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The Girl Who Is Always Just Out of Reach

Sarah Terez Rosenblum, Herself When She Is Missing (Berkeley, Calif.: Soft Skull Press, 2012). 272 pages.

Her publisher is casting Sarah Terez Rosenblum’s tantalizing debut as a postmodern novel “told in lists, 3×5 notecards, and even the occasional screenplay.” I was immediately hooked. I’ve been a sucker for the Junk Drawer Novel — the novel into which everything is thrown, without apparent order — ever since I tore through E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel as a very young man. Seven years later, nauseated by the Left’s reaction to the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, I turned Right and found I could no longer abide Doctorow’s politics. Yet I remained vulnerable to his cagey and sundry method for telling the story of atomic spies who were exactly like the Rosenbergs. I realized that, along with straightforward narrative, Doctorow had also evaded the truth about the Rosenbergs, but still I admired the way he was able to digress without a jolt into little essays on Old versus New Left, the genealogy of the Cold War, crowd control at Disneyland, the irresponsibility of graduate studies. I admired the form even as I shuddered at the content.

Rosenblum’s lesbian romance had almost exactly the opposite effect upon me. Herself When She Is Missing is a brilliant case study in romantic obsession, and in particular the special kind of romantic obsession that nearly everyone has suffered through (and no one, so far as I know, has ever written about): namely, the obsessive attraction to a partner who is elusive, emotionally unavailable, just out of reach. Unlike Doctorow, Rosenblum has no political ax to grind. She is more interested in the experience of lesbianism than in its ideology:

Both earnest Women’s Studies majors, Andrea and Linda touch each other carefully, Linda keeping meticulous score of how many orgasms they each have. After Andrea goes down on Linda, Linda thanks her politely, then plops herself between Andrea’s legs. “Scootch up,” she says. Their mouths and hands have no relation to Bogart and Bergman, no connection to history or literary passion or anything greater than themselves.

I love that “Scootch up.” Is there a heterosexual equivalent to politically correct sex? When lesbianism is uncoupled from ideology, it is no longer earnest or equitable, but it is a lot more familiar: “Andrea has no word to describe sex with Jordan”; Jordan is the lover whom the protagonist is powerless to resist; “in fact, the act empties her of words.” Rosenblum’s ambition is to connect lesbian passion to literary passion, to something greater than the lovers themselves.

Herself When She Is Missing mostly succeeds, although the story must be pieced together after the fact. Andrea, a UCLA graduate student in her early twenties, meets fortyish Jordan at a concert given by Cry Wolf, a brother-and-sister rock duo. Andrea has followed Cry Wolf since she was a teenager, nursing a crush on the sister of the act, writing her love letters, driving hours to grab a spot near the head of the line for tickets. In fact, she selected UCLA’s English program, moving to the coast from Wisconsin, in order to be closer to the singers, who live 15 minutes away in Venice. Andrea goes to their concerts by herself, because (as she confesses to Jordan at their first meeting) it is embarrassing to be “obsessed like this.” “Are you kidding?” Jordan replies. “This isn’t obsession; this is what makes us who we are.”

Their affair begins two months later. Jordan is living with another woman, but as Andrea observes afterwards, she has cheated on everyone she has ever been with. The sex is so good it is “drastic.” For the first time in her life, Andrea feels like “one solid person” — whenever she is having sex with Jordan, that is. Meanwhile, Jordan proves herself trustworthy only when she is having sex with Andrea. (There is a lot of talk about sex in the novel, but few sex scenes.) Andrea takes to calling her the Criminal Mastermind. Jordan embezzles money from the church where she works as an office assistant, steals from her live-in lover Patricia. She is also a racist. But Andrea focuses on the sex and ignores the warnings. After two years or so together, Jordan deserts her for a hairdresser. And then, after another two years, she makes her way back into Andrea’s life, only to leave again after another two years or so. “Her departure is implied by her arrival,” Rosenblum writes, “inevitable, like a cresting wave.” Jordan is unapologetic about her behavior. “I just hold a little something back,” she explains to Andrea. “No one wants everything I have.”

But Andrea does, and the portrait that emerges of the self-abnegating lover, who forfeits her integrity “because she can’t live without the sex,” is frightening and unforgettable. The novel’s biggest problem, however, is that its form interferes with its content. The documentary bricolage, the avoidance of one-thing-after-another storytelling, encourages Rosenblum to resort to set pieces. When these are dramatic vignettes, they are tense and arresting, such as the time Andrea arranged for her best friend Roslyn to meet the oft-discussed Jordan at a diner. After some back and forth, Jordan manufactures a pretext to stalk out of the restaurant. “She couldn’t charm me,” Roslyn comments, “so she decided to throw a fit.”

       “It’s not that simple.”
       “Andrea,” Roslyn takes her hand, an unexpected move, “simple is exactly what it is.”
       “What, you think she’s stupid?”
       “Not stupid, no.” Roslyn settles her sunglasses on top of her head.
       “She’s sensitive; don’t judge her.”
       “She’s not worth judging. I’m judging you.”
       “Don’t do that either.” Andrea stands.
       “Where are you going?”
       “I have to find her.” Jordan must be halfway down the block by now.
       “Andrea, when is enough enough?”
       “You don’t understand. I can’t let her walk away angry — who knows what she’ll do?” Voice rising, Andrea pulls cash from her pocket.
       “You know what? I can’t do this.” On her feet, Roslyn throws money on the table.
       “What is that, a threat?” Andrea swallows, certain she’s going to be sick.
       “I feel like a goddamn enabler.”
       “You can’t leave me alone in this.” Panicked, Andrea waves her arms crazily, her gesture taking in the diner, absent Jordan, everything empty inside.
       “Look how scared you are. This isn’t a normal way to feel.”

With a few deft strokes, Rosenblum captures both the fear of abandonment which lurks within romantic obsession as well as the unmistakable tones of women’s friendship. (“To hell with her,” a man would have said, or words to that effect. “Let her go.”) The stacks of 3×5 cards, the lists of Things Jordan Convinces Andrea (Against Her Better Judgment) to Do or Other Reasons to Stay (In Order), set off from the narrative in an IBM Selectric typeface, encourage Rosenblum to dwell on the kind of close and detailed over-analysis of another person’s actions and motives that someone engages in after a breakup. As a result, Herself When She Is Missing is full of observations and almost entirely devoid of ideas. Jordan is just not interesting enough, or representative enough, to support the weight of the analysis. Rosenblum writes beautifully, sharply, distinctively. But after a while, readers may get tired of hearing about the girl who is always just out of reach. They may react like Andrea’s friend Roslyn: “You can call when you get your shit together; until then, please don’t.”

On the evidence of the talent on display in her first novel, though, Sarah Terez Rosenblum is a good bet to get it together wonderfully and completely in her next book. In the mean time, Herself When She Is Missing is an insightful window into the obsessiveness of a lesbian romance.

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