“Was it the bourbon or the dye fumes that made the pink walls quiver like vaginal lips?” so begins Darcey Steinke’s “sensational” second novel, Suicide Blonde. I put the word “sensational” in quotation marks because a host of similar adjectives (“shocking,” “daring,” “scandalous,” and so on) greeted the novel at its publication in 1992. This may have given the book a well-deserved public velocity, but insofar as such adjectives also reflect the prudishness and insularity of many reviewers and readers, it also ran—and to some extent still runs—the risk of occluding some of the novel’s truest achievements, all of which are on display, in miniature, in its unforgettable opening sentence.
The swirl of bourbon, blonde hair dye, and vaginal lips is audacious, sure, but it’s also funny, and evidences a fairly rare and delightful phenomenon I might call feminist camp. Feminist camp—which can be practiced by persons of any gender (see John Waters, who regularly identifies as a radical feminist)—doesn’t waste time exhibiting its feminist credentials. It simply moves with invention and forcefulness into a new field, one which both belongs to a canon of outlaw writers (Georges Bataille, Jean Genet, Alexander Trocchi, William S. Burroughs, et cetera.), while also creating new ground to stand on (Kathy Acker, Leslie Dick, Virginie Despentes, and more). Suicide Blonde belongs to both of these traditions, as well as to other notable subsets, including noir, queer lit of the eighties and nineties (Michelle Tea, Leslie Feinberg, Bruce Benderson, Dennis Cooper, Eileen Myles), classic twentieth-century fiction featuring itinerant, urbane women experimenting with dissolution and desire (Jean Rhys, Iris Owens, Renata Adler, Marguerite Duras, Patricia Highsmith), maybe even erotica (Steinke remains one of the few writers I know whose writing about sex manages to be both literary and hot).
As Suicide Blonde’s opening question makes clear, its home base is the consciousness of a questing female, for whom the words “abjection” or “debasement” are someone else’s, insistences of a culture stubbornly deaf to the mess of female journeying in extremis. Indeed, what some reviewers mistook as an attempt to shock (“So self-consciously seeking ‘that exquisite kick of perversity,’ this callow fiction comes off as something along the lines of a much more sincere American Psycho. All the more pathetic,” wrote some stooge at Kirkus), I hear as an uncommonly confident, entertaining over-the-topness, especially re: bodies, as in: “Pig’s head dropped lower. She gagged and a long line of glittering burgundy ribboned down the stairwell.”
Turning wine vomit into glittering burgundy ribbon is just one of the alchemical transformations regularly performed by Steinke’s prose. This alchemy isn’t a sign that Steinke is on the run from materiality, however—despite (or because of?) Steinke’s Christian background, vomit remains vomit. Instead she’s after the glittering, the way the sublunary world flickers with possibility, divinity, multivalence, from the inside out. The novel’s tone shares this commitment to flicker, or suspension: it feels melodramatic and restrained, mordant and good-hearted, suffused with high-order irony and casual sincerity. Likewise, the novel reads like an allegory set in any dystopic, late twentieth-century city (opaquely emblematic character names such as Bell and Pig further this impression), while also offering a portrait of a very particular time and place—the San Francisco of the early nineties, of the Lusty Lady, of parties at which one might meet “a feminist trying to destroy the myth of the aesthetic canon, musicians who insisted house music was the blues of the nineties and a performance artist who covered himself with animal blood and said narrative was dead.”
Like all of Steinke’s novels, Suicide Blonde has been lauded for its “gorgeous prose,” and justly so. I’d like to pause here, however, and disrupt the critical tendency to act as if “gorgeous prose” were a kind of decorative accent on a novel, which could survive without this value-added. Certain novels may be palatable, or even compelling, in spite of their unremarkable or unlovely sentences. But those cannot be great novels. Despite the hopes of mediocre sentence writers everywhere, novels cannot be separated from the prose that comprises them. So if I reiterate here that Steinke’s prose is gorgeous, I don’t do so to turn an A into an A+. I mean to underscore that she is writing in a tradition of novel writing that doesn’t depend on tricks of narrative momentum or emotional setups to make us endure uninteresting prose. Rather, Steinke’s sentences reliably deliver concision, beauty, and surprise, either via unexpected, unlabored metaphors (“We entered the noisy bar full of men’s faces, numerous and similar as kidney beans,” our narrator Jess says as she faces the group of men for whom she will whore for the first time) or unusual, amusing progressions of thought (Jess again: “I remembered the story of one saint, a virgin, who cut off her breasts rather than succumb to a rapist. I made myself think God is dead, but it seemed dangerous. Then I thought, my pussy is the same color as this carpet. This comforted me somehow.”) Steinke also has a poet’s feel for imagistic patterns that accrue into their own kind of plot or argument (keep your eye on the color burgundy, as per the wine vomit), as well as a poet’s instinct for hotshot lines that move us in and out of her novels. The feeling I typically get when I finish a Steinke novel is one of exhilaration and relief, as I realize with delight that her performance has sustained its unique pitch from start to finish, no wobble.
This exquisite technique does more than impress. It also builds trust. In the case of Steinke’s writing, this trust is especially crucial, insofar as she traffics in transgression, gliding with Fassbinder-esque grace from scenes of abuse to rape to suicide to high glamour to boredom to pleasure to abandon to myriad other forms of exaltation and ruination. (“Because fucking, when it’s good, seems like everything and there is pain in the pleasure when you remember that things are horrible, until you are hardly alive,” Jess tells us while fucking her gloomy, bisexual boyfriend, Bell.) Smart sentence by smart sentence, dicey scene by dicey scene, exceptional novel by exceptional novel, I have come to trust Steinke to the point where I will follow her anywhere she decides to go. Most often, she takes her heroine/the reader to the cusp of a deep badness, then pulls back; sometimes, most notably in Jesus Saves, things go all the way bad. (I’ll never forget my first time reading Jesus Saves: I felt sick about the ending, I wanted to undo what the novel had done; maybe I even felt betrayed. But upon reflection, I could see why Steinke made her narrative choices; over time, I’ve come to respect that ending as a kind of limit test of what is possible in her novels, an edge she knows how to topple over or ride.)
Suicide Blonde doesn’t go all the way dark—as in most Steinke novels, not everyone survives, but (spoiler alert) our heroine does. We’re never entirely sure of her fate after the story ends, however, because Steinke is into ongoing odyssey, not moralistic parable. Unlike some of my favorite dissolute novels by women—I’m thinking of After Claude or After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie, for example—Steinke’s daring or wit is not wrought from a certain meanness or nihilism. Suicide Blonde’s antihero, Madison, may tell Jess that “there are a million ways to kill off the soft parts of yourself,” but no matter what experiences Jess undertakes or surrenders to, she seems almost quizzically unable to kill her soft parts, probably because her soft parts and her hard parts are marbled together. I can barely think of another writer—much less a religiously infused writer—who so naturally eschews binaries, who feels and renders the world’s marbled complexity with such poetic ease.
It comes off as easy, but I doubt it is—writing well isn’t easy for anyone—but Steinke’s writing has been marked by a kind of languid sureness from the start. Like so many naturals with a singular vision and an unyielding gift, Steinke wrote a perfect book nearly right out of the gate, one which both emanates from its time and will last the test of time. I’m glad, on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary, for Suicide Blonde to come around again, to show us how it’s done.
Maggie Nelson is a poet and critic and the author, most recently, of The Argonauts, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship.
A twenty-fifth-anniversary edition of Suicide Blonde, by Darcey Steinke, is available from Grove Press.