The Bad Thing

Lidija Haas

  • The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir by Ariel Levy
    Fleet, 207 pp, £16.99, March 2017, ISBN 978 0 349 00529 4

You can’t have it both ways and both ways is the only way Ariel Levy wants it. Levy is best known for her portraits, in the New Yorker, of women who test society’s boundaries, or run up hard against them, and she has often hinted at her own stake in these stories. There was Caster Semenya, the South African runner forced to endure hormone testing and endless discussion as to whether her physical attributes should disqualify her from competing against other women; Edith Windsor, the widow who sued the US government over its refusal to grant legal equality to unions between women and whose case finally brought down the federal Defense of Marriage Act; the Van Dykes, who in 1977 took to the road, shaved their heads, changed their names, and aimed to avoid ‘testosterone poisoning’ by cutting out men almost entirely (they hoped they might one day convert enough lesbians to create a vast Van Dyke population). Levy’s interest in these figures seems more than journalistic: she meets Lamar Van Dyke, the last remaining member of the group, and marvels at ‘a woman in her sixties who has been resolutely doing as she pleases for as long as she can remember’. Women like that, she says, are ‘not easy to come by, in movies or books, or in life’.

In The Rules Do Not Apply, Levy looks back on several decades of setting the bar high – and always clearing it. As a ‘domineering, impatient, relentlessly verbal’ only child (‘I was not,’ she notes, unnecessarily, ‘a popular little girl’) she played ‘Mummy and Explorer’ with her father and planned to be the explorer when she grew up. She would be a writer, because it’s the only job that allows you to go anywhere and do whatever you like. This version of Levy wants only the good parts of everything: both security and thrills. When she falls in love (with Lucy, who was someone else’s girlfriend), she wants to get married but assumes she shouldn’t have to be monogamous. The freedoms she aspires to are in some sense masculine: no limits, no encumbrances. She cites Joni Mitchell’s fear that marriage would turn her into yet another iteration of her trapped, frustrated grandmother, kicking the kitchen door off its hinges. But sometimes being the man can be tedious and expensive, and require (often literal) heavy lifting, and in those cases, Levy prefers not to. Lucy pays the bills and takes out the bins and carries the suitcases to the car. Levy feels vaguely offended when anyone refers to Lucy as her wife: she is the wife. If I seem to be portraying her as something of a brat, that’s how she portrays herself, and it doesn’t make her any less appealing.

We know from the start that this will be the story of an undoing. (She invokes Italian opera and Greek tragedy in the first few otherwise buoyant pages.) Eventually, Levy will lose everything – ‘my son, my spouse and my house’ – so suddenly that she will be floored, unable even to stand up straight on the subway. So it’s striking how charmed her life, as she describes it, had been up to that point. There’s a moment after college when she and a photographer friend seem about to crash into reality via the miseries of editorial assistanthood (at New York magazine): the friend, who at Wesleyan had been ‘the next Sally Mann’, is indexing negatives in the basement; Levy herself is putting together the crosswords in ‘a constant state of embittered self-righteousness’. Yet the anticipated moment of maturity never arrives; success does instead. By the age of 34, Levy has talked David Remnick into hiring her as a staff writer at the New Yorker, and after that there is, as her dad rather ominously puts it, ‘Nowhere to go but down.’ When she and Lucy decide to have a baby – Levy, never one to miss out on an adventure, does the getting pregnant – the friend who agrees to be the biological father is handsome, sweet-natured and, best of all, rich.

Levy describes her generation – twentysomethings in the late 1990s – as never having ‘experienced a real, prolonged war. Nobody thought about terrorism. Even climate change still seemed like something that could be safely ignored until the distant future – perhaps we would prevent it by recycling our soda cans.’ But here the extravagant good luck is also partly a narrative device. For anyone who read ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’ in the New Yorker, the book’s impending horror hangs over the first hundred or so pages. When it comes, it’s like a traffic accident: an ordinary misfortune, yet so brutal, sudden and unaccountable that seeing it in the context of the memoir doesn’t make it any easier to assimilate.

Having flown to Mongolia for an assignment five months into her pregnancy, she miscarries, or, you could say, gives birth, alone in her hotel room. It’s Levy’s first real experience of a hard limit. Her body has betrayed her. There is disorientating pain and a great wave of blood which, over the next five hotel days, will gradually seep back up from the carpet through the white bathmat somebody has laid on top of the stain, and oxidise to brown. And there’s a gruesomely beautiful encounter with her son, who is born alive – legs waving, lips opening and closing – but four months premature. He’s ‘pretty as a seashell’ with smooth translucent skin: ‘The sleeping almonds of his eyes. The graceful wings of his rib cage.’ She holds him in one hand while she calls for help with the other. She takes a picture of him on her phone, to prove to herself and others that he was there.

Levy’s ferocious attachment to the child is all the more agonising because she tries to entertain us in the telling. Gushing blood all over the floor, she tells the doctor on the phone that if there’s no chance the boy will live, she may as well just hop in a cab to the clinic and save him the ambulance; when the paramedics get there and Levy says she might vomit, one of them asks if she’s drunk (‘No, I’m upset,’ she explains); on a stretcher at the clinic, hooked up to various drips, she finds herself ‘covered in blood, sobbing, and flirting’ with the dishy doctor. Back home, shopping for clothes with her swollen stomach, she tells a salesperson: ‘I just had a baby. He died, but the good news is, now I’m fat.’ Most disarming is the moment she looks at the still-moving miniature infant and tries ‘to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control’.

The question of whether and to what extent she is in control – of herself or anything else – runs through the book. In the years before her ordeal Levy had evidently, with varying degrees of irony, taken pride in herself as an exception to every rule, and she has been drawn to others who strike her that way too. Her most memorable New Yorker pieces focus on outsiders, people who confuse categories, or on women like Cindy McCain who appear supremely conventional but in whom Levy detects an insubordinate streak. Her piece on the Van Dykes, mostly a rollicking tale of sex, feuding and adventure, includes a more poignant moment when Lamar expresses disappointment in Levy, both personal and historical. ‘Your generation wants to fit in,’ she says. ‘Gays in the military and gay marriage? This is what you guys have come up with?’ Levy doesn’t tell us what she said in return. ‘Daring to think that the rules do not apply,’ she writes early on in the book, ‘is the mark of a visionary. It’s also a symptom of narcissism.’ Tricky to tell the difference in oneself, but you suspect she doesn’t see the two as mutually exclusive. ‘Are you the Ariel who all the bad things happened to?’ a remarkably ungenerous woman asks her at a party, and she says yes. ‘Everything happens for a reason,’ the woman replies.

Levy describes in passing the genesis of her first big story, for New York magazine, which became the book before this one, Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005), an indictment of pornification (pole-dancing classes, Girls Gone Wild etc). She’d decided on the idea beforehand and then reported on it, rather than gleaning a story from facts she had gone out and found. You can tell that Levy doesn’t all that much enjoy finding what she knew she was looking for. She prefers, as she says here, to show up in a place she knows nothing about – no contacts, not enough cash, often not speaking the language – and conquer it, before putting it into words. She seeks out an adventure, a mess, an almost total disaster, for the pleasure of fixing it up, saving it, pulling it off.

The Rules Do Not Apply feels closer to that sort of experiment than to her first book – it’s exploratory rather than polemical. To the reader, Levy’s other losses – the collapse of the marriage, the selling of their house – seem pale beside Mongolia, mere aftershocks. It can be eerie, watching as she tries to weave what happened there into the rest of her life. Sometimes, the memoir threatens to become a warning against greed or hubris or selfishness: if she hadn’t got on the plane, she wouldn’t have brought on this catastrophe. That isn’t what the doctors tell her, though: what happened to the baby was rare and unrelated to travel. (They do say that she will be more liable to miscarry in the future.) This is a short book, and it doesn’t fit easily alongside other memoirs about illness or death, or the pains of having children or of not being able to have them. Inasmuch as The Rules Do Not Apply does follow the line of such narratives, it moves towards acceptance; Levy comes to see that she must stop avoiding pain and uncertainty. The contradictions of modern feminism come into it too, the problem of agency and its limits, and some of the responses to the book (and the responses to those responses) have revisited old debates about who’s a good feminist, who’s complaining too much about the wrong things or betraying the sisterhood with attacks on other women’s choices.

Yet much of the effect of the story Levy told in the New Yorker has to do with its meaninglessness, its refusal to take a useful shape. Reading it, you’re reminded that there is a kind of grief that, while real and permanent, cannot point to much beyond itself: it’s not clear what lesson anyone, let alone Levy, could drag out of the wreckage. The loss of a child you love but cannot ever know or live with is not a solid thing to be examined and understood – more like a hole punched through a life. If this sort of grief reveals anything, it is that all grief tends in that direction: irrational and storyless – ‘savage’ is the word Levy uses. The ‘bad thing’ didn’t happen to her because she worked too much or took too many risks or was insufficiently kind to her spouse. It didn’t happen because she believed it couldn’t or because she feared it might. Or because she’d made too many concessions to convention, or too few. If it made that much sense, it might have been easier to recover from. Certainly, it might have been gentler to read about, but then we already know that gentleness isn’t Levy’s mode – with others, or with herself.