by Jackie DesForges
On the one hand, Stephanie Danler lives in the “Writer House” of our dreams: a small cottage hidden away in Laurel Canyon, with a yard for dinner parties and a mythic history that may or may not involve Fleetwood Mac. Hanging in the kitchen are her mother’s copper E. Dehillerin pots from France. She’s surrounded on all sides by the kinds of neighbors you’d expect to find in Los Angeles: rich or artsy, or both, who throw the kinds of parties that result in pool floats drifting down into Danler’s yard. I don’t know if Danler actually still lives in this house at the moment, but it’s where we find her in the opening pages of her new memoir, Stray.
On the other hand, the house is falling down. Every time it rains, there’s the potential for a landslide, and we’re not talking about the Fleetwood Mac variety. The floors are crooked, there aren’t any screens on the windows to keep out the bugs.
Danler’s story is a bit like the perfect Writer House. Many speculated that her debut novel, Sweetbitter, was in fact a thinly veiled autobiography rather than a work of fiction. They imagined her living the perfect Writer Life in the Perfect Writer Apartment in New York City, using her six-figure, two-book deal to pay off all her graduate school loans.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#cc0000″ class=”” size=””]Stray burns down the house that Sweetbitter built. It details a childhood stunted by two addict parents …. Basically, a landslide.[/perfectpullquote]
Stray burns down the house that Sweetbitter built. It details a childhood stunted by two addict parents—her mother a depressed alcoholic who is eventually rendered physically and mentally disabled by an aneurysm; her father a meth addict who’s been in and out of rehab more times than Danler cares to count. There is a divorce, an affair with a married man. Self-medication with drugs and alcohol and sex. Basically, a landslide.
Danler’s voice in Sweetbitter was characterized by its light touch and lyrical prose. You can tell she reads poetry avidly. That’s still present in Stray, though it feels much looser in the scenes that I would imagine were the most emotionally distressing to write, particularly those involving her mother. These sentences feel heavy; you can feel their impact as you read them: “A car door would slam, and I would lose focus on whatever I was drawing or painting or gluing, my entire body a satellite searching for her high heels on the asphalt… It’s gross and total, the way I can feel the tug of my love for her. … [D]one pretending that I was strong, independent, or cared about anything else.” And then later, as an adult, in the present tense of the book: “I can’t look directly at her. Her physical devolution in the years I’ve been gone makes me heartsick. … I don’t look at how frail she is. … I don’t look …. I don’t look …. I don’t look.”
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#cc0000″ class=”” size=””]It’s no wonder that [Stephanie Danler] grew up with a fascination for words, the power they can conjure when laid down in the right order, the beautiful fantasies they can create when reality fails to offer any promising options. ‘I made up stories from the minute I could speak,’ she tells us. Is it any surprise?[/perfectpullquote]
And yet she does look. I was struck by the themes of looking and seeing that Danler returns to over and over again in this section of the book, how closely she watches her mother in every phase of their relationship. How she mentions over and over again that she and her mother have the same eyes. How even in the passage I’ve just cited, when she claims not to be looking, she’s describing to us every minute detail of her mother’s appearance. We only pay this much attention to someone when we love them or we fear them, maybe also if we hate them. I wonder if any of us can train our bodies to stop being, as Danler describes it, satellites constantly searching for our mothers, no matter how hard we try to find some other orbit.
The second and third sections of the book are titled “Father” and “Monster,” respectively. They deal with two of the major male landslides in Danler’s life: her meth-addicted father and the married man with whom Danler would start an affair around the time Sweetbitter was being released. It could be said that her father’s section of the book was the impetus for this whole memoir: after Danler pitched an essay about him to Vogue during her promotion for Sweetbitter, the interest she received in the story forced her to consider that maybe there was more of it to tell. And this felt to me like one of the themes of the “Father” section of the book: if the ways that Danler learned to love and abandon stemmed largely from her mother, then the ways that she learned to translate her experience were largely informed by her father, whose “charm was legendary. He could talk to anyone. He gave impromptu speeches that were rhyming poems and moved his audiences to tears.” She describes his rhetoric like an artistic performance, and that’s exactly what it was: a charming facade that disguised his meth addiction and his massive debt. Later, she calls it by its street name: lying. “In my time with addicts I’ve learned to identify those that are liars first, those whose great comfort in addiction is that it allows them to practice their art.” It’s no wonder that she grew up with a fascination for words, the power they can conjure when laid down in the right order, the beautiful fantasies they can create when reality fails to offer any promising options. “I made up stories from the minute I could speak,” she tells us. Is it any surprise?
One of her most painful fantasies is realized in the third section of the book, called “Monster,” presumably after a married man with whom Danler had an affair. Anyone who’s been in a toxic relationship feels each emotional blow as Danler describes them: the promises for a future together that remain too vague to hold any real weight; always having a hand on your phone at a party, unable to listen to conversations because your ear is tuned only to the sound of an incoming text message. The fantasy of how your love for the person can change them, or change the circumstances, or change whichever part of the reality isn’t working. And then, of course, the climax of too many toxic relationships: the realization that maybe you are part of the problem. You’re the “Monster.” You’re the landslide about to kill the perfect house.
As all of these relationships are playing out in Danler’s memory on the page, there’s something else happening in the background: California. And The Love Interest. Danler grew up in southern California, though she admits that she didn’t know much about its geography until recently. As far as geography goes, California’s volatility is a perfect match for the volatility and trauma of her childhood—everything always on the brink of falling entirely apart.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#cc0000″ class=”” size=””]He is teaching me to name things that move me. Coastal live oaks. Poppies and lupin. Arroyos. When I get in the car with the Love Interest to explore some fabled part of this state, I feel alert, aroused, and at peace. —Stephanie Danler, Stray[/perfectpullquote]
This is where the Love Interest comes in. Though he eventually becomes Danler’s husband, he doesn’t have his own section of the book like her mother, father, and the Monster do. But there’s a good reason: we start to see him in all of the chapters named for places in California, places that Danler discovers or re-discovers with him: Owens Valley, Joshua Tree, and the Salton Sea, to name a few. We watch as he—a nature lover—reacquaints her with these places; he fills in the blanks where she didn’t even think to look for them. Part of the reason that Danler is able to look back on her life and see the traumas for what they really were is because she finally has a non-destructive relationship to compare them to. He shows her “conflicted” landscapes, ecological disasters that seem to riddle the entire state: Owens Lake, which is the largest single source of dust pollution in the United States; Laurel Canyon, which is vulnerable to seasonal fires and yet nearly impossible to evacuate because of its tiny roads; the Salton Sea, ruined and deserted thanks to pollution.
And yet there are beautiful things in these landscapes, too, and he points them out to her. “He is teaching me to name things that move me. Coastal live oaks. Poppies and lupin. Arroyos. When I get in the car with the Love Interest to explore some fabled part of this state, I feel alert, aroused, and at peace.” He is with her, and helping her, as she learns not to compartmentalize these sections—Mother, Father, Monster—but to accept them along with the possibility of something better. That it is possible to have both at the same time: the pain and the happiness, the sweet and the bitter.
The final pages of the book see Danler remembering the night of her thirty-second birthday, driving alone in Los Angeles, knowing not to expect a birthday call from either of her parents. “I find I have made it back to the falling-down cottage that is my own empty house.” Most people might look at an empty house—whether literal or a metaphor—as something depressing, a void, and maybe it is. But it’s also a blank slate.
There are no perfect Writer Houses, no perfect endings, but I believe that there are perfect moments, or certain pauses that come at the right time, where we can sit still for a second and look back and think, okay, yes, all of that is done, what’s next?
That’s where Danler leaves us here. Not with an ending, but with a pause, one last chance to look back before moving forward. I really hope the house makes it.
Jackie DesForges is based in Los Angeles and is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing through the Low Residency program at UC Riverside. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Exposition Review, Matador Network, and more. She is currently working on her first novel and you can find her on Twitter and Instagram at @jackie__writes.