title: Zipper Mouth [support an independent bookseller and purchase from Strand]
author: Laurie Weeks
source: New York Public Library
“Outside my window it was cold, bare trees shaved in a bitter wind. Or maybe it was summer, who can know. The TV’s dismal flow leaked across my sheets. Jesus, close eyes. What did the day used to be like. I drifted to a memory of a happy time when I brought home a poem in second grade about clouds. “Clouds” was misspelled: The fluffy clods are floating in the sky. My mother’s loving laughter, my beautiful young mother, at the time she would’ve been thirty-one, her laugh a fizzy feeling, both of us dissolving into giggles, sadly ignorant of the bloody five-car pileup of life I was hurtling blissfully toward.” (page 159).
I came to Zipper Mouth in a roundabout way: I was reading an awesome piece over at The Awl on the merits (and inherent problems) with author readings and book tours, and I really enjoyed reading the thoughts contributed by Laurie Weeks and Tao Lin. When I researched Weeks, I quickly found out that parts of Zipper Mouth had appeared in Dave Eggers’ The Best American Nonrequired Reading, I immediately put a hold on it at the library. (Those of you who are fluent in my particular brand of literary snobbery know that I take the recommendations from “The Daves” very seriously, “The Daves” being David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers and David Sedaris. They walk among the gods who reign supreme in my personal pantheon of prolific prose-makers). Per usual, Eggers’ recommendation was spot on.
The narrator of Laurie Week’s Zipper Mouth has
a problem several problems:
1) She has a substance abuse problem. Her drug of choice: ALL OF THEM. Heroin, speed, coke, booze, weed, nicotine…if you can crush it, snort it, or smoke it, apparently it either has been or will be in her at some point over the course of the narrative.
2) Due to said substance abuse problem, she has an employment problem (she seems to gain and lose various temp jobs throughout the text) which, combined with the substance abuse problem, results in a financial problem that leaves her unable/almost unable to pay her rent/bills or, at one point, buy a bagel for breakfast. Her ability to stretch even the smallest amount of money while ensuring the purchase of some sort of illegal substances boggles the mind.
3) And to top if off, she has an unrequited love problem, as she’s hopelessly infatuated with her best friend, Jane, a straight girl who gets high on the attention and free drugs that come with said infatuation.
Set mostly in NYC’s Lower East Side, the novel itself is a nonlinear collage of images, scenes, lists, memories, amends and letters (to dead celebrities like Sylvia Plath, Vivien Leigh, and Judy Davis, and to her very much alive addict friends) that work together to create a rich, vivid picture of the narrator’s life. The protagonist, though presented in a reflective yet unselfconscious and nonjudgmental manner by the author, at times seems to embody the verb “waste”: she wastes her potential, her intelligence, her passions and talent; she wastes her heart on a woman who isn’t going to love her in a healthy way; she is literally wasted for most of the book. As the reader (and as an overly empathetic being), I couldn’t help but feel for her, to want more for her. Though flawed (and aren’t we all!!), the protagonist is so warm, so genuine and funny (!!!) and unpretentious, so realistic and raw and reflective and aware that I rooted for her every step of the way. And THANK GOD that Weeks has created a piece of work that pushes the reader out of a passive comfort zone, to really feel something, even if that something is, at times, discomfort and anxiety. (sidebar: FACT: after reading the scene in which the protagonist wakes up, hungover, only to realize that she vaguely recalls she may or may not have a test that day (“What fucking test? In what banal way with nonetheless enormous consequences was I about to fuck up today?” (page64)), I woke up at 2:24am in a cold sweat and could not for the life of me fall back asleep before I had reviewed and re-reviewed my “to do” list no less that 13 times and I was reasonably sure that I hadn’t dropped the ball on anything. THAT’S how much I empathized with the protagonist…I actually adopted some of her anxiety as my own. You know you have an empathy problem when you start taking on the stress of the fictitious…).
I loved Week’s utilization of multiple and alternative forms for her narrative (lists, flashbacks, letters, etc). It reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad in terms of how successfully utilized and how incredibly contemporary those choices felt (n.b. for those of you who haven’t read A Visit From the Goon Squad yet, DO! It’s phenomenal! There’s an entire chapter done a as series of power-point slides that illustrates my point and, stylistically, works wonderfully!). My favorite list came on page 46:
“10 Bonus Accomplishments of Today
1. Battled Satan
2. Didn’t smoke pot(so far)
3. Swept floor, tied newspapers
4. Organized four files
5. Went to work in spite of spirit being broken on Rack of Menstrual Pain
6. Ate broccoli, ‘the colon’s broom’
7. Endured lengthy conversation with X; faked waves of empathy
8. Didn’t smoke for three hours after getting up
9. Walked to the gym instead of taking a cab
10. Celebrated diversity”
I actually do the same thing when I’m feeling especially unproductive and/or am feeling the desire to be self-congratulatory. Here’s mine from today:
Jack’s 10 Bonus Accomplishments of Today
- Wrote email from bed to Marketing at 5:33am (to make up for email I forgot to send before I left work yesterday…ooops)
- Only had 1 1/2 cans of Coke despite running on less than 5 hours sleep
- Wrote Zipper Mouth review, which has been at the top of my “to review” pile for at least a week and a half
- Remembered to take all 6 supplements
- Called Mom; experienced genuine empathy
- Remembered to ask Mom for Grandma’s new email address
- Cleaned off couch (i.e. the world’s largest, most comfortable junk drawer)
- Requested Pinterest invite
- Made a dent in the dirty dishes
- Celebrated diversity
This one was mostly self-congratulatory 😉
I would also be remiss if I didn’t talk about how damn beautiful the language was! Weeks is so skilled at putting together some infuriatingly gorgeous sentences. Comme ci:
“I couldn’t focus. Nicotine deprivation revealed to me what a vacuum I was, what a suction machine of need and desire. God I love everything, I thought, gazing out my window at passersby several stories below. Blossoms dripping from the trees, robins in love warbling among the peeping spring budlets, trash spilling festively from an orange dumpster…That emaciated visionary walking his mangy dogs beneath the ginko trees like he did every day in a paradigm-shattering costume of sandals and socks beneath an overstretched Speedo and bare rib cage–I worshipped him. The periwinke sky and its cloud scallops arched up from behind the jumbled gothic architecture of rooftops across the street. I loved that shade of blue, what a sharp sensation it produced in my lungs! What chemical floodgate does a color open in your mind? Love leaked from my pituitary and converted on contact with my bloodstream into panic and I was swelling up, threatening to leave the ground and float off fast. I needed a cigarette, the tap-dancing kind, three feet long.” (page 48)
Rubric rating: 8.5. Can’t wait to read more from her!!!