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The Quest To Survive The West

A review of Trisha Low's new book, "Socialist Realism."

In the jacket copy for her hybrid debut collection “The Compleat Purge” — categorized by its publisher as “Fiction. Poetry. Asian American Studies” — author Trisha Low wryly describes herself as “just another feminist, confessional writer trying to find a good way to deal with all her literary dads.”

In her latest, the inventive, wise, and revelatory book-length essay, Socialist Realism, Low grapples with another typically masculinist trope, the expansion Westward, charting her own journey from Singapore to the United States, from New York to California, blending self-reflection with analysis of culture both high and popular.

The impulse to go West, Low acknowledges, is a utopic one, borne of a desire to find some better way of life, even though such migrations harbor an in-built failure; the place arrived at never affords true escape. Or as Low puts it, “Finding any place to call home seems impossible, it’s both fantasy and threat” (1).

On Twitter, she described “Socialist Realism” as “a book I wrote about being unable to come to terms with reality.” In its pages, restless and questing, she writes, “I can’t actually think of many ways to survive late capitalism,” and wonders “what would happen if the austerity of smash-the-state-revolution were a little bit more like the gentleness of coming home,” even as she admits that that would be no revolution at all (25). Yet her willingness to hope comes through on every page, and the book never descends into easy despair or stylish nihilism, even when her doubts are at their deepest and her wit at its most barbed.

The kaleidoscopically interpretive text uses art to pause in its agitated meandering, and it’s a pleasure to hear her elucidations on particular creators, as well as the function of art in general. She turns her lambent attention on Rosemary’s Baby, Bonnie Raitt, Diane Arbus, Marcel Proust, Kathy Acker, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Chris Burden and a miscellany of others too numerous to list, including a breathtakingly insightful discourse on the pop band One Direction blended with the writings of Banu Bargu.

Of course, “socialist realism” was the theory of art officially sanctioned by the state in Communist countries, meant to glorify and promote the values of a socialist society. Paradoxically, despite having “realism” in its name, this approach tended to be stylish and idealized, emphasizing an optimism and a revolutionary romanticism often absent from life in these countries as it was being lived.

Fittingly, Low turns an unsparing yet unexpectedly affectionate eye toward the comforting narrative fantasies we weave around ourselves in order to stay alive amidst circumstances hostile to the human spirit. In doing so, she provides a searching interrogation of identity, art, and a desire for a life beyond what we are told is possible.

In her author statement, Low asks, “How can we struggle when resistance itself could be a lie?” It takes her an entire book to puzzle out an answer, and the result, Socialist Realism, is a brainy, humane, and indispensable reply.

****

Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, and the forthcoming Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey: A Novel of World War I.

NONFICTION –– ESSAY
Socialist Realism
By Trisha Low
Coffee House Press
Published August 13, 2019

A founding editor of Rose Metal Press and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, Kathleen Rooney is the author, most recently, of the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk (St Martin’s Press, 2017). With Eric Plattner, she is the co-editor of Rene Magritte: Selected Writings (University of Minnesota Press, 2016). She teaches at DePaul University. Follow her @KathleenMRooney

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