A Year of Lonely Places
’Tis the critical season and so, like clockwork, here come the top-ten lists, the round-ups, the year-in-reviews. As a whole, 2017 may still feel inexplicable, but with an avalanche of facts at our feet, the impulse to gather and sort is difficult to deny. The trouble is that meaning of these facts, their effects, the fallout from them, will remain, for years, elusive. Proof positive: the best novel about gender politics in 2017 was published in 1947. Almost three-quarters of a century later, what was then, and is now, true of men and power and the women caught between the two is only beginning to be understood.
The novel is called In a Lonely Place and it was written by Dorothy B. Hughes. (New York Review Books reissued it earlier this year with an afterword by the novelist Megan Abbott.) In a Lonely Place is a noir, the rare noir in which women use their savvy and their sex appeal not to entrap a good man, but to trip up a bad one. The bad man in question is an ex-fighter pilot named Dickson—Dix—Steele. And for the first fifty pages or so, the reader will want to believe that Dix isn’t the strangler haunting Los Angeles, hunting lone women, wrapping one arm about their slender necks, pressing his forearm tight against the larynx, squeezing, squeezing hard. Will want to believe this only because Hughes’s third person narrator stays so close to Dix that the reader cannot immediately feel revulsion—what’s he doing here, on page twenty-four; can he actually be trying to seduce his best friend’s wife over the phone?—but is forced, instead, to experience intimacy. It starts on the very first page, in the very first sentence: “It was good standing there on the promontory overlooking the evening sea, the fog lifting itself like gauzy veils to touch his face.” And so it is: good to be on that promontory, in that sentence. The technique itself is a canny kind of violation.
Thanks to Hughes’s sleight of hand, the reader tricks herself into hoping for a twist that will prove this protagonist innocent. He’s not, of course. Because even if Dix weren’t a killer, he’d still be guilty; guilty of hating women, all of them. “Even the pious ones,” he reflects, are “only waiting for a chance to cheat and lie and whore.” The words send a chill down the reader’s spine, the kind of chill she’s been trained to ignore, for boys will be boys, but ladies will be labeled hysterical. Laurel, the woman for whom Dix falls, is summed up as “greedy and callous and a bitch”—an assessment not quite balanced by his admission, in the second half of the same sentence, that “she was fire and a man needed fire.” When Laurel displeases him, Dix yells at her, seizes her by the shoulders, pulls her out of her chair. “He had wanted,” he realizes, after his outburst, “to kill her.”
I never quite found myself wishing Dix would kill Laurel, but I did realize, part-way through the novel, that I wanted him to get away with the murders he’d already committed. That desire is a testament to Hughes’s talent. Her prose is so pleasurable even the workings of Dix’s sick mind are, somehow, seductive. Hughes seems to know that the distance from understanding to sympathy, from sympathy to complicity, can be very short indeed. In In a Lonely Place the space that separates these three is vanishingly small.
There’s an old quote, variously attributed, online, to Oscar Wilde, Germaine Greer, the Italian sociologist Robert Michels, and the fictional politician Frank Underwood: “Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.” It may not be universally true, but it holds for Dix. He’s attracted to Laurel not merely because she’s “fire,” but because he can tell she’s a woman who’s accustomed to being kept—in dinner and dresses and “glittering baubles.” Dix isn’t rich, but on his arm and in his bed, Laurel is proof that he’s capable of doing the necessary keeping.
Around the time I moved from New York to Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the end of 2015, I began joking that it would be a relief to be surrounded by Boston Bros, by Massholes who wore their misogyny on their sleeves, instead of by bespectacled intellectuals in slim jeans and skinny ties who hid their disdain for the distaff behind discussions about frivolity versus seriousness, about wit versus weight. These were men who loved Ben Lerner—that capacious mind, those pliable lines!—but had questions about Sheila Heti. For example: did she have to write in such detail about blow jobs?
I was joking but also I wasn’t. Of course open, virulent misogyny is often more dangerous than its concealed kin; the same shame that works to force hatred of women below the surface helps keep a lid, too, on the violence that misogyny breeds. But there is, in fact, a kind of relief in knowing exactly you’re dealing with, in not having to expend any emotional energy trying to figure it out. Debating whether or not to go home with a man, you wonder whether, should you later change your mind, he will take no for an answer or instead try to wear you down by degrees. In your office, of a morning, waiting for a male superior to arrive, you wonder whether he saw you crying at your desk the day before, and if he did whether he understands tears as a sign of weakness and, if he does, how you can convince him to take you seriously again. It wouldn’t be better to know he won’t understand no, that he didn’t ever and certainly won’t now take you seriously—it would, obviously, be worse. But it would, in certain ways, also be easier. At least you’d know who to avoid.
This is part of the pleasure of In a Lonely Place: the protagonist’s unequivocal evil, how the line runs, clean and direct, straight from Dix loathing women to Dix killing women. Another part: how that loathing also leads him to underestimate the very women who will eventually take him down. Dix insists on his intelligence, his ability to lie and dissemble, insists he doesn’t “need” the gin and the rye and the beer he consumes over the course of the novel. And, close as we are to him, for a while we believe it when he tells himself that he “no longer depended on liquor,” or that “It was always so easy to lie, so easy.” Dix is “sure of his own prowess” and so, for a while, are we. But the women around him—Laurel, his friend’s wife Sylvia—catch on; they don’t believe him, they aren’t sure, and it is thanks to them that he is, eventually caught.
Because outside of Hughes’s narration, Dix isn’t seductive or sympathetic; he’s just a serial killer, and an increasingly sloppy one at that. How good to know that, at novel’s end. How good to be sure.
When I write best novel about gender politics, I mean that I read. And when I write that I read I am compelled to confess: I didn’t read many novels published in 2017 in 2017. Four, in addition to In a Lonely Place. Everything else I read between January and December of this year was published five years ago, or fifteen, or fifty. This is in part because I’m currently in the middle of a novel of my own and so am trying to listen very hard to my own voice, or, in any case, voices distant enough that I won’t be either tempted to imitate them or intimidated into silence. It’s also, in part, because of where I now live.
Partway through 2016 I moved again, from Cambridge to St. Louis. From New York to Cambridge to St. Louis—the distance between these cities was not only geographic but cultural. In New York I worked in book and magazine publishing and the friends I met up with, after work, also worked, for the most part, in book and magazine publishing, and so I knew, by habit and of necessity, whose first novel had just sold and for how much, which galleys were hot and which, of those, were good. For a while, in Cambridge and then St. Louis, this information continued to seem essential and I continued to gather it, and then—months passed, maybe a year—I realized it wasn’t and I stopped. This is not a knock on the publishing industry or the data it produces, or the gossip. Just that it wasn’t useful to me anymore, knowing who was in favor and who was out.
It was maybe around the time of this realization that I discovered In a Lonely Place, and its message sounded in my ears in a way it might not have if I’d been busy trying to figure out which of the various nonfiction proposals or short story collections or novels being shopped best captured the stench of this particular age, the smell on these scandals, something between curdled milk and singed rubber. Its message being, not, the seeds of this problem were planted long ago, but women have known it. We Sylvias and Laurels have always regarded the men we know with something like suspicion, wondering whether they’re serial—not killers, sure, but serial something elses: harassers, boundary-pushers, late-night DMers, inappropriate touchers. We’ve always wondered how far they’d go, if rebuffed, how quickly attraction might turn to anger, anger to outright aggression. It’s only the men, now, who are catching up.
Dix, for example. If Hughes’s first trick is making him sympathetic, her second is making him blind to the power of the women around him. Easy to see them as weak, in their gloves and their heels and their waist-cinching skirts. What can they do, the wives and the divorcées, the assistants and the interns and the models, the young writers and actresses, hoping for their big break? Plenty, it turns out.
In some other year, I will read the best novels of 2017: Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Rachel Khong’s Goodbye Vitamin and Catherine Lacey’s The Answers and Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West and Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing. I will read the best books of 2014 and 2015 and 2016, too, some of which I’m sure I missed, as desperately as I was trying, in those years, to keep up. And if I am lucky they will reveal the truth of whatever world I am living in, five years from now, or fifteen, or fifty, as clearly as In a Lonely Place revealed this past year to me.
Miranda Popkey is a writer based in St. Louis, MO.