• Marginalia: Carol Anshaw

    Peter Kispert


    For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Peter Kispert—whose story “404” appears in our Winter 2024 issue—examines a passage from Aquamarine by Carol Anshaw.

    In Carol Anshaw’s 1992 debut novel Aquamarine, after a short glimpse into the moment young Jesse Austin places second in freestyle at the 1968 Summer Olympics, we are plunged into three different, concurrent July 1990s, and in each, three very different Jesses emerge. After these extended triptych imaginings—each set exactly twenty-two years after that silver medal—the novel is punctuated at its close with a glimpse as brief and powerful as its opener, of one December 1990. At first and even second glance, this story seems to exact focus on where the book spends most of its time: in the middle. But there’s a gorgeous complication inherent in Aquamarine’s unique structure—we can’t properly read this book one-way. Written entirely in the present tense, the dream of one life seems to build upon the completed scene of another. In Anshaw’s novel, each subsequent 1990 instead absorbs and displaces the previous one in time, and we leap from Jesse to Jesse, various places and spouses and tonal registers melting one to the next, treading in time.

    Our inevitable retention of each 1990 invites wistful comparison through these middle parts, asserting again and again the past that undergirds the book, the moment of near-loss, or near-win, when Marty, the next-lane-over victor of the 1968 freestyle, outpaces Jesse’s past. The memory of Marty is alive everywhere; there is no present in which she is forgotten. What results is a brilliant holographic portrait of a character, made in degrees of desire and regret and apathy. These three sections are not exactly forecasts (though it’s easy to misconstrue them as “possible futures”—as if one must be Jesse’s true story) but rather distinct narrative presents. 

    There’s mystery in the way this novel accrues its power. Near the end of the book, Jesse, divorced with two children and running a swim academy in Venus Beach, Florida, confronts the wake of her life in an especially resonant passage:

    Sometimes, particularly on windless days like this one, she thinks she might truly die with longing for something to get her out of here, something to at least point her in some direction. Instead she sits here on the hood of her car, or lies on the sofa late at night, watching TV for clues. The modern dramas bleed, as the night wears on, into dated ones with cigarette holders and veiled hats, but all of them are about lives lived breathlessly, on heights with a steep dropoff. She has a brief acquaintance with this geography herself, but getting all worked up about it does no good at all. Just leaves her sitting here all turned around, looking forward to the past.

    These sentences, they expose my heart to fresh air. The easy faith of a dive is replaced now by the fear of a “steep dropoff.” Sentences inhabit paradox of past and present, desire and withdrawal. All turned around, looking forward to the past. There is in Aquamarine, as in some of Anshaw’s other superb fiction, a euphoria of queer longing crosscut by the acknowledgement of a reality that refuses to support or sustain the bonds that might result. Both this desire and this disappointment exist at once, and uneasily. It’s all the more meaningful, then, that the center of these three 1990s features a Jesse who has settled in New York with Kit, a soap-opera actress. Even here, in what we might wrongly presume is an ideal, Marty looms large. Soon after Kit crawls on top of Jesse, another passage surfaces: it’s the jewel-like memory of Marty the night before that fateful race, in the showers, where they’ve spread towels on the floor, when Jesse is “lying very still under Marty, feeling the full press of her, taking on her imprint, committing her body to memory.” That memory of Marty reads, fittingly, as almost competitive throughout the novel, breaking the surface of any present, far down-lane.

    It’s the marvel of Aquamarine that one moment, one longing, can so reliably and for so many years stir up the detritus, despite the drastic deviations of Jesse’s life. There are moving recurrences in all three 1990s perhaps because this novel isn’t concerned with the ways we could go, the choose-your-own adventure of it all, but rather just how powerfully and often we’re anchored by the gorgeous downrush mystery of our most profound intimacies.

    It’s the paragraph above that comes to mind, when I think of Carol Anshaw’s novels and stories. There is often a deft emotional undercurrent, the reader caught in its natural flow; at other times, there’s a warm drift, a lustrous pull of danger. Of all the queer fiction I’ve read, it’s Anshaw’s that is among the most moving to me, most true and attentive to the verdant, windy, storm-prone interior landscapes of her characters, and especially to the suspending feeling of queer desire and love, which is euphoria, which is a kind of terror, and a kind of self-expansion that’s also as simple and quotidian as breathing well. For once. Desire frequently breaks chronological time; maybe that’s part of why this novel’s unusual structure feels so true.

    In Aquamarine’s opening pages, at that pivotal moment of near-glory, here’s that tempered euphoria again, or here it is first, shocking as bright, cold water. After Jesse comes up for air to the silver: “Won something, but it’s the loss that hits her first.”

    Peter Kispert is the author of the story collection I Know You Know Who I Am (Penguin, 2020). Recent writing has appeared in Esquire, Story, and the New York Times Book Review. He lives in New York.

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