Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Books for Readers review of Patient Women (full text)

Probably the biggest surprise of my summer reading was Patient Women by Larissa Shmailo. Shmailo is a highly accomplished poet, editor, and translator (see my review of her poetry in Issue # 169) . She does a lot of so-called "mixed" media, and she blogs at larissashmailo.blogspot.com. She is productive and successful, and lives a rich life in the arts.
She is also a survivor and child of survivors, and in her new novel Patient Women, she fictionalizes pieces of her life and recreates passages from her parents' lives as well as creating searing poems ostensibly written by her character Nora Nader.
There is plenty of recreational sex and drugs and drinking and also sex work, and brilliant recreations of the downtown milieu of New York City in the nineteen seventies. Much, much sensation and despair and struggle. There are whorehouse discussions during down time about what you want in an ideal client, and there are stunning shocks: at one point, Nora finally finds a man who has potential as a long term partner. They marry-- and he drowns on their honeymoon.
Nora's life is out of control, but the novel is completely in the novelist's control. In her great confidence in her own powers, Shmailo moves towards the end out of the straight narrative into a series of experiments in story telling and genre.
The bulk of the book is the grim narrative of Nora's dive into the lower depths and her grumbling return to sobriety through the efforts of a saintly trans friend who is dying of AIDS. Then, Nora begins to press her mother to repeat and explain family stories of their time in concentration camps under the Nazis: how they survived intact. She includes her mother's stories as free-standing short works, and it becomes increasingly clear that the family was not intact at all. The stories throw Nora into a near psychotic state of remembering that seems like too much for one person to bear. She says goodbye to Chrisis, her dying sobriety sponsor. She gives support to a dying stranger, money to a beggar. She notices that the world is still around her. And then come the poems, which act both as a reprise of the themes and events of the novel and also also as unnarrated evidence of Nora's talent and hopeful future. It is a gamble, to end a novel with so many passages in a different genre, but it pays off beautifully: Nora doesn't forget, perhaps doesn't even move on completely, but she can be with people. She can create.
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