• This Sort of Thing: On Heather Lewis's Notice

    Hannah Bonner

    Spring 2024

    For a couple of months in my early thirties, I engaged in an online flirtation with a married couple on the kink app Feeld. They were white, indeterminately wealthy, and looked like a Tommy Hilfiger inlay. In the beginning, I communicated solely with the Wife. She was peppy, energetic, and effusive in her interactions. Our texts were the best part of the entire episode. We flirted openly and enthusiastically. She was forward, pointed, athleisure-wear svelte. Initially, she handled the logistics of our hypothetical ménage à trois. She and her Husband had a private plane and could fly to dine with me anywhere; she was allergic to latex condoms and therefore I’d need to test and submit my paperwork for STDs; she was shaved: perhaps I could be too.

    The Husband was different. He told me about the acts in which the Wife and I would engage, the positions he’d put us in. He sent black-and-white pictures of the Wife: openmouthed, on her knees; her legs spread, post-fuck. The pictures were always porny with a twinge of pain. I was simultaneously turned on by his directives while also chary. I felt something twisting in me like a corkscrew. The taste of it was tannic.

    I never met the Husband or the Wife in person. I have courted risk many times over, but in more immediate, tangible ways. When the texts pivoted from dialogue to demands, that’s when I extricated myself, cool as vapor. And, like everything in my life I have walked out on, I walked out without fully knowing why: why I never asked after the Wife, who sparked my engagement in the first place, why I chose to follow the Husband’s instructions for as long as I did. His particular style of sexuality was specific and humorless. There was no promise of pleasure or play for me.

    Pleasure and malice are bedfellows in Heather Lewis’s third posthumously published novel Notice (2004). In it, protagonist Nina also ensnares herself with a married couple, though to much more devastating ends. The sadistic Husband and his wife, Ingrid, use teenage Nina to play the part of their deceased sixteen-year-old daughter: sleeping in her bed, wearing her clothes, enduring the Husband’s sexual predilections without scruples. When Nina finally leaves, the Husband locks her up in a psychiatric facility. Stuck in solitary confinement, Nina develops another maternalistic, albeit sexual, relationship with Beth, a counselor in the facility, whose affections roil a “baying thing” within the deepest recesses of Nina’s soul. Though it may seem as though Nina is through the worst of it, the Husband hasn’t finished with her, and his anger’s denouement is so cruel that Lewis’s words practically curdle on the page.

    Part queer love story, part suburban horror, Notice is a book written long before content warnings, #MeToo, or identity as a commodity, not a political or personal stance. It is a text where you will not find words like “feminism” or “power,” au courant in the marketing of books by women writers today. Indeed, Lewis’s books were not marketable, nor lauded, during her all-too-brief life. As a reviewer in The New York Times wrote of her debut House Rules, the protagonist is “so determinedly blank that there seems little about her to work with, and less to care about.” Thus, in resurrecting Notice for reissue, Semiotext(e) reconstructs the narrative framework in which readers have historically understood Lewis and her work. No longer will we think of Lewis’s plots and prose as “grating,” just because they do not play (or read) nice. Rather, the niche subgenre of queer trauma becomes worthy of canonization, as does Lewis’s unsparing, personal prose.

    It was Melissa Febos, my MFA workshop instructor at the University of Iowa, who first told me about Heather Lewis. Every few weeks Melissa arrived at class abuzz with updates on her research, freshly enamored with Lewis’s style and voice, just as I was (and am) with hers. When I applied to the University of Iowa, it was Melissa with whom I wanted to work. I proposed a project that was embarrassingly almost identical to the plot of Abandon Me: a woman has an affair with a married artist. Spoiler alert, it doesn’t end well. But what I was really proposing was a way of writing about sex and sexuality that Melissa has valorized and legitimized for an entire new generation of writers. That Melissa pens the introduction to Semiotext(e)’s 2024 reissue of Notice therefore feels right and true. I can think of no better contemporary writer to be in dialogue with Lewis than her. “It is not gauche to write about trauma,” Febos declares in her fourth book, Body Work, “It is subversive.” And while trauma abounds in Notice, the work is not purely a work of fiction. As Lewis’s essay in the anthology A Woman Like That: Lesbian and Bisexual Writers Tell Their Coming Out Stories reveals, Lewis was involved with both a woman named Ingrid as well as a woman named Beth. While billed as fiction, Notice contains characters and events from Lewis’s own life. Though initially dismissed by editors before Lewis’s death as “discomfiting,” this new generation of readers may share Febos’s sentiment: “I’m finished referring, in a derogatory way, to stories of body and sex and gender and violence and joy and childhood and family as navel-gazing.” Heather Lewis and Melissa Febos have long known that it is not myopic to write from the quadrants of the self, but work. Which is to say, it’s effortful. Hard.

    Neglected and alone, the teenage protagonist of Notice is a sex worker near a suburban train station in Westchester County in the Hudson Valley of New York State. “For the longest time I didn’t call it turning tricks,” the novel begins. As Nina describes it, these acts occur almost by happenstance. Chance. Turning tricks almost seems like something to do just to pass the time. Nina’s customers are usually businessmen traveling back home after their evening commute, willing to pay twenty dollars for twenty minutes of her work. Nina admits, “While it’s true I needed the money that’s not all I needed from it.” She is a character who eschews motive. “What the extra need is, the thing besides money?” she asks. “I’ve never pinned it down. I know it’s there, though.” This urge lives deep within Nina, beyond language. But explaining herself is never the inclination nor the point. In a world of perpetual violation, she owes everyone exactly nothing. She attempts to tell her story as plainly as she can, grasping, at times, for the right word in the right place—like fumbling for a light switch in a pitch-black room.

    Like me with my own married couple, Nina chooses not to put a name to this almost compulsory need: to act, but, even more, to be acted upon, to give and to give up. But that broadest of strokes is all that Nina and I share. While I may empathize with a certain impulse to offer oneself over, I do not know Nina’s embodied experience, one that Lewis only elliptically alludes to, suggesting a lifetime of agony. Violence is so recurrent as to be utterly banal, almost an afterthought. When Nina passingly refers to a stint in “Juvey,” she notes that she willfully chose that place over her parents, and that it was “worse than I’d thought and I’d thought bad.” In the psychiatric facility, Nina refers to recurrent rapes by the guards only once, and obliquely, when she states, “when they came, I let them because I found this way I could pretend to be sleeping and it’d go faster. It’d seem to, and I’d get hit less.” Even in the beginning, after “[going] with” the particularly sadistic Husband a few times, Nina agrees to go home with him. Later in the novel, Nina will elaborate that the Husband wanted anal sex, not head. “I left out afraid,” she confesses about their first encounter, “because it wasn’t the image I had of myself, especially not of myself working.” Through this admission, we realize that Nina holds her cards close, not just from the people in her life but from her reader as well. “He was kind of a rough guy which made it harder to refuse,” is all she reveals in the beginning. “Not for the reasons you might think, but because that thing pulls me. And then, too, he’d dangled a carrot, which was his wife.” What exactly is “that thing” which “pulls”' Nina toward danger, toward the risk of almost total annihilation? I’m not sure I have the precise words for it either. When I tease risk, I am an unthinking animal. Hindsight comes later, the ego slowly lapping up the id.

    Lewis paints Nina as so dulled by the pains of her past that it is almost preferable to be hurt in ways that are bearable, which is to say: expected. When Nina embraces the wife, Ingrid, during her first visit to their house, “I found myself borrowing her shivers. Found myself trembling all over and so already I knew this was not a good thing to pursue. That it would make me feel something, which naturally is about the last thing you want.” To feel or to be affectively touched is the worst possible outcome for someone in a constant state of survival. At least pain provides a point on which to focus. Later, as the Husband sodomizes his wife, Nina dejectedly explains:

    He hadn’t paid me enough to watch something like this. He’d paid me enough to do it to me, but not to watch him do it to her. And if this sounds like a pure thought, understand it as purely self-serving. Believe me, getting it would’ve been way the hell easier.

    Lewis’s repetition of “he” in the first two sentences feel like a jab in the chest, an indictment. Indeed, it is he who orchestrates Ingrid’s and Nina’s shame and suffering. But Lewis’s sparse prose abstracts the textures and shapes of Ingrid’s violation. What is “something like this”? We can only imagine. Generalities allow the reader to supplant the pronoun “this” for something more explicit, fanged, and cruel. To put precise language to trauma can make it real—or triggering—for readers whereas elision spares us. In not specifying Ingrid’s violation, Nina protects her through language. However, when she is the target of such violence, Nina mercilessly shares all. But Nina is used to enduring physically punishing experiences, not witnessing another’s. Her pain is a pain older than God.

    Hannah Bonner’s criticism has appeared in Cleveland Review of Books, Literary Hub, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. Her first collection of poetry, Another Woman, is forthcoming in 2024. She lives in Iowa.

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