The Ancestry of Objects, by Tatiana Ryckman, out now from Deep Vellum, explores the weirdness of lust in bodies, and the weirdness within the suburban gothic.
This quick novella recalls elements of weird Suburban melodrama—The Stepford Wives and Revolutionary Road—with a biting feminist urgency of disassociated subject, as if from the perspective of an automatized and menacing wife. The narrator uses the first person plural, and moves through the desire and motions of a love affair with a striking (and relatable) sense of spectatorship. This disconnect is a chilling trick, and which reminded me of Cris Mazza’s enduring look at the way distrust of sex is vilified in mainstream culture through work like Something Wrong with Her and Is it Sexual Harassment Yet? And it makes for a fresh and compelling treatment of familiar themes.
The plot features a brief affair. The cryptic “we” voiced narrator, responds to the advances of a married man with acceptance and resignation. She allows herself to be picked up. Holding the self at arm’s length. And bringing forth erotic encounters based in the landscape of liminal desires, not understood, and never clearly announced. It’s sexy to read about a desire that’s deferred through fragmented subjectivity.
It’s also sometimes gross: “His lips touch down on our back in the erratic pattern of ejaculate. He rubs the come in like lotion and it dries into a tight flaky skin that peels like a sunburn.” But the grossness doesn’t take away from the novel’s kick
Ryckman’s prose is spare, occasionally moving into ironic detachment, and deadpan commentary. She characterizes the awkwardness, and careless trajectory of the married man’s selfish advances, “He takes our time because he does not know it is ours.” She is critical, “How do the privileged suffer? Where do they learn sadness?” The types of an unemployed recluse, and a pampered, bored, man of “finance,” almost feel like parody
The titular object fascination comes out within vivid language, “The house is skeletal around us;” “The house is a hair shirt;” “Light traveling over porcelain figurines, in a glass doored cabinet;” and “A kitchen towel printed with geese wearing bonnets.” And it cements one of the central metaphors of the suburban home as a frozen cage
Within this weird mise en scene, there is a cryptic history of trauma, tied to understated hints at a repressed fundamentalist childhood, “Once on the playground when we corrected a classmate about the true day of the Sabbath, explaining to them only pagans worship on Sunday.”
In a trope familiar to gothic horror, the broken mirror of subjectivity, comes from an abusive upbringing in a house that looms large as a site of captivity. The narrator’s past, including episodes of self-harm, constitutes a subjectivity that experiences lust vicariously. Imagining her lover imagining his wife in flagrante delicto. And the themes of frustration, desire, and obedience are captivating in this quick novella. I was reminded of Miranda July’s explorations in The First Bad Man. And the sense that desire is necessarily a shell game.
Ryckman delivers a virtuoso study in erotics: alluring, heavy throated, and weirdly sad.