The axolotl, squishy mystery of an amphibian, lives beneath the surface of the water and its external gills crown its face like the headdress of an ancient warrior. Glistening, salamandarian, its tiny tender-looking toes and delicate, near translucent dorsal fin give it an otherworldly elegance. And its face — two milky spreading eyes, a wide near-smile — has the simple expressiveness of an emoji. Most notable about the creature: it can regenerate its limbs. A leg gets nibbled off by a bigger fish? The axolotl will grow another. And not just that. It can regenerate parts of its eyes, its brains, its actual nervous system. It rebuilds itself from the inside out.
This ability, or, let’s say, this power, this evolutionary gift or fluke, along with the amphibious blurring of species traits, make it an appropriate animal force for Lidia Yuknavitch’s forceful, fluid, erotic new novel “Thrust,” a book that asks , how do we reassemble ourselves in varied states of aftermath to continue on in the ongoing toss of life? What role can stories play in the regeneration of ourselves and our worlds?
The book takes place across time, swimming between an imaginable and not too distant future fifty-plus years from now when boat tours bring sightseers to the almost completely submerged statue of Liberty, swallowed up by rising seas. The story plunges back to a past around the time of this country’s 100th birthday. Moving between the two tenses is a “water girl” named Laisvė (namesake, though it is not noted in the book, of a radical Lithuanian-language newspaper published in the US from 1911 to 1986, and also the Lithuanian word for “freedom. “In my mind, I realized, I was pronouncing it something like life-save). Laisvė, cusping, in between child and woman, whose mother is dead, whose baby brother is disappeared, whose father lives in a cage of fear and grief, is a “carrier,” a sort of human thread who stitches people together across time with various objects. But it would be incorrect to call her the main character. It’s not her story. It’s never, Yuknavitch seems to say, one person’s story, but a great overlappage, an unfolding interconnection between people, creatures, time, and place.
As such, the book belongs as much to the people Laisvė connects. A foursome of laborers, a woman and three men, from four corners of the earth, work to assemble the Statue of Liberty. Frédéric, the sculptor who’s designed the statue, writes letters with his cousin Aurora, who works as a nurse and then runs a special kind of brothel. An angry young Mikael, also cusping, sits with his social worker Lilly, daughter of a war criminal.
In this world, our relationship with animals is altered. Laisvė gets swallowed by a whale. Worms talk. An opinionated turtle named Bertrand says that humans are fools for looking up for god when “everything about existence is neither up nor down, but always in motion and rhythm, all existence connected in waves and cycles and circles.” The chelonian wisdom he delivers can feel a little on the nose, a little over explicit. Of course it’s a wise old turtle spelling stuff out, I thought, when I was momentarily lifted from the magic of the book. Likewise, Laisvė is a collector, of objects, of information, and in her now-and-then recitals of facts, I couldn’t help but picture the author googling.
Which is in such contrast to much of the richness of the rest of the book, particularly the letter exchange between Aurora and her sculptor cousin, which is playful, fiery, intelligent, teasing, exploratory, and highly sexual. Yuknavitch captures the erotic imprinting that takes place when we’re children. A scene when Aurora and Frédéric are kids involving an apple, a punch, a bloody lip, live on in both their bodies. Later, Aurora works as a nurse; a doctor tries to rape her; she fights him off but that night, in retaliation, he etherizes and amputates her leg. Such is how certain violence, Yuknavitch suggests, severs one from essential parts of oneself. Frédéric designs and fashions her a wooden leg. They discuss Darwin and Frankenstein, narratives of things evolving and being made. An axolotl comes into play as well. There are so many ways to be pieced back together. For Yuknavitch, the route is through the body.
She places herself in the heated spot where violence and desire, pleasure and pain, intersect. She knows that the extreme states open doors to new places, portals to realms outside ourselves that allow us back in new ways. “Was it possible that she could reach her own deepest pain through pleasure?” Lilly asks herself. “Pleasure and pain are a great deal bigger than the story we’ve been told,” Aurora tells her, and Lilly experiences a desire “not separate from guilt and fear and negation, but plunging straight into the mouth of it.” To term what happens kink is perhaps to understate the way Yuknavitch presents the vast, explorable territory of our sexuality and the possibilities it offers to us.
People use the word “braided” to describe books that plait different plotlines, voices, modes of storytelling (here: ethnographies, lists, letters, more “traditional” narrative). But braiding doesn’t feel accurate for what Yuknavitch is doing. In her work, our stories, our bodies — the two are inseparable for Yuknavitch — are not braided but bound, tied together by a thready net, joined like mycelium in a tangling spread athrob below the surface, knotted by ancestral ropes, umbilically linked forward and back. To know those binds, the torque and tug of them, is to have those fragmented parts — of ourselves, our histories, our countries, our world — pieced back together. In these binds, Yuknavitch shows us, what’s available, in a beautiful paradox, is the deepest kind of freedom.
By Lidia Yuknavitch
Riverhead, 352 pages, $28
Nina MacLaughlin, who writes the weekly New England Literary News column, is the author of “Wake, Siren.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.