I’m From Nowhere by Lindsay Lerman
A book review by Moazzam Sheikh
I’m From Nowhere by Lindsay Lerman
Towards the end of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Stevens, the chief butler at Darlington Hall, reconciles himself to the realization that by agreeing to live a subservient life, he couldn’t even make his own mistakes. “Really, one has to ask oneself, what dignity is there in that?” Lindsay Lerman’s central character, Claire, of her powerful debut novel I’m From Nowhere, struggles with a somewhat similarly existential pang when John, her husband, suddenly passes away at a young age. In Lerman’s sensitive and compassionate hands, Claire juggles, for days since John’s death, the twin emotions of grief and identity crisis. Claire is barely thirty years old. That only complicates emotions further. Two of their friends, Andrew and Luke, are present at the funeral silently polishing their sexual and/or romantic bait. Both men, in the past, have made their attraction to her clear, risking their friendship with John. That Claire never confided in her husband about Andrew’s advance or Luke’s love letter lest that rupture the friendship among men, served to prop up her self-esteem, which serves, in essence, as the novel’s dominant, if not central, theme.
When a woman’s personal needs are subservient to those of a man — a natural outgrowth of patriarchy (even nationalism) —they erode, over time, a woman’s memory of ever having self-worth. By keeping attention received from the two friends secret, Lerman shows how women get tricked into contributing towards patriarchal structures. While employing impressionistic details about Claire’s past, her parents, lovers, and friends, Lerman also exposes how class insecurity compels many women, academically smart or otherwise, to surround themselves with men, bohemian or salaried, who value women like Claire mostly for their ability to provide sexual comfort. Trapped in this vortex with John suddenly gone, like Ishiguro’s Stevens, Claire experiences a loss of dignity. She could’ve assuaged at least a part of the loss, she questions, if she had a child to raise, but as Lerman sets up the narrative, Claire couldn’t conceive (the word conceive takes on a layered meaning here), and we are made to understand that even the desire to have a child worked as a psychological substitute for having given up her own academic goals and financial pursuits; the signs of a male-dominated society in which she grew up signaled to Claire that to make certain choices — letting John provide security –, things would turn out fine. With John’s departure, she is shell-shocked while trying to calculate her worth minus John.
When a woman’s personal needs are subservient to those of a man, they erode, over time, a woman’s memory of ever having self-worth.
Grounded in western philosophy and literature, Lerman anchors her text with images of Penelope, Anna Karenina, Hedda Gabler, and others, but Claire’s predicament is closer, in my estimation, to the central character of an Urdu classic short story, Tiny’s Granny, by Ismat Chughtai as we learn in the opening paragraph:
Who knows what name her parents gave her, but no one had ever called her by that. When as a kid she used to wander the streets with a runny nose, people called her Faten’s girl; then for a short while as Bashira’s daughter-in-law; later as Bismillah’s mother, and when her daughter passed away while in labor, she became, for the rest of her life, Tiny’s granny (translation mine).
No identity of her own!
As Claire (clear-minded?) deals with grief and identity crisis, Lerman allows the reader to peek inside the protagonist’s head as she revisits several important junctures from her past while navigating the present such as sleeping with Andrew (right after the funeral; read: profane) and not sleeping with Luke (read: sacred), visit with a bank employee, and spending time with a female friend who doesn’t have obvious ulterior motives. This allows the reader to view certain important things about Claire’s worldview and by extension those of the author’s. While keeping the novel slim, Lerman had to be ultra-cautious regarding what to include or not, she risks turning her text into a portrait of a white feminist consciousness, although there are glimpses that Claire is somewhat aware of the larger world that exists beyond her nose. Yet Lerman paints her novel as a struggle between the western philosophical feminist consciousness and Christianity. The names John, Andrew, and Luke don’t reflect arbitrary choices. They represent The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost though the trinity of men in Claire’s life is not totally homoousion. If Claire is to reclaim her sense of self independent of men, the trinity must wither.
The language, the register of the novel reminiscent of European authors such as Annie Ernaux, Christa Wolf, or even Herta Meuller (if memory serves me right), Lerman’s interiority emerges from the post-modern western philosophical discourse as highlighting a quote from Simone de Beauvoir and reference to Georges Bataille make abundantly clear. And while Story of the Eye ends with Simone (not de Beauvoir), Sir Edmund, and the narrator acquiring a boat, for their sexual pleasure, manned with Africans, Lerman makes a political subversion by mentioning Andrew “the lurching seduction machine” in terms of his “dark brown skin” after Claire’s had sex with him. Lerman makes Andrew fully human unlike Molly Antopol’s Arab poet who remains an unnamed whisper in her lauded The UnAmericans: Stories (2014).
Attention to Andrew’s skin color may be an after-thought triggered by the author’s political consciousness, it nevertheless adds a new dimension to the novel which, unfortunately, remains unexplored due to its concision. It is difficult to infer if the concision is solely responsible for the pain and pleasure trap/trope Lerman embraces restricting Claire’s ability to the see the world beyond her personal pain and pleasure, but it does bring to mind another novel After (2004) by Claire Tristram which deals with a widow’s sorrow after having lost her husband a year before to an act of terrorism, and now in order to feel alive again, the unnamed protagonist decides to have an affair with a married Muslim man to test the limits of grief and forgiveness. I personally find the paradigm of reducing pain through sex as a reaction to the loss of a loved one or intense love a la Summer of ‘42, or even Murmur of the Heart reductive, a shortcut to exploring complexities of love and pain, but in Lerman’s case Claire’s sex with Andrew finds some plausibility.
I’m From Nowhere is an attempt to understand why despite the progress women have made, they find themselves reduced to lost little girls.
I’m From Nowhere does not rely on an additional layer like in After. Instead, its central layer, its main concern, is the female liberation from political and economic restrictions at a time when most white women in the US voted for Trump in the 2016 election. I’m From Nowhere is an attempt to understand why despite the progress women have made, they find themselves reduced to lost little girls. It sets its sights on the question of agency and its limitations. The novel forces us to think “about every fairy tale! Every Disney film! Every song about the woman — excuse me — the girl, who needs saving! Think about how the girl is made sexier by the fact of her lostness.”
While in Adoor Gopalakrishanan’s Vidheyan (The Servile) Thommy the slave-servant mourns and weeps after his master has been killed by his enemies at the climax of the film, Lerman’s Claire ends her narrative on a note of affirmation: I am here nonetheless, challenging her own state of mind etched in the title of the novel. To say a lot without saying much, to pack hints that can explode in a reader’s mind in a tiny space, like Lerman has done, is no small feat. This novel deserves wider audience. And, of course, the publisher should also be commended for publishing a book like I’m From Nowhere at a time when major publisher would rather stick with books that take little or no risk.
Moazzam Sheikh is the author of two collections of short stories. In 2017, he guest-edited Chicago Quarterly Review’s special issue on South Asian American Writers. He is a librarian at San Francisco Public Library and lives with his wife and two sons.