“The Pull of the Great Wrong World”: On Lidia Yuknavitch’s “Verge”

Lidia Yukavitch’s Verge (Riverhead, 2020) opens with the story of a young woman, known to us only as “the swimmer,” who feels most at home in the water. “The blue of the pool fills her ears and holds her body and shuts out the world,” Yuknavitch writes. “Swimming is her favorite state of being. On land, the swimmer can barely breathe.”

Those familiar with Yuknavitch’s work will not be surprised at the broad themes of this story—Yuknavitch is arguably most famous for her memoir, The Chronology of Water, in which she discusses her youth as a competitive swimmer and her childhood traumas. But Verge’s opening story is not about Lidia Yuknavitch—or a swimmer from the West Coast, or even a swimmer from the United States. Instead, the swimmer of “The Pull” is a girl in a nameless, war-torn country where the school day ends when “a bomb obliterates most of the roof and one wall” of a swimming complex. When her family tries to flee the devastation on a migrant boat, the vessel capsizes, and the swimmer must summon her strength and talent to carry herself and her little sister to the far shore.

Much of contemporary literary discourse centers around the ebbing divide between the personal and the professional—the widespread recognition that the political, the personal, and the literary are inseparably entwined. It is a long-due reckoning, the result of decades of work by writers and activists from marginalized groups who have fought for the recognition and validity of their personal expression. And it’s a reckoning that occurs despite the protestations of a largely white and male literary establishment—particularly in publishing and MFA programs, the two primary means of making a living as a writer these days—who would rather identity remain a text’s phantom thread, politics a jagged floe drifting alongside the mighty, humanistic iceberg.

In Verge’s stories, Yuknavitch marshals her considerable talents and well-documented experiences—as a survivor of abuse, a recovering addict, and a self-proclaimed “misfit” (her pride in this appellation forming the basis of a famous TED talk and book, The Misfit’s Manifesto)—in service of illuminating the lives of women on the margins. She compels her literary readership, one ensconced in middle class life (and probably, perhaps even disproportionately, impressed by her PEN/America finalist status and Ph.D), to engage and empathize with characters on the margins.

The enormous vividness and clarity of Yuknavitch’s characters comes from the voices she gives them. Their voices are inherently political, navigating power dynamics that are stacked against them, structures that use and dehumanize them. But Yuknavitch’s characters see themselves not as victims of circumstance but as agents in complicated social ecosystems—as people with backbones and boundaries, complex traumas and even more complex internal hierarchies of meaning. In “The Organ Runner,” a disabled young woman named Anastasia is orphaned in an unnamed Eastern European country and adopted into a family that sets her to working as the story’s macabre title suggests. “Anastasia made a place for herself in the house quickly,” Yuknavitch writes, “by immediately abandoning self-pity (a luxury she’d given up the first time she watched her father backhand her mother nearly across the room).”

Anastasia is a survivor—not just in the eyes of distant, comfortable readers, but in her own. After reading a book by Jane Goodall during a hospital stay, Anastasia fixates on an anecdote in which Goodall, working as a secretary at a medical clinic, witnesses a doctor tell an “adult joke” to a group of disabled children: “As soon as he delivered the punch line, one patient’s eyes lit up with joy: the girl with the so-called crazy eyes….The doctor took the girl home with him and gave her private lessons. The girl turned out to be quite brilliant, learned to talk, and passed every one of her school exams.” Passages like this are where Yuknavitch works her magic. Anastasia’s conception of her own specialness is something any reader can understand themselves their deepest, most empathetic hopes for both her and themselves, as someone brilliant, singular, special—merge, despite the great distance.

Verge is not, however, simply comprised of the lives of assiduous survivors in far-flung places—Yuknavitch writes about lives on the edges of our American society, and the moral damnation of material comfort and privilege. In “Drive Through,” told in a sharply intimate second-person, the narrator recounts an encounter with a homeless man begging for change in a McDonald’s drive-thru. The man becomes more and more aggressive, drawing nearer and nearer to the narrator’s car as she moves through the line, and the narrator ends up expressing profound, poisonous relief when a manager intervenes and shoos the man away, yelling profanities at him. “You outta here now! Shit! Motherfucking! You go! No slaving here! His slip of the tongue doesn’t even phase you. You are with him. United. You are grateful.” Craft-wise, the lack of dialogue markers in this section implicates the manager and the narrator in this trespass —two nexuses of relative comfort, aligned against a man of utmost disadvantage and marginalization. But it does so in the same way the second person “you” implicate the narrator and the reader in the ultimate feeling of relief. It’s a true feat of craft to navigate the reader to this position— to share empathic connection with the narrator and share culpability with her, as well acknowledge the intractable personal and political situation of both character and reader.

A similar dynamic plays out in “Street Walker,” though our narrator makes a different political alignment. In it, a middle-aged Literature teacher living in a decaying neighborhood pays a young sex worker to spend time resting in her living room, giving her a break from her work walking the streets. The older woman is a recovering addict with an implicitly rough past—she tells us that “Books saved me from my former self”— and she is uncomfortable with the moralizing of her neighbors. After listening to one man’s rant about the need to “stand together” against local drug users and other supposed undesirables, the narrator rebels against this propriety: “I feel anger welling up in my body,” she describes. “For an instant I want to hurl my knowledge at him like obscenities. Instead of saying, shut the hell up, you asshole! I want to scream Keats! Byron! Shelley! Van Gogh! Bacon! Eliot! Faulkner!”

 But during her visit to the teacher’s home, the young sex worker fails to read her lines in the morality play written for her; instead of expressing gratitude and debt, “She puts her cigarette out directly on my coffee table, spits on my throw rug. The Restoration Hardware coffee table I bought when I got tenure… She takes another drag and quivers like an angel. No, not like an angel. Like an ordinary woman being eaten alive by her own heart, her own veins, her own cunt.” It’s a thoughtful and sensitive cautionary tale about liberal piety and socioeconomic boundaries—as well as self-sabotage, as the story ends with one of the neighborhood watch-women spitting on the professor’s lawn, disgusted by her association with the outcast. In “Street Walker,” sympathy becomes the enemy of empathy and moral clarity. Yuknavitch gives the young sex worker, reduced to the stereotype of suffering and exploited junkie, the space to fight back—to express discomfort with charity, to take control of the situation, as the scales fall from the teacher’s eyes.

The way Yuknavitch crafts this interaction forms the beating heart of Verge and is part and parcel with its freshness and elegance. The seamless merging of the personal with the political and the political with the aesthetic, all three working in concert to form a tight and clear vision of our complicated world—this is the collection that Yuknavitch has given us. Never shying away from discomfort, transgression, or profanity, Yuknavitch directs the reader to corners of the world they would rather avoid, has us meet eyes whose gaze we would rather avoid.

“The Pull,” that first story in the collection about that oh-so-familiar swimmer, ends with—well, no ending at all. Yuknavitch finishes it by describing “The beautiful bodies of the swimmer and her sister, and the great watery pull underneath, the pull of the eyes and hearts of the people hoping against hope in the raft, and the pull of the great wrong world raging around them toward—This story has no ending. We put children into the ocean.” In Verge, the reader is called to do the real work of engaging with stories, not just intellectually and psychologically but morally, emotionally. Some readers may find it a significant load to bear in a story collection—to look inward and outward, to engage with the inner self and also engage with all of the structures and institutions that create that self. But it is work, the beautiful work of engaging with a collection of ambitious and groundbreaking fiction, that brings many rewards.