In ‘Push’, Talking Animals and Others Point to Humanity’s Cruelty

PUSH
By Lidia Yuknavitch
338 pages. Riverhead Books. $28.

Like in “Alice in Wonderland” or an old Disney cartoon, things perk up considerably in Lydia Yuknavitch Deliberately difficult new novel, “Push”, when animals speak.

His conversation, with a young girl moving like Alice through a series of strange mirror worlds, is surprising, hilarious, and justly deserved for us arrogant humans and our systems. “The whole concept of evil… what the hell is that all about?” asks a box turtle named Bertrand. (In the film version, Wallace Shawn would play him.) “This business of the gods is absurd,” he says later. “He’s got you all screwed up out there.”

The earthworms and mushrooms converse disapprovingly in front of the girl, like in a dark version of “Fantasia”. “My God, your ignorance about the flora and fauna of the Amazon is amazing,” a mycelium scoffs. (Despite her atheism, Bertrand will also launch a dismissive “My God.”) There is “a little chorus of worm laughter”, worse than any evil clique in the high school cafeteria. Thank the goddess for the motherly and helpful whale who asks, “Do you have a name, dear?”

The girl’s name is Laisve, which means “freedom” in Lithuanian, and she is a central character, though not the central character—of “Empuje”, whose fragmented and expanding structure questions centrality itself (as well as liberté, égalité and, more particularly, fraternité). Another important figure is the Statue of Liberty, built by an “ocean of workers,” one of whom sadly watches a suffragist spit in the face of her creation because women still don’t have the right to vote. Another is the statue’s real-life designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, whom Yuknavitch imagines locked in a sadomasochistic affair with a fictional older cousin, Aurora Boréales. In one of his tamer pieces of correspondence, he describes creating a “threesome facilitator chair” with adjustable leg and butt covers.

Such liberties will come as no surprise to those familiar with the author’s oeuvre, which tends to rip and re-sew established history into crazy quilt patterns, and to hell with the dangling threads. In “The Book of Joan” (2017), Yuknavitch planted Joan of Arc in a dystopian future. In “Dora: A Headcase” (2012), he moved one of Freud’s best-known study subjects to Seattle and outfitted her with a Dora the Explorer backpack. Yuknavitch’s own memoir, “The Chronology of Water” (2011), is definitely not chronological in the received sense, conferring mystical, perhaps even magical, powers on water. Like “Thrust,” whose sensitive attunement to marine ecosystems made me look at the sea sponge in my bathtub with new eyes. (Maybe he was looking back?)

Credit…Andy Mingo and Michael Connors

The book spans a couple of centuries, from Lady Liberty’s conception and construction in the 1880s to 2085 and beyond, when the statue has, as in “The Day After Tomorrow” and at least one other disaster film, submerged by rising sea levels. At least the rent is no longer too tall: The area formerly known as Brooklyn is now called The Brook, with medieval-sounding regions called Rinnegackonck and Werpos. (Gowanus, now known by its toxic sludge channelhas somehow survived.)

Businesses have collapsed and the economy has gone underground. Terrifying raids can happen at any moment, with “gunmen in pickup trucks snaking like killer whales through the streets, taking people to God knows where.” Laisve’s mother is dead, her little brother has been kidnapped, and her father, Aster, has epilepsy and, understandably, mental anguish. Objects float through time, space, and sometimes understanding: a penny (the taste of copper always twinned with blood); an umbilical cord; an Apple. Laisve is a “carrier”, transferring them from one environment to another.

We meet and stand in solidarity with Mikael, a teenager in a detention center who has prior knowledge of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But in an acidic twist on maritime custom “women and children first”, they are the main drivers of “Empuje”. (In a recent interview, Yuknavitch spoke of trying to strip the word of its phallocentric connotations.) Aurora, who loses her own leg (don’t worry, Frédéric provides a well-researched prosthetic, hand-painting red toenails) has a room to show those mutilated for child labour. (She also maintains a “Knee Room” for adult activities.)

The story is filled with angst for these “little ghosts,” like a girl with a disfiguring necrosis called a “fossil jaw,” from working with phosphorus in a match factory. “The sunk cost of mechanizing America, creating the fiction of freedom,” Aurora declares, “included the slashing of the bodies of women and children.” Some of these passages feel preachy, as if they belong better in The Nation than in a novel. Laisve is also the name of a deceased radical political newspaper — then, perhaps, a carrier of ideas.

Contempt for the cruelty and selfishness of humanity flows through “Pushing”. “The thing about mycelia is that they stick together,” Mikael says, recounting his bleak childhood to a social worker in What Else? – “waves.” “Whereas the thing about people is that they are mostly individual meat sacks that possess and devour everything in their path, and you never know when their entrails are going to come out.”

It’s hard to resist the critical tide here, Yuknavitch elicits ecstasy from many readers, but it’s also hard to keep tabs on such obviously charged characters, charged with meaning greater than themselves. Thrust is an outrageous and impressive novel, but only spurting it out, enjoyable, and perhaps that is exactly the point. Some will throw it unfinished across the room. Others will savor his elaborately orchestrated punishments.

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