The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Thrust’ delivers a mind-blowing critique of America’s ideals

Lidia Yuknavitch’s dreamy new novel imagines a girl swimming through the country’s grim past and future

(Alla Dreyvitser/Washington Post illustration)

Lidia Yuknavitch’s extraordinary new novel is the weirdest, most mind-blowing book about America I’ve ever inhaled. Part history, part prophecy, all fever dream, “Thrust” offers a radical critique of the foundational ideals that conceal our persistent national crimes. As we march from Juneteenth to July 4, this is a story to scrub the patinated surface of our civic pride.

There’s a tidal movement to “Thrust,” whose chapters ebb and flow across 200 years in and around the New York Harbor. At the opening, we catch a vision of immigrants working on a colossal new monument designed in France and shipped in pieces to the United States. With allusions to Walt Whitman, Yuknavitch gives voice to the multitude. “We were woodworkers, iron workers, roofers and plasterers and brick masons,” the narrator intones. “We were pipe fitters and welders and carpenters … We were cooks and cleaners and nuns and night watchpeople. We were nurses and artists and janitors, runners and messengers and thieves. Mothers and fathers and grandparents, sisters and brothers and children.”They are, in short, the whole panoply of fresh Americans drawn here from around the planet, and they’re pounding 31 tons of copper and 125 tons of steel into a towering statue of a robed woman holding a torch aloft to light the way to liberty.

But even before this breathtaking metal sculpture is complete, its design has already been compromised, its meaning already corroded. “Small cracks began to appear in the story,” the narrator says, “just as in the materials of her body and our labor.” Yuknavitch suggests that originally Lady Liberty was to hold in her hands broken chains, signifying the hard-won end of slavery in the United States, but that central element was dropped to her feet and then obscured beneath her robe, lest the fragile feelings of White Southerners be offended. And who exactly was she welcoming to a country already grown so xenophobic, so resentful of new immigrants? And what about the irony of a lady celebrating liberty in a land where actual women cannot vote? “Some of us would not be fully counted,” the narrator says. “A fear slid through some of our necks — that maybe she was not ours, or we were not hers — but no one wanted to say it out loud because we needed to make our livings.”

Turn the page, and the story jumps more than two centuries into the future — 2079 — when the effects of climate change launched by the Industrial Revolution have washed away much of the East Coast. After what’s known as “the great Water Rise,” survivors still risk boating across the harbor to see “a sinking wonder of the world,” the arm and head of a giant woman mostly submerged beneath the waves.

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In this dystopian vision of our drowned future, government functions have collapsed except, of course, the rabid pursuit of immigrants; that cause persists, the last shuddering movements of the body politic in its death throes. Amid this hellscape, we meet a strange little girl named Laisve, whose name means “freedom” in Lithuanian, her frightened father hiding from the Raids. Yuknavitch’s descriptions of Brooklyn — now called simply the Brook — are incongruously precise and impressionistic, blending a dream’s concrete details floating in a cloud of terrors.

Laisve is no ordinary girl. For one thing, she’s fearless about wandering the deadly streets or jumping in the water. (Clearly, there’s a touch of autobiographical projection here. Yuknavitch, an avid swimmer, once wrote, “Put me in water for even ten seconds, and I will prove to you that a body is anything you want it to be.”) During her wanderings, Laisve says things like, “Evil is just live going a different direction. People need to learn to understand backward better. Words. Objects. Time. People get stuck too easily.” And with the help of a talking box turtle, she travels through time.

No, I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t see any of this surreal novel coming. In fact, I won’t say too much about the plot because I’m afraid I’ll accidentally reveal how little I followed it, but hold on tight to that turtle!

As “Thrust” progresses, Yuknavitch drifts through several different storylines, separated by decades but threaded together by Laisve’s helpful visitations through the vast history of America’s halting struggle for freedom. We return to those mid-19th-century laborers — women, gay people, formerly enslaved workers and more — toiling away on a monument welcoming them to a land that despises them.

But the most arresting sections of the novel involve the friendship between Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the man who designed the Statue of Liberty in real life, and a woman whom Yuknavitch has invented as his inspiration, a sexual libertine named Aurora. Yuknavitch creates their passionate correspondence in letters inspired by history but not bound by it.

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In the most cerebral passages, Aurora prods Bartholdi to reconceive the meaning of his giant feminine statue by considering the way women’s bodies are remembered and dismembered. Her discussion swings through a dazzling range of subjects, including Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” Darwin’s theories on evolution, feminist criticism that anticipates the work of Hélène Cixous and, most disturbingly, her own amputated leg. Aurora is also a great protector of the people consumed so efficiently by the machinery of capitalism. “The sunk cost of mechanizing America, creating the fiction of freedom, included the slashing of woman and child bodies,” Aurora tells Bartholdi. “How in the world will we ever become whole from this?”

One of her solutions is to create a clandestine school where young people can escape the factories and acquire an education. But her other solution to America’s psychic violence is considerably more unorthodox: She maintains a house whose many rooms give space to her adult clients’ most forbidden erotic fantasies while also leading them to something beyond the dull parameters of heterosexual intercourse — to push flesh beyond “the idiotic limits of the ridiculous reproductive impulse.” It’s all part of her crusade to speak what is silenced, to set free what is proscribed, to shift America away from its deadly hypocrisy. “Those who enter my rooms come away not in some banal love or lust,” she tells Bartholdi, “but with a craving to exist, again and again, inside a much more interesting and intense space.”

After all these years reviewing contemporary fiction, I did not think I could be shocked, but I was wrong. That hilariously provocative book jacket is just a start. Sniff the air — you can already smell this novel being burned in Texas.

Readers who give themselves over fully to Yuknavitch’s aqueous story will catch strains of Jeanette Winterson and David Mitchell, but there’s nothing derivative about her insightful reverie. Yuknavitch provides nothing less than a revised past and future of America with a vast new canon of attendant mythology. You might whine about the novel’s amorphous form, recurrent vagueness or multiple loose ends, but I read “Thrust” in a state of flustered fascination and finished longing to dream it again.

Ron Charles reviews books and writes the Book Club newsletter for The Washington Post.

On July 7 at 7 p.m., Lidia Yuknavitch will talk about “Thrust” at Solid State Books, 600 H St. NE, Washington.

Thrust

By Lidia Yuknavitch

Riverhead. 338 pp. $28

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