Ariel Levy: She Is Her Own Story

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The author in conversation with Bhavya Dore

The Rules Do Not Apply |Ariel Levy |Random House | Rs 1,160 | 224 pages

I FELT AN unholy storm move through my body, and after that there is a brief lapse in my recollection; either I blacked out from the pain or I have blotted out the memory. And then there was another person on the floor in front of me, moving his arms and legs, alive. I heard myself say out loud, “This can’t be good.” But it looked good. My baby was as pretty as a seashell.

He was translucent and pink and very, very small, but he was flawless. His lovely lips were opening and closing, opening and closing, swallowing the new world. For a length of time I cannot delineate, I sat there, awestruck, transfixed. Every finger, every toenail, the golden shadow of his eyebrows coming in, the elegance of his shoulders—all of it was miraculous, astonishing. I held him up to my face, his head and shoulders filling my hand, his legs dangling almost to my elbow. I tried to think of something maternal I could do to convey to him that I was, in fact, his mother, and that I had the situation completely under control. I kissed his forehead and his skin felt like a silky frog’s on my mouth.

If you have read the essay ‘Thanksgiving in Mongolia’ (November 2013, in The New Yorker) by Ariel Levy, a raw, riveting account of a miscarriage in a foreign country, you would expect the memoir that takes off from that incident to be a gripping, gorgeous thing. And it is.

The Rules Do Not Apply (Random House; Rs 1,160; 224 pages) spins on the axis of an unbearable grief over losing one’s child. The essay served notice that the book would make art of tragedy. I quaffed the memoir in two large helpings— separated only by a night’s sleep.

In 2012, at 38, five months pregnant, Levy boarded a plane to go report on Mongolia’s mining boom for The New Yorker. ‘I liked the idea of being the kind of woman who’d go to the Gobi Desert pregnant, just as, at twenty-two, I’d liked the idea of being the kind of girl who’d go to India by herself,’ she writes. ‘And I liked the idea of telling my kid, ‘When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.’’ Before leaving, Levy had built a successful if unconventional life; she was married to a woman, financially secure and had a glittering career. A baby would be the ultimate adventure and final triumph.

She returned from Mongolia with a story—though not the one she went for—and without the baby.

“It’s a strange thing to spend days on end talking to people you’ve never met about the worst thing that ever happened to you,” says Levy, 42, over the phone from New York, while having to do just that. “It’s a strange experience. But writing it was pleasurable, writing it I enjoyed doing; it felt good.”

Levy chronicles the loss with devastating precision; the baby’s death reduces her to ‘a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone’. After she returned to New York, her marriage quickly disintegrated and her life unspooled. It was not pretty; and Levy is clear-eyed in owning up to her flaws and decisions. Dodging the temptation to airbrush some of her less than savoury actions was part of the challenge. “This is not propaganda for yourself,” she says, of clearing away the defences and dispensing with ego. “This is meant to be the best piece of writing it can be, the most honest story it can be.”

Levy took the book’s first draft to her former spouse, whose alcohol problem forms part of the account. “She said, ‘You know, I’m not going to censor you, this is your story’,” says Levy. “Which was very generous. I think it was painful for her to read but she’s certainly not angry at me for doing it.”

It’s a strange thing to spend days on end talking to people you’ve never met about the worst thing that ever happened to you. It’s a strange experience. But writing it was pleasurable

Before this, Levy was already well-known as The New Yorker writer of smart, sparkling profiles of smart, sparkling women: from Ali Wong (the talented, radical comic) to Nora Ephron (the intrepid, irreverent writer and film director). But the 2013 essay sent her star spinning into another stratosphere, earning her wide adulation and a National Magazine Award. It wasn’t over though; Levy knew she had to exhume all the bits, not just the short version. “After finishing the essay, I thought ‘You know what, I’m not done’,” she says. “That was just the tip of the iceberg, I want to write the whole story.”

There’s blood, sweat, tears and placenta on display through the story, and Levy’s telling is unflinching. “It felt important to publish it,” says Levy. “A lot of women go through really intense experiences around menstruation, fertility, pregnancy, menopause, childbirth, all these issues that are related to the animal life of being a woman. They’re not written about very much. And I thought that was something that was a problem. I thought that as a feminist these experiences that are so important in the life of women ought to be legitimate subjects for literature.”

THREADED THROUGH are snatches of Levy’s childhood, family and New York life, but the memoir’s centrifugal force derives from the failed pregnancy. Until her thirties, Levy has been cavalier about her fertility, indifferent to childbearing. The decision to become pregnant comes against the backdrop of her partner’s drinking problem and after her own affair with a former lover—a torrid, noxious act that she lacerates herself for. But it is a decision she takes when fully ready.

There’s one small problem, though: her body isn’t. “When I was younger and my body was ready to be a mother, I wasn’t mature enough,” she says. “I wasn’t ready and I was making trouble. The only downside of having passion for [my job] is I didn’t have kids, I didn’t do that when I was young enough to do it.”

Feminism has reshaped women’s options and opportunities, but it has still not fully negotiated with the timer on their reproductive systems. That remains one of nature’s rules that cannot be wished away, the rules hinted at in the title. The memoir deals with the hubris of wanting to have, but not being able to have it all and the pale shadow of ‘what if’ hangs over. “During the period when I was grieving actively, I thought a lot about what I’d done wrong,” says Levy. “I feel real regret that I had an affair. That was a big mistake… If I could do it over, I wouldn’t have done that. But other than that, I think I did the best I could.”

She sees a retinue of doctors, and is finally convinced that nothing would have changed had she not got on the plane; the baby would have died anyway because of a rare condition.

Women go through intense experiences around fertility, childbirth. I thought as a feminist these experiences that are so important in the life of women ought to be legitimate subjects for literature

Eventually, the competent, confident storyteller with a sense of control must accept her fallibility in other spheres. Relinquishing this control was a gradual process. “First I was like, ‘No, this is unacceptable, I don’t accept it, I refuse’,” she says. “Eventually you realise you can not accept it if you want, but it’s still going to be true. And the only way to be sane is to accept it and say that’s my life now, that’s the truth.”

For a while after, Levy tried to get pregnant again, spending resources on IVF. “You can only do it so many times before you run out of money and emotional will,” she says. “It’s very hard on your body, and it’s a very draining process… After a while, I thought, that’s enough.”

The Rules Do Not Apply, isn’t just poignant, it also simmers with trenchant, funny writing. Levy writes of her spouse’s uptight mother, her own discomfort saying ‘heteronormative’ —‘a made-up word from the land of academic absurdity’— and about being ‘gay married, that is, fake married’.

The memoir is also aware of her extraordinary good fortune. Her parents have cancer, but survive. The worst thing for them about her gay marriage hinges more on marriage being too mainstream and less on the absence of a groom.

Levy’s voice is convivial, her prose full of sharp analogies and luminous textures. Here she writes on fortuitous pregnancy: ‘getting pregnant felt like making it onto a plane before the gate closes. You can’t help but thrill.’ On journalism: ‘if you want it badly enough, you can always report a story. It feels like magic but it works like carpentry. You build a frame and then you build on that…’

When I single out the journalism line, Levy trills in delight. “Oh thank you, I liked that too,” she says, pleased. “I’m so happy that resonated.” Even across the phone, several time zones away, there’s no missing the sharp gusts of her enthusiasm.

That energy peaks when she speaks of her India visit and seeing the Taj Mahal in a breathless unpunctuated rapture. “The Taj Mahal is the least overrated building on earth,” she exclaims. “There is nothing overrated about it.” Her voice rises. “I couldn’t believe the Taj Mahal! I couldn’t believe it! It was just amazing! I never saw anything like that!”

The same brio and vigour also permeated her childhood, and made her a writer. “When I was a kid keeping a diary, I was always in conversation with myself,” she says. “It’s fun relating to yourself on the page. It’s my thing. It’s the only thing I ever really wanted to do.” After college, Levy stumbled into journalism and worked at New York magazine for 12 years. “Once I started doing [journalism], I realised, ‘Oh my God, this is perfect,’” she says, “You’re not just a writer, it’s also your job. You go to new places and meet new people and learn about other communities and cultures, and write about it. I was just like, wait a minute, ‘this is perfect’.”

Through the years her work has led her to a host of zesty, compelling characters. “The thing that I think makes a good story is... I’m always looking for someone or something about the story that is counter intuitive,” she says. For instance, she profiled Edith Windsor, the doughty 80-plus lesbian who fought for equal marriage rights and won. “I had an anxiety,” says Levy. “Is it going to be too predictable?” Would Windsor simply be a sweet little lady with a dash of heroism and a clutch of pearls? That doubt was quickly dispelled. Windsor turned out to be “wild”. “You expect an old lady to be talking about her rights in a civil rights case, but other than that you don’t expect her to be describing dildos from Cuba,” says Levy. “Stuff like that was ‘whoaaa’.”

This is Levy’s second book, after Female Chauvinist Pigs, an exploration of the tangled skeins of women’s liberation and raunch culture. Levy knows she’ll write another book, though she doesn’t know if she’ll return to her own experiences again. Now she is engaged to the handsome South African doctor who made a cameo in her essay when he burst into the emergency room in Mongolia, and who reappears in an extended role in the memoir. The two corresponded after Mongolia and built an epistolary romance that is never fully articulated in the book’s hopeful yet ambivalent ending. Fairy tale rules do not apply.

“I didn’t want this to be a story where Prince Charming came and saved me and solved all my problems,” she says. “But I did want to suggest I had hope and I was choosing life and to go forward, and say I accept I’ve lost all these things. I’m sad about all that. But what do I have? And I look forward to that.”