The day before an earthquake I spent five delirious hours in the Naples airport. I spent ten minutes outside smoking a cigarette. I thought: This place is pale yellow and has unusual palm trees. It had tropicality with European gravity. There was a blue-lavender volcano that I could not see.
It was August 2016 and the week before I had finished reading the last of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels about two friends, Lila and Elena. I looked for Lila everywhere. Elena was me and I didn’t care. The women still wore wedge sneakers, which I had reluctantly given up. I did not notice the men. The airport spaghetti Bolognese was amazing. I fell absolutely asleep on three plastic chairs with my purse as a pillow and my laptop hugged tight to my chest.
If I were writing this as fiction I would have said to my boyfriend, “I could live here.”
He would have said, “In the airport?”
Appalachia is gray. The fog falls off the tops of the mountains and stays. It is most obvious in films and photos. I saw photos of the place where I grew up in The New York Times last spring and I was taken aback. Gray is depressed and dignified.
After many years I rewatched Harlan County, U.S.A. , Barbara Kopple’s documentary. I watched a bad copy on YouTube. In my bed in Brooklyn I cried and was ashamed of myself. A scene stayed with me for days. A little girl tries to climb out of a washtub in the kitchen of a coal miner’s house and her mother says, “Angie! Quit messing.”
I imagined that little girl was me and then I imagined this me was the character in a novel I was writing. This fictive me would watch herself and her mother and feel shame that they had no hot water, that their outhouse drained into the creek, that their private poverty was on the internet for anyone to see, and when this fictive me heard her mother’s voice she would feel warmth like a reflex, like someone hit the right place on her knee.
From “ Italy’s Great, Mysterious Storyteller,” by Rachel Donadio in The New York Review of Books, December 18, 2014: “Did she, like Elena in the Naples books, grow up in poverty in Naples with parents who could barely read, and through education achieve a kind of mastery over her life, only to live in constant fear of being pulled back into the world she thought she had escaped, of reverting to a more primal version of herself, one that speaks in Neapolitan dialect and not Italian? Who leaves and who stays?”
The first thing I did when I moved to New York was get rid of my accent. This was fifteen years ago and I was eighteen and I walked into the modeling agency Wilhelmina and said I wanted a job and they gave me one. My coworkers were Italian girls who lived in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, and the South Shore of Staten Island and had pools in their backyards.
If someone said something I didn’t hear I should not say, “Do what?” or “What?” but always, “What happened?” The month of August should now contain the sound of “awe.” I should carry two bottles of perfume in my purse, Dior Addict for night and for day Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. I should wear rings and big hoop earrings and a crucifix.
They had cars. We did things in Bensonhurst. We got fake square tips on our fingernails that were so long it was weird to use our hands. We got our curly hair blown out straight by Vietnamese men under the elevated train where in Saturday Night Fever John Travolta carries paint. We got spumoni, but never upside-down pizza, at L&B. Sometimes a car would pull up beside where we were double-parked on 86th Street and boys they knew would point at me and ask, “Who’s the Russian girl?” and my coworkers would say, “Her? She’s from down South,” and I felt the spell break.
Young God is my first novel and it is about Nikki, a thirteen-year-old girl on the lam from a group home, who takes over her father’s drug-dealing business in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, where I grew up.
I grew up in a series of houses, with town water and garbage pickup, with my mother and brother and sister, and every other weekend with my father, an insurance agent. I spent my teenage years out in the county, on dirt roads, in trailers, doing drugs with men.
Nikki is me in that many of her experiences, and all of her emotions, are mine. But in her circumstances she is an imagined me, with obstacles instead of advantages. She is violent and scared. A me who could not leave.
In my bed in Brooklyn I cried and surprised myself. I was reading The Story of a New Name. Elena tells her family she will go to Pisa to take the college-entrance exam. It was these two sentences.
“My mother, instead, said nothing, but before she vanished she left five thousand lire on the table for me. I stared at it for a long time, without touching it.”
Lila is Elena’s childhood friend and she is a myth. When my boyfriend and I were both reading My Brilliant Friend he said he wished he could see what Lila looked like and I sent him a naked picture of Mariacarla Boscono.
There was one time when my childhood friend and I talked about poetry. We were snorting coke and she analyzed a poem that we had read in class, that I can’t remember, and I replied so eagerly that I felt the coke turn. I felt frantic and not cool. She changed the subject and I looked around the little plywood bedroom where we were sitting and felt trapped.
Lila writes a perfect novel, The Blue Fairy , in elementary school; she designs avant-garde shoes; in the 1970s she sees the future and that it is computers. She stays in the neighborhood and bewitches the local Camorrists, the Solara brothers, without having sex with either one of them.
Nikki steals stashes from grown men; she pimps out her twelve-year-old friend; she goads her father into selling hard drugs again and they introduce cheap heroin to a county addicted to expensive pills. She never thinks of leaving. She thinks of taking what is in front of her.
Lila is imaginary like Nikki is imaginary and Elena is Elena Ferrante like I am me. That’s what I thought.
When reading The Story of the Lost Child, I felt extreme anxiety. Elena, a successful novelist, returns to Naples. She leaves the northern city of Florence and goes back to the south to live with the man for whom she exploded her marriage. Then she moves again, to live one floor above Lila, to write authentically about the neighborhood.
Lila does not like the book Elena writes because, “Things are told or not told: you remained in the middle.”
“It was a novel.”
“Partly a novel, partly not.”
After I exploded my marriage I took up smoking again with great pleasure. It was warm and I walked for blocks in Manhattan, high on Marlboros and iced coffee, and I felt time like folded paper. I felt eighteen again and also thirty-one. I felt an exhilarated sadness that I would always be me.
Of course New York is gray, too, but in a grand way. There is a scene in Chantal Akerman’s News From Home , shot from the stern of the Staten Island Ferry, of lower Manhattan in the summer of 1976 receding into the grandest gray fog that did not make me cry.
I wrote an essay, entirely nonfiction, about the place where I grew up, and my recurring nightmare of having to return there. Since then, the summer of 2014, my childhood friend hasn’t talked to me, and I accept it.
A clunky, perfect title that sums up one million emotions in one phrase is Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay . I first read about it in a roundup of women writers writing in The New York Times about how excited they were to read it. This was still 2014 and I was at Grand Central, leaning up against a closed ticket booth, wearing no jewelry and curls, not coming or going but waiting.
All the other titles in the quartet are terrible and so are all the other endings except the final one. I was sure she, Elena Ferrante, would not be able to pull it off. It would dissolve into vague philosophy or, worse, a description of the natural world as a metaphor for vague philosophy.
Lila, or someone, returns the dolls that Lila and Elena had thrown down a cellar, at the start of the first book, and supposedly lost forever. It is confirmation of Lila’s lifelong manipulation of Elena. Whether the manipulation was good or bad is hard to say.
After 1,700 pages, this is the last sentence: “I thought: now that Lila has let herself be seen so plainly, I must resign myself to not seeing her anymore.”
In October 2016 when an investigative journalist revealed who Elena Ferrante probably really is, I felt betrayed. Not because she was no longer anonymous; I had never cared about that. But because she is not Elena. She did not grow up in Naples, speaking Neapolitan, with an Italian mother, and she did not escape. This is an irrational essay.
Ultraluminous is my second novel and it is in first person. “I” have many names, all of which are diminutives for the Russian form of Katherine. “I” grew up in Stuyvesant Town. “I” spent over a decade in the Middle East. “I” am a prostitute. “I” am not me.
In fact it has been hard for me not to lie in this essay. As a fiction writer I have to think I lie so good it’s better than the truth. Once a professor criticized my fiction as “manipulative,” and I truly took it as a compliment.
I could draw lines that I cut off, and pick up again later, and from these many lines I could make a pattern. I could make a jagged object, with a calculated internal structure. Here are some lines: women, stations, appearance, spells. I could be the character of a writer writing this essay, which both tells things and does not.
Flying over Italy in the morning I could see the humped chain of mountains where the earthquake would happen the next day. I could see islands with houses on hills and roads in circles. I could see the sharp crescent of the bay, and then sprawl squeezed by smothering blue mountains, one of which was a volcano, Vesuvius. I could not see anything on the ground. Five hours later I flew over the sea to Greece.
At the Naples airport, in flat sneakers, my life something changed again, I ordered a cappuccino from an old man who was apathetically pissy with me and what I felt was affection.
After 1,700 pages Naples made sense to me, like New York does, like Appalachia does. He grew up, I decided, smothered by blue mountains like me.
Certainly there is truth that is liquid and can be poured into anything. It is reactionary to think any other way. I believe that.
It’s an elementary error to conflate the writer with what’s written. Currently I’m reading another novel about two women, Veronica , and not once I have thought that Mary Gaitskill was ever a model in Paris, or a proofreader in New York. Currently I am writing a novel about two women and both of them are me and not me. I understand completely.
I understand I should resign myself to not seeing Elena anymore. This is an idiosyncratically personal essay.
If I were writing this as fiction the boys in the car on 86th Street would point at me and ask, “Who’s the Russian girl?,” and my coworkers would say, “She went to Fontbonne with us. She lives down Bay Parkway, near Cropsey.”
After that anything could happen, not only what did.
Elena Ferrante is a good liar too. I believed her, and I still want to.