There’s a tide to “break-in,” seasons ebbing and flowing over 200 years in and around New York Harbor. At the opening, we saw immigrants working on a massive new monument that was designed in France and shipped in pieces to the United States. With an allusion to Walt Whitman, Yuknavitch gives the audience a voice. “We were woodworkers, ironworkers, roofers, plasterers, and brickworkers,” the narrator rings. “We were pipe fitting, welder, and carpenter…we were cooks, janitors, nuns, and night watchmen. We were nurses, artists, janitors, runners, messengers, and thieves. Moms, dads, grandparents, sisters, brothers, and kids.” They are, in short, the whole bunch of new Americans pulled here from Across the planet, they beat 31 tons of copper and 125 tons of steel into a towering statue of a robe-clad woman holding a torch high to light the way to freedom.
But even before this amazing metal statue was completed, its design had already been compromised, and its meaning had already been eroded. “Little cracks began to appear in the story, just as in the material of her body and our work,” says the narrator. Yuknavitch suggests that Mrs. Liberty originally had in her hands broken chains, signifying the end of hard-won slavery in the United States, but that this central element fell to her feet and was then veiled under her robe, lest the fragile feel of the whites. Southerners are humiliated. And who exactly would she welcome in a country that had already become xenophobic, and resented new immigrants? What about the irony of a woman who celebrates freedom in a land where women cannot vote? “Some of us will not be fully reckoned,” says the narrator. “Fear slipped into some of our necks—maybe it wasn’t ours, or we weren’t hers—but no one wanted to say it out loud because we needed to make a living.”
Turn the page, and the story will travel more than two centuries in the future – 2079 – when the effects of climate change unleashed by the Industrial Revolution washed away much of the East Coast. After what is known as the “Great Water Rise”, survivors still risk a boat ride through the harbor to see the “Sunken Wonder of the World,” where the arm and head of a giant woman mostly submerged beneath the waves.
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In this dystopian vision of our sunken future, government jobs have collapsed except, of course, the frantic pursuit of immigrants. This reason still stands, the last trembling movements of the body politic in its death throes. Amidst this hell scene, we meet a strange little girl named Laisvi, whose name means “freedom” in Lithuanian, and her frightened father, who is hiding from the raids. Yuknavitch’s descriptions of Brooklyn – now simply called Brooke – are paradoxically accurate and impressionistic, blending tangible details of a dream that floats in a cloud of terror.
Laisvi is not an ordinary girl. For one thing, she’s not afraid to wander the deadly streets or jump into the water. (There’s obviously a touch of autobiographical projection here. Yuknavitch, an avid swimmer, once wrote, “Put me in water for ten seconds, and I’ll prove to you a body is whatever you want it to be.”) During her wanderlust, Laisvi says things Such as , “Evil He simply He lives Go in a different direction. People need to learn to better understand what is lagging behind. words. Things. time. People get attached easily.” With the help of a talking box turtle, she travels through time.
No, I haven’t seen who – which at. I didn’t see Which From this surreal novel to come. In fact, I won’t say much about the plot because I’m afraid I’ll accidentally reveal how tiny I have a following for it, but hold on tight to that tortoise!
As “Thrust” progresses, Yuknavitch drifts through many different storylines, separated by decades but interconnected by Laisvė’s instructive visits throughout the vast history of America’s stalled struggle for freedom. We go back to these workers in the mid-19th century—women, gays, formerly enslaved workers and others—toiling over a monument welcoming them into a land that despises them.
But the novel’s most engaging passages include the friendship between Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the man who designed the Statue of Liberty in real life, and a woman Joknavitch invented as his inspiration, a liberated sexual character named Aurora. Yuknavitch creates their emotional correspondence in messages that are inspired by but not bound by history.
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In the most brainy passages, Aurora urges Bartholdi to reimagine the meaning of his gigantic female statue by thinking about the way women’s bodies are remembered and dismembered. Her discussion swings through an impressive array of topics, including Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Darwin’s theories on evolution, feminist critiques anticipating the work of Helen Sixus, and, most disturbingly, her amputated leg. Aurora is also a great protector of people who are efficiently consumed by the machine of capitalism. Aurora told Bartholdi, “The exorbitant cost of mechanizing America, and creating the fantasy of freedom, included cutting the bodies of women and children.” “How in the world are we ever going to become so full of this?”
One of her solutions is to create a secret school where young people can escape from the factories and get an education. But her other solution to psychological violence in America is highly unorthodox: she maintains a house whose many rooms provide space for the most forbidden erotic fantasies of her adult clients while also leading them to something beyond the dulled standards of heterosexual intercourse — to push the body beyond the “foolish limits of the ridiculous genital impulse”. “. Every part of her crusade is to speak of what has been silenced, to liberate what is forbidden, and to turn America away from its murderous hypocrisy. She told Bartholdi, “Those who enter my room do not come away in love or frivolous lust, but with a passion for being, again and again, within a more interesting and intense space.”
After all these years of reviewing contemporary literature, I didn’t think I’d be shocked, but I was wrong. This funny book jacket is just the beginning. Smell the air – You can actually smell this novel burning in Texas.
Readers who fully submit themselves to Yuknavitch’s water tale will discover the lineages of Janet Winterson and David Mitchell, but nothing is derived from her insightful fantasies. Yuknavitch presents no less than a revised past and future of America with a vast new canon of accompanying myths. You might grumble about the novel’s amorphous form, recurring ambiguity, or loose multiple endings, but I read “Breaking In” in bewildered fascination and finished longing to dream about it again.
Ron Charles Browse books and write Book club newsletter For The Washington Post.
On July 7 at 7 p.m., Lydia Yuknavic will speak about “storming” at Solid State Books, 600 H St. NE, Washington.
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