The Queer Syllabus: Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles


The Queer Syllabus is a joint project from The Rumpus and Foglifter Press that allows writers to nominate works for a new canon of queer literature. When we identify our roots, when we point to the work that shaped us as writers and as people, we demonstrate that our stories are timeless, essential, and important—and so are we. New entries will run on Thursday, September through December, and then will be collected as a living document on the Foglifter website. The Queer Syllabus is edited by Wesley O. Cohen and Marisa Siegel.


I first came to Jane Bowles’s Two Serious Ladies in an undergraduate class in postmodern literature. It was a class in which the expected big guys—Donald Barthelme, John Hawkes, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin—muscled the syllabus. I was drawn to their bold experiments, the outrageous comedy, the quirky arrangements of text on the page. But Jane Bowles? What was Jane Bowles doing among this crowd of boys? Her single novel, Two Serious Ladies, had been published at least a decade prior to their work, and it looked to me like a linear novel. Frankly, it seemed a little dowdy, a smell of stiff curtains and rugs beneath a piano. The central characters were named Mr. and Mrs. Copperfield, a joke on Dickens. There was a flatness to the voice. It seemed artificial in its formality, the sparing use of contractions. Obviously, my professor said, this book parodies the Victorian novel. If I’d been another kind of student, I might have hated it. But I didn’t have enough of a personality to hate what I didn’t understand, so I just thought, okay? It didn’t even occur to me that there were queer relationships in the book, maybe because our professor never described them as such. These were years when you could study Moby Dick and homosexual desire would never come up in the discussions. Maybe our professors were afraid of saying the wrong thing, of shoehorning the work into a category, of turning certain students off. Meanwhile, the newspapers tallied up another thousand AIDS deaths.

A year later I took a fiction workshop. Though we didn’t read Jane Bowles as part of class, our professor talked about her with excitement, called her one of our best writers. I took in the blurbs by Truman Capote and John Ashbery, which did not seem obligatory or manufactured. I gave her another try. I still didn’t quite get it, but I got it a little more than the first round. This time I could see how funny it wanted to be, but vulnerable, too—how both could be true at once. Her characters read like feral children cast into the adult world, and the extremity of that condition must have reflected my inner life. They were scared, but brave in their efforts to put themselves out where danger was. That was religion to them, and though their travels to a diner or to Panama never made them stronger, they didn’t retreat. “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years,” Mrs. Copperfield declares. I felt that Jane Bowles was trying to write something close to parable, or better yet, dream. She was after the unprocessed, the pure, though I didn’t yet have such terms at my disposal. In a week I was supposed to submit a story for critique, and I hadn’t even written a paragraph. I didn’t want to be made fun of, and worse, didn’t want to be boring. Then one night it occurred to me to imitate Jane Bowles, in the way I might imitate an aunt with a staged, throaty voice in order to crack up my brothers. She knew how absurd causality was, how coherence lied to the slipperiness of the human condition. I’m sure my story wasn’t all that great, but my teacher praised me more than I deserved. And in that work I caught myself learning what it was that made Jane Bowles unique: the non sequiturs, the on-the-spotness, the unsettling spasms of feeling.

How is Two Serious Ladies queer? Well, it’s much more than the facts of the plot: Mrs. Copperfield falling in love with a prostitute. It’s about something deeper, inside its blood. The scenes dwell in in-betweenness, ambivalence, simultaneity. The voice transforms awkwardness into austere poetry without making a big fuss. The tone says no to any distinction between hilarity and devastation. The whole project of it refuses any standard script, however well-intentioned. The narrator even makes fun of the characters—so many broken rules! And no, it doesn’t get better for Mrs. Copperfield, or for anyone else in these pages. The novel just stops cold, without resolution, but there’s so much awe and delight along the way.


Rumpus original logo art by Luna Adler.


Foglifter is a queer journal and press showcasing powerful, intersectional writing that fosters queer writers and galvanizes the queer community through literary events and programming.

Paul Lisicky is the author of five books: The Narrow Door, Unbuilt Projects, The Burning House, Famous Builder, and Lawnboy. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Conjunctions, Fence, the New York Times, Tin House, and elsewhere. His awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he has served on the Writing Committee since 2000. He teaches in the MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden, and lives in Brooklyn. His sixth book, Later, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2020. More from this author →