BY Haley Mlotek in Books , Opinion | 15 JUL 20

The Sinister Intimacy of Raven Leilani’s ‘Luster’

In the author’s debut novel, ‘the threat of a sharp edge is on every page’ 

BY Haley Mlotek in Books , Opinion | 15 JUL 20

Two women, dressed in fine clothes, hold a man down and push a knife through his throat. In Artemisia Gentileschi’s version of Judith Slaying Holofernes (1612–13), Judith and her maidservant Abra look down at the object of their assassination with implacable concentration. ‘It is a brutal, tenebrist masterpiece, drenched in carotid blood,’ says Edie, the narrator of Raven Leilani’s first novel, Luster, out on 4 August from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. An artist herself, Edie once attempted her own version of this scene; when the book begins, she is 23, has a dull job in publishing and it has been two years since she tried to paint anything at all. She meets a married man through a dating app and what transpires is not exactly conspiracy or murder though, like most stories about triangles, the threat of a sharp edge is on every page.

Luster features three adults who have their own methods for excavating the unspoken. Edie has her canvases, stretched thin and expectant. Eric is an archivist, preserving pages few will ever touch. Rebecca, his wife, is a medical examiner, who prefers autopsies to surgeries because, as she explains, the dead can’t lie. That they can take other secrets to the grave doesn’t seem to bother her.

Artemisia Gentileschi, Giuditta che decapita Oloferne (Judith Beheading Holofernes), oil on canvas, c. 1614–1620, 2 × 1.6 m. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

‘In his first message,’ Edie tells us, Eric ‘points out a few typos in my online profile and tells me he has an open marriage.’ On their first date, they go to a Six Flags amusement park, as though the obstacle course of finding a person to fuck isn’t enough. Up until this point, Edie hasn’t had much luck with men, a fact she shares bluntly, the way she discloses everything else. She doesn’t have much luck with women, either. Friends, families, co-workers – Edie experiences them in passing, registering their loss more than their existence. 

We assume people tend towards types, but we may in fact gravitate towards stages of being – people in a particular place or phase of wanting. Edie is young; Eric is older. Edie is more aware of the differences between them, more aware of what Eric gets to ignore. He is, as she thinks to herself on that first date, not only out with ‘someone who is not his wife and decades younger’, but also ‘with a girl who happens to be Black’. He hesitantly says ‘African American’ when pressed. ‘I cannot be the first Black girl a White man dates,’ she thinks, but does not ask him if this is true. 

Eric is in an open marriage, and there are a long list of rules that he and Rebecca have set for what is or isn’t allowed. Following or breaking these rules is not really the point; obedience doesn’t mean much if the possibility for betrayal isn’t offered alongside it. Once Eric and Edie break one rule – fucking in Eric’s house while everyone is away – all the others seem to evaporate. In the first part of the book, Edie loses most of what ties her to a place: her job and her apartment go, one after the other. She decides to go back to Eric’s house and walks in through the unlocked door. She and Rebecca meet each other and see for themselves the woman on the other side of their man. For reasons that are unasked and never offered, Rebecca invites her to stay. Edie learns that they have an adopted daughter, Akila (‘Twelve. Basically 13,’ Akila says when Edie wonders about her age, in the startlingly succinct way pre-teens describe themselves): a Black girl who has already lived with several other families and is aware that Edie’s presence might signify the end of something.

There are many questions that Edie asks herself throughout the book and even more answers withheld. Why does Rebecca invite her to stay while Eric travels for work, and why do they agree to keep it from him until he returns? What does Rebecca want from Edie? ‘I have used her soap and left a pile of skin cells on her guest sheets,’ she thinks, ‘so it is maybe uncharitable to call Rebecca’s hospitality a trap, and yet now we have a secret.’ Some days, money appears on the dresser in the guest room, though it’s unclear who is leaving it and what it is for. She chooses not to ask if it is charity or for services rendered. Sometimes, Rebecca and Eric ask her questions about Akila, two white parents who don’t know what they don’t know about their daughter. They are worried that she has no friends; they are not sure how to raise her. ‘She seemed fine,’ Edie lies, while thinking she did not. ‘She seemed alone, like it had been years since anyone had done her hair.’

Raven Leilani. Photograph: Nina Subin

In her Virginia Quarterly Review essay about the book, ‘Sex in the City’, Kaitlyn Greenidge predicts that sex will be what reviews of Luster focus on, and for good reason: this is a spectacularly horny book and Leilani writes the scenes between Edie and Eric with exactly the right balance of heat and repulsion. At the same time, it is Leilani’s drawing of Edie as a Black flâneuse – one who ‘observes and categorizes’, as Greenidge writes – that holds our attention. Because the flâneuse is just passing through, they are not required to offer help, suggest change or even necessarily engage. Edie is ‘an eye’, a painter invited to observe a family from within. Edie never needs to ask why. She only needs to see.

Edie ends up doing the hair of every other woman in the house. She sets a night-time routine for Akila: coconut oil, manuka honey, two Bantu knots. Before Eric returns, Rebecca asks her to dye her blonde hair black. ‘I tell her to get on her knees,’ Edie says, describing the process. ‘I bend her over the tub and secure her by the neck.’ In brilliant moments such as this, interior monologues are written like the tenebrist masterpieces Edie loves. The contrasts between the book’s four characters are kept in the shadows and Edie’s thoughts appear as illuminations on the page. Sex is the answer to many of the book’s questions, yet the fact of fucking is nowhere near as thrilling as what Leilani understands: the endless ways the desires of another can be made to feel like our own. ‘No one wants what no one wants,’ Edie thinks after answering one of Eric’s questions too honestly, but wants triangulate as they develop. 

Uncertain or unsatisfying, unfinished or interrupted – there is no way of entirely explaining these charged moments, and even fewer words for the ways they obsess us. Instead, they exist in an atmosphere of expectation, an erotics of description easier felt than said. Edie’s distance doesn’t obscure her perspective; her precise detachment is her way of looking at the whole picture. By the end of the book, Edie and Rebecca have a closeness that is more than intimacy. It is the twinned desire to share what it feels like to press down on someone else’s shoulders, to feel for a pulse under someone else’s neck.

Main Image: Raven Leilani, Luster, 2020, book cover. Courtesy: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York

Haley Mlotek is a writer, editor and organizer. She is co-chair of the Freelance Solidarity Project, a division for freelance digital media workers within the National Writers Union. She is currently working on a book about romance and divorce. She lives in New York, USA.