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Review
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Long read

Fucking old white men: on Raven Leilani’s Luster

When we fuck someone, what do we want? This question has impelled most art and literature since forever, and this is because the variables involved are infinite, and the answers proffered always incomplete.

To make it more doable, I’ll localise the question. 

When I fuck someone, what do I want? 

I want physical pleasure.

I want to feel that the person I am fucking is also feeling physical pleasure.

I want to feel desired.

I want this sex to result in me feeling like I have more of a stake in the world – I want this sex to tether me to my physical reality and convince me that my body is more than a slopping bag of meat juice loosely connected to the impressions I make when I walk down the street and the two specific memories I have of singing to my dogs when I was alone in my house growing up.

I want, if possible, a free dinner.

I could go on, and I will.

*

Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, was published in the US to rapturous praise in August this year and has just now been published in Australia. Its protagonist is a young Black publishing assistant named Edie who cares very little for her boring job and compulsively has sex with every man in her workplace. Edie also begins an affair with an older white man from the suburbs named Eric, who is in an open marriage with his similarly white wife, Rebecca. When he ghosts her, Edie stalks Eric’s house, where she is discovered by Rebecca. For the first portion of the book Rebecca has only existed as a figment of Edie’s imagination (ahem, Manderley, ahem), so seeing the wife-spectre in corporeal, Yale-T-shirt-wearing form is quite a shock. Instead of kicking her out, Rebecca invites Edie to stay. And so begins a very weird housing situation – made weirder by the fact that Rebecca and Eric have an adopted twelve-year-old daughter, Akila, who is Black, and Rebecca and Eric evidently expect Edie to befriend and mentor Akila. This is a very yikes assumption because a) Shared Blackness doesn’t equal immediate kinship and b) Edie is fucking Akila’s father, engaging in an intense power-play with Akila’s mother, and living in Akila’s family home.

The New York Times called Luster ‘the summer’s most touted debut.’ Leilani is thirty years old and has an MFA from NYU, where she was taught (and is now endorsed by) wunderkind-turned-literary-legend Zadie Smith. Smith hasn’t just blurbed the novel: she has written an entire article about how good it is for Harper’s Bazaar.

Smith’s endorsement is not unimportant. Back in 1997, while still an undergraduate at Cambridge, Smith’s unfinished White Teeth manuscript became the object of a publishing house bidding war, and Smith eventually sold the rights to her novel to Hamish Hamilton for an extremely sizeable sum. Smith was profiled by all the major news publications, most of which referred to her good looks as well as her brains – The Guardian’s writer, for example, equated her with ‘a fairer-skinned version of Lauryn Hill.’ White Teeth won a plethora of literary awards. It is a novel about Black Britons and white Britons, about poorer diasporic communities and Oxbridge-educated, middle-class elites; about what happens when the lives of members of these tribes intersect, and their experience differentials complicate intimacy and inter-personal understanding. Smith’s novels have continued to reckon with these intersections – race, class, education, love. Smith has, for many, become synonymous with Black female representation within elite literary spheres. To put it bluntly: Smith is a Black female author that white people actually read.

It has been twenty years since White Teeth was published, and the global landscape has changed. Publishers and reading audiences still love an attractive, young female novelist, because duh. But while Smith wrote a novel with (to borrow her own words) ‘a utopian view of race relations,’ with a huge array of characters from all walks of life, with narratives interweaving with frenetic happenstance, these days the hot young female novelist tends to get published and praised if she chooses a different path. Intensified and refracted by social media, questions of representation, authenticity and identity appropriation are as real in the literary world as they are in every other.

This means that more often the not, the young hot female novelist will now write primarily about one character – herself. If she is white, she will generally write about a young, female, white protagonist. If she is Black, she will generally write about a young, female Black protagonist. To over-simplify, this means that if young Black female authors aren’t published, young Black female protagonists aren’t represented.

So, what kind of young female author is being published today, and what kind of young female protagonist are we reading, again and again? Generally speaking these protagonists are white, and even so they aren’t all that happy. Blame it on the internet, or on the reality of structural misogyny in politics, media, and literally every other field that exists, but women seem to be a bit, well, over it all at present. Everyone’s gone to grad school and no one has money and Trump came uncomfortably close to a second term and the Proud Boys are mobilising and the world is melting and Pete Davidson starred in a film that got made in 2020 called The King of Staten Island.

This reality has translated into the fiction that is selling. When a novel about a beautiful, depressed young gallery assistant who takes copious amounts of meds so that she can sleep for a year alone in her apartment is one of the most popular books of 2018 and Sarah Jessica Parker holds that book like a purse on the Tribeca Film Festival red carpet, the indication seems pretty clear: women aren’t loving life in late capitalism.

And so recent years have seen an influx of highly Instagramable, highly marketable debut novels written by traditionally physically attractive, highly educated young women, whose depressed protagonists share extremely similar life experiences to their authors’ own. That is, they are often novels in which the female protagonist is in her twenties, living in an expensive metropolitan city. She is in graduate school or working in publishing and she exists in economic precarity. She uses sex and alcohol to fill an existential void, and she has artistic aspirations (probably writing, but sometimes visual art or music) that are stymied by the malaise of the daily grind, sexism and the price of coffee. And more often than not, she has an affair with a white man who is older than her, financially stable, probably highly respected in his field, who treats her like shit. It is unclear whether she likes him or simply hates herself. Either way, it is something to do. Examples of novels so far popular in this genre include Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends (2017), Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry (2018) (although admittedly this falls less into the category due to its tripartite narration), Naoise Dolan’s Exciting Times (2020), Niamh Campbell’s This Happy (2020), and Jessie Tu’s A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing (2020). Of these novels, only Tu’s protagonist is not white (both Tu and her protagonist, Jena, are Asian-Australian).

Now Luster enters the frame.

As it happens, its publication comes in the wake of Black Lives Matter. In the aforementioned female millennial affair novel cadre, Leilani is the only Black author, and her protagonist, Edie, the only Black protagonist.

Leilani and others have highlighted just how important it is to create and read young Black female characters who make bad choices and fail and fuck up as any other woman in her twenties would. This is absolutely true. But once we get past the observation that most anti-heroines in popular culture are white, and that this perpetuates the myth that only white women have the right to make mistakes or be unlikeable, we can begin to see patterns as well as disparity. When there are enough novels with a similar enough plot being published at the same time, points of difference become clearer, too.

In Luster, it is possible to observe how power differentials between a young woman and an older man in an affair are different when that woman is Black from when that woman is white. From Eric, different kinds of racialised infantilisation proliferate, and for Edie, different kinds of double-consciousness and self-immolation develop.

Edie’s Blackness shapes how she is treated in her professional life, as well as her own attitude to her place of employment. She is one of two Black women in her workplace, but unlike her Black colleague, Aria, Edie will not play at white palatability, which proves fatal, career-wise.

All of the young female protagonists in the novels I have listed use social media. Their relationships to social media are fraught, and are used by the authors to illustrate the deadening effect on young women’s sense of self-worth of infinite content consumption. But for Edie, there is the further issue of that other social media constant. That is, racism, and the almost daily reportage of Black deaths at the hands of police. When Edie gets to work, she scrolls through her phone at her desk.

I browse through some photos of friends who are doing better than me, then an article on a black teenager who was killed on 115th for holding a weapon later identified as a showerhead, then an article on a black woman who was killed on the Grand Concourse for holding a weapon later identified as a cell phone, then I drown myself in the comments section and do some online shopping, by which I mean I put four dresses in my cart as a strictly theoretical exercise and then let the page expire.

Leilani skilfully demonstrates how young Black women’s social media use is just like young white women’s social media use – except, for Black women in America, every few posts there’s a reminder that she could potentially be shot to death for no reason at any moment by the law enforcement she pays taxes to from her underpaid job.

Edie deals with the absolute commonplaceness of racist hate and racist inter-personal dynamics on social media the same way she does in real life: she takes it on, unsurprised, and shrugs it off, unsurprised. Which is not to say that it doesn’t eat away at her; that it doesn’t manifest in other ways, inflecting what and who she desires, for example. There is a knowing malaise that guides Edie’s interactions: of course she will be treated differently, perversely, by white people, because she is Black. With Rebecca, for example, Edie sees it all unfold like chess, the predictability of it, Rebecca’s categorisation of her:

She is moving toward her most natural conclusion, which is to engage me not as a person who has just watched her dissect a man, but as a person who is black, and who is, because of that, available for her support.

What is interesting to Edie is what happens next. Once the expected racism occurs, what then? This malaise filters into the power dynamics that charge her affair with Eric, and her relationship with Rebecca.

Later in the novel, when Edie is living in Eric’s home, there are multiple instances in which she is able to understand what Akila is experiencing, while Eric and Rebecca cannot. After observing just one small interaction in the kitchen, Edie immediately sees that Akila is not doing well in maths because her maths tutor is a racist dickhead, not because Akila is bad at maths. Akila’s hair is a mess, and this is clearly because Eric and Rebecca have no idea what to do with Black hair. When Edie gets Akila the hair products she needs, ‘Eric comes down the stairs and comments on the smell, but when he sees the source, he seems to gather that it is Something Black, and he is contrite.’ It’s little asides like this that modulate so many of Edie’s experiences. Threatened by what they see as the otherness of her Blackness, white characters perform social deference, which means they do none of the work that might allow them to actually get to know her as a human being.

The dynamic between Eric (and Rebecca) and Edie here is startlingly similar to that which occurs between the three main characters in Kiley Reid’s Booker-longlisted debut, Such a Fun Age (2019). In Reid’s novel, a mid-thirties white couple hires a young Black woman, Emira, to look after their child, and it quickly becomes clear that this hire is guided by self-interest and the accumulation of cultural currency for the white couple, rather than any actual interest in or respect for the individual young Black woman.

In Luster, the economic exchange is similarly murky. Edie does do some housework at Rebecca’s request, but she is not specifically being paid for housework or for babysitting or for sex. However, the money left for her each week in Eric’s house by an anonymous household member is definitely partial payment for at least one of these things.

In each of the other affair novels I have mentioned, the protagonists are given gifts of money and/or goods by their older male lovers that could also be construed as payment for services rendered. Is it racist of me to feel more uncomfortable about Edie’s payment than about Alannah’s or Frances’ or Mary-Alice’s? It may well be – and it is in comparing my reaction to each that I can interrogate this.

In Having and Being Had, Eula Biss’ recent book on personal responsibility and worth in late capitalism, Biss considers the agency exchanged in the consensual dominant-submissive relationship between composer Georg Friedrich Haas, who is white, and his wife, Mollena Williams-Haas, who is Black and a direct descendent of chattel slaves. Williams-Haas cooks for, cleans for, and ‘serves’ her husband, because it gives her pleasure. In Biss’ interpretation, Williams-Haas just wants to be a slave on her own terms. Biss quotes Williams-Haas:

Racism and bigotry and the pain they engender are real. But how often do we have the ironic opportunity to consent to and control our own pain? I have discovered that consenting to small amounts of pain and abuse and suffering is like an inoculation of my soul against the pandemic of hatred.

The idea here is that, if you are inevitably going to be hurt by the world without your consent because of who you are – a woman, Black, say – then you might get some pleasure out of instigating this hurt yourself. But while the Haases seem to have developed the rules of their dynamic together, in a transparent co-production that takes into account both parties’ fetishes and what they want from each other, Edie’s relationship with Eric is not so regulated, and indeed, it thrives on ambiguity.

The fact of Edie’s Blackness and Eric’s whiteness is not discussed between them in any real way, and this just heightens the power differentials that regulate their dynamic. On their first date, Edie is aware of how Eric is hyper-aware of his whiteness as compared to her Blackness: ‘I can feel it in how cautiously he says African American. How he absolutely refuses to say the word black.’ But Eric’s caution stems more from his desire not to verbally misstep in a racially aware climate than it does from any attempt from him to see from Edie’s point of view.

Edie notes that she does not usually date white men who have not dated Black women before, shuddering as she remembers ‘the nervous renditions of backpacker rap, the conspicuous effort to be colloquial, or the smugness of pink men in kente cloth.’ Something about Eric, however, compels her to keep going. And it is not just about race – it is also very much about age and position in life.

Edie’s desire for Eric is not so different from that which makes her white protagonist counterparts desire their own older white men. It is something about vulnerability. It is about witnessing the vulnerability of the person who signifies the apex of privilege and power in this world, and discovering that even with all that power and all that privilege, old white men are so often just sheltered, naive little boys – little boys who have everything and understand nothing.

For their first date, Eric chooses Six Flags as the location. ‘As we enter the gates,’ she notes, ‘I feel the high-fructose sun of the park like an insult. This is a place for children. He has taken me to a place for children.’ I cackle at this line each time I re-read it, as I am obsessed with the way Leilani repeats ‘a place for children’ like a Superzoom Instagram filter bouncing closer into the frame to the rhythm of the Law and Order ‘dun dun’. Instead of bailing, however, Edie stays the course: she rides the rides with Eric, and she is touched by the vulnerability he displays in his earnest, gleeful enjoyment of this kids’ attraction. She thinks, 

All I want is for him to have what he wants. I want to be uncomplicated and undemanding. I want no friction between his fantasy and the person I actually am. I want all that and I want none of it.

Later they are talking about faking orgasms, and Edie’s complete understanding of Eric’s naiveté again coexists with her wanting him. She asks him,

‘You don’t ever lie to spare feelings?’ ‘Never.’ ‘Interesting,’ I say. Of course, it is not interesting that he has been allowed to live candidly. It is not interesting that he cannot conceive of anything else. He has equated his range of motion with mine. He hasn’t considered the lies you tell to survive, the kindness of pretend, which I illustrate now, as I eat this bacterial hot dog. This is the first time I sort of understand him. He thinks we’re alike. He has no idea how hard I’m trying.

‘You can be yourself with me, you know,’ he says, and it’s all I can do not to laugh right in his face.

In this respect, Leilaini’s novel shares uncanny parallels with the dynamic at play in Rooney’s novel, in Nolan’s, in Tu’s, in Campbell’s, in Halliday’s. It doesn’t matter if you are Black or white, for example: the common experiences of these novels’ protagonists would suggest that if you are a young woman having sex with an older man, he will likely buy you foods and take you to places that are specifically designed for infants. He will say and do things that position you as kid and him as adult. He won’t understand that you are living in two different but equally adult spheres.

In Asymmetry, Ezra is always buying Mary-Alice cookies and ice-creams. In Exciting Times, Julian pays for literally everything. In A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing, Mark asks Jena to shave her ‘furry pie’ and refers to the hotel rooms he books for them to have sex in as ‘a treat for you’. In This Happy, Harry loves to discourse on what Alannah’s future career might be, and he buys her a mobile phone as a gift; when Frances’ dad stops paying her allowance in Conversations with Friends, her older lover Nick takes care of the bill.

Again, it is not that the female protagonist is unaware of the power dynamic, or her part in it. She is testing it out. There is a scene in Asymmetry where young publishing assistant Mary-Alice is in bed with Ezra (whose character is based largely on Phillip Roth, Halliday’s own much older former paramour), with her arms around his head, and

she marvelled at how his brain was right there, under her chin, and so easily contained by the narrow space between her elbows. It began as a playful thought, but suddenly she distrusted herself to resist crushing that head, turning off that brain.

That is, a large part of the appeal for Mary-Alice of sleeping with this much older, successful male writer, and making him want her, is the access that doing so grants her to his inner chamber: from here she could fucking destroy him. It’s the same in This Happy, to an extent: Alannah wants to give everything she can to Harry, because at her core, it is as if she knows that one day she will either leave him – because she is more interesting than he is – or she won’t leave him, but she’ll still be more interesting. For now, she will role-play dependency; when the time comes, when she has successfully compelled his desire for a specifically constructed and performed version of herself, she will be stronger than before and he will be depleted. Or at least that is the plan.

… I cannot condemn him outright you know, because it was precious to me, this chemistry, this thing I could be for him, as I imagined it then – how proud I could make him feel. Giving him this share in my development.

Which is what I did, really. Great slices of myself.

And so I wouldn’t run from Drogheda, from the cottage, from Harry, because I had nothing to run to and anyway anything I could run to would be boring: anything that I could run to would be death. I wanted to wait and see, I suppose, how it would turn out.

It is this kind of double-knowledge that runs throughout the interior monologues of all these young female protagonists. They are not stupid, and not naive. Indeed, they are extremely self-aware about the self-destructive impulses behind their affairs, and the cognitive dissonance that allows them to ideologically hate middle class, middle-aged white men but at the same time want to be desired, thought clever, and fucked by those men.

In This Happy, Alannah considers older men ‘the blameworthy custodians of the world,’ and yet she recalls the joy she felt when, at twenty-three, her older, married male lover declared her psychologically complex: ‘I remember the giddiness that was a kind of declawed trauma when Harry told me, You are a complicated girl.’ She relishes him ascribing her this personhood, as if his older-white-man status gives him the authority to decide whether she matters or not, whether she is a serious person. But she is also aware that she is playing into the game, and indeed, that it is a game she could also decide not to play any longer. She knows that to bait Harry’s desire she must also stroke his ego: she must be desirable and complex in the right way, which is to say, she must perform a certain coquettish childishness. One night, in Borough Market, she recalls,

I was reading Little Dorrit at the time and I talked about how boring I was finding it. I was aware that my petulance made me look childish and guileless and attractive. These tactics, I thought: you are tactical. The thought made me ashamed.

Playing the child, or playing up the appearance of a kind of refreshing unstudiedness, is a performance engaged in by each of these young female protagonists. The older men in these novels infantilise them: but these women assist them in doing so. The question is, of course, when does performing one’s own infantilisation produce the exact same effect as being infantilised without one’s permission? When does a Black woman serving a white man stop being ironic, if it ever can be so? 

Leilani’s Edie self-consciously accepts her role in this world-wary submissive dynamic with Eric, and conjectures about her desire to do so. She postulates:

Beyond the fact of older men having more stable finances and different understanding of the clitoris, there is the potent drug of a keen power imbalance. Of being caught in the excruciating limbo between their disinterest and expertise. Their panic at the world’s growing indifference. Their rage and adult failure, funnelled into the reduction of your body into gleaming, elastic parts.

It is almost as if Edie likes Eric because she so detests him: she knows that he is structurally more powerful than her, but she also finds him personally pathetic at the same time. It is as if she reasons that in possessing Eric sexually, and in making a space for herself in his economically comfortable home and family, she has somehow bested him, asserting inter-personal authority where socio-economic authority is impossible to gain. Edie’s care for Eric has a lot to do with the pleasure of inevitability. Edie asks Eric to hurt her. It turns out Eric enjoys choking Edie, he enjoys it very much. It’s like watching a puzzle image form just exactly as the box predicted. She gives him power; he takes it. She is laying a trap for white masculinity but she is the bait, and it is she who will get hurt: will this make her hurt feel better? Ideologically, maybe; but in felt personhood, not really.

By the end of the novel, Edie moves out of Eric’s house, and Leilani gives us this Breakfast Club fist-pump moment – hey hey hey HEY! – as Edie reflects,

He is the most obvious thing that has ever happened to me, and all around the city it is happening to other silly, half-formed women excited by men who’ve simply met the prerequisite of living a little more life, a terribly unspecial thing that is just what happens when you keep on getting up and brushing your teeth and going to work and ignoring the whisper that comes to you at night and tells you it would be easier to be dead. So, sure, an older man is a wonder because he has paid thirty-eight years of Con Ed bills and suffered food poisoning and seen the climate reports and still not killed himself, but somehow, after being a woman for twenty-three years, after the ovarian torsion and student loans and newfangled Nazis in button-downs, I too am still alive, and actually this is the more remarkable feat.

*

Katy Waldman at The New Yorker has recently taken issue with this kind of ‘self-aware’ millennial novel, describing Dolan’s and Rooney’s protagonists as ‘tuned to problems but unable to solve them.’ Waldman characterises these clever, self-effacing, darkly comic narrators as

Desperate to undercut themselves before the reader can, they don’t prescribe or argue or even exercise much agency but, rather, turn inward, holding up a disenchanted mirror to what they think and feel.

Instead of interrogating hetero-capitalism, says Waldman, these books mirror hetero-capitalism.

A question I would like to ask Katy Waldman, though, is what agency would she like to see these protagonists exercise? Is she suggesting that she would like to see novels by young women in which young women protagonists ‘take charge’ and then what? Succeed in business despite the odds? Somehow destroy late capitalism? Neither of these options seem very realistic to me.

If our issue with these depressed female millennial affair novels is that they don’t seem to give their protagonists much power, perhaps we should take from this not that the authors of these novels are unimaginative or unfeminist, but that the world itself is fucked and young women largely do feel trapped and don’t have power.

How would a novel that ‘interrogates’ capitalism and racism look different to a novel that ‘mirrors’ them? I suppose we could republish White Teeth, but that best-selling book having a utopian view of race relations doesn’t seem to have stopped racism, from what I can tell. Waldman’s critique of Rooney and Dolan appears to me of a similar kind of satisfyingly acerbic but ultimately unproductive take as that utilised by Lauren Oyler against Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror in her now Twitter-famous takedown essay ‘Ha ha! Ha ha!’ Pointing out contradictions in society and our imbrication within those contradictions should not mean that we are then expected to solve all those contradictions, and to single-handedly change the conditions under which they proliferate.

Self-awareness is not the same as moral superiority, and it does not abnegate people of their responsibility. However, in the novels I am discussing, self-awareness is not just self-awareness: it is world-awareness. The protagonists I have written of are deeply aware of their positionality within the world system, and to be so aware requires an attentiveness to the world and to the wants and desires of others that is actually the opposite of solipsistic.

These young women sleep with old white men because they want to be the thing that is wanted the most by the person who could theoretically have anything. But over the course of playing this game, another realisation occurs: if you are the prize, then wouldn’t it be better to, like, not be won? Apart from Rooney’s Frances, not one of the protagonists I have mentioned is still sleeping with the old guy by the novel’s end. Sometimes you only realise how pathetic white masculinity is when you’re being fucked by a guy who literally gets his rocks off by having you pretend to be a child.

Luster is smart, and funny, and very sad, and extremely good in its own right. In observing the refracted desires and self-critiques that guide Edie’s romantic trajectory, we can see one example of how race, age and privilege intersect to influence what it is that we want when we have sex. When we read Leilani’s novel alongside Rooney’s, Dolan’s, Tu’s, Campbell’s, and Halliday’s, it becomes clear that, though each protagonist’s experience is different, it is the same overarching system of white, patriarchal sublimation that binds all these young women in what they want and ultimately reject. Reviewers have praised the honesty, intensity and viscerality of Leilani’s sex scenes – so much so that one might be forgiven for assuming that the book is entirely devoid of other content. It is not. However, sex does run through the book’s entirety like currency, like rivers of melancholic orgasm gold. The sex in this novel is transactional, involves uneven power dynamics, and is psychologically tied to characters’ sense of self-worth. Like money, sex means everything and also absolutely nothing.

When I fuck someone, what do I want?

I want to: fuck you.

 

Image: detail from the cover of the UK edition of Luster

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Madeleine Gray is a writer and critic from Sydney. Her writing has appeared in the Sydney Review of Books, The Monthly, TLS, The Lifted Brow and the BBC.

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Comments

  1. Insightful essay. Slight correction: the protagonist of “Exciting Times” also stays with the older version white man at the end of the narrative. Maybe it’s an Irish thing?

  2. Hey there, thank you for engaging with this essay! I read the ending of Exciting Times as suggesting that the protagonist was choosing Edith over Julian, but I am aware that there are differing interpretations of that final airport scene. Regardless, the Irish have certainly treated us in this genre – Campbell, Nolan, and Rooney, what a trio !

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