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Mirror, Mirror: Life, Art, and Fiction in “Love”

Mirror, Mirror: Life, Art, and Fiction in “Love”

For all the antagonizing, ruminating, and even moralizing that comes with defining the parameters of literary fiction, perhaps the one point of (near-) universal agreement debators enjoy is over the notion that such a book should be in some way realistic, should faithfully reflect life and those who live it. How this is to be done, and to what ends, and within what exact parameters—this is where the trouble begins. But that there should be present fiction’s mysterious friend verisimilitude is, it seems, a matter of relatively little disagreement. There are myriad ways, of course, that this might be accomplished, but one of the more under-appreciated tactics is the reflecting of a subject matter in the very form a work takes. To infuse in the readerly experience some measure of the sensations and emotions navigated by the protagonist; to mirror life and art, so to speak, is an approach as tricky as it is effective. In her debut novella, Love, Maayan Eitan realizes this goal rather ably, painting a portrait of a young sex worker that itself contains the fluidity, disquiet, and uncertainty of its subject’s life.

Love follows Libby, a young woman living in an unnamed city in Israel. Written with an honest, if ephemeral voice, and in a fairly straight ahead first-person, the book races along with its heroine as she rides to appointments, meets with clients, and makes sense of the situations in which she finds herself. Throughout, Eitan leaves the reader to fend for herself, eschewing exposition or backstory in order to prioritize scene, an immersive choice that furthers the thematic and narrative aims of her work. Instead, information into Libby’s life and those of her friends and acquaintances is filled in via conversation—in dark sedans racing through nocturnal streets and in the hotel rooms of men twice her age—and contemplation. Eitan’s protagonist is at once perspective and introspective, bold and guarded, and serves as a fine Charon through Love’s modern underworld.

Most of the plot is given over to Libby’s experiences and encounters, and the book holds little back in its most visceral scenes. Yet honesty is an important and successful feature of the novella—one that forces the reader to reckon with the true nature of her work and the lives of those engaged in it. Libby’s ongoing pursuit for agency and self-determination, too, is a key thread running along the book, too-often subsumed by the realities she faces. At her best, Etian is able to reflect these increased tensions in her most engaging prose:

“I fell asleep with their arms around my waist, but my sleep was erratic, brief, and eventually I slipped from under their bodies, put on my clothes again, and got out of there. I am not pretty. At first I forgot their names; then the sight of their homes, their bodies, the things they told me. Finally I decided to go to the hospital…I am not pretty. I returned the next morning. Men looked at me, smiled to me when I passed them on the street, said that I was pretty when I asked them.”

The book’s most successful technical-formal decision is the use of the rapid, loose, and free-flowing first-person narration, coupled with a structure marked by short chapters and slivers of scenes. As we move along with Libby during her working hours and the harsh reality of her life that these episodes show, the reader is able to experience her manner of living and surviving in an authentic, verisimilar fashion. In this way, not only character but story become real and immediate agents of effective fiction.

As Love progresses, Libby becomes increasingly strident in her efforts to get out and forge a new life for herself. With the pressure mounting on her, the narration grows ever-more impassioned and sharp, leading to a profound scene of violence and action. Eitan never wavers in her commitment to authenticity and to holding firm that mirror, and her book benefits from this resolve. It is in the discomfort and disquiet that the reader feels in Love’s most kaleidoscopic passages that it does its best work:

I invented nothing and I never loved you at all because you forget love, I forgot it like others forget the milk out of the fridge or their keys inside the car, a lonely sock in the washing machine, the telephone number of the last guy who said he had fun with me, and I nodded seriously (another kind of behavior would have been considered disrespectful) while I banged my head hard against the wall, no, I threw my whole body against it, and the wall turned to me and said: What are you doing now? What exactly do you think that you’re doing now? And I answered, I’m forgetting, don’t interrupt me…Movement and authenticity are the most arresting elements of Love. It is a challenging endeavor, to relate with the utmost realism a story as poignant and raw as Libby’s, and there are many methods Eitan might have chosen. One can image her work as having been formed in far more an authorial, expository manner, a method that surely would have been more comfortable—or, in that dangerous word, accessible—for its reader. But the decision here, if not the easiest for author or audience, was the correct one, and Love stands as a moving, revealing book that manages to bring something of its uneasy, important fictive world into the real experience of reading it.


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by Maayan Eitan

Penguin Press

Published on May 08, 2022

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