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Sex in the City

The Black Female Flaneur in Raven Leilani’s Luster

ISSUE:  Summer 2020

<i>Luster</i>. By Raven Leilani. FSG, 2020. 240p. HB, $26We are in the midst of a publishing renaissance of novels about blackness; of literary novels with black protagonists; of novels about race and of novels published by black authors. This wave of publications follows a similar black-literature boom in the 1990s, and before that a boom in the 1970s. There was also one in the 1940s and before that, of course, the Harlem Renaissance. That’s where most readers’ understanding of the history of black literature begins, but recent scholarship points to the explosion of black narratives published in black-owned newspapers and presses post-Reconstruction, when people wrote social novels, adventure tales, speculative fiction and more, all around the newly created social identity of a black person in America. Since we have been free, and even before that, black people have been trying to describe what it is to live in this very peculiar state of being, in a system of racial capitalism in construct with white supremacist nationalism. 

I remember when I was writing in my early twenties, before graduate school, and being asked, as many of us were back then in the early 2000s, if I would ever write about anything other than black people. It’s a silly question. Many others have pointed out the fallacy of such a query. Whenever I hear it, I always think, Why wouldn’t one want to write about this experience? It is so novel, so strange, so quotidian and surreal…it contains the contradictions that all great fiction writing relies upon.

These books come in waves because of the nature of the relationship between race and publishing. Every twenty years or so, publishing gets very excited about the trend of black people writing fiction. And each time it happens, people act as though it is the very first time. When I first started reading about the history of black literature, I noticed that the waves often corresponded to periods of economic prosperity and quickly dispelled whenever there was a larger economic downturn. The Great Depression wiped out the Harlem Renaissance. The economic catastrophe that was Reagan’s presidency to black Americans ended the publishing boom of the seventies and eighties. And the wave that I was first made aware of as a reader, that of the 1990s and early 2000s—comprised of the popular fictions of Terry McMillan and Omar Tyree and the literary fictions of Edward P. Jones, Colson Whitehead, and Zadie Smith—crashed in the mid-2000s, only to begin to crest again with Obama’s presidency. 

We are currently in another renaissance. But what will become of black literary fiction in the coming years, during what everyone tells us will be an economic low point rivaling the Great Depression? It is unclear, of course. I take solace in the fact that my earlier juvenile mapping left out the continual black literary spaces that existed outside mainstream publishing, shaping and publishing writers even during supposed bust times—the writing workshops, reading series, and loose collections of artists that continued the work even without the marketing.

Black fiction will survive, but I worry sometimes about how it will be received. Toni Morrison said that “black literature is taught as sociology, as tolerance, not as a serious, rigorous art form.” Her assessment is still true today, with the added complication that critical reviews of fiction are often boiled down to either praise songs or an ethering. There can be no in-between. And the chance to engage with the ideas within a novel slithers away when we expect only one or the other.

With all of this in mind, I wish for this space to be a place to read current black authors and follow the ideas, questions of craft, and spirit that inform their works. I want to talk about the obscure, the idiosyncratic, and the minor obsessions of authors, as well as how those intersect with larger narratives in history, politics, and the arts. I want to avoid the easiest read and I want to sit in the tensions of a given work’s ambition.

Raven Leilani’s debut novel, Luster, is nothing if not an ambitious work. It is the story of Edie, a twenty-something black New Yorker, who meets Eric, a white forty-something man, on the internet. “He may be the only man in recent memory to make me come, but he is not even on Twitter,” Edie notes. She begins an affair with Eric and eventually inserts herself into his marriage through an unlikely alliance with his wife, Rebecca. Along the way, she enters into an uneasy relationship with the couple’s black adopted daughter, Akila—“us being kinfolk notwithstanding, it is hard for me to empathize with a child whose footsteps are nearly undetectable,” she notes on their first official meeting.

Luster is in part an exploration of this strange protofamily, this not-quite-open marriage. Most of the reviews, I am sure, will focus on the sex. Leilani manages to write of Edie’s desire and experience of sex with a clarity and conciseness that is rare in fiction. In Edie’s description of the first time she has sex with Eric, coincidentally at his marital home, Leilani delivers a miracle of a run-on sentence that expertly shifts from awkward bemusement to sincerity to disgust, much like many first times:

Slowly, he eases me down onto his grand, slightly left-leaning cock, and for a moment I do rethink my atheism, for a moment I consider the possibility of God as a chaotic, amorphous evil who made autoimmune disease but gave us miraculous genitals to cope, and so I fuck him desperately with the force of this epiphany and Eric is talkative and filthy but there is some derangement about his face, this pink contortion that introduces the white of his eyes in a way that makes me afraid he might say something we cannot recover from just yet, so I cover his mouth and say shut up, shut the fuck up, which is more aggressive than I would normally be at this point but it gets the job done and in general if you need a pick-me-up I welcome you to make a white man your bitch though I feel panicked all of a sudden to have not used a condom and I’m looking around the room and there is a bathroom attached, and in the bathroom are what look to be extra towels and that makes me so emotional that he pauses and in one instant a concerned host rises out of his violent sexual mania, slowing the proceedings into the dangerous territory of eye contact and lips and tongue where mistakes get made and you forget that everything eventually dies, so it is not my fault that during this juncture I call him daddy and it is definitely not my fault that this gets him off so swiftly that he says he loves me and we are collapsing back in satiation and horror, not speaking until he gets me a car home and says take care of yourself like, please go, and as the car is pulling away he is standing there on the porch in a floral silk robe that is clearly his wife’s, looking like he has not so much had an orgasm as experienced an arduous exorcism, and a cat is sitting at his feet, utterly bemused by the white clapboard and verdant lawn, which makes me hate this cat as the city rises around me in a bouquet of dust, industrial soot, and overripe squash, insisting upon its own enormity like some big-dick postmodernist fiction and still beautiful despite its knowledge of itself, even as the last merciless days of July leave large swaths of the city wilted and blank.

This sentence is a tour de force of Leilani’s linguistic skill and is refreshingly honest about Edie’s ambivalence, desperation, and longing. And her sense of humor. The decision to render this scene in one sentence is as much a flex on the author’s part as it is a comment on Edie’s own interiority. On their first date, Edie had fantasized: “I want no friction between his fantasy and the person I actually am…I want the sex to be familiar and tepid, for him to be unable to get it up, for me to be too open about my IBS, so that we are bonded in mutual consolation.” Yet here we are, in the moment, completely within the friction of Edie’s own thoughts and her complications. The rush of this sentence is the rush of sex between people who wish to hide parts of themselves from each other but fail at the worst moment and keep at it anyway. It is lonely and lovely and disgusting and sad and I don’t know of any writer who wouldn’t be jealous of that sentence.

Despite the sexual pyrotechnics, the defining lead of Edie through this book is her wanderings through the city, that “big-dick postmodernist fiction” mentioned at the end of that sentence that is “still beautiful despite its knowledge of itself.” Even more than being a sexual adventurer, Edie is a chronicler of the city, first as an exceptionally terrible editorial assistant at a publishing house and later, when she is spectacularly fired, as a gig worker, riding her bike on deliveries through a hot and damp metropolis, ever aware of the money she is not making. Even more than a novel about sex, Luster is a novel about what it means to be a black-female flaneur.

The flaneur is notable in that it is a figure that is traditionally white and male. Kirsten Bartholomew Ortega attempted to catalog black women flaneurs in her critical essay “The Black Flâneuse: Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘In the Mecca.’” She notes that the flaneur was first defined by Walter Benjamin in his study of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry. In Ortega’s paraphrase, for Benjamin the flaneur is someone who “observes the city by strolling through it, allowing the crowd to direct his movement and attention. He becomes part of the crowd, going unnoticed by others, and he is, therefore, allowed privileged access to exclusive areas (e.g., the red-light district) where he witnesses urban life (and crime) without implication or obligation” (emphasis mine). The flaneur assumes this privileged anonymity implicitly because of his whiteness and maleness, and he is able to observe the material conditions of urban inequality because of the implied objectivity of his race and gender status. He observes the city’s underbelly but, notably, he is not a member of that community and so has no obligation to help, change, or even explicitly interact with what he sees.

A black-female flaneur necessarily complicates the position of this character. She embodies the individual that the flaneur usually observes and categorizes. And because of her race and gender, the false promise of an identity disconnected from a class or community is broken by her very nature. For every flaneur, there needs to be a desire that pulls them through their city landscape—for white-male flaneurs, the desire to catalog. White-female flaneurs, as Ortega notes, either entered the city as lower-class women, their observations necessarily discounted since they were presumed to only be observed, or, if they were middle class, they entered the city and the role of flaneur through consumerism, through touring the shops and arcades and malls and stores that make up a modern city, their only outlet for comment on the landscape around them mediated through commerce and consumption of goods. 

Edie is of a precarious class—she is deeply in college debt. She begins the novel as an underpaid editorial assistant before slipping to a gig worker and finally an unemployed member of a semiconsensual romantic triad. But above all of this, she is a painter. She is an eye. Leilani details her work to the reader—self-portraits and, later, in Eric and Rebecca’s home, portraits of the inanimate objects she discovers in that domestic space. And her powers of observation come through in this beautiful poem to delivery work in the city:

I ride my bike to an address in Sunset Park and when the customer comes to the door, she snatches the bag of waffle fries and doesn’t tip. Most of the time, I stay in Brooklyn. I get the first orders of no-pulp orange juice and champagne out of the way. Make pit stops for vanilla Juul pods, small orders of LaCroix and Pampers. I make my home base Holy Cross Cemetery so I can hydrate in relative peace, and also because it’s smack-dab in the middle of Flatbush, the orders come in from all sides. Technically, I’m not allowed to transport anything that qualifies as a drug, but there are prep school kids who need bubble tea and Marlboros, dog walkers who need boxed wine and leave detailed instructions about where in Prospect to make the drop, pump-and-dumping mommies who emerge from the Grand Army market, desperate for gin. Everyone is excited to see me, and I am sort of excited to see them, the habitual Bensonhurst McFlurries, the Gen X brownstoners who, for some reason, use the app to order pizza, Coney Islanders looking to indulge in brunch from afar and are just happy you came out, the West Indian pockets of Eastern Parkway and their cash-only ackee and coco bread, beaucoup tips on the days I wear the company hat and beat the average time, though occasionally I take the bridge over and field requests by Canal where I try to protect orders of squid from all that direct sun.

It is this desire to catalog that draws Edie through her landscape and ultimately it is the desire for sex that pulls her through the city. Sex is the pull but it’s also a cop-out. The real architecture of this novel rests on Edie—the young black vixen, usually relegated to the observed and the consumed, becoming the observer and hungrily eating up the worlds around her. Right after the above passage, Edie is thrown into further poverty when she loses her roommate. She says, 

As I watch my roommate leave, the idea that I have a pussy seems preposterous. I move through the apartment and try to reconcile the existence of the clitoris with the broccoli smell my roommate left behind. I rinse the cheesecake from my hair and get back out on my route, where the men who line the street remind me that technically yes, I do have a pussy, and that I will live with the terror of protecting it for the rest of my life. But after a big haul of spices from Halal Food I go ahead and take a picture of it in the bathroom of an Au Bon Pain.

What Edie is doing is best described by Deborah Parsons, theorist of the female flaneur: The urban writer is not only a figure within a city; he/she is also the producer of a city, one that is related to but distinct from the city of asphalt, brick, and stone, one that results from the interconnection of body, mind, and space, one that reveals the interplay of self/city identity. The writer adds other maps to the city atlas: those of social interaction but also of myth, memory, fantasy, and desire. Edie’s sexual history, fantasies, and actions, then, are as much about mapping her location within the city of New York as they are about the sex itself. And Edie is a character deeply in need of mooring.

What struck me most in reading this novel was how alone Edie is. She is without friends or a community of any kind. And the spaces she chooses to insert herself into are those predominantly white spaces that she acknowledges cannot see her. At one point, she takes Akila to have her hair braided. The two—black girl and black woman—travel to the city. But they don’t find particular solace or belonging there. They return to the suburbs and to these white adults’ home without finding particular community. Leilani gives us a family history for Edie that traces back to a Southern grandmother obliquely obsessed with color and a dark-skinned West Indian grandfather and a baby-boomer father. But neither of these lines gives Edie any sort of grounding. Her own relationship to her mother is ruptured when her mother dies by suicide. Her father disowns her and dies a few years later, leaving Edie without any relatives to claim. Most striking is Edie’s response to Aria, the only other black woman in her department, whom Edie, tellingly, does not look upon as a friend, comrade, ally, or even someone to exchange knowing looks with. Edie sees Aria as the embodiment of respectability, a nonthreatening stooge. It is to Leilani’s credit as a novelist, though, that the reader understands that in reality Aria is merely professional. 

In this, Edie lends her voice to one of the defining refrains of the past seven years of black women’s writing. The favorite topic—creating a taxonomy of white people and white behaviors and microaggressions. Where did this focus come from? I think I blame Claudia Rankine. Or, blame is the wrong word. Citizen ushered in this new genre of writing, which finds its flourish most theatrically on social media. There are whole Twitter accounts, entire black people who brandish “activist” in their social-media bios, who make their viral bread and butter on cataloguing the various microaggressions they experience on a daily basis. I find myself doing it sometimes, or I did, when we used to be able to leave the house. For myself, when I recounted those experiences, I always got a strange, queasy feeling, as though I were describing the contents of a panty liner. There was the distinct feeling that I was sharing something that most people don’t talk about in public. That thrill can make describing microaggressions feel addictive. But what does it mean when someone’s consciousness is shaped in large part by the places she feels she does not necessarily belong? When someone’s conception of oneself is primarily as a rude presence, to be remarked upon or politely overlooked by white liberals? In this, Edie is a confounding character. And this, too, makes her a challenging flaneur. The flaneur, the white-male version at least, is not self-aware enough to realize that in his observations of the city, he may also be being observed back. But Edie is hyperaware, at all times, of the impression she is making or that she believes she is making around her.

Yet this hyperawareness does not lead to action or change on Edie’s part. On the contrary, it seems to stun her into a kind of paralysis, one that finds her staying with Rebecca, Eric, and Akila for far longer than any of them want her. In that the novel begins to falter, as Edie’s self-loathing and disgust mixed with longing toward her adopted family occurs again and again, the same crescendo and intensity of waves for the reader. I do not think it is in Leilani’s desire, as a writer, to have her heroine reach an emotional epiphany. I do not think that Edie is meant, as Morrison said of her characters, to “learn something,” to “win” (in the spiritual sense). Edie and the rhythms of this novel make so much more sense when you understand them as the pace of a dogged, incessant traveler, watching the worlds she passes through and making rude notes about them, simply to assert the uncomfortable truth that she was there at all. 


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