New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2016. 256 pages. $24.99.
While it received a great deal of attention for its inventive depictions of sexual expression, the real power of Lidia Yuknavitch’s latest novel The Small Backs of Children rests in its threadbare plot that still manages to move the Earth as you read it. Yuknavitch previously received praise for her novel, Dora: A Headcase, as well as her memoir, The Chronology of Water. While both works deal with the more painful aspects of living, it’s her memoir, a frank meditation on the author’s sexual growth and personal struggles, that her latest work most resembles. Hinging the crux of the book on a fictionalized version of Yuknavitch’s real-life stillbirth experience, the work serves as a potent consideration of what it means to be many things, up to and including both a privileged white American and an artist.
Starting off with a tight focus on a small girl trying to survive in the aftermath of a bombing, the character goes on to embody a sort of wish-fulfillment for someone known as “the writer” (clearly an ersatz version of Yuknavitch). After she sees the child in a Pulitzer-winning photograph taken by her friend, she quickly becomes obsessed with finding her. The reader learns that the writer lost a young daughter, and rather than connect that loss to her obsession with finding this girl, Yuknavitch simply explains it away as a primal yearning to try to have that lost opportunity.
The novel doesn’t examine characters and humanity so much as it carves scenes out for brutality to happen. In some ways, it’s tempting to read this as a preoccupation with the unspoken, the difficult, and the truly devastating; Yuknavitch’s vision for the future of her characters is largely hopeless, even by comparison to other writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Chen Qiufan, who use primitive violence and bleak landscapes to paint specific versions of dystopian environments. An ex-husband, simply called “the painter,” is murdered before he has a chance to kill himself. A Pulitzer-winning photographer goes on to live a life of terrible unfulfillment and personal/sexual isolation. There is cruelty in nearly every chapter, every page. However, Yuknavitch strives here for something akin to a sort of realistic fiction. The novel is literary, yes, but the preoccupation of the novel isn’t making sure the prose lives up to the lofty standard established by the writing world. Instead, Yuknavitch looks to strike a balance between the poetics of genre fiction and the common language of shared experience. There’s a bluntness to the prose, both in terms of sentence simplicity and the direct language used in communicating the plot. In the book’s world, characters encounter trouble constantly, but it’s a lack of reaching for the perfect word, a favoring of the pedestrian, that really lifts each sorrow off the page.
While the repetition of violence and violation may seem craven or nihilistic, the sparse, blunt prose manages, oddly, to celebrate life. This can be seen in plot points that involve an assault or attack on the characters as they look for ways to thrive and stave off the darkness. After the poet gets raped by Russian gangbangers while trying to track the girl down, she is immediately placed into the next scene, feigning stability and moving forward. On the plane back to America, she “lifts the little airplane drink up to her face again and again. And the tiny lines near her eyes that have written themselves this day” (189). Where most writers would focus on the ways such an act would destroy or mangle a person both physically and psychologically, Yuknavitch finds interest in what decisions those moments lead to. The pain in her work isn’t literary or necessarily structural; it just is. There is no batting of the eye when the poet is violated, just a cut to the aftermath, as she drinks on an airplane to cope. Here Yuknavitch portrays the world as it exists, and the job of her characters becomes one of reflection and positive response. The poet, the painter, the photographer, the playwright, the writer, the filmmaker—they depict and swallow the struggles we face individually, but they refuse to back down or wallow to achieve a literary quality. They may drink or have sex to numb the pain, but they move forward, speeding as they must into the next great swath of misery.
All of this seemingly ties into the concept of America, both what it stands for and what it willingly turns a blind eye to. Smartly, Yuknavitch doesn’t look to tackle this in any large way, even when the issue arises. Instead, she opts to depict small moments in war-torn Eastern Europe, beginning with the photographer capturing the body of a girl flying through the air post-explosion, and ending with the rape of the poet when she visits that country to track down that same girl from the photograph. These smaller focuses look to make the case that there’s a disconnect between the safety we’re afforded in America, the luxury of privilege afforded the artistic class, and the rest of the world. The insulated characters in the novel gleefully hurt one another because they’re afforded the ability to do so with the knowledge that there are no real stakes for doing so. The ugliness of the crimes in Europe—even the small glimpses we’re given—are meant to pry that notion open and create a wall between how their behavior constitutes “badness,” and the actual evil that they don’t run up against within the padded walls of their country.
Ultimately, Yuknavitch’s tight, deliberate plotting and unyielding honesty give the novel an incendiary propulsion. In many ways, this is a novel unlike anything else currently being written or published. Perhaps it’s unfair to gawk at the bluntness and inventive sexual preclusions of a novel’s writing, but Yuknavitch’s comfort with the great bleakness of life is nothing but commendable. Writers tend to have little problem with being mean or cruel to their characters—Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections comes to mind—but it’s not entirely clear that Yuknavitch crafts characters so much as she does avatars of the creative class. The brilliant people who populate this work are barely carved out caricatures of themselves, and yet they carry real secrets that they stubbornly refuse to be crushed by. To shrug at the violence of a life and choose empathy in spite of it is nearly impossible, and it’s this optimism that places The Small Backs of Children in a league of its own.
The Small Backs of Children is a diary writ large, full of fables about motherhood and the unabashed poetics of life on Earth; and it’s at this intersection that the novel finds its most arresting moments. Fear and a desperate hope for her children consumes the writer; these moments, disconnected as they may be from the plot of the novel, hammer home the points the novel wishes to make. Early on, when the writer gives birth to a stillborn daughter, she takes control of the situation and mourns her own way:
I placed her in a backpack that also contained kindling and sage and waited for night. The wind was unusually still, and the surf had the rise and fall of breathing. The moon’s giant eye looked on. It was the end of an Indian summer. I removed my clothes. I held her body to mine for a long time. Until it came, the great flood.
Here—invited into the intimacy of the writer’s private ceremony of grief—we’re invited to understand the burden of loss, how tightly bound life is to death, and then, slowly, we’re invited to move on.