Any child is stronger than a mother, since the love we have for our children could kill us.
About a quarter into Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Small Backs of Children, the reader discovers the novels’ title as the playwright sits in the hospital while his sister, the writer, is mysteriously wasting away: as children, the playwright has the pair perform Shakespeare, her as Romeo and him as Juliet, and once she improvises the line, “Pity the small backs of children” (p. 59).
And it is here also in this chapter that along with the central image of the girl, the dominant motif of the narrative is exposed:
The playwright stops typing for a second and stares at his hands on the laptop. He can’t believe he’s already writing this. Already twisting it into art. Cannibal. He feels a pang of guilt. You’re in a hospital. Your poor sister is dying. But even has his heart is beating him up in his chest, he can’t not do it. He can’t….If he doesn’t get it down now, it will blur and hum away like a train. (p. 58)
This novel came to me through a tweet by Laurie Penny, and then the cover and title demanded I read:
I was transfixed by that cover and title—and would come to realize the brilliant and awful paradox of the cover since the novel’s central image is that of an Eastern European girl blown free of her family killed in that blast, the ceaseless violence of her native land, a photograph captured by the photographer, a photograph that brings disruptive and uncomfortable praise and an award:
Remember what Virginia Woolf said: Give back the awards, should you be cleverly tricked into believing they mean something. Do not forget that the door you are being ushered through has a false reality on the other side. Do not forget that the door is opening only on someone else’s terms, someone else’s definition of open. (pp. 48-49)
Yuknavitch crafts a gut-wrenching and heart-wrenching work that reads simultaneously as narrative fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, but also blurs stark realism with allegory.
The characters are all status: the writer, the girl, the widow, the playwright, the filmmaker, the photographer, the performance artist, the poet, and the painter.
Tying everything together, however, is “[e]veryone I love is an artist” (p. 9). While the novel weaves a gripping story around the orphaned and abused girl who is inextricably linked to the main American artists of the narration, the overarching message of the novel is a portrait of the artist under high capitalism, what the playwright identifies above as cannibalism (see the link between zombies and capitalism here) and what the writer admits in the second chapter:
We make art, but in relation to what exactly? All the artists we admired from the past came out of the mouths of wars and crises. Life and Death. We come out of high capitalism. Consumerist monsterhood. Even when our lives went to shit, they were still just our lives. Our puny, overdramatic, American lives. (p. 10)
Like Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, The Small Backs of Children is both hard to put down and hard to read because the abuse and violence juxtaposed in the horrors of the girl’s life and the narcissism and folly of the American artists’ lives are equally compelling and repelling.
Throughout the story, the essential nature of love, sex, and art seems corrupted by the high capitalism of the American artists, especially as their lives contrast with the Eastern European girl, who out of repeated rape, the obliteration of her family, and years spent living with a widow herself becomes the sort of artist that the writer has framed against the recurring awareness found in, for example, the performance artist:
She sighs the big sigh of twenty-six, wondering if we are all trapped inside identity, genetics, and narrative—some whacked-out Kafka god handwriting our unbearable little life stories. Then she thinks an American-artist thought, the rough-and-tumble kind: how can I use this? (p. 111)
Ultimately, the novel is as often poetic (“The girl is so beautiful it feels violent. Like god appearing to an atheist” [p. 171]) as it is graphic and caustic. It proves to be the sort of redeeming art about art that frets over the soulless consequences of capitalism and consumerism:
This is what’s bad: The Nixon administration. The Reagan administration. The Bush administrations. War. Poverty. Injustice. Christians. Oils. Racists. Global warming. Homophobia. Corporations. The plight of third world nations.
This is money. (pp. 193-194)
And like the girl, the reader is left with a powerful and even uplifting view of art’s potential:
The widow tells the girl, “Do not listen to what any society tells you about the body—the body is the metaphor for all experience. A woman’s body more than any other. Like language, its beautiful but weaker sister. Look at this poem. This painting. Look at these photographs. The body doesn’t lie.” (p. 117)
Neither does this novel as a meditation on art as well as the violence that is the lives of children and women.