Where the truth lies: Ariel Levy, writer for The New Yorker
On Ariel Levy, Writer for The New Yorker
Where the truth lies is somewhere, and Ariel Levy wants to find it. She is always searching for what is holding up the façade of normal. She builds her essays on a foundation carefully construed of complex legal, economic, or social information. Her craft is in the synthesizing she does with her research and insight. I think her feminist, lesbian, no-nonsense aesthetic guides her perceptions, hones her awareness; much like a master carpenter has the ability to see the way the pieces of a blueprint need to shift for alignment. Everything Levy approaches is stripped of the usual assumptions to reveal a streamlined description. She’s got attitude and pluck, but she never slips into the abyss of rhetoric or political correctness. She likes facts, but doesn’t allow them to hold her hostage. There’s room to find humor, even when she is at her most incredulous, as she was as she strode right into Spring Break in Florida with raucous vacationing college kids (her book, Female Chauvinist Pigs). Nor did the wreckage of the 2013 rape scenario in Steubenville, Ohio (‘Trial By Twitter,’ August 5, 2013) daunt her. In that essay she hammers through the impact of social networking on Steubenville’s criminal justice endeavors. There is a lot of evidence for investigators now on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook and Levy considers how bloggers can blow all kinds of things into and out of proportion. She suggests, “By the logic of vigilantism, the need for justice supersedes the rules of a creaky bureaucracy.” I immediately thought of one of Levy’s predecessors, The New Yorker’s Paris correspondent Janet Flanner, who wrote in 1936 of democracy moving at the pace of stagecoaches while fascism traveled at the speed of airplanes.
Flanner was writing about Adolf Hitler’s fascism vs. democracy, Levy about our legal system catching up with electronic communications. Both, it seems, consider social values and the speed of change. Flanner was a New Yorker foreign correspondent for fifty years. One of my favorite quotes for the prose and the perspective is, “History looks queer when you’re standing close to it, watching where it is coming from and how it’s being made.”
Levy is a writer with a similar astute sensibility. Her essay The ‘Perfect Wife’ (September 30, 2013) is about Edith Windsor and the fight for justice for same sex couples. Our Rosa Parks if you will. Windsor is 84. She was in relationship with Thea Spyer for over forty years. Their life together began in the era when dancing closely or not wearing three items of clothing that matched their sex were illegal and same sex couples stayed in the closet if they wanted to stay employed.
Levy describes Ms. Windsor as the three dimensional woman she is: a glamorous eighty-four year old, irreverent, and –luckily for lesbian and gay couples– irrepressible in her pursuit of equality. Levy acknowledges the difficulties Windsor presented for the lesbian and gay rights organizations. As much as Ms. Windsor is adorable, her estate tax claim represents the upper echelon issues of LGBT folks. Windsor was an ideal plaintiff due to her femme appeal, intelligence, long-term relationship and status as widow. Her legal team did, however, want to keep her eloquence about the joys of lesbian sex from the justices of the Supreme Court. Beyond the publicity and the incredible risk Ms. Windsor took to pursue this case, it is the depth of Windsor’s loving relationship with Ms. Spyer that reverberates through Levy’s essay.
If love and the courage to break down legal and social barriers is the theme of “The Perfect Wife” then ‘Thanksgiving In Mongolia’ (November 18, 2013) is about the absolute audacity required to get through pain and demolished dreams. The prose here defies gravity, taking the reader from the very heights of the Gobi Desert into the depths of miscarriage and despair. The intimacy of this piece reveals yet another aspect of Levy’s commitment to writing truths often left unspoken. Sometimes there are no words for grief and utter sadness but Levy discovers and articulates it all.
Levy ventured to Mongolia to write about the impact of mineral riches flowing into a nation of nomadic herders. She describes the night she spent with two Americans who took her out to a bar, “I liked sitting in a booth in a dark room full of smoking, gay Mongolians, but my body was feeling strange. I ended the night early.” The heartbreaking event at the core of her essay is underway, “I felt an unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory.” Her description of the placental abruption that caused the miscarriage is pounding, as intense as the little heartbeat that stopped. The essay slaps overly sentimental visions of maternity right into the jarring reality of disappointment that many women experience. No cute cards or balloons, no flowers. Grief deserves this attention.
Levy’s craft opens a reader to witness new insight. She explains how her sorrow eased when other mothers (and one man) collapsed in tears hearing her story. Women have always had miscarriages and grief so deep, but this side of motherhood is silenced. Our society won’t have it. Such sadness is held alone. Levy’s grief unifies us all with her story of the lost dream, the lost marriage, and the resilience it takes to carry on. Nature, Levy notes, demands this of us.
On her fifth birthday Janet Flanner told her mother she wanted to be a writer. Ariel Levy tells of being a little girl in her wooden fort, “…self-reliant, brave, ingeniously surviving, if lost.” Two bold and curious New Yorker writers. One retired as the other is born. Luckily for us, the art and legacy of lesbians writing marvelous essays that search out truths behind the façade of facts and normal endures.
Janet Flanner (b.1892- d.1978). New Yorker foreign correspondent 1925-1975, pen name Genet.
Ariel Levy (b.1974- ). New Yorker staff writer, author Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005).