May 16, 2019 • Sylvia Gindick
In Lucy Ives’s second novel, Loudermilk, a charismatic dumbass scams his way into a prestigious MFA poetry program by submitting the work of his antisocial companion. The real writer, who hates the sound of his own voice, follows the oversexed, symmetrically featured dumbass to school and continues to write for him. It’s a fun setup, but the book aims for more than just comedy. Ives, who once described herself as “the author of some kind of thinking about writing,” examines the conditions that produce authors and their work while never losing a sense of wonder at the sheer mystery of the written word.
Through canny third-person narration, Ives cycles through the perspectives of five characters as the book progresses: Harry, the “real poet” (whose voice tends to break into an “unintelligible croak”); Loudermilk, the charming but “hollow hero” (whose speech is littered with creative iterations of “dude,” “dick,” and “fuck”); Clare, the brooding early-success who fears she can no longer write (“What I’ve lost is so easy to name as to make it impossible to speak about.”); Anton, the pompous try-hard who always thinks he’s the best writer in the room (“heir apparent to the poem-based sector of the American humanities multiverse”); and Lizzie, the precocious daughter of poetry professors (“I’m just curious, so sue me!”). Their artmaking involves varying degrees of creativity and mimicry, and it’s often unclear whether we should laugh at their marginal successes—or grudgingly respect them. The fiction and poetry that the characters write, many pieces of which are included in the text, are rendered in a tone that balances sarcasm with tenderness.
Unlike Ives’s previous novel, Impossible Views of the World, which was largely focused on the protagonist's glossy, external world, Loudermilk dives into the characters’ inner lives. This is a chaotic place. They feel shadowed, almost overpowered, by fantasies and visions. Harry’s imagination feels so alive that he envisions it as another person walking alongside him. Clare sees her her dead father everywhere. Both feel constrained by these doubles, which also, paradoxically, give them license to create. As Ives describes the condition in which Harry writes, “He needs to sink back into that greenish-reddish veil through which he can see the gently pulsing backs of words, the frilled edges of sentences. The only way to get to the poem is to drop into a perfectly Harry-shaped shadow.” Clare writes of one of her characters, “She was alone. Sort of. No, she was not alone. She could feel it waiting in the wings, as it were, there, ready to take a word from her, take it to say it again, back, back, back again, as you,” followed by four pages of nothing but “SSSSS$S.”
The novel concludes with a curious afterword in which Ives explains that Loudermilk is a libertine, a symptom of democracy, a lover of freedom who has little capacity for self-restraint. “The libertine transgresses in the service of freedom,” she writes, “a freedom the libertine believes is perfectly natural and therefore good.” Loudermilk continuously does what he does just because he can, embodying Harry’s voice until Harry is ready to claim it as his own. The book’s postscript is another kind of writerly transgression, as Ives emphatically tells rather than shows. In a novel full of doubles, veils, and proxies, it makes sense that Ives concludes with yet another layer.