Thursday, March 4, 2010

"The Gin Closet"

Leslie Jamison grew up in Los Angeles. Educated at Harvard College and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she has also worked as an innkeeper in California, a schoolteacher in Nicaragua, and an office temp in Manhattan. She is currently a PhD candidate at Yale University, where she is writing a dissertation on poverty and degradation in twentieth-century American writing. She is twenty-six years old.

She applied the Page 69 Test to The Gin Closet, her debut novel, and reported the following:
Page 69 finds Tilly, one of the novel’s narrators, embarking on a career as a prostitute in Reno. During this section of the book she flits between seedy motel rooms, cycling through liaisons with failed entrepreneurs and Bible-toting dope smokers. In a sense, the page isn’t entirely representative, because it takes readers to a place and time outside the book’s central narrative. But many of its details evoke some of the novel’s deepest concerns: the way addiction breeds thwarted intimacies and self-sought isolation, and the way that the body is involved in all this unhappiness, marking our despair with foul breath and sudden hungers.

Sitting with her first client in the thick of post-coital disconnection, Tilly finds herself hoping for something, she doesn’t even know what, that might bring some meaning to their encounter:
His mouth tasted dry and sour when we fucked. Afterward he gave me some crumpled bills and pulled a Bible and a box of crackers from his nightstand drawer. I sat on the edge of his bed, legs crossed, and watched him eat. I thought maybe there was something he wanted to read aloud. But all he did was look at me, confused. “You’re done,” he said. “You can go now.”
A few things happen here that work as microcosms for the book as a whole: a traumatic situation (in this case, descending into prostitution via the arms of an addict) dissolves into a collection of sad, quiet details: the carefully-crossed legs, the box of crackers. A woman craves contact but finds rebuff instead, a man retreats into private consolations (drugs, silence, the Bible) in order to leave behind the person who sits right beside him.

Both Tilly and her niece Stella (the novel’s other narrator) find themselves seeking consolation and identity from men—huge, dysfunctional armies of men—and we see hints of that here: how one woman’s career as a prostitute might be echoed by another woman’s cosmopolitan coming-of-age. For both women, lovers function like food or drugs—yet another form of consumption, a desperate grasping at the world.

Page 69 ends with the image of an unhealed wound: It used to be just a regular cut, the man says, another client, but then the blood couldn’t flow there—and this open wound seems like a pretty apt metaphor for the whole book, which is full of psychic scars that won’t stay sutured, no matter how hard the characters try.
Browse inside The Gin Closet, and learn more about the book and author at Leslie Jamison's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue