Pissing in a River: A Novel, by Lorrie Sprecher, (The Feminist Press), 258 pages
I promised the women in my head that I would get to England even if it killed me.
That’s the kind of sentence that rivets a reader, and that’s how Lorrie Sprecher opens her novel, Pissing in a River (the title is taken from a Patti Smith song). The novel follows Amanda, the woman with voices in her head, as she builds a life for herself as an activist and a musician and covers the period from the beginning of the AIDS crisis through George W. Bush’s war in Iraq.
The women in Amanda’s head are brown-haired Melissa and another, darker haired woman whose name Amanda doesn’t know. Both have British accents. They are supportive voices, by her side during times of crisis, and she moves to England twice—first as a study abroad student and later on a tourist visa with plans of gaining residency—at their urging.
The first part of the novel covers Amanda’s time as a study abroad student, her return to the U.S. and the years during which she pursues a Ph.D. in Literature while participating in early ACT UP demonstrations. The narrative arc here isn’t particularly strong, but it gives readers a chance to become acquainted with Amanda, to see her drive for justice, love of literature, obsessive thinking about (among other things) Old Testament themes, and her deep commitment to the art and politics of punk rock.
The novel picks up in the second half as Amanda builds relationships with both a best friend and a lover during her second stay in England. These three women are survivors of violence and who have turned to one another for the love and support that allows them to carve out space for themselves in a world determined to ignore or denigrate their political values and their identities as lesbians.
The punk rock that Amanda loves serves as a sort of sound track for the novel. She quotes lyrics and emulates the playing of her favorite guitarists. Long passages of the novel list bands, albums, concerts:
I had [my friend in London] listening to the Dils and X from Southern California; M.I.A. from Las Vegas; the Dead Kennedys, Rancid, Romeo Void, and the Avengers from San Francisco; Hüsker Dü and the Replacements from Minneapolis; Dag Nasty, Minor Threat, and Bad Brains from Washington, D.C., and the first REM album.
These constant references to both U.S. and European bands can be enlightening, but they can be demanding as well. Readers will want to pause repeatedly to hunt down samples of these artists’ works, which adds texture to the reading experience, but also feels a bit disruptive.
My feelings shifted often as I read this novel. At times I was moved by it; at other times the first-person narration felt more like summary than memory. But, having finished reading it, I find my assessment of the novel is steadily improving. Sprecher, through her characters, has wrestled with significant challenges of our time, particularly the challenge of being represented by a government one disagrees with and feels powerless to change.
The fact that the three women at the center of this novel create a family among themselves is nothing short of a triumph. This accomplishment doesn’t mitigate the violence and injustice of contemporary life, but it does affirm for readers the possibility of finding a source of support that makes acknowledging and responding to this violence and these injustices possible.
I received a free electronic ARC of this novel for the purpose of review from its publisher.