Some books get saddled with titles they’ll never earn, titles composed of clever puns that sparkle and dance and beckon misleadingly from the aisles at the bookstore. Not this one; the writing inside of Glory Goes and Gets Some, a collection of bitter but lively stories by first-time author Emily Carter, is filled with as much taut suggestion as is its title. Playful and cranky, opinionated and poetic, Carter delivers stories so pleasantly dense with feeling and ideas that it’s unclear even at the end what it is that Glory has gone and got some of. It could be the mental health she moved to Minneapolis to search for;
it could be the sex she occasionally gets to enjoy. Or this is my favorite guess it could be that the title means to circle back around on itself, suggesting that Glory, in the end, goes and gets some of life’s ordinary, small “g” glory for herself.
It’s not just the title that weighs down Carter’s first literary effort with great expectations; this book also bears a burden that is biographical not typographical in nature. Daughter of novelist Anne Roiphe (Lovingkindness) and sister of controversial cultural critic Katie Roiphe (The Morning After: Sex, Fear and Feminism), Carter possesses a personal history with a host of tabloid-ready, literary-sensational elements. And although she’s dropped the Roiphe from her name, she makes no secret of either her origins or the fact that her book’s charmingly ubiquitous character is a fictional stand-in for herself: like Carter, Glory (a.k.a. Gloria Bronski) is the offspring of wealthy New York Jewish intellectuals. Like Carter, Glory went from being an existentially depressed ten-year-old, to a chronically underachieving teenager, to a sexually dampened, trick-turning, substance-abusing twenty-seven-year-old. And, like Carter, she sobered up and discovered her HIV-positive status in the orbit of a fancy Minneapolis rehab center. But with her charmingly bad-ass narrative voice and talent for inventive language, she makes it far more rewarding to watch her fictional counterpart stumble through the ordinary tragedies of human existence (dating, board games, broken promises) than it would ever be to focus instead on the Roiphe family scandals.
In part because Glory appears in well over half of these stories (and in part because the whole effort is held together with a consistent voice and a series of recognizable references that move through the pages), the book seems less like a collection of short fiction and more like a reasonably well-functioning experimental novel. There are a few stories in which she doesn’t appear; but even these seem to be tales about Glory’s world, and the characters (ex-addicts, barflies, manic depressives) inhabiting these stories feel like they’re her precious friends. In one, we watch a a newly sober guy named Zemecki learn to try to love again a girl, a cat, the feel of night; in another, we encounter Millicent the Milliner, a broken girl who sews tenderness for her aching friends in the form of outrageous winter hats; and in another, we rendezvous with ex-Sister Jacqueline, a recovering alcoholic and a former nun who confesses to having stolen a tiny baby Jesus from a church.
As for Glory herself, when we meet first her, in the opening story (“East on Houston”), she is a young addict hobbling toward Alphabet City in search of a fix; she’s the kind of girl who can recognize poetry in the dirtiest streets or harshest urban landscapes. “As I twitched down the street,” she remembers, “the stoplights [were] gleaming in the black air like costume jewelry from a sunken Spanish galleon, gleaming from the bottom of the sea: the night on Houston was like a black tropical shipwreck ocean.” By the end of the book, she has bottomed out, moved into and out of a Minneapolis rehab residence, and discovered that she’s HIV-positive.
It would be crass and inexact to say simply that Glory Goes and Gets Some delivers the most candid account of addiction, HIV and heterosexuality that I’ve read in years. The book is far too severely mischievous and reflective to win points for mere honesty. Better to say that it’s a delightfully thoughtful tale of a girl struggling with some of the twenty-first century’s most pressing epistemological and health-related questions like, for example, the one she asks herself after spending her thirty-fourth birthday “in bed, with a box of three-day old chocolate croissants, too lazy to even masturbate, since it would have involved getting up and changing the batteries in my vibrator”: “I Am HIV-Positive, Who Will Have Sex With Me?”
If this seems like an obvious question, look around. Its not something that a whole lot of other writers are asking in print these days. Indeed, in Glory, Carter has invented the sort of HIV-positive straight woman who has barely ever gotten airtime: not the blameless mother who’s been infected by a dentist, or a cheating husband, or a blood transfusion, Glory is childless, high-maintenance and, at times, profoundly bitchy-mean. When she discovers her HIV status, for example, she admits that she can’t make a list of people she might have infected; she never knew the last names of the people she shared needles with and she “hadn’t been sexually unsafe with anyone but Ahmed, who, despite my repeated suggestions and exhortations on the subject of sexual sanity, had refused to wear a condom.” Ahmed, she explains, was a trick who liked to ass-fuck her in exchange for a couple of bags of dope. If he does have AIDS, it “served him right,” she quips rawly, “for fucking me up the ass at what were ridiculously discount rates.”
But instead of hating Glory for such brutal honesty, you’re likely to adore her in spite of it. And the truth is that Carter fills Glory’s anguished, confused story with so much cantankerous speculation about brokenness and the modern human condition that you hardly have time to condemn or pity her. You’ll be too busy condemning and pitying yourself reminded, as you are by her work, of your own miserable crucible of doubt and regret and fucking up and instability, whatever it is that drove Glory to heroin and you to whatever self-destructive habits you can’t give up.
After she sets out to answer her burning question (“Who will have sex with me?”) Glory explains her situation like this: “It gets old,” she says, “mashing the little pink button all by your lonesome, night after night.” So she places an ad in the personals and goes on a series of wonderfully disappointing dates. When she finally, desperately, meets her match a man who enjoys the company of women and who “could spell the word ‘phlegm,’ if he had to” she doesn’t just revel in the obvious pleasure of finding a mate. Instead she finds in it a way to remember the beauty lurking in even the most squalid of human impulses. “He told me he’d answered my ad out of sheer desperation,” she writes, “which, out of all human motivations, is, in my opinion, the only one you can absolutely trust.”
For more Rachel Mattson, read:
Drive: A Suburban Mystery
The Sum of the Parts: Showtime’s “Sex in the Twentieth Century”
Rachel Mattson and Nerve.com, Inc.