Artwork by Raven Leilani
Luster: A Sneak Peek at Our August Book Club Pick
Raven Leilani’s debut novel is about a twentysomething Black woman named Edie who is working in publishing (until she’s fired for being “sexually inappropriate”—read an excerpt below) and not succeeding in pursuing her art (the protagonist is a talented painter, as is Leilani herself—some of her portraits are pictured above). When we meet Edie, she’s just begun dating Eric, who is twenty-three years her senior, in an open marriage, and White. But perhaps the most interesting relationship in the book is between Edie and Eric’s wife, Rebecca, who is a medical examiner.
It’s a story of sex and art and the luster of memory. It’s dark and funny and hypnotic. And it has such an energy to it. Edie is the most alive character—in her desires, in her anger, in her discomfort, in her grief, in her joy.
Luster is poised to be one of the greats of 2020, and Edie, to be a character who’s remembered forever. Join goop Book Club to discuss and mark your calendar for a conversation with Leilani and our chief content officer, Elise Loehnen, on September 1 at 4 p.m. PT.
From Chapter 4 of Luster
Then I start work. I look through the Tuesday publications, confirm jacket copy, triage my inbox for panicked emails from production assistants and editors trying to soothe anxious authors with quick TOC and index corrections. Details so minute as to be absurd, an em dash, the romanization of a quotation mark, a last-minute change in the acknowledgments from I would like to thank my wife to I would like to thank my dog, but, and maybe this is surprising, I am good at all of this. Arguably it would be hard to be bad at it, but if a person comes to rote work with the expectation that she will be demeaned, she can bypass the pitfalls of hope and redirect all that energy into being a merciless drone. She can be the ear for the author who calls frequently to chat about the fineries of ichthyology depicted in his series about a bullied flounder, and she can wage war with large corporate vendors whose algorithms sweep book files for errors but have huge blind spots for the speculative lexicon of science fiction, and she can say to them: This is not an error; this is human; this is style.
Today at the office, the air is still. At my desk, something is different. My manager’s eyes, which, because of the open office arrangement, I can never seem to avoid, move quickly away from me. The editorial assistants are too alert, engaged in the performance of work. Then Aria comes in with a box of doughnuts. This would be cause to celebrate, except the person who helps her through the door is Mark. I see his hand, his desecrated fingernails and large knuckles, and I turn away and look into the dark face of my phone, which reflects a bruised iteration of my face. It occurs to me that I should’ve covered it up, but more pressing is the reality in which Aria and Mark just happen to be having the sort of conversations that spill into other rooms, because I’m certain they have nothing in common and no overlapping professional tasks.
“Early August is generally when employee evaluations start, and I have prepared a diplomatic way to say that I loathe everyone here, but the message does not seem to be about this.”
I eavesdrop on them, which in an open plan is not eavesdropping so much as accepting your silent role in everyone’s conversation, and they are talking about a comic book I can’t place, Mark doing this thing where he prefaces every one of his observations with what you need to understand is, Aria’s breathless reception of these condescensions so pure and sweet. When he is gone, I try to make meaningful eye contact with Aria, but she will not indulge. I try to find Rebecca on the internet, but there is a new message from HR. Early August is generally when employee evaluations start, and I have prepared a diplomatic way to say that I loathe everyone here, but the message does not seem to be about this. It is a vaguely worded invitation for a meeting at 4:00 p.m.
I step outside and smoke a joint, and there are interns everywhere, beaming and overdressed and happy to be paid in experience. I wonder if I have looked too miserable at my desk, if I forgot to use a private browser when I was active on SugarBabees.com. Anyone could do my job with the proper training, and if I fell down the escalator of the Times Square Forever 21 and severed my spine it would not make office news.
“I lean forward to show my engagement and try to summon the spirit of the Grateful Diversity Hire.”
I grab a doughnut and arrive at the meeting with two minutes to spare. The HR rep smiles at me and asks me to close the door. My boss, a squirrelly little editor who came up in sales and frequently lurks behind me after her bathroom breaks in an attempt to peer at my screen, is seated next to him. I smile at her and try to pretend that she is not pro-life. I lean forward to show my engagement and try to summon the spirit of the Grateful Diversity Hire. They start out with a few compliments, which I receive readily. Yes, I’ve whipped the digital archive into shape. Yes, I delivered on the K–5 Maya Angelou and Frida Kahlo biographies, wherein the sexual assault and bus accident were omitted per a Provo parents group who weren’t ready for their kids to see the blood women wade through to create art.
“Still, you have been on probation twice,” the HR rep says, trying not to look at the bruise on my face.
“I fell off my bike in Central Park,” I say, which only seems to make the bruise into a bigger deal. My boss and the HR rep glance at each other. “And yes, I completed two probationary periods, but the second time there was sort of a misunderstanding. HorseGirls.com was a link featured in one of our middle-grade ebooks, but domains tend to change over time. A parent called about the adult content, and I just wanted to do my due diligence,” I say, and my boss coughs, though it is one of those snide, performative coughs that most people stop doing after the age of twelve. I can’t think of a single moment she has ever been straightforward with me, and, even now, she redirects the conversation with words like tolerance and inclusivity before the HR rep cuts to the chase and says that some men and women in the company feel I’ve been sexually inappropriate. They are both being very sensitive about it, clearly upset by the optics of the whole thing, bracketing what is happening in such carefully neutral language that in a way, I feel sorry for them. And what is happening is that I’m getting fired. There are emails. Pictures sent over company servers. Complaints about which they are not permitted to offer any details.
There are a few encounters that come to mind, ingenious anatomical feats that, sure, happened on company time. Coworkers with elaborate, transgressive fantasies that I was dead enough inside to fulfill. And, of course, there is Mark. When I try to explain, there is a tremor in my voice. I try to regain my composure, but I am sensitive to the power even of authority figures I despise. I close my eyes and will myself not to cry, but I was so close to being able to spend eleven dollars on lunch. All I can do is take the doughnut out of my purse and press it all into my mouth at once. I stand up, knowing I only have so much time before the tears, and I go to the bathroom, lock myself in a stall, and puke.
“There are a few encounters that come to mind, ingenious anatomical feats that, sure, happened on company time.”
But the impulse to cry has vanished. I imagine the high traffic I will meet on my way back and try to get the tears out while I have the privacy, but nothing happens. When I go to my desk, a conversation in full swing dies abruptly as I gather my pens, unscrew the lightbulb from my desk lamp and toss it in my purse. I take some pink Post-its, my work slippers, and a legal pad where I have the beginning of a story about a wolf who can’t find the right pair of glasses. Someone has left a plastic bag for me, which is such a nice gesture that for a moment, I am out of breath. But as I put my thermos of Tanqueray into the bag, I think of when I first arrived, Tom showing me how to clock in and declare PTO, and how at the end of the day I took the scenic route home, the sun in one borough, the moon in another, this desire in me to clap my hand over the lens of a tourist’s camera and say, Stop, there isn’t enough time.
Copyright (c) 2020 by Raven Leilani. Excerpted by permission of FSG.
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