Recent Work By Laura Bogart

breaking bad 5

Breaking Bad’s five-year run coincides with the emergence of a populist brio that sings the sanctity of American ambition: Everyone who works hard enough deserves to be his own boss, deserves to break ground on his dream home—a mansion with skylights bigger than his 2014 Cherokee Diesel. Only people who’ve rolled up their sleeves (or donned their Hazmat suits) and “built that” are considered extraordinary, and anything less than extraordinary isn’t worth anything at all.


Certain films, whether they’re franchise fare like The Hunger Games or The Avengers, or indie tone poems like Tree of Life or Drive, insist on a visceral, almost inchoate, appreciation. Sure, you can talk about how camera angles frame the director’s ethical perspective, or explore how lighting choices illuminate character, but you’d be hamstringing yourself. When Katniss takes her sister’s place in the arena or Captain America sacrifices himself to save a world he doesn’t feel a part of; when volcanic eruptions symbolize a father’s rage, or a chord of 80’s techno-pop evokes a young man’s inability to feel, we watch our own aspirations and insecurities writ large on the silver screen.   

As the news comes in, the only sound I want to hear is my goddaughter’s voice. But her mother, who I’ve known since we were both college freshmen bonding over a love of Easy Rider, James Dean and Ethiopian food (and our shared guilty pleasure: crying during Oprah), isn’t picking up the phone. Perhaps she has seen what I’ve seen: the words “children” and “massacre” in boldface across tickertape; photographs of crumpled faces and siren lights; an image of little ones holding hands—heading to a checkpoint, not a playground. Her daughter, my goddaughter, our darling dumpling girl, has just turned three. The years between that morning my friend called to tell me she was pregnant (“Are you sitting down? You’re driving? Well, pull over.”) and the afternoon she pinned a banner that read “You’re three today!” to her dining room wall have passed like a finger-snap.

EJ Levy’s new story collection, Love, In Theory, is a powerful array of contradictions: sensuous yet wry, bruising yet brainy, perfectly precise yet voluptuously messy. Her characters inhabit not-so-ivory towers of academia and hospital hallways; they chase after lovers they’re lucky to be rid of and fuck up happy homes; they laugh at themselves and they love without hope. Everyday actions—flirting with a salesman at a camping store, shaking hands with a partner’s co-worker—pitch them into moments of existential crisis that Levy describes in prose that fuses the muscular density of Mary Gaitskill’s best work with the sardonic buoyancy of Lorrie Moore.

The best advice you’ll get about turning thirty will come from that friend of a friend who drinks until he gets far too loud and a little too touchy (in both senses of the word). But when he sidles beside you at your friend’s birthday party, you will be just tipsy enough to smile when he calls you “youngin’.” His voice is as bright as a struck bell, yet his face is prematurely leathered. This will endear him to you, and when he says he reckons you’re the next stop on this birthday train, you’ll confide that you’re nervous about hitting what the magazines call “the big 3-0,” that you’ve been tallying up all you’ve done and haven’t done, measuring yourself against all you thought you’d have accomplished by now.

“The main character is totally vicious, but she has her reasons. Actually, she kind of reminds me of you.” The friend who insisted that I read The Hunger Games knew me all too well. Still, I wasn’t sure if I was insulted or flattered.

Prickly. Proud. Calculating. Hard-nosed. Hard-assed. Lethal. These are the adjectives ascribed to sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, the hardscrabble heroine conscripted into a gladiatorial arena as popcorn fodder for the proletariat. Even fans of the book fault Katniss for her arctic reserve: “Yeah I was kind of not a fan of Katniss as a protagonist,” says i09 commenter CaffeineNictoteneVodka.  “She seems to run from this hero role kicking and screaming … And she has no idea how ridiculously awesome of a man Peeta is.”  Fellow commenter Vvornth concurs: “While being an iconic person Katniss acts in a completely selfish and unsympathetic manner.”

She was every greeting card illustrator’s vision of the angelic blonde child: milk-pale skin and eyes as blue as polished slate, perfect ringlets of a blonde so blonde it was nearly white. She was the girl that girls like me—fat and loud, with our bowl haircuts and our Goodwill dresses—should have envied. But she was too sweet; not that kind of tactical sweetness that pretty girls learn early on, but a quiet decency that many adults would’ve done well to acquire.

Drive is a vicious thrill of a film. The visceral kick of that hour and a half in the theater becomes aftershocks of insight during the drive home, the next morning’s coffee, and even a walk with the dog a week later. Beneath its slick skin of 80s-video glam and mob-flick bravado beats a slow, contemplative pulse. The film slyly acknowledges, and complicates, star Ryan Gosling’s status as the thinking woman’s sex symbol by presenting his character, a stunt driver who loans his services to L.A.’s underworld as a getaway guru, as the newest member of the fraternity of Men With No Names—or, more accurately, men who want to be The Man With No Name.

Somehow, I’m still expecting that, in another six months, year tops, I’ll be able to preorder the next Amy Winehouse album. Somehow, I’m still expecting word that she’s joined the 27 Club to be just a rumor, like the sudden death of Zach Braff that bobs through the tide of Internet grotesquery about once a year.As news outlet after news outlet confirmed the countless Facebook statuses I’d seen to be factually true, I still found myself, if not surprised (not exactly), then in shock.

In certain circles of educated women who’ve mastered the all-mighty art of snark, pondering aloud which one of the four Sex and the City ladies each one of you is most like is considered especially poor form. If you do make this faux-paux, it is even worse for you to say cheerily, “I’m Charlotte!” For the uninitiated, Charlotte is the brunette, aka the “conservative” one, the one who is leery of anal sex and never, ever calls a man first. Her character arc moves toward marriage and motherhood with a raw determinism that is equally poignant and infuriating. One of Charlotte’s comic high-points in the show was an argument with Miranda (the redhead, aka the “tough” one, the one who tries to sublimate her endearing awkwardness in her workaholism), when, after marrying, she elects to give up her job as the buyer for a prestigious SoHo gallery. All Miranda has to do to trip Charlotte’s post-feminist guilt is frown. “I choose my choice,” Charlotte cries. “I choose my choice!”

It’s a trite but truism that there are certain films, certain albums, and certain books that serve as barometers for where we are in life: By our late-twenties, the Holden Caulfield who articulated everything we hoped that we hoped the green hair we had in high school would (but didn’t) had become that creeper who cornered us in the kitchens at house parties and shared weirdly personal details that were entirely unrelated to the conversation. When we were fifteen, the meanings behind a Tori Amos song were like goldfish flitting through a quick stream, we could glimpse them, but not catch them. We believed that they’d stop eluding us when we were older, but when we were older, we realized that we’d never understand what it meant for Jupiter to be gay or blue and we felt strangely cheated by this; then, once we’d had our hearts well and thoroughly broken for the first time, we found ourselves skipping backward on our iPods, just to hear her sing “thought we both could use a friend to run to,” and what we felt was more important that what we could understand.

As the election results came in last November, I found myself empathizing with the hero of The Walking Dead; small town sheriff Rick Grimes had newly awakened into a world where large swathes of the populace have been zombified, all mindless hunger and gnashing teeth. At the end of the pilot episode, which aired just two days before election day, Grimes found himself cowering in an abandoned tank that was about to be swarmed by the invading undead. Watching the television maps of the House of Representatives become as red as a tenderloin on the butcher’s table, I couldn’t help but think of the expression on Grimes’ face before the closing credits came on: helpless indignation. I mourned the sense of hope I (and many of my fellow voters) had experienced only two years before.

Like most women whose hopes and passions reside in this business of the written word, my friend and fellow Nervous Breakdown contributor Arielle Bernstein and I have been following Franzen-gate with interest. In chat after chat, we wondered if this was merely sour grapes on the part of Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, if their criticism of gender-bias within the “literary establishment” (as represented by The New York Times) would’ve had greater heft had it come from a woman whose talents might be considered more on par with Mr. Franzen’s (like, say, Mary Gaitskill, Marilynne Robinson, or Jhumpa Lahiri). We had no real answers, but our questions lead us down the rabbit hole of gender parity in popular media.

Violence was always the way we remembered each other.

My father was the sting from a belt-buckle, a sting that feels thick and sharp at the same time. He went with me through my day. In school, I used to press my thumbs along the bruises underneath my clothes. I couldn’t forget the pain, so I made it my vicious little thrill.

Evenings after the evenings he’d come home to find that I’d spilled the milk or laughed too loud or looked at my mother the wrong way he was always sorry. He brought me paper to draw on and the pencils “that skinny kid at the art store said were the best kind”. He brought me books from the adult section of the library because I was too smart for “kiddie shit.” He brought me ice cream and he let me eat it in bed.

Though I was already the biggest girl in my class, I felt small beside the leonine heft of his body. I was always as safe as his regard for me at any given moment. I know this now. As a child, all I felt was the strength in his hands. His blunt fingers settled hesitantly along the back of my head, unsure how to move through a child’s hair.

Sometimes he read to me, his cigarette-leathered voice leading the boy Arthur to the sword in the stone. Sometimes, he insisted I read to him. The musk of his tobacco, dry cherry and damp wood, filled the bedroom. He murmured his approval when I read the hard words correctly.

When my ice cream melted on the sheets, I’d brace myself for the sharp exhale that preceded a slap—he had to supply the very air his hand would cut through—but he just sighed.

Still, annoyance flickered through his affection like a serpent through the grass. His hand fell to the small of my back; he pressed his knuckles through my nightgown. Not hard, but hard enough.

Throughout my teen years, my father and I merely co-existed. Our mail came to the same address, and we occasionally shared family dinners of spongy meat and overcooked broccoli. My mother would titter anxiously about something one of her girlfriends said about some starlet that neither I nor my father was aware of. Her girlfriends: as if they weren’t on the older-end of middle-aged.

My girlish chub became the heft of breasts; he could no longer rip my shirt off to spank me with a belt. Spank: my mother’s word. Spank: a mild corrective; nothing that would leave scars. But the scars rutting my skin were not mild—lunar-white from the everlasting loss of blood. He’d beaten parts of me until they’d died.

We regarded each other like enemy combatants who, after the war, found themselves refugees in a neutral territory. Every Saturday night, he sat at the kitchen table with his true crime novel and a cup of coffee, waiting for me to return. I would enter, stoically attempting to hide my drunkenness. Wordlessly, he slid his coffee toward me, and, with a nod, I accepted. We both drank our coffee black.

Still, his offer to teach me to drive was a vise-tight pressure in my chest. His attempt to help me study fifth-grade American history ended with him backhanding me; open-palmed, but still hard enough for my face to sting every time I heard “electoral college.” Yet I felt great tenderness when I thought of those flashcards written in his cramped, tilting scrawl.

So we took his green Taurus to practice left turns on side streets, to practice merging on 83 North. His long arm slung out the window, hand waving along with the breeze. He made me pull between cars that hadn’t parked within the lines: “Two-thirds of the time, it’s not how you drive, it’s those other assholes.” I winced as the left side-view mirror chipped the VW Beetle beside me. “You’re doing fine,” he said. “What matters is getting out without scratching your car.”

My father guided me in and out of parallel parks with an affable calm that startled me; my body knew his moods like a chameleon knew its colors; randomly, I’d feel a hot shiver of annoyance, or I’d bristle with an inchoate listlessness—and, looking up, find that he’d entered my room.

But he didn’t even push me when I waited a little too long to make my left turns. Just fiddled with the radio, chatting about concerts he’d gone to. “When I wasn’t that much older than you are, I saw Bob Dylan in the Village, twice. Me with a bunch of trust-fund bohemians. Bet you don’t believe that.”

I wanted to. My father riding the subway into the city, his body stiff from laying brick. He’d feel out of place among the city kids; they wore his clothes—work flannels and dusted-up jeans—with irony.

Suddenly, a car horn trilled behind us. In the rearview, I watched a green Saab zip within an inch of my bumper. The driver’s face was puckered with disgust. The Saab passed me inside the turn lane, swinging into the strip mall parking lot.

“Follow him,” my father growled. Then, under his breath: “Your name is no, asshole.”

I couldn’t breathe. I could only obey him.

“I don’t know where he went.”

I hardly heard my own voice, so I was surprised that he replied.

“With that car, he isn’t at the dollar store.”

The Saab was parked in front of the Starbucks, which was separate from the strip. My father directed me to block in the Saab. A lean man in a salmon-colored shirt approached, distractedly sipping from a large cup. A venti. When he saw the Taurus, his eyes flashed at me. My father spoke first:

“You in a big rush, faggot? You’ve got to get your mocha-frappa-extra-soy latte in such a goddamn hurry that you’re going bully a young girl who’s just learning to drive.”

“Are you serious?”

The man wanted to sound insouciantly amused, but his face drained as he glanced sidelong at my father’s hand. My father slung his arm out the car window, his thick ring thudding against metal. With his blunt, powerfully muscled chest and shoulders, he recalled one of those burrowing mammals I’d studied in science, a wolverine forcing his way through frozen soil.

“As a heart attack. It says ‘rookie driver’ on the bumper. You didn’t have to be a dick about it, and now you’re going to apologize.”

The man stammered something about calling the police, but I knew intuitively that he wouldn’t.

My father unbuckled his seatbelt, and the man mumbled “sorry.” He pushed his door open, and the man said “sorry” louder.

I could’ve driven off once my father closed his door. But I kept staring at the man until his eyes offered another apology, this one even more defeated than the one my father forced out of him. With a satisfied sigh, my father eased in his seat.

“You held your own,” he said, reaching for a Marlboro.

He tilted his head toward me like he might offer me a cigarette, but then turned to face the window. Still, his voice invited me into the secret space his power lived, coiled and ticking.