Who are you, really?
Imagine you are a regular at a bar, where, night after night, you are asked by a fellow patron to give an accounting of yourself. Where would you begin, and where would you end? Could you justify your life choices? Would you come out smelling like roses or seeming rather tawdry and tattered? How honest would you be with your listener? And how much honesty could you stand from yourself?
It’s no small feat to tell the story of a life, in real life or in fiction. The problems of narrative are also the problems of the self: We strain to distinguish causes from effects, to peer behind the curtain to see the workings of our unconscious motives, to disentangle willfulness and individuality from family inheritance, luck and social circumstance. We struggle to remember, as much as we struggle to forget. And we replay both the big events and the tiniest of details over and over, as if repeated rehearsals of the facts might somehow alter them for the better or reveal their true significance. Life and fiction both seem to be narrative arts, fraught with existential traps.
In her remarkable first novel, Worthy, Lisa Birnbaum leads readers straight into these traps.
The story is told through the eyes of Ludmila, an aging stripper working at a club in Tampa, Florida. She addresses an unnamed interlocutor, whom she meets regularly at the club, and tells her life story. Why? Why is she telling her story? The answer is not a function of plot: Ludmila’s revelations don’t make anything happen; the interlocutor never gets off the barstool to do anything. Instead, the answer is the plot: The story is told because it has to be told, because the character must make a reckoning with herself. She tells her story the way we tell our own stories, in a non-linear fashion, splicing together present concerns and distant memories. She speaks now of the young women dancing at the club, and now of her husband from years ago, now of travels to Mexico or the south of France, and now of time spent in Montana. All the while, a momentum is gathering, as she ventures closer and closer to the important truths, like a stripper tantalizing her audience. We know that by the end she will stand uncovered, naked in her truth.
Birnbaum is a masterful raconteur. Ludmila’s story is fully compelling; there is nothing dull or wasted. The story’s intrigue is built around young Ludmila’s marriage to an older professor of literature and their devolution into a pair of wandering hedonists, then by steps, into a pair of confidence artists. By the end of their relationship, they have sunk in to a folie à deux, from which Ludmila is left to recover alone. But love is ordinary madness, and as we hear Ludmila describe how her early innocence, joy and freedom transformed into doubt, suspicion and jealousy, Birnbaum makes clear that the line between ordinary madness and heedless criminality is not so easy to draw. “I can be anything,” Ludmila remarks. And we don’t quite know whether to hear it as the brio and inventiveness of the confidence artist, full of cunning and egotism, or the resignation and realpolitik of a woman who has had to make her way in the world by reinventing herself for the men she encounters.
A novel whose protagonist is a stripper is not an obvious candidate for a feminist text. Ludmila’s life is largely constructed through a series of dependencies on men—husbands (there is more than one) and lovers—and her primary asset is her beauty, not her intelligence or talent. Yet, Birnbaum’s text sparkles with a feminist sensibility. At the club in Tampa, Ludmila has become a kind of surrogate mother and advocate to the young women who take jobs there, using her sway with the manager to get them pay raises and flexible working hours, pooling resources to provide healthcare, giving them opportunities for more creative and interesting dance routines, and ultimately assisting them in finding their way to other and better occupations. In a spirit at once entrepreneurial and reformist, she envisions a strip club where “we can offer fun and art and music—in a sexy way, in a happy spirit, not for degradation.” Remarking on the homely woman who works as a janitor at the club, she observes that because the janitor is not attractive, she “can be enough forgotten to be not bothered” by men and will be able to turn her attention to interesting things; she will have “some possibility not about her body.” Without the constant focus on her appearance, she will have a chance to just be, a chance Ludmila, a striking beauty, has not had. Ludmila’s beauty has taken her on many adventures, but she is not afraid of aging. She accepts wrinkles as essential features, as a record of lived experience: “If we get a Botox, the history of hardest sex and best love will be lost,” she laments. Ludmila remains an independent thinker, even if her life has been warped by her involvement with men.
As an immigrant from Eastern Europe, Ludmila is positioned as an outsider who perceives the contradictions, the vulgarity, the idiocy that has saturated American life. In fact, Worthy is worth reading just for Birnbaum’s biting, and often funny, social commentary. In a riff about Viagra and sex, Ludmila remarks: “[M]en have to pretend to horniness, craziness for sex when they prefer to read a magazine about technology or go to the mall, which almost everyone has horniness for […] And everybody is snoring in the bed, even after exhibition of expensive tits and technologic dick.”
The social concerns extend beyond sex, gender and consumerism to include climate change and human relationships to nature. For example, finding unexpected pleasure in Florida’s wildlife, Ludmila observes, “Smells of nature can be a message of meaning. If you have only false aroma, some fragrance in a can, you will have nothing to comprehend.” Call it an Old-World outlook, if you like: Ludmila prefers nature to artificiality, sensual pleasures to commodified distractions, conversation and art and creativity to the predictable and commonplace. A con-artist and stripper, she nonetheless possesses an alluring genuineness that makes her narrative credible. Or almost credible.
In giving voice to Ludmila, Birnbaum employs broken English, with faulty syntax, grammatical errors and contorted idioms. The voice is clear from the very first sentence, but it may take the reader a few pages to enter into it. It is worth the effort. Once you hear Ludmila’s cadence, it will be hard to get it out of your head. Her malapropisms are often humorous, and her somewhat stilted speech makes for many statements that are candid, maybe even wise, in their pith. Most of all, Ludmila’s broken English functions as a symbol of her fractured identity and the moral ambiguity of her story: Is her story limited by her limited facility with the language or does she evade a full accounting?
In Birnbaum’s novel, the existential questions are never beyond the sightline. Ludmila’s professor husband is enamored of literature, and as they sink further and further into their lives as con artists, they increasingly rely upon the drama of literature as inspiration, or maybe justification. Rich with literary allusions, Birnbaum’s book is smartly self-aware: Writing a fictional story, Birnbaum is writing a life, and that life is built around fictions, both self-made and literary. It is a satisfying puzzle.
If lies are endemic to self-narrative, reliant as it is on the partiality of memory, is the conduct of a life an act of artistic creation, the crafting of a kind of fiction? Conversely, if a credible narrative requires us to recognize vital human truths, is writing a fiction itself the creation of truth? In the dim light of a strip club, in prose that manages to be both suitably halting and lyrical, Birnbaum’s novel asks seductive questions as it disrobes, layer by layer, a memorable character.