Not having sex, overthinking sex: the memoir’s swerve into unfamiliar interior spaces could be mistaken for the embattled retreat of fierce female desire. But The Chronology of Water, which barely created a ripple when it appeared in 2011, has lately achieved cult status as a testament to the opposite. Lidia Yuknavitch, a writer in Portland, Oregon, imparts a visceral power to the experience of lust, a power unmatched in any recent account I can think of. Hers is a tale from the edge: abusive father, drunk mother, an escape to Texas Tech on a swimming scholarship, which turns out not to be an escape. The dark careening continues on into drinking and drugging, compulsive promiscuity, serial marriages, a stillborn baby.
But it isn’t the grim, extremist momentum that galvanizes the memoir, which eventually finds Yuknavitch anchored, if not quite redeemed, by the rigors of writing, the cleansing intensity of sadomasochistic sex, and finally domestic peace with a husband and son. The boldness of the book lies in the chaotic avidity with which she taps into her sexual core, a source of appetites as confusing as they are compelling. Without resorting to the cerebral, the stylishly glib, or the academic, Yuknavitch manages to anatomize the doubled nature of desire that’s so close to my own experience. In the particular passage that comes up in conversation most often when I find myself talking with a fellow fan of the book, Yuknavitch is a kid, looking at the older swimmers:
Girl swimmers are hairy …
They had pube hair sticking out of their suits up at the top of their thighs and going into their business. Boy. Talk about terrifying.
OK that’s a lie. It wasn’t terrifying. It was mesmerizing. I couldn’t stop staring. It made me into a mouth breather.
When Jo Harshbarger showered in the locker rooms, all I saw was her legs as something I longed to pet, and her stuff as a little furry special place, especially since as a girl I was afraid to look at tits or twats or even faces.
That’s a lie too. I stared at tits and coochie as hard as a drunk eyeballing a fifth of vodka.
Yuknavitch ferrets out untruth (“OK that’s a lie”) as a way of showing the difficulty of knowing exactly how you feel at any given time, and then the added difficulty of traveling back in time to find the words to say what it was really like. But she goes further. Yuknavitch pushes beyond saying what happened, beyond declaring her lust, beyond laying bare her self-doubt. Armed with plain adjectives and nouns—hairy, furry, twat, coochie, even mouth breather—she burrows in to try to represent what wanting really feels like: unpretty and hot, but not a packaged kind of hot, not a hotness evoked with men on the brain as an audience to be aroused, pleased, empowered, flattered, manipulated. Those childish, plain words, so effective at the job of locating the narrator in time, also do the work of subverting any overseriousness or self-congratulation or come-hither sexiness in the writing. There’s a dirty glee to this language that is neither facile nor slick. Every dumb, filthy word she uses feels like the mot juste.
To see a narrator put sex at the center of her life in this way—without making a Chelsea Handler joke or a transgressive drama or a victimized tragedy of it—still feels new. Jong pointed the way, but her mission wasn’t merely to describe: Fear of Flying showed women how to leave, how to be free. Readers got the message. Jong later told of wives showing up at her house, wanting to move in with her. There’s nothing prescriptive about The Chronology of Water. It’s just the story of what happened to Yuknavitch, a girl of enormous appetites. Her vivid odyssey defies us to learn a lesson—unless it’s that we simply carry on and on, and let’s try to describe exactly how it feels along the way. Yuknavitch aims to leave nothing hidden—but she doesn’t let her brashness cattle-stomp all over her complicated emotional life. Her blend of delicacy and intensity delivers a jolt of recognition: my lust is like this, too.
I mentioned at the start that I am trying to write a memoir about sex, and finding it rough going. I don’t know exactly how I’ll pull it off. I get frightened every time I sit down to write about something I did, or had done to me. To be honest, my mother, still very much alive, assumes a ghostly, accusatory form and haunts my desk whenever I start to describe, say, giving a blow job to that creepy hippie Malcolm in the patchouli-smelling van in 1984. But I think of Yuknavitch, blazing through her book with no fear of either the savage or the subtle, and I settle into my work, trying to say precisely how I felt.
Read the entire article in The Atlantic.