My favorite book of Sarah Schulman’s is Girls, Visions and Everything, which came out in 1986. The title comes from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, whose narrator says “somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, and everything,” as he’s about to start off on his road trip across America.
Lila Futuransky, the heroine of Schulman’s book doesn’t go anywhere, but the book is a kind of road trip as Lila runs around the lesbian lower east side of New York in the early 80s. This was before gentrification, when that neighborhood was still affordable for a lowly office worker—although in the book Lila complains about the neighborhood being taken over by upscale art galleries. She had no idea of the heights to which gentrification would climb!
There are a couple things I like about this book. First, its really funny. It starts off with a story of Lila getting dissed by a woman she has a crush on, a performance artist who goes by the name Helen Hayes. “What an actress,” Lila thinks. “She was so rude it was practically an art.” Most of the characters in the book are performers and artists, and when I reread the beginning recently, I thought, wow, this reveals that the whole downtown art scene in 1980s New York which was such a big deal, is really queer at its roots. In the book there’s the Kitsch Inn, where the girls put on a lesbian version of A Streetcar Named Desire. Another character, the “drama dyke” Isabel Schwartz writes plays which are always about her mother. There’s a twenty-four hour performance piece which Lila stops by and takes part in, and a Worst Performance Festival she helps organize.
The other thing I like about this book that it’s like talking with a friend about art and ideas, mixed with some gossip about romance. Lila falls for and pursues a girl named Emily, but the plot is all shot through with pithy little observations, the writer’s thoughts about writing and aesthetics and art. “Lila often considered the idea of marketing lesbian popularity. She looked at all the other groups of outcasts who had managed to make a name for themselves…After considering various historical examples she considered that the most successful model was that of the beats.” Even in the later books, the ones I like less, Schulman can always be counted on for a nice sharp observation.
But mostly what I like about this book is how happy it is, and full of energy. Lila is always running into people to hang out with, and going to parties and performances. It’s the kind of social life everyone wishes they had, with gossip, and fun, and yes, different girls to hook up with. Even though she complains about the gentrification and there’s a scene where she and her girlfriend almost get beat up by some homophobic drunks, she makes her part of New York sound like a cozy small town where everyone knows everyone else and people look out for each other. She’s always referring to “the friendly drug dealer on the corner,” which makes me feel like I’m suddenly reading some kind of crazy children’s book.
I like The Sophie Horowitz Story, Schulman’s first book, and After Delores, her third, but not as much as Girls, Visions and Everything. Those two books are both mysteries. Sophie is funny and satiric, like Girls—the heroine works for a feminist newspaper, and the mystery involves some radical feminists on the run—but After Delores is pretty dark. It’s narrated by a nameless woman who’s been devastated by a breakup and distracts herself solving the murder of a young punk runaway, kind of a lesbian noir.
After that it’s pretty much downhill for me, although Schulman has written a half-dozen more books. Partly it’s because she becomes more experimental and surreal (if you like Jeanette Winterson’s fiction, you might enjoy Schulman’s later stuff). Partly it’s that her characters seem more and more unhappy and aggrieved with the world. Even though I never like them, I keep trying to read her books, butting my head against a wall. I should just be more like Lila Futuransky, of whom Schulman writes, “Lila often asked herself why she tried to write lesbian fiction when she never read any.”
Yeah. A good question, sometimes.
Text: Monica Nolan