Why so serious?
Deborah Levy's Hot Milk and the Mythology of the Feminine
by Michelle Hogmire
Jellyfish are living creatures devoid of blood, brains, and breath; they oxygenate through diffusion, move by expansion and contraction, trap prey with venomous poison from their stinging appendages. Tangible yet esoteric, real and seemingly unreal, it’s no wonder these creatures have been likened to the mythological feminine figure Medusa, the great snake-haired Gorgon who could freeze with the sheer force of a look. As such it is apt that Deborah Levy’s Man Booker Prize-nominated novel Hot Milk (Bloomsbury), a narrative with women at its cored center, opens with a jellyfish injury. In an inversion of The Handmaid’s Tale’s easily-grasped pictograms, our heroine gets stung because she does not understand the meaning behind a wordless feminine symbol. That is, she does not understand the symbology of herself.
Meet Sofia Papastergiadis, a familiar and relatable Millennial with an unfinished anthropology Ph.D. and a shitty coffee shop barista job who sleeps five nights a week in the storeroom above her workplace. Sofia’s reason for abandoning her intellectual pursuits, however, isn’t your typical the-humanities-won’t-pay-the-bills-and-my-student-debt-is-mounting fare. Instead, her mother, Rose, suffers from a mysterious paralysis of the limbs that makes walking a difficulty, and Sofia absconds with her to Spain to attempt a last ditch effort at a cure promoted by the bizarre Dr. Gomez, who rejects medicine yet clings to the influence of pills, who administers advice to Sofia as if she were the literal embodiment and symptom of her mother’s floundering legs. In simpler terms: like mother, like daughter. Displaced, Sofia drifts like a Medusa jellyfish, lolling on the beach with lovers both male and female, releasing dogs tethered in captivity, staring at her various forms of tech (cracked laptop, iPod, etc.), and serving as her mother's unlicensed chauffeur, literally and figuratively. At one point—perhaps the book’s best—Sofia flees one dislocation for another, flying to Athens to excavate her very transactional relationship with her father, who left when she was five. This impromptu Greek field study of guilt and past debts produces some brilliantly surreal and absurdist scenes, involving Sofia confronting her father’s young wife, Alexandra (40 years his junior), a childlike woman with teeth encased in braces and feet enclosed in silly lamb slippers who might as well be Sofia’s sister but who is instead mother to Sofia’s sister, Evangeline (a wriggling baby whose name means “messenger”—eat your heart out, Sigmund Freud.)
Levy has a knack for the metaphorical, and her best lines are often similes, especially those used to distinguish the beautiful femininity of nature from the violent masculinity of industrial conquest and capitalist expansion. Hotels and apartments in the process of being built are “hacked into the mountains like a murder”; even Sofia’s whimsical encounter with a monstrous monkfish at a market is slightly couched in the language of invasion: “I lightly poked my finger into its mouth and discovered a world that was totally unknown to me, like Columbus discovering the Bahamas.” But despite the loveliness of Levy’s linguistic dexterity—her ability to send shivers up the spine of anyone still sensitive to the power of words—it is her incessant return to the symbolic that ultimately serves as the novel’s undoing, if Hot Milk can even be called a novel. Perhaps fable or myth would be more apt terms.
Levy’s book proceeds as a sort of cycle of repeating images and themes that hang together in a milieu of the modern feminine experience, followed by explanations of relevance. We are always going back to technology, to medicine, to time and money, to the Medusa, and although the book concludes with some plot changes concerning disease and death, the language of the final passage recalls the opening section to such an extent that it’s difficult not to read the narrative as a complete circle. Levy slips and slides Sofia’s first person perspective from the past to the present tense (and vice versa) so brilliantly and deftly that I wondered if a non-writer reader would even notice. But then she bricks her audience upside the head with a winking, get it, did you get it, explanatory line: “When I note down ideas for field studies, I don’t know whether I’m writing in the past or present tense or both of them at the same time.” By blatantly acknowledging her process, Levy lessens the dreamy impact of her wonderful figurative effects—a move that caused me, literally, to smack my forehead. The ceaseless obvious symbolic web that entwines Hot Milk’s characters and plot had the unfortunate consequence of constantly pulling my thoughts to the questions I hate asking about literary fiction, especially considering the original intention of the novel, the transition away from the moralistic allegory of Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress to the comic sexy romps of Fielding’s Tom Jones: What is Levy’s book about?—What does it mean? And, perhaps the grossest: what lesson am I supposed to learn? Reviewers have compared Hot Milk to the work of Virginia Woolf, which I don’t exactly see—Woolf’s conscious interiors on the page are much more detailed and elaborate in their streams—but I did often think about one of my favorite books while reading Levy: the amazing Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles. Bowles’ incredible modernist novel, about two women who purposefully “degrade” themselves by hanging out with impoverished prostitutes and lurid men explores the difficulty of maintaining a respectable female status by striking the perfect balance between debilitating anxiety and high hilarity; after all, what’s more freeing and liberating and powerful than the ability to laugh at oneself, or at the absurdity of the world one is forced to live in? In this sense, Bowles’ work is infused with satire and irony, even down to the “serious ladies” mentioned in her title—and the novel is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. All of this is to say that what Levy’s book lacks is a sense of humor; Hot Milk, despite its incredible feminist commentary, is essentially humorless, to its great detriment.
Levy pens a few funny one-or-two-liners, my favorite being: “Things got worse. It turns out that Alexandra is a minor mainstream economist,” and, “It was like being in the same room with Janis Joplin, but without the talent.” These sentences are relieving breaths of fresh air in a book that otherwise considers the plight of women with such intense moroseness that it becomes insufferable (“He was telling me he did not have a high opinion of what he was looking at, that I was someone who must be cut down to size, to a size he could manage to frighten with his eyes, which were the avatars of his mind”), or sentimental (“Meeting Ingrid is an assignment that had been scheduled without either of us writing it down. It was there anyway, like a bruise before a fall”), or serious to the point of descending into silliness, (“Neither a god nor my father is the major plot in my own life. I am anti the major plots”). The intense gravity of Hot Milk’s tone leaves the reader with a blinkered, passive view of the female experience; living life as an oppressed minority certainly sucks, but it doesn’t lead to an existence completely devoid of all active enjoyment. Just like good literature can make a reader more empathetic, a good laugh can combat true difficulty and real pain.
Sofia is at her best and most powerful when she’s bold and funny, like when she flirts with her father’s co-worker and describes her unacceptable femininity in cheeky declaratives: “I have a first-class degree and a master’s. I am pulsating with shifting sexualities.” Or when she rejects her father and Alexandra’s relationship built on devoted subservience, with Athena’s temple, the Parthenon, as literal background: “I want to fume. I do not want to be the girl whose job it is to wail in a high-pitched voice at funerals.” In these moments, Sofia could almost be a character from my favorite book of feminist mythology, the woefully underrated Oreo by Fran Ross, a work that brazenly flips gender roles to such an extent that men are fleeing in terror from packs of predatory women rapists. This type of no-holds-barred audacious female humor is a fantastic way of undermining oppressive institutions: by turning them on their heads, rendering them ridiculous. Levy has picked the perfect feminist symbol in the powerful Medusa jellyfish, but she’s created a protagonist who seems to have forgotten her own mythology. Sofia clings to the shameful guilty origins of an Eve, but perhaps she’d be better off embodying the more authoritative Gorgon, never forgetting that she’s a creature with the ability to poison and sting and turn to stone—and maybe even laugh a little as she does so.
Michelle Hogmire grew up in West Virginia and has a BA in English/Creative Writing from Marshall University and an MFA in Fiction from Columbia University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Et Cetera, Columbia Journal, and BOMB. She currently lives and writes in New York City.