It did not surprise me to discover some years ago that the root of the word “obsession” came from the Latin “obsessio”, meaning “a besieging”. It seemed exactly right for that state of disturbing, overwhelming preoccupation.
Of course, romantic or sexual obsession has provided literary inspiration through the ages, but my year in reading has begun with three gorgeously unsettling — and refreshingly expansive — debut novels about women who live in the grip of uncontrollable desires. From rage to lust, and encompassing both destructive and creative urges, these books take their characters into dangerous but also liberating territory, and in doing so, present the idea of obsession as a route to self-discovery.
In Lessa Gazi’s novel Hellfire, translated from Bengali by Shabnam Nadiya, two unmarried sisters, Lovely and Beauty, live in Dhaka under their mother’s rigid rules. They follow a claustrophobic routine of watching Bangladeshi soaps, trying out beauty tips and eating cloying feasts of hilsa pulao and roast duck. But on her 40th birthday, Lovely steps out on her own, rambles through Gausia Market and Ramna Park, buys snacks, a kitchen knife, a set of clothes and talks to strangers. “Lovely couldn’t remember the last time she had gone anywhere by herself. Had she ever gone anywhere by herself?”
That simple act blows the lid off years of unexpressed rage. Hellfire is only 196 pages long, but it crackles with electric tension as Lovely, Beauty and their mother, Farida Khanam, finally face off.
If Hellfire is about women denied normal freedoms and wants, both Raven Leilani and Patricia Lockwood’s novels are about women who give unrestrained rein to their desires, regardless of the consequences to themselves or others.
In Luster, Leilani captures the dilemma that many women of her generation face — not of too little but of too much choice. Edie, the 23-year-old protagonist, is a lapsed painter and self-confessed “office slut” driven by desire — but also a need to love and be loved — when she allows herself to be pulled into a tangled relationship with the much older Eric, and in turn his wife and adopted daughter.
In an August 2020 interview, Leilani said: “I always write toward my obsessions. I’ve always been really obsessed with talking about art and the way you find your way to it. And I’ve always been obsessed with failure, which is integral to pursuing anything.”
What makes Edie thrilling is that the life of the body is as important and satisfying to her as the life of the mind; her hunger for art or for sex or connection is a means of self-expression.
No One Is Talking About This offers another window into the lives of millennials, and how their selfhood is shaped online. Few writers capture the sticky addictiveness of a life lived on and through the internet as well as Lockwood, whose sharp wit and edgy surrealism have made the poet and novelist one of Twitter’s most watched high-wire acts.
The unnamed protagonist of the novel is a social media star who lives not so much online as inside the internet; she spends her time travelling around the world to meet her fans, but lives in an alternative reality of doom-scrolling and witty one-liners.
“She lay every morning under an avalanche of details, blissed, pictures of breakfasts in Patagonia, a girl applying her foundation with a hard-boiled egg, a shiba inu in Japan leaping from paw to paw to greet its owner, ghostly-pale women posting pictures of their bruises — the world pressing closer and closer, the spider web of human connection grown so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk,” her narrator writes.
No One Is Talking About This captures what makes the banality, the black-hole argumentativeness, the fragmented drifting of life in “the portal”, as Lockwood calls the internet, so all-consuming.
The portal demands attention and feeding, time and emotion — everything that offline human relationships also require. The young woman is so deeply immersed that she grows convinced a vast chorus of voices — the insistent clamour of all those strangers online — has taken over her thoughts. It is only when her sister has trouble with her pregnancy that the realities of life, birth, and human fragility begin to change the narrator — and what started as a wry novel about online obsessions deepens into a far more human story.
Gazi, Leilani and Lockwood map a rich and under-explored territory of female obsessions. Taken together, they demonstrate how such impulses can fuel madness, can take people out of their “right mind”, but also how those who live unfenced by caution can discover that wanting something — right or wrong — can lead somewhere real. The women in these remarkable novels find freedom messily, in the midst of their hungers and despairs, and that feels just right.
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