to get back at her.
“The lesbian was nearly always on time for our appointments. That made I easier for us to pretend that she was faithful to each of us alone.”
While Richard is the narrator of the book, the main characters are really Neva and Judy. The main theme of the book is “performing femininity.” In the case of the lesbian, Neva (technically not really a lesbian), does not need to “perform” as she’s a goddess-like being. The platonic ideal of femininity. Judy, a transwoman, is, in contrast, constantly in need of performing it to “pass.” This comes to the forefront with her love of both Neva and J.D. She seeks the perfect femininity of Neva but often finds herself pulled away from it by J.D., who often abuses and misgenders her. This is made even more obvious by the fact that characters are often referred to as their “roles” such as “the lesbian,” “the transwoman,” “the retired policeman,” etc.
While Vollmann is actually quite skilled at sketching out his characters, and this is a book more driven by character and theme than by plot, he’s not so good at bringing it together as a coherent whole. At least not in this book. An example of one of this book’s major failings is that the main plotline of J.D. exploring Neva’s past is rendered completely pointless as much of the beginning of the book explains it in great deal. The plotline is ultimately a shaggy dog story, which makes it even more annoying.
The novel is over 600 pages. This isn’t unusual for a Vollmann book, but here it isn’t warranted at all. The stories of these characters are ultimately straightforward and much of what Vollmann puts into it is just filler. To contrast it with another Vollmann book with a similar premise, The Royal Family actually earns it 800 page length with its wide cast of different characters, its odd non-fictional digressions, and some of the genuinely nasty imagery. Here, it feels like Vollmann is simply trying to wear the reader down with repetitions of the various characters’ devotions to Neva, J.D. learning things we already knew about her, and the dead sex scenes that I’m really not sure were supposed to be erotic, disturbing, or just meant to unerotic in the most banal way.
I can’t say this book is a complete failure. I found when Vollmann zoomed in on one character and focused on their individual stories I was far more engaged. Also, despite being rather worn down with this book by the end, I still felt a little sad watching the mostly tragic endings all of the characters unfold. It’s obvious he did something right.
Vollmann is known for being somewhat difficult with his editors and often refusing to make cuts, sometimes even taking lower royalties and advances to offset the risk of the size of his books. However, this is one that really would have benefited from a lot of cuts and rearrangement. There’s a pretty good 300-400 page book inside this 600 page one. As it stands, I really can’t recommend this book unless you’re a hardcore Vollmann fan. Otherwise, you’re better off picking up The Royal Family.