Gwendolyn Griffin is a 25-year-old graduate student in creative writing, paying her tuition and her rent with the income she makes as a stripper at a seedy nightclub near the airport. At the club, she calls herself “Stevie”, after the British poet Stevie Smith.
Gwen was quiet. She spent her time reading, filling notebooks with her inky scrawl . . . Stevie was an invention, sprung from Gwen’s imagination. She was shameless, free as the sky, or death — those curtains that enclose us and that we cannot touch. Stevie did things that would make Gwen blush to watch, things that would mortify her, were she to dwell on them.
Like the speaker in Smith’s poem, “Not Waving But Drowning”, Gwen is isolated and unable to communicate her desperation. She lives with her boyfriend, Leo, an unemployed musician who spends his days dressed as a Revolutionary War soldier, standing on a street corner trying to sell his tapes. Her mother died when Gwen was a child, and she’s never recovered from the trauma — nor has she repaired her relationship with her father.
The events in Further Out Than You Thought take place in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots. The chaos of the city reflects the chaos of Gwen’s life. When she started working at the strip club, she thought she would work there for “a year, no more” and “enter this world which had intrigued her, this other side of life, the underbelly . . . She’d hoped this world would fuel her creativity, wake her up with its strange terrain, give her something compelling to write poems about . . .”
But now that this world has become familiar to her, Gwen wonders “how much further would she need to go to draw that exacting line and keep well enough behind it?” Having just discovered she is pregnant, Gwen is at a crossroads. Having been abandoned by her own mother, is she capable of being a mother herself? Can she leave Stevie behind and “learn to love herself — bruises, blemishes, worries, and all”? Is it possible for “quixotic” Leo to live in the real world and be a partner and father? Gwen sees herself as “the anchor to his boat, the anchor he managed still to pull up here and there to sail the pirate-ridden seas”.
In an attempt to escape the violence surrounding them, Gwen, Leo, and their friend, Count Valiant, impulsively decide to drive across the border to Tijuana. Leo and Valiant are reminiscent of the “lost boys” in Neverland; Leo even calls Gwen “Tinkerbell”. In Tijuana, Gwen visits a psychic, who reminds her of her grandmother — and of the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Gwen “felt like Dorothy” after her visit to the psychic; the next morning, she awakens to Valiant singing “Over the Rainbow”. (Dorothy, of course, returns to Kansas after her sojourn in Oz.) Gwen recognizes that Leo and Valiant will never become part of the adult world.
Michaela Carter has written a powerful coming-of-age novel that captures the loneliness and confusion of a young woman who believes herself to be truly alone. Carter’s writing is lovely — it’s easy to tell she is a poet. She uses recurring motifs– especially water and the color red — effectively. However, a word of warning: the book IS about a stripper, so it’s quite sexually explicit, and the language is occasionally crude. It’s an edgier novel than I normally read, but I’m glad TLC Book Tours gave me the opportunity to review this book, because I probably wouldn’t have picked it up on my own.
Not only is Michaela Carter a novelist, a painter, a creative writing teacher, and an award-winning poet, she is a bookseller. Recently she cofounded the Peregrine Book Company, an independent bookstore in Prescott, Arizona. According to the bookstore’s website, two of Carter’s recent favorite novels are All the Light We Cannot See and The Enchanted — two of my favorites as well. Further Out Than You Thought was selected as an IndieNext Pick by the American Booksellers Association for August — quite an honor for any book, but especially for a debut novel.