Every now and then, a book comes along that you will love forever. The Rules Do Not Apply is that book for me; since reading it, I’ve been touting it, teaching it, conversing with it.
Ariel Levy writes for the New Yorker, and I read her memoir as quickly as I might a compelling long-form article. It begins with a devastating triple threat:
In the last few months, I have lost my son, my spouse, and my house. Every morning I wake up and for a few seconds I’m disoriented, confused as to why I feel grief seeping into my body, and then I remember what has become of my life.
This pronouncement forces the mind to arrange and rearrange the facts like a Rubix cube, trying to figure out what happened. “What happened?” is probably the most fundamental response a writer can aim for, a question that will pull someone through the book. Levy uses it to take the reader back to her childhood—fertile ground for the thorny terrain of relationships.
In these early pages, we toggle between Levy’s childhood and her career. The child Ariel’s dawning awareness of her mother’s affair with a “family friend” plays out alongside Jennifer-Egan-like flashes forward that show the fate of these foundational characters. We meet her first mentor, an editor at New York magazine, juxtaposed with her father, a complicated pillar of her childhood; we watch her travel and write articles as an adult, and we watch her parents’ marriage unravel much earlier; we even get a recipe from her father’s second wife, and an appearance from Nora Ephron, who imparts this writerly advice: “At some point… you start typing.”
Levy is brilliant at collaging the pieces of her life into a compelling story. Stories embed in other stories, because the character Levy, like the narrator Levy, is a storyteller: “I told Lucy about that trip [trekking through the Himalayas] as we tramped through the cool shade of redwoods, the clean smell of forest rot rising around us.” We zig zag inexorably, though not exclusively, forward. Levy hooks up with one guy, gets a crush on another, who comes to help out when an air conditioner falls from her apartment window. “‘Somebody could have been killed,’ is what people said when I told the story, but not really; the window was above an airshaft.”
Soon after, we seem to slip from the territory of boys and cheap apartments when her father tells her he has cancer. This forces Levy to reevaluate her own luck: “Had that window faced the street, I could have killed somebody with that air conditioner, and then that would be the truth from then on, forever. Life, so plodding and seemingly circumscribed, was labile, fragile.”
Levy builds her argument through story, masterfully placing the fascinating bits side by side. It’s not the chronological order of events that matters but the emotional order and its escalation. When she gets the job writing for The New Yorker, her father says, “Well, nowhere to go but down.” That’s a joke, but it’s also, in the argument of the story, a warning. Because optimism and good luck keep reasserting themselves—like when her father recovers from cancer. “Order was restored. The window would always face an airshaft. The grim prognosis would be a mistake. Nothing really bad could happen to me in my movie, because I was the protagonist.”
The theme of the book, given boldly in the title, and painfully disproved over the pages that follow, already resonated with many in my generation on a personal level before it became a conundrum of national politics:
I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all.
Levy is so good at conveying the pendulum swings of fate and the privilege of good luck. And she’s got a hell of a story to tell. The voice, the character, the cinematography, if you will—the imagery and how it’s created—kept me gripped and entertained, choked up and chortling. “They had a house in Oakland,” Levy writes, “with a slate patio and leggy nasturtiums in the backyard.” Leggy nasturtiums! And, “When I first learned about sex, I was excited because it seemed like something that could prove useful for quantifying betrayal.” Every thread she pulls into this tapestry glimmers with wit and insight, including and perhaps especially, what she calls “the carnal world”:
You have an affair because you are not getting what you want from your loved one. You want more… You want someone to look at you with lust—after years of laundry—transforming you into something radiant.
That single detail of the laundry lifts this from a broad observation to a specific one, and from a merely poignant truth to a humorous one. The use of second person is no accident either; this book deliberately pulls you aboard before announcing any unexpected detours. I’ve been struggling with how to write about one of these detours. The way the book (along with its publicity materials) is constructed, I even wonder if I must offer a spoiler alert before I discuss this aspect. The marriage Levy writes about, the spouse she loses in the opening hook, is a woman.
As someone married to a woman, I was prepared to identify across the presumed difference of her marriage to a man. But Levy lowers you gently into the queer aspects of her marriage. One of the apparently lesser details about her spouse is that she is a woman named Lucy. Charmingly, when we meet Lucy in chapter five, Levy notes, “I’d never thought it possible for me to have such a crush on someone so obviously suitable for me in every way.” The person she has the affair with is a former girlfriend, now a transgendered man.
Sex takes you—somehow!—through a portal to another world… a new world, where a new self, who has nothing (but everything) to do with who you really are, comes forth. A world with its own dream logic in which the strangest things are desperately erotic—there is no predicting or explaining this; reason, like language itself, has no purchase here. Gender, too, is meaningless. Not meaningless in the tortured academic sense of being ‘deconstructable.’ Here, gender is simply beside the point. (People sometimes tell me that they’re baffled by bisexuality: they are convinced that having sex with women is totally different from having sex with men. But it isn’t. No more than having sex with anyone is totally different from having sex with anyone else.)
I agree with Levy completely. And it is funny (queer?) how she uses a very queer perspective in order to (initially) disguise the very queerness of what it views. She also offers a spot-on critique of the word “wife,” and liberals’ well-intentioned bestowing of it. And perhaps there is something “queer” in a broad sense about the generation she describes so well: “I was thirty-two—which really seemed like the tail end of my twenties, still. I felt as young as spring…. We all assumed we still had time for reinvention.”
What a break from the past is this belief in our perpetual youth. The playful sense of shifting identity, of rule-breaking and role-playing that goes along with being queer, applies to feminists, to writers, to anyone who chooses, or perhaps needs, to believe we can reinvent ourselves:
Women of my generation were given the lavish gift of our own agency by feminism—a belief that we could decide for ourselves how we would live, what would become of us. Writers may be particularly susceptible to this outlook, because we are accustomed to the power of authorship. (Even if you write nonfiction, you still control how the story unfolds.) Life was complying with my story.
By the time we get to the tragedy prefigured in the opening, by the time life stops complying, I suspect any reader will be with Levy all the way. After all, reading, like sex, takes you—somehow!—through a portal to another world where a new self who has nothing (but everything) to do with who you really are comes forth. Virtually living through Levy’s story is devastating and exquisite. It takes us to the bone truths about expectations and love, about this particular generation, and about learning the rules the hard way. Because eventually, the rules are going to show up like a brick wall you’ve been ignoring at a hundred and fifty miles per hour.