On Being Uncomfortable: Good Night, Beautiful Women

I try not to stop reading a book because it makes me uncomfortable. There are exceptions. I had to set aside Sophie’s Choice for all the reasons…granted, I was reading it while I was pregnant with my daughter, so the timing probably could’ve been better. Still, for the most part, if a book makes me uncomfortable, I try to slow down and stick with it.

That approach got me through some tough reads – A Little Life, Homegoing and An Untamed State kicked me in the face with the tragedy of living but, for the most part I got through them, (admittedly, with occasional skimming). This does not make me a reading-bad ass. I read to escape more often than not. It’s just that, some stories strike me as being important on a human level, and I want to try to witness and understand other people’s experiences as much as the constraints of my life and circumstances allow. That’s why it surprised me when I had to set aside Anna Noyes’s debut collection, Goodnight, Beautiful Women

Books like A Little Life and An Untamed State, which are generally considered to be  triggering or, at the very least, emotionally challenging, come at an issue of global concern from a very specific, personal point of view – kidnapping, rape and economic disparity; child prostitution, trauma and abuse…. These issues are so present in our culture that they demand social awareness and discourse. They are issues that are, unfortunately, still relevant and resonant on a wide scale in the world we all live in. You could argue that the reasons novels like The Color Purple and Sophie’s Choice can be so upsetting is that they are deeply personal novels that deal, unflinchingly, with universal tragedies.

This is not the purview of Goodnight, Beautiful Women. Noyes’s collection of loosely linked short stories is quiet and deeply personal. Rather than the effects of cultural appropriation or sexual violence, Noyes drills into the uncertain tides of personal experience, like the reverberations of memory, or the deeply personal affect of a lie on the liar. Her stories reflect on the incidental choices that redirect a life; on a mother’s absence, and daughter’s subtle decline; on an injured woman’s quiet fall from grace.

The emotional tides these stories create ebb and flow, like water through a fen – quiet and almost disturbingly subtle. That’s why I found myself getting uncomfortable in ways that I didn’t expect as I read them. This wasn’t the distress at human tragedy. This was the discomfort of seeing myself reflected in the movement of those tides.

The effect is literally too subtle for me to qualify in any kind of accurate way, but it left me feeling both attracted and repulsed. While I was reading them, I couldn’t put these stories down…but I also didn’t want to pick them up again once the bookmark was in. So, that’s how it went – stopping and starting over more than a month. At one point, I even put it back on the shelf, but found myself hunting it down two weeks later, weirdly compelled to finish it.

When I first finished the collection, I gave it a lukewarm review on Litsy. Even as I did, I knew I was doing it partially out of spite…

“It’s beautiful…beautiful writing…beautiful prose…remarkable…but I’m not clear on Noyes’s point.”

In hindsight, that was bullshit. Noyes’s point is perfectly clear – the narrative arc of a life, unlike that of a story, isn’t clean or planned. It’s random, happens in shards and hinges on understandings you can’t accurately have at the time.

I edited my review to reflect this conclusion after sitting with the stories for awhile, because that’s the effect the book has had. As uncomfortable as it made me, I find myself turning these stories over in my mind, like polished stones. There is something alchemical with Anna Noyes’s prose – she unfurled my defenses and showed me to myself. It’s a shockingly intimate and deeply uncomfortable reading experience for reasons that I still can’t properly express.

Far from he lukewarm review I initially gave it, I can now honestly say that, while I have read collections that overwhelmed me with their rawness, their greatness, or their sheer inventiveness, this is the only one that has ever held a mirror right up to my face. That’s a rare thing, and the discomfort it gave me is a strange and unsettling gift. I’ll definitely be looking forward to more from Anna Noyes.