It’s fitting that the narrator of Ruth Madievsky’s debut novel, All-Night Pharmacy, is never given a name. Despite the first-person participant point of view, she seems to have sprung fully formed from the functions of those around her, namely her sister, Debbie. Her own traits, her own personhood, are obliterated when Debbie is around. Debbie decides where they go: the aptly and ironically named Salvation, a bar housed in a former Christian bookstore (as alcoholics and addicts, the denizens of such places, we are looking to be saved, rescued, from ourselves, our intrusive thoughts, or pains—both real and imagined. That we find salvation, if only for a moment, is what keeps us chasing it until it is forever out of reach via booze and drugs). Debbie decides what she wears: “The first time Debbie took me to Salvation, she dressed me in a highlighter-pink bandage dress […] She wouldn’t let me wear a bra.” And Debbie decides how the narrator wears her makeup: gradient eyeshadow, honey-colored lipstick, winged eyeliner. “My best work yet,” Debbie says as if admiring a new sculpture made in her image.
The narrator reluctantly acknowledges this image is not her own, not the one she longs to construct for herself. But recognition is not the same as knowledge that leads to action. In a moment of self-awareness, the narrator admits, “I didn’t like who I was when I was with her, but I didn’t like myself any other time either.” She understands she needs to keep Debbie at bay in order to figure out who she wants to become. But for a large part of the novel, she doesn’t feel like it’s worth her effort. There is a detached cool to the narrator’s voice—a distancing that allows the novel to not fall into melodrama or hysterical realism. Drug binges, bathroom hookups, bar mishaps: these are all presented flatly, with a kind of “old hat” recognition. But that detached voice also lends itself to being a passive object, to having the emotions of others outweigh one’s own.
The narrator is deep in a codependent relationship with her sister, and soon she develops the same addiction to opioids as Debbie. Everything comes to a head one night when, after hanging out at Salvation, the narrator and Debbie ride with men from the bar to an overlook off Mulholland Drive. There is an argument and then a stabbing: “I was lunging at Debbie with my knife. She was slapping my arms away, and the men were laughing and cursing, and I sunk the blade into something supple. The slapping stopped.” Debbie survives the stabbing and then disappears. The narrator is in no hurry to go look for her.
Subject formation doesn’t just happen in a blink or because of one specific cause—there is no Big Bang when moving from object to subject. No one arrives in the world isolated from those sets of norms pressing down and trying to impose a shape. Madievsky depicts the myriad ways in which the unnamed narrator’s traits of self are superseded by events and those around her, keeping her in a state of objecthood. The stabbing acts as a fulcrum, allowing for a tipping towards subjecthood in (sometimes) small increments: she moves to a new apartment, finds a job doing admin work in an emergency room, and eventually gets clean. The bulk of the book deals with the narrator’s efforts not just to reassemble her life, but to assemble something to begin with. The stabbing, the getting clean, the new job: these are attempts at becoming something heretofore she was not allowed to or given the space to explore. (Trauma, however big or small, has a growth-stunting effect.)
To the novel’s credit, it doesn’t lean on social media to show how selves, or the perception of a self, are built or how the desire to be liked and admired on a screen is linked to identity. Instead, All-Night Pharmacy uses relationships between people occupying the same physical space and wielding in-person influence. And it’s not just Debbie who wields her influence. There is the specter of the sisters’ absent father, their mentally unstable mother, their grandmother, and a patient at the emergency room suffering from Shoah grief. There is also Sasha.
Sasha is a Jewish refugee from a former Soviet satellite. She is ethereal, whimsical, unbelievable—but, in a strange way, the most trustworthy. She enters the unnamed narrator’s life riding a late-night comet’s tail of good vibes. She claims to be a psychic of sorts, connected to the unnamed narrator. “I’m your amulet,” she says. She comes off as a well-meaning holistic life coach. She’s a healthier (but is it healthy?) version of Debbie. “She had all of Debbie’s larger-than-lifeness, but without the dangerous edge or the bitter comedown,” the narrator says of Sasha. The power dynamics here are still blurry: there is no boundary between the coach and the pupil. There is love, sex, the blending of selves until there is a severing, a decision that, for once, seems fully the narrator’s own, one she was making for her own sake: “The glassy look on Sasha’s face reminded me of Debbie, how in her eyes I saw my future. It turned out nothing like I’d expected.”
The narrator realizes that Sasha is becoming (or has become) Debbie 2.0. However painful it may be, she knows that she needs to move beyond recognition, or acknowledgment, and more fully into action. In this way, she is finally able to break the cycle of being stuck in codependent relationships. In All-Night Pharmacy, Madievsky constructs a portrait of a young woman doing the hard internal work to establish meaning, a sense of self, and connection to the outside world. She shows us how, despite not even having a name, the narrator is able to begin building a new “I,” moving from being to becoming and developing into a subject of her own making.
All-Night Pharmacy: A Novel
By Ruth Madievsky
Published July 11, 2023
Brock Kingsley is a writer and educator living in Fort Worth, Texas. His work has appeared in publications such as Brooklyn Rail, Paste Magazine, Tahoma Literary Review, Waxwing, and elsewhere.