By Lidia Yuknavitch
338 pages. Riverhead Books. $28.
As in “Alice in Wonderland” or an old-fashioned Disney cartoon, things perk up considerably in Lidia Yuknavitch’s willfully difficult new novel, “Thrust,” when the animals talk.
Their conversation, with a young girl who moves Alice-like through a series of weird mirror worlds, is surprising, hilarious and a proper comeuppance to us arrogant humans and our systems. “The whole concept of evil … what the hell is that all about?” asks a box turtle named Bertrand. (In the movie version, he’d be played by Wallace Shawn.) “This god business is absurd,” he says later. “It’s got you all mucked up out there.”
Earthworms and fungi confer in front of the girl disapprovingly, as if in a dark version of “Fantasia.” “My god, your ignorance about the flora and fauna of the Amazon — staggering,” scoffs a mycelium. (Despite his atheism, Bertrand will also toss off a contemptuous “my god.”) There’s “a tiny chorus of worm laughter,” worse than any mean clique in the middle-school cafeteria. Thank goddess for the helpful, maternal whale who asks: “Do you have a name, dear?”
The girl’s name is Laisve, which means “liberty” in Lithuanian, and she is a central character — though not the central character — of “Thrust,” whose sprawling, fragmented structure calls centrality itself into question (as well as liberté, égalité and, most particularly, fraternité). Another important figure is the Statue of Liberty, constructed by an “ocean of laborers,” one of whom ruefully observes a suffragist spitting in their creation’s face because women don’t yet have the right to vote. Another is the statue’s real-life designer, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, whom Yuknavitch imagines locked in a sadomasochistic affair with a fictional older cousin, Aurora Boréales. In one of their tamer pieces of correspondence, he describes creating a “threesome-facilitating chair” with adjustable holsters for the legs and derrière.
Such liberties will not surprise those familiar with the author’s work, which tends to rip apart and restitch established history in crazy-quilt patterns, and to hell with any hanging threads. In “The Book of Joan” (2017), Yuknavitch planted Joan of Arc in a dystopian future. In “Dora: A Headcase” (2012), she moved one of Freud’s best-known study subjects to Seattle and outfitted her with a Dora the Explorer backpack. Yuknavitch’s own memoir, “The Chronology of Water” (2011), is decidedly not chronological in the received sense, and confers mystical, perhaps even magical powers on the aqueous. As does “Thrust,” whose sensitive attunement to marine ecosystems had me looking at my bathtub sea sponge with new eyes. (Perhaps it was looking back?)
The book loops around a couple of centuries, from the conception and construction of Lady Liberty in the 1880s to 2085 and beyond, when the statue has, as in “The Day After Tomorrow” and at least one other disaster movie, been submerged by rising seas. At least the rent is no longer too damn high: The area formerly known as Brooklyn is now called The Brook, with medieval-sounding regions named Rinnegackonck and Werpos. (Gowanus, known in the present day for its canal of toxic sludge, has somehow survived.)
Businesses have crumbled, and the economy has gone underground. Terrifying raids might occur at any moment, with “armed men in vans snaking like killer whales through the streets, taking people away to god knows where.” Laisve’s mother has died, her baby brother has been kidnapped and her father, Aster, has epilepsy and, understandably, psychic distress. Objects float through time, space and occasionally comprehension: a penny (the taste of copper always twinned with blood); an umbilical cord; an apple. Laisve is a “carrier,” transferring them from one setting to another.
We meet and sympathize with Mikael, a teenager in a detention center who has foreknowledge of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But in an acidic twist of the maritime custom “women and children first,” they are the primary drivers of “Thrust.” (In a recent interview, Yuknavitch spoke of trying to strip the word of its phallocentric connotations.) Aurora, who loses her own leg — not to worry, Frédéric supplies a well-researched prosthetic, hand-painting the red toenails — has a room to teach those maimed by underage labor. (She also maintains a “Room of Kneelings” for adult pursuits.)
The story teems with anguish for these “small ghosts,” like a girl with a disfiguring necrosis called “phossy jaw,” from working around phosphorus in a matchstick factory. “The sunk cost of mechanizing America, creating the fiction of freedom,” Aurora declares, “included the slashing of woman and child bodies.” Some of these passages feel preachy, like they’d better belong in The Nation than a novel. Laisve is also the name of a defunct radical political newspaper — so, perhaps, a carrier of ideas.
Contempt for humanity’s cruelty and selfishness flows through “Thrust.” “The thing about mycelia was, they stick together,” Mikael says, narrating his bleak boyhood to a social worker in — what else? — “waves.” “Whereas the thing about people was, they’re mostly individual meat sacks that own and devour everything in their path, and you never know when their insides will come out.”
It’s hard to buck the critical tide here — Yuknavitch elicits rapture in many readers — but also hard to maintain a grip on characters so obviously laden, heavy with meaning greater than themselves. “Thrust” is an indignant and impressive novel, but only in spurts an enjoyable one, and maybe that’s exactly the point. Some will hurl it unfinished across the room. Others will savor its elaborately orchestrated punishments.