First, some praise for the simplicity of this title. Too often novels think they need to be cleverer by half and jam entire sentences into their titles or create cute, quirky subtitles in emulation of the eighteenth century. Thrust is as prosaic a title as its contents are poetical. Lidia Yuknavitch says in the acknowledgements that she wanted to play with the novel as a form, and that is evident throughout. Now, I like me a straightforward novel, so in that sense the artistic and literary boundaries that Thrust probes didn’t work well for me personally. At the same time, I can recognize good literature when I see it.
Laisvė is a teenager living in The Brook, a post-apocalyptic part of New York City sinking into the rising sea. Her father works on repairing the partially submerged Statue of Liberty. Meanwhile, she is a carrier—she has a rare ability to bring objects (and even people) through time via waterways. Laisvė visits people out of order across American history, some of them connected to each other throughout their lives, bringing them objects like pennies and rope. Along the way, Yuknavitch tells us stories within stories: of birth and death, childhood and senescence, of loss and finding. The architect of the Statue of Liberty corresponds with a one-legged woman in the States who oversees not so much a brothel as a kink parlour. A young man runs from a violent past towards a baby girl he found and then gave up. Oh, and there are turtles and whales.
There is also a lot of sex and sexual imagery. I’m asexual and sex-averse—I don’t mind reading the occasional sex scene, if it is well written. Honestly the stuff here is pretty tame, just a little florid (on purpose), but for people who are more sex-repulsed or just don’t enjoy explicit writing, you won’t like it.
This book was lent to me by the same neighbour who lent me Signs Preceding the End of the World. She, in turn, borrowed it from a coworker. I commented to my neighbour that she “likes weird books” and observed the similarities between these two titles—both involve a young female protagonist who undergoes a journey through space/time that is itself a metaphor for death and rebirth. Laisvė ability also reminded me of The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. But the closest comp I can make is actually a TV series: The OA produced by Netflix, has extremely similar vibes to Thrust.
These connections don’t surprise me. Yuknavitch is undoubtedly trying to decolonize the novel here (as much as a white woman can decolonize anything). Laisvė’s heritage is Sakha (Yakut); there are Kanienʼkehá꞉ka (Mohawk) characters as well, and several times the languages and democracy of the Haudenosaunee is referenced. Laisvė’s journeys into the water have her talking to animals such as turtles, whales, and worms, all lamenting what the colonial parts of human civilization have wrought. The ongoing epistolary plot between Frédéric and Aurora and the hulking presence of the Statue of Liberty throughout problematize coloniality and the idea of the triumph of modernity. Aurora’s ending, in particular, and the gift she returns to Frédéric, seems to symbolize a rejection of a mechanistic, transhumanist philosophy in favour of one rooted in harmony and nature. Now, I have complicated feelings about all of this, but we will get there.
Let’s talk a little more about form and style first. Ever since I finished university, I’ve tried my best to hang up the hat that was my pretensions about literature and, as they say, slum it. After all, my first love has and always will be epic fantasy, including the works of David Eddings, who was fairly vocal about how he was just slapping plots together (with a lot of initially unacknowledged assistance from his wife, Leigh) using formulas. The same goes for my other first love, mysteries in the style of Agatha Christie. So as much as my minor in English and love of Regency and Victorian novelists might have you envisioning a classy lady in a monocle and top hat sipping tea while she writes reviews (well, the tea part is at least correct), really I just like a good yarn.
So I guess Yuknavitch has triggered this tension within me between the recovering English lit student and the exhausted teacher who just wants to escape into a straightforward story. I would love to just throw this novel across the room (metaphorically, of course, since this book is borrowed), cross my arms, and slide down against the wall while muttering, “literary fiction, ugh.” Alas, that is an oversimplification of my feelings about Thrust and perhaps literary fiction altogether.
It’s cool that in 2022 novelists continue to experiment with the form. Literature, like all art, must continue to evolve as our societies evolve. Poetry often gets the most attention when it comes to being avant garde; I think this is a mistake. I love prose, and the novel in particular, precisely because its apparent structure belies an inherent chameleon-like nature. Novels are empty vessels into which authors pour and then sieve their consciousness.
So with all of that in mind, I respect what Yuknavitch is doing with Thrust. It’s not a book that I would necessarily have picked up all on my own—but that is why it’s good to have friends whose literary appetites overlap but do not perfectly match yours! However, it’s always nice to once in a while stretch the mind and see how authors are playing with form. There’s a lot going on here: epistolary chapters, first person, third person, ethnographies, prose poems, time slips, streams of consciousness … Yuknavitch doesn’t make it easy on the reader. I pity the translators!
In that sense, if I were to offer serious critique of Thrust’s form and style, it has to be how it feels overstuffed with experimentation. Yuknavitch has put so much into this short novel, transforming it into a kaleidoscope of storytelling that is not so much dazzling as it is dizzying. I prefer my experimental literature to be far more precise; the messiness on display here makes me recoil.
I also found it very challenging to connect with our main characters. Of all of them, Aurora was probably the one who felt most tangible to me with her letters and other perspective chapters. Yuknavitch’s heavy reliance on metaphor and other figurative language left me at a loss when it comes to characters like Aster. This is why, as I mentioned earlier, I’m ambivalent about the endings of so many of these characters. With so much going on, despite the intricate intersections created by Laisvė’s travel and storytelling, the characters’ disparate stories did not always come together for me.
On the other hand, I really appreciate how Yuknavitch challenges readers with what a novel’s structure should be. In particular, a lot of what she is doing reminds me of Indigenous concepts of circular storytelling—Lee Maracle explains this exquisitely in her essay “Scent of Burning Cedar”. Again, I temper my praise in this regard given that, ideally, we should be reading Indigenous authors who are doing this. But I think it is important to remark on how Yuknavitch is deliberately tapping into our existential dread of climate change through a structure that questions the colonial aspects of our society while championing storytelling that deviates from the dominant, Eurocentric norms of Western literature.
Oh boy. All of that in 1200 words simply to say, Thrust is a calculated and messy story that makes for an ambitious read. One of the blurbs on the back cover of this edition calls it “trenchant,” which is a fantastic word, and I agree. If you like intense, evocative sexuality, circular storytelling, anticolonial rhetoric, and vibrant explorations of violent grief, this book will appeal to you. Just don’t expect it to make a whole lot of sense the first time through.