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A Perfect Telegram from Hell

The unflinching fiction of Heather Lewis

Notice by Heather Lewis. Semiotext(e), 248 pages. 2024 (2004).

You ever look at who rides and who doesn’t? Who’s good and who isn’t? Look sometime. Look how few ever let the animal run things,” one equestrian tells another in House Rules, the 1994 debut novel by the late Heather Lewis. “Even with a bad horse, you got to let him, you got to at least once, else you never know what he has to give you. But everyone holds on so tight. Doesn’t work, all that fighting. We all know who’s stronger.” House Rules is a stark, saturnine exploration of the underbelly of the American riding set, full of gynecologically described fisting and synthetic heroin and paternal rape; it is also, according its author, largely autobiographical, and this casual comment from its lesbian love interest, Tory, is a sly authorial nod to a theme that runs through all of Lewis’s novels. In equestrianism and in sex, power is exchanged unevenly, and Lewis writes about those instances in which the party you are making the exchange with—a bad horse, a bad man, a bad woman posing as a good, maternal one—is too tough to bring to rein, too big to beat. Suppose, then, that you simply let them win a little; suppose you survived by imagining that you were working them, and not the other way around. If they broke you, surely you could tell yourself you’d wanted it to happen. After all, isn’t the one who is getting what they want, even if that thing is pain, the one who’s in control?

Born into a wealthy American family, the daughter of the influential CEO of Reader’s Digest, Heather Lewis has described being neglected by her parents to the degree that drinking, drugs, and sex were a part of her life from early childhood. (In an essay from the 1990s about her formative years that is at once bleak and drily funny, she recalls being ten and “sipping at a large glass of vodka” in front of the television, per “my habit after a hard day of fifth grade.”) When her father did pay her attention, it is heavily implied in her writing that his interest in her was not strictly fatherly in nature; to escape him, she threw herself fully into the equestrian world, where she quickly became hooked on junk and was continually molested, sleeping with a series of middle-aged women—and sometimes their husbands—in exchange for room and board, and eventually money, from around the age of twelve. All of which is to say that everything she wrote about horse-riding and power-play and hidden evil, she wrote from experience. Typically, I would be hesitant to lead with a novelist’s biography, especially a queer, female novelist, since the urge to sell such writers on the strength of their experiences can feel salacious, even tokenizing. In Lewis’s case, such facts are crucial, both to the reader’s understanding of her work, and to their understanding of the seriousness and innateness of her talent—how committedly she wrote despite it all.

“I usually managed to play multiple roles [with lovers],” she once claimed: “Surrogate daughter, lover, confidante, whatever.” This ability to move fluidly between modes of intimacy, as a switch moves between domination and submission in sex, is another characteristic Lewisian quality: in both House Rules and Notice, the latter of which has just been rereleased by Semiotext(e), teenage narrators who are embroiled in erotic, dangerous relationships with adults protect themselves by acting interchangeably as whores and daughters. These two novels are her finest work, and part of their terrible brilliance lies in their authenticity as literary recreations of the traumatized and depressed mind. Notice is about an unnamed character who drifts into sex work for what she admits are not entirely financial reasons, possibly related to a history of abuse. “What the extra need is, the thing besides money? I’ve never pinned it down,” she shrugs. “I know it’s there, though.” At work, she goes by “Nina,” picking men up in the parking lot of a bleak commuter train station and then screwing them in their cars. Her encounters are recorded with few adjectives and even fewer humanizing touches, in a style that is consistent across all of Lewis’s work: sex and violence are routinely depicted in clinical, explicit detail, but the characters involved in her baroque scenes of brutality are so minimally described that at times it feels as if we might be reading a police report. The awful catalyzing event of the novel is Nina’s quasi-adoption by one of her johns, a rich man who pays her well enough that she is willing to drive back to his bourgeois suburban home with him and meet his wife—“meet” in this instance meaning fuck, be fucked by, and be fucked with by. “I turned my head away so I didn’t have to look anywhere near her eyes,” she tells us as the wife, Ingrid, reaches for her throat. “Great big brown eyes I could tell were sad every night, and not just this one. Not just because of this.”

From here, things go immediately south: so far south so fast, in fact, that you feel a plummeting sensation in your stomach the way you might on a rollercoaster, or at the start of a bad, bad trip. The couple are not swingers, but committed full-time sadists who have chosen Nina as a third because of her close resemblance to their daughter, who is dead. What is perhaps ugliest about Notice is the revelation that the couple are not merely garden variety deviants but historical reenactors, serially replaying—as if rewinding a snuff tape—the husband’s abuse and murder of their child. They dress Nina in their daughter’s clothes; Ingrid, whose more gentle treatment of her begins feeling like the most dangerous aspect of their fucked family dynamic, joins Nina in their daughter’s bed. Drugs, as they do in every Lewis novel, enter the picture, useful both for their ability to numb pain, and for their resultant power to transform the user into a more effective masochist.

One of the most unsettling things about Notice is its obvious mistrust of the institutions that are meant to keep us safe.

There is something about Notice—structurally, perhaps, but also psychically—that resembles Gordon Burn’s Happy Like Murderers, his grim, lyrical 1998 true crime novel about the prolific married serial killers Fred and Rose West. The writer Benjamin Myers once correctly categorized the latter book as “a haunted object,” and the same might be said of Notice too. Beyond this, both are in effect haunted houses, skillfully conjuring inescapable domestic spaces in which heavy, paraphiliac ultraviolence and the parent-child dynamic are hopelessly intertwined. On entering, the reader feels the door slam shut behind them as the air rushes out to leave a vacuum: what’s left is asphyxiating, lightless. Lewis and Burn also both use repetition to create a sense of nightmarish inevitability and déjà vu. Junk-woozy, drunk on its own cruelty, Notice careens between scenes of capture and escape, capture and escape; strips of flesh are cut from bodies, rape occurs in every possible permutation, cigarettes are stubbed out into assholes, and if cops appear, it is only to commit more violent sexual assault.

A glassy-eyed pragmatism keeps us moving through the story, from one seemingly unsurvivable crisis to the next. Very little of the husband and wife’s home is depicted on the page, and yet somehow it is easy to imagine how fastidiously beige it might be, how blankly tasteful—how obviously and perversely it would show all that spilt blood. In a sense, the novel’s minimalist, carefully omissive language performs the same function, ensuring as it does that we never learn what characters, rooms, or clothing look like, only how things feel, taste, or hurt. Its title, as far as I know, is never literally explained—noticing, though, is a key survival mechanism for Nina, allowing her as it does to make split-second judgements about who to trust, whose car to climb into, and so on. (Sex workers and victims of abuse, both, are keen noticers by nature, relying on a learned form of high-speed visual profiling for safety.) As in House Rules—whose narrator, Lee, says very little aloud but shares with us a near-constant stream of observations about psychology, physical space, and sensation—Lewis’s jettisoning of description leaves more room for action and reaction.

Technically, Notice was Lewis’s second novel, written in the 1990s, although the extremity of its content and the fact that it was generally known that the author drew from life kept it from publication until 2004, two years after Lewis sadly died. It was preceded in 1998 by The Second Suspect, which reworked Notice into a police procedural, centering around the same rich and violent couple—Ingrid and her husband, now named Gabriel—but also incorporating an appealing heroine: a plucky, moral cop named Caroline Reese. The events of this quasi-sequel take place seven years after those of Notice; Nina, seemingly retired from sex work, has survived, but in the novel’s opening scene, Gabriel has just killed another young sex worker in a hotel. Ingrid, finally wanting an end to her husband’s sadomasochistic games, calls the police, setting a chain of events in motion that sees Gabriel flexing his wealth and his political connections to pin the girl’s murder on his wife.

The Second Suspect is not without merit, and it is not entirely un-transgressive, either. It is, however, an obvious compromise, and read side-by-side with Notice, it provides a rare opportunity to see the edges being smoothed off a novel for commercial sale in what feels like real time. When Caroline meets Nina, now going by Lynn Carver and hiding out in her own house in the suburbs, she unbuttons her jeans to show “a broad scar” running down her abdomen towards her pubis, “as if the flesh had been sheared away all in one swath.” The scene is undeniably horrible; readers of Notice, though, will know that when Gabriel sent his men to cut her in the original story, the injury was suggested to be either on or near her genitals. The change in bodily location is instructive: it is still a wince-inducing wound, but less personal and less sexualized. One wonders if the surname Carver is, in fact, a play on the phrase “carve her”—a bit of metacommentary on Lewis’s part regarding the attack, this civilizing alteration, and the editing process as a whole.

Ultimately, one of the most unsettling things about Notice is its obvious mistrust of the institutions that are meant to keep us safe. In The Second Suspect, the detective eventually gets her man, and the worst kind of policemen are the kind that take bribes rather than the kind that rape you, as if Lewis is providing us—like a parent modifying a story for a child—with a version of events that will not give us nightmares. By contrast, Notice is a merciless account of the way such stories sometimes play out in real life. Here, Nina ends up being assaulted by police officers in the back of their squad car; when she’s interned in what’s euphemistically described as a “rehab facility,” her experiences mirror Lewis’s own when she was sent to an institution shortly after graduating high school, where she claims the night nurse “made a bundle pimping [her] to the orderlies.” Worst of all are parents, or surrogate parents: Ingrid, another character apparently drawn from life, or the jealous and possessive Beth, also a real figure, a psychiatrist-cum-pseudo-mommy who ends up entering into a relationship with Nina while she’s under lock and key. For both older women, Nina feels something like tenderness. It is a new sensation for her, and so it unmoors her, and she starts to break apart. Love, even unwise or unreciprocated love, can soften you enough that you begin to remember who you are. Hurt, much like shooting up or coming, helps you to forget—“the pain,” as Lee in House Rules puts it, “that kills pain.”

The notion of the pain that kills pain, as well as that of the undefined “extra need” that keeps driving Nina back to sex work, is the key to understanding Notice; it might also be the key to understanding Lewis’s writing as a whole. Nina goes back again and again to dangerous situations for the same reason her author returns three times to the same themes, the same psychic crime scenes: both women are testing their own mettle, carefully feeling the knife edges of their own mortality, in a bid to understand what it is they truly want. How much can be survived? The crescendo of Notice is one of such extreme violence that it feels impossible that hope, of any kind, might be felt. And yet: Nina lives. More than this, she appears to decide that a temporary truce with death is necessary. “The blackness came behind the heaviness,” she says in the final paragraphs, giving in to her exhaustion. “Came on comforting and big as always. But not deathly. Not exactly. Not for tonight at least. And this let me believe I could maybe just dip into it. For little bits of time. Go to it without that eerie pull to stay and, in this way, maybe get some rest. Get some actual sleep that might start me mending.” She has let the bad horse of her life have its head, and now, on realizing that she does not yet want to permanently slip into the darkness, she is taking back control with a different kind of little death: sleep rather than orgasm, rest rather than junk, a temporary peace rather than the kind of injury that turns her thoughts into a white-hot stretch of nothing.

In 2002, Heather Lewis died by suicide, a fact that has since colored all interpretations of her work. How could it not? Nevertheless, when a person takes their own life after enduring unimaginable horrors, we ought to commend their obvious strength rather than lingering on the moment when they finally grew too tired to go on. As anyone who has experienced suicidal ideation can confirm, staying the course for any length of time in the face of that temptation is not easy, and reaching the end is not a failure, even if it is a tragedy. In mentioning the details of Lewis’s death and her abuse, I am not trying to be prurient: I am trying to stress how much of her life—her too-short, sometimes agonizing life—went into writing these three books. I am trying, too, to make a point about how gifted, how determined, somebody would have to be to produce such terrifying and diamond-hard and burnished works of art under these circumstances.

Notice is so frightening, so fundamentally unnerving, I can scarcely recommend it. It is also the real thing, a perfect telegram from hell—so suffused with anguish that it takes on, paradoxically, an almost spiritual dimension. Lewis was preternaturally gifted as a writer and, according to reports, as a rider, and the way she practices the former, the two things feel intimately related: there is a muscular athleticism to her prose, an economy that feels calculated to minimize damage even when the course she is taking seems untenable. It is as if the half-ton of evil she is mounted on is being expertly corralled with little more than a light twitch of her reins. She pulled herself out of her own private darkness (“the blackness . . . the heaviness”) for long enough to write more than one blazing literary masterpiece, and all those who knew her continue to speak of her as a born artist. She rode, and she was good, and she let her own animal run things. If in the end her fearless literary explorations did not successfully kill her pain, they can still help the reader better understand their own.