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Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux/MCD on December 5, 2017

Ultraluminous is narrated by a prostitute who buys heroin with designer labels. She describes her life and thoughts in snippets. She comments upon bars and sex and getting high and her memories of the Sheikh who paid her for sex in Dubai, starting her on the road of upscale prostitution.

The narrator comments upon the five regular men in her life, designated by descriptions (the junk-bond guy, the calf’s brain guy, the art guy, the ex-Ranger, the guy who buys her things) rather than names, presumably because their names aren’t worth remembering. She comments upon the art of prostitution (holding a man’s attention requires a prostitute to be sad but not too sad, unlike strippers who must appear to be happy). And she comments upon her sparse nonsexual interactions with the world, which primarily involve women at her nail salon, a Polish diner, Duane Reade, and her yoga class. Women judge her and she judges them for different reasons.

The snippets slowly build a picture of a bright, observant woman who is living a pointless and unsatisfying life. The title refers to an astronomical X-ray that shows the universe being ripped apart, which the narrator sees as a metaphor for her life. When asked how she can have sex with men for money, she answers “Heroin. Cocaine is for stripping.” Given the sexual tastes of the guys she describes, heroin does seem like a job requirement. But she thinks it’s blindness, the inability to see what’s coming, that keeps us alive. That might not be enough.

For much of the novel, I was wondering whether the snippets would add up to a story. It does reach a climax (pardon the pun), but before that point, the snippets add up to a life. The protagonist is unabashedly crude, but she has valuable insights into the men who either abuse or reject her (or both). Her life isn’t safe and she doesn’t seem to care. Accepting abuse is a choice she has made, a tradeoff that’s preferable to perils she might otherwise face. As she tells the junk-bond guy, “terrible things happen every day, not just to you.” Refreshingly, she doesn’t paint herself as a victim (she’s moved beyond wallowing) and spends little time telling the reader how she came to live the life she inhabits. She is who she is.

Ultraluminous might be seen as a commentary on the masters of the universe who act as if the ordinary rules of behavior don’t apply to them, who treat beautiful young men as fantasies and abuse them because they can afford to pay for the women’s acquiescence, who leave the women “on the floor of a hotel room when they got bored like anything else they once had to possess.” But more illuminating is the narrator’s ability to understand and manipulate the men, to let them control her as a way of controlling them, to take advantage of their self-delusions, to allow her body to be rented while refusing to be owned.

Ultraluminous is a powerful novel, not just in its ending (which is foreshadowed and not entirely unexpected), but in the way the snippets gain a cumulative force. What seems like a frivolous story about a frivolous person morphs into a convincing account of a damaged woman whose attempts to cope with pain — brief and infrequent moments of pure joy (not counting the heroin) — cannot undo the life into which she has fallen. There’s something exquisite about the way this story is told, and something horrifying about what it reveals.


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