The first openly lesbian novel to get a rave review in the New York Times, Sarah Schulman’s After Delores is twenty-five years young and about to be re-issued by Arsenal Pulp Press in September. It’s the story of a waitress who is trying and failing to get over a deceitful girlfriend while eking out a living on the pre-gentrification Lower East Side New York, told in a unique blend of the detective genre, noir, and urban picaresque.
“There’s an emotional anarchy to the book,” says Schulman in a phone interview. This mood is well suited to its setting and its ensemble of the nonconforming characters – to what we now call the underground lesbian scene of the 1970s and ‘80s New York City. “This era is romanticized now, and well-known. At the time it wasn’t even a scene, just a lot of people who’ve been thrown out and lost, who nobody cared about, and who just ended up together in this arena where their lives didn’t matter at all.”
After Delores, like many of Schulman’s other works, brings into focus the poor, the unconnected and the shunned, the struggling artist and the original thinker marginalized by the society, the dark side of the American Dream. To zoom in even closer, she looks into why people can be beastly cruel to one another. “I’ve spent almost my entire life trying to understand the mentality behind the desire to punish,” she says. “And I realized that there are two different motives for this: one is dominance (people who think they’re superior, feel entitled, don’t understand what suffering is like), and then there’s desire to punish by the person who has been brutalized in an earlier part of their life and hasn’t been able to process it.” The second requires a very different response from the first – compassion, most of all.
Schulman’s fiction is in close kinship with her non-fiction writing on the gentrification of NYC, the commercialization of the gay identity in the US, and the queer activism in Israel/Palestine. Her 2011 work Ties That Bind is among the seminal ethical treatises of the last decade. It looks at the familial and sibling homophobia and asks the tough questions about the ways that queer relationships may end up perpetuating the same pattern of behaviour instead of exiting it. Reading Ties That Bind adds another dimension to her fictional characters too – those who move through life trying to do good, and those who do the opposite.
While After Delores, Empathy and The Mere Future have the main protagonist who tries to be compassionate and to understand, Schulman is equally interested in writing from the perspective of the unaccountable and the ethically blind in order to reveal how that psychology works. “People in Trouble, for example, has three protagonists with three very different points of views and they are given equal weight. So there you see both sides of the power divide. Shimmer has about six different protagonists and some of them have great entitlement and privilege. The book I just finished, The Cosmopolitans, has a very controversial protagonist.” This yet unpublished novel will be Schulman’s take on Honoré de Balzac’s Cousin Bette. “In Cousin Bette, she is the person who is wronged but at the end destroys everybody. Many people will have trouble with that. I’ve written many different characters in plays and films too – and the most important thing for me is that there’s some kind of logic behind their actions. People do unconscionable things because they think it’s going make them feel better right now,” she says.
Readers will also find a lot of humour in Schulman’s books, will follow how NYC is changing from novel to novel, and enjoy the many à clef characters, her tributes to people she knows and situations she’s witnessed. The look that Coco sports in Delores, for example, belongs to a woman in Schulman’s neighbourhood (“She’s still there, now in her sixties. She still walks around the neighbourhood with that hair”) but the character itself was based on Schulman’s best friend, Kathy Danger. There’s a freshman paper on Freudian dream analysis in Empathy that is an actual paper that Schulman submitted as a student, and some of the family scenes in the book Schulman herself experienced. The solitary painter who shuns publicity in The Mere Future is loosely based on Carolee Schneemann. “She was this pioneering feminist artist who changed everything and influenced so many people who came after her, but never got the recognition that she deserved,” Schulman says. “A friend of mine interviewed her once and asked her, ‘what do we owe you?’ And Schneeman said exactly what I have Glick say in the novel.”
Loneliness is another constant for many of her characters, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing according to Schulman. “If you’re a person who really wants to understand, who really believes that there’s solution… It’s why I’m an activist for Palestine and why I was a supporter of people with AIDS very early: I believe that paradigms can turn over and that people can be compassionate and can negotiate and can calm down. And there’s something that’s lonely there. There’s a kind of a faith in people, maybe — something that separates you when you believe that.”
“I’m an incredible optimist,” she adds. “You wouldn’t say that after reading my books, but I am. I believe that people can get it, solve the problem, recognize the other person.”