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.
“This book scared me.” It was early 2014 when I sat across a Brooklyn dinner table from Mary Gaitskill, talking horses. Mary was working on finishing The Mare and had been consulting me, a former competitive equestrian, on horse terminology and accuracy. Because Mary fastidiously researches every corner of her work, she’d been making her way through several horse books. Then, we’d talk about them.
“This book scared me. It’s dark. I think it’s for you.” Mary pushed the fat book across the table toward my plate. “Borrow it,” she said. I was eating sardines. The book was soft, yellowed, scribbled over—a carousel horse illustrated on the cover. The book was House Rules by Heather Lewis. That night I knew nothing of Heather Lewis except she was a writer who wrote a book about horses and that book managed to chill Mary Gaitskill.
House Rules opens with our fifteen-year-old protagonist, Lee, boarding a plane to the Florida equestrian show circuit, molested by a stranger on the flight down. What shocks in that first chapter isn’t the molestation itself; it isn’t even the gruesome, fragmented language Lewis uses to describe not the man’s cock or hands but his neck “spilled over a shirt collar so crisply starched I expected it to draw blood”; it’s Lee’s response to the man that sidesteps our narrative expectations, fleeing her seat to jerk off in the airplane bathroom:
The sharpness in my belly grabbed me back (…) I wanted that orgasm as fast as it could happen. Without it I’d always be in that seat with his hand up my cunt. I brought myself off in a way that made me weak-kneed.
Lewis’s characters are always active, always enduring and surviving the greatest atrocities by lending the wheel to the evil and unwieldy, stealing it back before the great crash. Lewis’s protagonists go down with their ships.
What follows in House Rules, and in Lewis’s other works, is a ton of motel rooms and heroin and dyke love and doped mares and so much fisting one particular session leaves Lee barely able to catch-ride all her horses. The stories are unbearable. Relentless. They are bursting with equal parts spark and smoke. In the afterword for Lewis’s third and final novel, Notice, her mentor Allan Gurganus writes,
The violence that must come offers an almost-welcome flourish, a respite of brief color, in a generalized silence that underwrites and undermines every human effort to resist it.
While her books are not the most technically masterful novels I’ve ever read, they are unlike any novels I have ever read. Heat rises from the pages.
Lewis’s work is full of horror. Lewis’s life was full of horror. And I bring her life into the analysis of her work because it seemed important to Lewis for the two to trace each other. By now, I have tracked down every last essay and story, every lesbian anthology, and I believe Lewis’s work was a way for her to codify every brutality that befell her. Sometimes I like to think I am writing in the shadow of Heather Lewis—the two of us graduated from Sarah Lawrence College; the two of us, both lesbian equestrians with books written through and about those experiences—but I know, in reality, that idea is romantic. I never knew her.
But here’s what I can tell you about Heather Lewis from knowing her work: she was a show jumping prodigy. She endured more than anyone should. If Lewis’s work sounds like a hard sell, it is. No one wanted to print Notice until ten years after she wrote it; it was published posthumously two years after she ended her brief life. Those who loved her made it happen. Many loved her. And that fat copy of House Rules—I never gave it back. Mary was right, it was for me in that transcendent way the best books carve their ways into us, for me in all its horrifying messiness and bloodiness and unyielding pain. Weeks later Mary asked me what I thought, and I told her it was perfect.
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.