There is a tidal movement in “Thrust,” whose chapters come and go over 200 years in and around New York Harbor. At the opening, we catch a glimpse of immigrants at work on a colossal new monument designed in France and shipped in pieces to the United States. With allusions to Walt Whitman, Yuknavitch gives voice to the crowd. “We were carpenters, blacksmiths, roofers, plasterers, and masons,” the narrator intones. “We were pipe fitters and welders and carpenters… We were cooks and cleaners and nuns and night watchmen. We were nurses, artists, janitors, runners, messengers, and thieves. Mothers, fathers and grandparents, sisters, brothers and children”. They are, in short, the entire panoply of cool Americans brought here from all over the planet, and they are pounding 31 tons of copper and 125 tons of steel into one towering statue. of a robed woman holding a torch aloft to light the way to freedom.
But even before this impressive metal sculpture is completed, its design has already been compromised, its meaning already corroded. “Small cracks began to appear in the story,” says the narrator, “just like in the materials of his body and our work.” Yuknavitch suggests that Lady Liberty was originally meant to hold broken chains in her hands, signifying the hard-earned end of slavery in the United States, but that core element was dropped at her feet and then darkened beneath her robes. , so that the fragile feelings of White Southerners take offense. And who exactly was he welcoming to a country that had already become so xenophobic, so resentful of new immigrants? And what about the irony of a lady celebrating freedom in a land where real women can’t vote? “Some of us wouldn’t be fully counted,” says the narrator. “A fear crept up some of our necks, that maybe she wasn’t ours, or that we weren’t hers, but no one wanted to say it out loud because we needed to make a living.”
Turn the page and the story jumps over two centuries into the future, 2079, when the effects of climate change brought on by the Industrial Revolution have swept through much of the East Coast. After what is known as “the great rise of the water”, survivors still risk sailing through the harbor to see “a sinking wonder of the world”, the submerged arm and head of a giant woman in her greatest part under the waves.
In this dystopian vision of our drowned future, government functions have collapsed except, of course, the rabid persecution of immigrants; that cause persists, the last shocking movements of the body politic in its agony. In the midst of this hellish landscape, we meet a strange girl named Laisve, whose name means “freedom” in Lithuanian, her father scared of her hiding from the raids. Yuknavitch’s descriptions of Brooklyn, now simply called Brook, are incongruously precise and impressionistic, mixing concrete details from a dream floating in a cloud of terror.
Laisve is not an ordinary girl. For one thing, she’s not afraid to roam the deadly streets or jump into the water. (There is clearly a touch of autobiographical projection here. Yuknavitch, an avid swimmer, once wrote“Put me in water even for ten seconds, and I’ll show you that a body is whatever you want it to be.”) During his wanderings, Laisve says things like: “Evil it’s just Live going in a different direction. People need to learn to understand backwards better. Words. Objects. Weather. People get stuck too easily.” And with the help of a talking box turtle, he travels through time.
no i didn’t see that coming. I did not see none of this surreal novel that comes. In fact, I won’t say much about the plot because I’m afraid I’ll accidentally reveal how little I followed it, but hold on tight to that turtle!
As “Thrust” progresses, Yuknavitch moves through several different stories, separated by decades but linked by Laisve’s helpful visits through the vast history of America’s faltering fight for freedom. We go back to those mid-19th century workers – women, gay people, formerly enslaved workers and more – toiling away on a monument that welcomes them to a land that despises them.
But the most striking sections of the novel involve the friendship between Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the man who designed the Statue of Liberty in real life, and a woman Yuknavitch has invented as his inspiration, a sexual libertine named Aurora. Yuknavitch creates their passionate correspondence in letters inspired by history but not limited by it.
In the most cerebral passages, Aurora pushes Bartholdi to rethink the meaning of his giant female statue by considering the way women’s bodies are remembered and dismembered. Her discussion revolves around a dazzling array of topics, including the “Frankenstein”, Darwin’s theories on evolution, feminist criticism that anticipates the work of Hélène Cixous and, most disturbingly, her own amputated leg. Aurora is also a great protector of the people consumed so efficiently by the machinery of capitalism. “The sunk cost of mechanizing America, creating the fiction of freedom, included the cutting up of women and children’s bodies,” Aurora tells Bartholdi. “How in the world will we ever come back whole from this?”
One of their solutions is to create an underground school where young people can escape from the factories and get an education. But his other solution to America’s psychic violence is considerably less orthodox: He maintains a house whose many rooms give rise to the most forbidden erotic fantasies of his adult clients, while at the same time taking them beyond the boring parameters of heterosexual intercourse: pushing the flesh beyond “the idiotic limits of the ridiculous reproductive drive.” It’s all part of his crusade to speak out what’s silenced, release what’s forbidden, lead America away from its deadly hypocrisy.”Those who enter my rooms do not leave with banal love or lust,” he tells Bartholdi, “but with a yearning to exist, again and again, within a much more interesting and intense space.”
After all these years reviewing contemporary fiction, I didn’t think it would shock me, but I was wrong. That hilariously provocative book jacket is just a start. Smell the air: you can already smell this novel burning in Texas.
Readers who give themselves over to Yuknavitch’s watery story will pick up bits of Jeanette Winterson and David Mitchell, but there’s nothing derivative about their perceptive reverie. Yuknavitch provides nothing less than a revised past and future of America with a vast new canon of attendant mythology. You may complain about the novel’s amorphous form, recurring vagueness, or multiple loose ends, but I read “Thrust” in a state of nervous fascination and ended up wishing I could dream it again.
rum charles check books and write book club newsletter for The Washington Post.
On July 7 at 7 pm, Lidia Yuknavitch will speak on “Thrust” at Solid State Books, 600 H St. NE, Washington.
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