Post45: The Story of A New Name: Merve, July 30: "If My Brilliant Friend gave us a community of two, Lila and Lenù, brought together by a shared commitment to literary education, in The Story of a New Name that community has broadened."
Date: Jul 30 2015
Dear Sarah, Jill, and Katherine—
Have you ever tried to erase yourself? When I was a child, I used to sit in a dark bedroom, Paula Cole's "Me" on loop, and try to imagine my way out of myself. It seems funny in hindsight, but at the time, it was a very serious exercise. I would start by imagining that my ten-year-old hands weren't my hands, my face not my face, the weight of my body an illusion I could throw off if I concentrated hard enough. From there, things would take a turn for the gravely existential. What if I wasn't me? What if I was nothing? A more promising thought would occur: what if I was someone else, only I didn't know it? Often that someone else was Leonardo DiCaprio's girlfriend—remember, this was 1996—but sometimes I tried scattering myself amidst a group of people: my family, my three best friends, the entire universe of nerdy eleven-year-old girls who were sitting in their bedrooms at this exact moment, trying to dissolve with me.
You might protest that these childish games bear little resemblance to the forms of erasure we find in The Story of a New Name, the most dramatic of which is Lila's desecration of her wedding photograph. What the exploding copper pot was to My Brilliant Friend, the wedding photograph is to The Story of a New Name: a perfectly ordinary object onto which Lenù confers extraordinary powers of art and allegory. It first appears in the window of the dressmaker's shop, a portrait of Lila in her wedding gown, ankles bared and crossed, a pair of Cerullo shoes peeping out from under her hem; a portrait alluring enough to attract film directors and fashion designers, and to make her husband Stefano violently jealous. It also attracts the attention of Marcello and Michele Solara, two local Camorristas who have financed the shoe store that Stefano will soon open in the commercial center of Naples. The Solaras do not see Lila's photograph as a wedding portrait; they see it as an advertising opportunity. Against Stefano's wishes, they demand to install Lila's image—and, by extension, Lila—in the shoe store, at the heart of their growing business empire.
If the Lila of My Brilliant Friend grasped onto money as the only bulwark against disorder, the Lila of The Story of a New Name has nothing but contempt for the "worthless metal, [the] waste paper" that lines the cash register of Stefano's grocery. Money has let Lila down—a rich husband is no less likely than a poor one to beat his wife, to mangle her sense of self and piece it back together it as it pleases him. Marriage, like money, is also a form of ownership, something that Lila realizes when she locks herself in a hotel bathroom on her wedding night, just before her husband rapes her. "She was bothered by the idea that the ownership of the nice new things was guaranteed by the last name of that particularly individual who was waiting for her out there," Lenù writes, imagining herself into Lila's honeymoon suite, into Lila's consciousness, for that one horrifying night. "Carracci's possessions, she, too, was Carracci's possession." A fancy car, a spacious apartment, a wedding dress—none of these things can protect Lila or any other woman from the fact that "our fathers, our boyfriends, and our husbands could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us."
To follow the novel's money trail is to see that Carracci's possessions are also the Solaras’ possessions. As Stefano is in debt to the Solara brothers, and as Lila is his possession, she emerges as collateral in the fight between Stefano and the Solaras. Or at least, her photograph does, which, for her, amounts to the same thing. "They used me," she says to Lenù. "To them I'm not a person but a thing. Let's give him Lina, let's stick her on a wall, since she's a zero, an absolute zero." But Lila will not see herself pinned and wriggling on a wall, an erotic testament to the power of men with money. She will quite literally preempt Stefano and the Solaras’ erasure of her by erasing herself first:
She cut strips of black paper, with the manual precision she had always possessed, and pinned them here and there to the photograph, asking for my help with slight gestures of quick glances ... The body of the bride Lila appeared cruelly shredded. Much of the head had disappeared, as had the stomach. There remained an eye, the hand on which the chin rested, the brilliant stain of the mouth, the diagonal stripe of the bust, the line of the crossed legs, the shoes ... (119)
At first, Lila's "avant-garde" art project recalls other attempts at female erasure. Consider Kurt Seligmann's "Ultra-Furniture," a stool supported by three slender and detached female legs, each one identical to the next. Consider also Willem de Kooning's Women series, particularly the charcoal drawings that he erased with great brutality throughout the 1950s, and Robert Rauschenberg's total negation of de Kooning's woman for his "Erased de Kooning Drawing." Erasing women is a popular trope, so blatantly does it link the idea of the feminine to categories like "abstraction," "archetype," and "anonymity." Broken into her component parts, the erased women of art can be anyone or anything to anybody.
Yet the visual association I find most compelling comes not from the male avant-garde, but from a female commercial artist—one who has also arranged herself carefully so as to highlight the line of her leg, the diagonal stripe of her bust, and the brilliant stain of her mouth.
Like Lila's surrealist photograph, the paparazzi snapshot of Angelina Jolie on the red carpet, leg bared and arms akimbo, is a statement of bodily presence—taut, angular, nude, and undeniably badass. Its aesthetic logic also relies on a kind of erasure; the leg must stand on its own, separate and separable from the rest of her body, which recedes quietly behind the lines of her black sheath. And like Lila's photograph, Jolie's pose risks misinterpretation. "You've erased yourself deliberately and I see why: to show the thigh, to show how well a woman's thigh goes with those shoes," Marcello congratulates Lila after he sees what she has done to her photograph. Sex may sell, but Marcello is wrong about Lila's intentions, which are not commercial in the slightest. He does not see, as Lenù does, that what Lila wants is to "present her own self-destruction in an image"—to transform the unmaking and remaking of women into an aesthetic form, a carefully stylized parody of what men expect women to do in life.
But the question remains: why erase yourself? What becomes visible once the self retreats into the background? Just before Lila begins to erase herself, Lenù notes how her attitude toward the other women in the community has changed. Whereas Lila once played the role of the haughty bride, capable of using money to transcend her origins, now, more than usual, "she had an involved way of talking. She chose emotionally charged words, she described Melina Cappuccio and Giuseppina Peluso as if their bodies had seized hers, imposing on it the same contracted or inflated forms, the same bad feelings. As she spoke, she touched her face, her breast, her stomach, her hips as if they were no longer hers, and showed that she knew everything about these women." By making the isolated parts of her body the focus of the painting, Lila shows how easily these could be the legs, the bust, the lips of any woman. This is as much a savvy advertising technique ("Imagine Yourself In the Product") as it is a gesture of communion, one akin to Lila touching her breasts, her stomach, and her hips as if they no longer belong to her. Any woman could break the way that Lila has. And in Naples—in the world at large—many of us do.
Ultimately what erasure makes visible is an alternate model of community, one that Lenù, still in thrall to the chatter of the leftist intelligentsia, will fail to appreciate throughout the novel. If My Brilliant Friend gave us a community of two, Lila and Lenù, brought together by a shared commitment to literary education, in The Story of a New Name that community has broadened. It is a community defined not by the intellectual's heady triumph over violence, but by an inescapable form of violation: the capacity for the female body to be broken at will. The photograph is both a testament to that cruel bond and an act of resistance—the spark of Lila's rebellion against her marriage. How fitting, then, that in the middle of the novel, just before Lila embarks on her affair with Nino, the painting spontaneously bursts into flames, emitting "a rasping sound, a kind of sick breath" before destroying its own image of self-destruction.
For this is how the revolution begins—with a spark.