Beyond Grief, Ariel Levy Faces The Future
It was a snowmelt day in downtown Manhattan. Water dripped from the tops of buildings, accompanied by the occasional falling block of ice, and yelps arose from the hatless dripped-upon.
Yet Ariel Levy, sitting in an airy Chelsea cafe, wearing a gray sweater dotted with bright winks of watermelon — a seasonable garment with unseasonable charm — seemed anything but bedraggled.
“I don’t have to transcribe this,” she announced happily. As a staff writer for The New Yorker, she’s usually the one asking the questions; answering them, it seemed, would be a welcome vacation.
Levy’s new memoir “The Rules Do Not Apply,” is a meditation on a number of daunting subjects, specifically her loss of child, marriage and home. The book never makes a pretense at cheeriness; it’s a raw account of a life that, conducted with a charmed impression of control, is fully, cruelly relieved of that delusion.
“My sorrow is so intense it often feels like it will flatten me,” Levy writes. Descriptions of wreckage, physical and emotional, are unsparing. As further hurts accrue, she observes, “Grief is a world you walk through skinned, unshelled.”
By contrast, Levy exhibits a brisk sort of joy in person, a quality that, for those who have read her book, might spark some relief: Here is a woman who has been skinned, unshelled, subject to the unholy storm, but is still smiling. She asked one waiter what, exactly, “pressed yogurt” might be. Answer: It’s like Greek yogurt, except in Chelsea. She also exclaimed over the petite grace of another waiter’s tattoo.
“All you can do is become stronger,” she said, reading the minuscule cursive letters swooping across his forearm. “That’s an inspiring message, but it’s also inspiring that someone could tattoo that small.”
Tattoos are more expensive when they’re tiny, the waiter admitted.
“It looks beautiful,” she said, then ordered the pressed yogurt.
It was just over three years ago that Levy first wrote about losing her son 19 weeks into her pregnancy. Since then, women have been writing letters to her to tell her of their heartbreaking experiences. “‘I had a stillborn,’” she recited. “‘I lost a baby to SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome.’”
One, particularly, has lodged in her mind: “‘I lost a baby at 19 weeks.’”
“Exact same as me,” she said. “I think about her all the time. It’s almost, it’s like, I can take that it happened to me. I’ve processed it, but I kind of can’t take that it happened to her.”
“The Rules Do Not Apply” sprang from Levy’s 2013 New Yorker essay “Thanksgiving In Mongolia,” in which she told the story of a reporting trip she took to the titular country when she was five months pregnant and 38 years old.
While in Mongolia, Levy gave birth to her son on the floor of her hotel bathroom. Briefly, in her hands, he was alive.
“This can’t be good,” she said out loud. “My baby was as pretty as a seashell,” she thought later.
Levy’s wrenchingly direct interrogation of her own grief struck a nerve. She won the 2014 National Magazine Award in essay writing, and her essay was anthologized in The Best American Essays of the same year. Levy was lauded for her courage and for the deftness of her prose. (She was also, briefly, adopted as a mascot for the pro-life movement; websites devoted to the cause wrote glowing recommendations of her essay for its description of the beauty of fetal life.)
“The Rules Do Not Apply” contains passages from “Thanksgiving In Mongolia” and is a similarly heady narration of Levy’s experiences, broadened to include a deep, hard look at her relationship with her former spouse. Also touched upon are her career, her decades-long best friendships and an unapologetically horny cat.
It is, as you might gather, not a monologue of uninterrupted despair — as Levy explained, she admires memoirs like Joan Didion’s “The Year Of Magical Thinking,” which work by “circling around ideas and feelings” — but an exploration of despair’s causes. Ultimately, Levy turns her attention to life after grief, if not free of it.
That’s an emotional arc that is, ultimately, not especially new. Perhaps because of that, the book demonstrates a conscious anxiety about adhering to familiar narratives.
Before we read of Levy’s own struggles with fertility, we encounter those of her friends. They serve as guides for what she will go through, as well as assertions that a story’s familiarity does not preclude its meaningfulness.
Similarly, after Levy learns of her newly estranged spouse’s struggle with alcoholism, she attends a meeting of Al-Anon. She enters on edge, dismissive of the jargon-filled narratives she expects to encounter. Yet she redeems those narratives by the force of her own unconscious reaction to them. When another participant makes an observation about denial, she writes, “There is an extravagantly loud, knowing grunt in response, and I am aghast to realize that I am its source.”
That passage provides a scale model of the emotional logic of “The Rules Do Not Apply.” While the book presents a set of experiences that, while devastating, are not individually uncommon, the book does this in a manner designed to provoke readers to empathic grunts — of grief, recognition, discomfort or joy. It depicts an unwavering commitment to the immediate. When Levy breaks down, flirts inappropriately, does more than flirt and deludes herself, you will know, and it will not be poetic.
“I wanted to try to make this as sensuous and sensory as an experience, not just emotional or cerebral,” Levy said.
That literary instinct half-accounts for the blood and lust and anguish of it all, not fully. There is a part of Levy that comes across as wishing, nearly needing, to guide her readers through the grief that, in a life, is inevitable.
“I think sometimes, you know, you don’t have to have had this kind of trauma,” she said. “My male friends who have read this, they’ve been into it because it was about the conflict between the fundamental human desires for security and intimacy on the one hand, and adventure and novelty on the other.”
“Most people, at some point, will have that conflict bubble up for them. So I hope it will be resonant for those people, too.”
Did Levy have guides through her grief? In the book she lists several: her great friends, her mother and, most unexpectedly, the South African doctor who treated her after her miscarriage, to whom she is now engaged. (“I’m about to marry a goy,” she said triumphantly.)
But the greatest guide of all, Levy came to realize, was nature. She and Dr. John began exchanging emails that she reproduces at length in the book, in which he describes his South African childhood.
He swam across the headwaters of Victoria Falls. At 6 years old, he crept into a paddock of horses, alone: “One old mare leaned down very close and blew a gust of warm air from her huge nostrils straight into my face.”
Dr. John felt redemption from the breath of that mare. Levy feels it, too.
But it’s not just Dr. John who leads Levy to nature; it’s the complete reorientation of her understanding of the power she holds in her own life. Her first marriage falls apart shortly after she returns from Mongolia, as she is overwhelmed by the forces of her grief, by her spouse’s struggles with substance abuse and by the wounds she and her spouse incurred as a pair.
In the wake of that break, Levy describes her accumulation of grief as that of someone who has experienced, and lost, an elemental control: “Now I was a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone.”
“My aspiration since childhood was to be the kind of woman who was free to do whatever she chooses,” Levy told me. “But the point of the book is, at the end of the day, you know who’s really free to do whatever she chooses? Only one gal. Mother Nature. She’s in charge.”
She balanced her elbows on the table, waving her arm towards the window to illustrate her point.
“This is not a cautionary tale,” she said. “The fact of the matter is, I’m pretty happy. I don’t think it’s bad, the way I’ve ended up.”
“I’m sad my kid didn’t live,” she added. “I never won’t be.”
She finished her pressed yogurt. She confessed that she’s teaching Dr. John the smattering of Yiddish she knows, mostly because it sounds funny in his part-Zimbabwean, part-South African accent (“There’s two identity markers I’m sure of, and one is, I’m Jewish. And the other is, I’m a writer,” Levy told me. “There’s just no arguing with either thing. I’m just Jewish.”)
At the end of our interview, Levy gave me a hug. Then she stepped out through the scrim of melting snow, to confront whatever future might arrive: A new marriage, a next interview, the next unanticipated disaster. “The Rules Do Not Apply” ends with Levy on an airplane, looking out the window, imagining a future without attempting to plan one.
“It didn’t really matter what happens next,” she said. “It matters that I was like, ok, I’m getting on the plane. I’m doing the next thing. I’m choosing to keep living.”
Talya Zax is the Forward’s culture fellow. Follow her on Twitter, @TalyaZax