Aviva Rosner is many things: punk folk singer, contrarian, potty mouth, feminist, Jew, occasional vegan, fan of Amy Winehouse. She is also a woman approaching her mid-thirties who really wants a baby, but seems unable to have one—at least not without the intervention of assisted reproductive technology, to which she is philosophically and even morally opposed. Aviva is the protagonist of Elisa Albert’s Human Blues, a novel told in nine chapters, each corresponding to one turn in the character’s menstrual cycle.
A certain number of readers may have already stopped there. If you’re still reading this, congratulations, you are one of those people not scared off by forthright discussions of menstruation. If so, you may find value in this book. Perhaps you have (or once had) a menstrual cycle yourself, or know someone who does, or perhaps you once grew inside of a human being who had one. Oh, right.
In Human Blues, Albert immerses us deep in Aviva’s voice, in her thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. At the novel’s opening, she is just releasing her fourth album, Womb Service. Though she’s nowhere near reaching Amy levels of fame, this seems to be Aviva’s breakthrough moment. In characteristic fashion, she refuses to take her manager’s advice and play nice with her interviewers or to post the mandatory snaps of her lunch on Instagram.
In her quest to get pregnant, Aviva takes natural supplements and sees an acupuncturist. She is suspicious of all pharmaceuticals but open to weed, shrooms, and occasionally microdosing LSD. If there’s one thing that most characterizes Aviva, it’s her need to do the opposite of what everyone else is doing, which may explain her rather extreme (and ultimately self-defeating) attitude toward assisted reproduction, which she views as both an unnatural intervention, a “forcing” of what the universe should freely grant, and also an extension of patriarchal control:
“‘Because whatever gets normalized for women, whatever gets taken from us and repackaged and sold back to us, up and down and round and round, back and forth, wherever, whenever, it’s all so that we keep having to mess with ourselves, while everything else stays exactly the same. So to whatever’s normative, whatever’s expected, we must say . . .’ She sung it, deep and slow: ‘No, no, no.’”
Aviva’s progress through the novel is often, not surprisingly, cyclical, the main dilemma facing her whether to break with her principles or accept the grief of permanent infertility. Knowing Aviva, perhaps her decision is a foregone conclusion. This may be why I found the novel claustrophobic at times. Aviva is a difficult personality, a character who cycles between likable and unlikable by design. It’s possible to agree with her critiques of the assisted reproductive technology industry and still feel like she’s missing the point, that the character is caught in a rather adolescent trap of her own devising, believing that all her ideals and actions must be perfectly aligned (for what it’s worth, this reviewer has one child conceived through IVF and a probably noteworthy bias here).
Albert’s achievement in Human Blues lies in creating a character so difficult and contradictory that the reader can both love and hate her at the same time, like a friend whose strengths are inseparable from her flaws. Much like a real person, in fact. The other great accomplishment of this novel is that it is very funny. Aviva may be a recognizable type, but her type involves a heavy dose of self-awareness: “Aviva was ‘process-oriented,’ which meant a lot of floor time, a lot of candles, a lot of tunes on shuffle, and regular cannabis edibles.”
The novel also feels like a contribution to a growing literature dealing with motherhood and how it impacts the creative output of people who birth and raise children. Human Blues, however, doesn’t provide any clear answers to the dilemma often assumed to exist between being an artist and raising children. Aviva’s songs are a response to her suffering, and her need to make art will surely endure with or without children.
Aviva is a trenchant observer of her surroundings, her judgments both witty and sharp. Her musings often acquire a spiritual tinge. She views our increasing dependency on assisted reproduction as yet another commodification of a natural process, yet another way we turn ourselves into placid consumers and customers. “I think there might be meaning in the shit we can’t control,” she dares to say.
Of course, Human Blues was written before the recent ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women Health’s Organization curtailed the reproductive freedom of all potentially pregnant people in the United States. It remains unclear how that decision may affect access to assisted reproductive technology down the line, but it’s impossible to read Human Blues without realizing that this novel is already a product of a different time, a time before. After all, Aviva’s decision about IVF rests upon the assumption that this is her choice to make, and only within a framework of bodily autonomy can her decision become a moral choice. For now, Aviva can still choose for herself what will or will not happen to her body – and so within the pages of this book at least, she is free.
By Elisa Albert
Avid Reader Press
Published July 5, 2022