The startling debut of Raven Leilani
By her first year of college, Raven Leilani had decided not to pursue a career in painting. Still, the 30-year-old fiction writer says her freshman year in Italy was one of the most artistically influential of her life. She saw the works of the Florentine masters—da Vinci, Michelangelo—and admired their facility for creating hyper-realistic depictions on the canvas. Lines, angles, close study of human anatomy: The precision was startling and a contrast to the work she typically favored.
As a high school student in a rigorous art program, she had been drawn to Impressionism. “There’s something really beautiful to me about the skill it takes to put something on a canvas that is an approximation of a thing, but the viewer still knows what it is,” she tells me. (Leilani has continued to paint in her free time, especially throughout the coronavirus pandemic.)
This tension—between precision and subjectivity, seeing clearly and feeling deeply—marks Leilani’s fiction output. The subject comes up again and again when we speak by phone in the dog days of summer, the morning before Farrar, Straus and Giroux is set to publish her debut novel, Luster. Since its publication on Aug. 4, Luster has become a New York Times best seller.
“I started writing a story about a young artist coming up against systemic barriers, but also the private barrier: the one that’s just you.”
A little over 200 pages, the novel feels as clear as a pane of glass and as elaborate as a stained-glass window. Luster follows a 23-year-old Black woman, Edie, as she contends with her own artistic coming of age. Edie is a painter in New York City in the 2010s who fumbles her way into a white couple’s open marriage in suburban New Jersey. Strapped for cash, she ends up living in Eric and Rebecca’s house, alongside their 12-year-old adopted daughter, Akila, who is also Black. What ensues is a series of psychosexual mind games and meditations on art, race, relationships, politics and religion. The novel is dense with social observation and self-analysis. For example: “I believed, like a Catholic or a Tortured Artist, that the merit of a commitment correlates directly to the pain you endure in its pursuit.”
“I started writing a story about a young artist coming up against systemic barriers,” Leilani says, “but also the private barrier: the one that’s just you.”
Born on Aug. 26, 1990, Leilani was raised a Seventh-day Adventist in the Bronx and upstate New York. After leaving her parents’ house, she had a crisis of faith. She is now an atheist.
“Before I left the church was the most pious year I ever had,” she says, “because I was trying so hard. When your primary way of organizing the world—which is God—when the idea of that is gone, you’re rootless. You’re searching for the thing that will perhaps take its place. I searched wildly and everywhere for that nourishment, for that rubric to make meaning.”
To fill this God-shaped hole, Leilani turned to literature and the arts. As an undergraduate, she studied English and psychology. She tells me that she would sit in the back of her pre-med classes writing poetry.
When your primary way of organizing the world—which is God—when the idea is gone, you’re rootless.
For five years after graduating from college, she worked 9-to-5 jobs, including in publishing, as a delivery person and at the Department of Defense in Washington, D.C. (One of my favorite stories by Leilani, “Hard Water,” draws on her time working for the government.) During this period, she started to write seriously.
“I wrote two books,” she says. “One that was a naked attempt to cash out. Smut sells, smut is great, it’s fun to write. I tried to write a body-snatching smut, and it just wasn’t good,” she laughs. Then she attempted a more serious novel about fandom and music, with which she entered the M.F.A. program at New York University in 2017. Soon she scrapped that book, too, and began to write Luster.
At N.Y.U., Leilani’s ear for the music of language—she cites Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” as a major influence and has a tattoo of the Dylan Thomas line “Do not go gentle into that good night” on her wrist—came up against the need for clarity in her writing. She is a slow writer, she says, prone to tinkering with sentences until the rhythm feels just right. As an M.F.A. student, she had a lot of energy but was so concerned with creating something “original” that, in her view, the work she produced felt pretentious. Professors would point to a section of a short story and ask her to explain herself in plain words.
“And I couldn’t,” she says. “So I started writing with the intention of clarity. I wanted to have the beauty, but I also realized I wanted to write a book that people wanted to read.”
Leilani’s appreciation of beauty appears to be born, at least in part, out of her ideas about devotion. She believes that humans are inclined to worship: It is simply how we are built. Just as Leilani searched for something to sustain herself, so does Edie, who is also a former Seventh-day Adventist. More than anything, she desires to be witnessed, known and loved. But this longing can sometimes lend itself to unhealthy attachments. At one point, she realizes, “I have made gods out of feeble men.”
Toward the end of the novel, there is an exquisite sequence that takes place during Comic Con at the Javits Center in Manhattan:
At my height, the holding pen is principally a parade of armpits and old CO2, every mage in sight regretting their cape, the city’s moisture pooling into these few dank square feet, everyone rouged and slathered in unicorn spit.
The chapter is animated by Leilani’s own experience attending the convention. In a recent personal essay for Esquire, she connects Comic Con and fandom to religious devotion. “My primary belief system had collapsed,” she writes in that piece, “but I missed the communion, the part of both religion and fandom that is based not in isolated practice, but in a fervor to share the good news.” In Luster, communion is elusive. At times it can seem impossible.
I missed the communion, the part of both religion and fandom that is based not in isolated practice, but in a fervor to share the good news.
At the beginning of the novel, Edie works as an editorial assistant for the children’s imprint of a publishing house, handling projects about bullied flounders and Labrador retrievers who work as detectives.
The book’s momentum comes from Edie’s (in)ability to modulate both external threats and her own suboptimal impulses. In the first half of the novel, she sleeps with multiple people in her office, faces consequences at work and gets evicted from her apartment by her party-girl landlord. There is a tactility to Edie’s misfortune that has stayed with me. Almost halfway through the book, having turned to a gig in food delivery, she encounters the following:
A car speeds through a stop sign and I stop short and spill all the bisque. At this point in my career, I can deliver almost any bad news about soup, but when I get to the entrance, I notice that some of the lobster has gotten into my shoes.
Then the customer approaches. It is her boyfriend Eric’s wife, Rebecca. “For a moment I think maybe I can wring out my socks before she reaches me, but it is too late.” The squishy lobster, those doleful socks. Edie admits to Rebecca that she has nowhere else to go. So together they head to New Jersey, and the unraveling begins. (Leilani tells me she loves books that hinge on a psychological spiral seeded by obsession, which is more or less where Luster goes.)
The novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge, writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review, links Edie to the flâneur tradition. But unlike the middle-class, white male flâneur, who can catalog his surroundings as a detached, unobtrusive observer, Edie belongs to a “precarious class.” As observer and observed, she is usually playing defense. Only through her art—unfinished self-portraits, paintings of household items—can she wrest autonomy from a society that would deny her such a prerequisite for flourishing.
Yet Leilani never set out to create a long-suffering moral paragon. Rebecca may conceive of Edie as a Trusty Black Spirit Guide who can teach Akila about Black womanhood, but Edie is always self-sabotaging and self-destructing (which is to say, she is a human being). Underlining that point, in one scene Edie strolls past a “Diversity Giveaway” in the lobby of the publishing house, a selection of books in which every protagonist is a flat martyr:
I go up to the table and there are a few new ones: a slave narrative about a mixed-race house girl fighting for a piece of her father’s estate; a slave narrative about a runaway’s friendship with the white schoolteacher who selflessly teaches her how to read; a slave narrative about a tragic mulatto who raises the dead with her magic chitlin pies...an “urban” romance where everybody dies by gang violence; and a book about a Cantonese restaurant, which may or may not have been written by a white woman from Utah, whose descriptions of her characters rely primarily on rice-based foods.
Oriented toward sound and reinforced by humor, Leilani’s sentences accelerate and do a loop-de-loop, like the Six Flags coaster Edie and Eric ride on their first date. That or they are clipped and spare, the circumspect syntax of someone who is watched but never seen. (“I try to be scarce,” Edie says when she fears she has overstayed her welcome at Eric and Rebecca’s.)
Surviving as a Black woman involves calculation and curation.
“You’re privy to her most private, candid thoughts,” Leilani tells me. “But ultimately, she isn’t articulating that all the time to the people who are around her. She can’t. She’s trying to survive, and surviving as a Black woman involves a not insignificant amount of calculation and curation. And I wanted to speak to the absurdity of that.”
In her review of the book for The New York Times, Parul Sehgal wrote that the novel’s figurative language doesn’t always land, that some of the metaphors are too vague, too purple. She cites as an example a passage in which Edie feels guilty for reading someone’s journal in the same way she would feel guilty for overindulging in fettuccini at an Olive Garden. What Sehgal seems to hint at in her critique is the Beat undercurrent that runs through Leilani’s work. When Leilani tells me that Allen Ginsberg was a formative influence on her writing, I nod, because there is a tendency in Luster—thematically and linguistically—to chase moments of rapture at all costs.
“I wanted everything I wrote to have that kind of [Ginsbergian] energy,” Leilani says.
And who wants a literature that shoots for technical mastery at the expense of nutty, sublime ambition? Several months after finishing the novel, I maintain that there is much pleasure to derive from the ornate handiwork. Leilani’s imagination flutters and scintillates like a mirror ball. (Early in the book, at a ’70s-themed club night, Edie observes that “the beauty of disco is the too much.”) Most of the time, her language does succeed. Run-on sentences are interspersed with quiet staccato palate cleansers. And as this is a debut, excesses are forgivable.
Who wants a literature that shoots for technical mastery at the expense of nutty, sublime ambition?
“There’s a part of art that is failing, and that’s what Impressionism is,” Leilani says. “An artist’s interpretation is what you see on a canvas. You get to see the fingerprints of an artist.” The fingerprints are what I most enjoy about Luster. Even when some of her bits go too far, I am still fascinated by the mind that invented them. Example: the goofy subplot in which Edie interviews for an administrative position with a professional clown who launches into a monologue about “the historic model of the Italian buffoon.”
Ever the Impressionist, Edie wants to leave a trace: to witness and be witnessed, to remember and be remembered. “I wanted to write a young Black woman who is seeking connection and seeking affirmation, like everyone is, of her personhood and her artistry,” Leilani says. “And the weirdness, the jaggedness, of the things we do in service of that.”
Leilani’s Herculean attention to detail—vanilla Juul pods, a nightclub smoke machine producing puffy “orange convex knives,” “Band-Aids and crushed Dixie cups” at a metal concert—is about more than verisimilitude. As Leilani implies at the novel’s end, it is about recording all the world’s beauty and ugliness while one still can. Each clear-eyed observation and lyrical digression is offered up as a salvaged token, evidence that you saw and loved and suffered and felt deeply. To quote Edie: “Proof that I was here.”