Rilke was a jerk.
So goes the proclamatory epigraph from John Berryman’s Dream Songs at the beginning of Lucy Ives’s second novel, Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World (Soft Skull Press), a glutton of a title any dilatory poet, like Rilke, could appreciate. Rarely remembered for his personality, always for his mystical writing, little do people know that Rainer Maria Rilke was vain, neurotic, arrogant, and childish; he was the embodiment of the enterprise of poetry and its most narcissistic tendencies. Cue Troy Augustus Loudermilk, the protagonist of Ives’s latest work.
With an already impressive career that’s been experimenting with form and genre, Ives has established an intellectual identity far more unique than some of her contemporaries and on par with the likes of Anne Carson and Carole Maso. In her most recent work, humor, politics, satire, and criticism all twist and bend within a labyrinth distinct to her, but more navigable than others. At times, Ives’s new novel is one of the funniest in recent memory, stuffed with jabs at writers and toxic masculinity, bluntly yonic allusions, and feuilleton-esque prose that prances on page; and in some ways, Loudermilk is a kind of communication of Ives’s other publications, now primed and delivered in the Trump age as lasting satire with her prose at its most digestible.
During the MFA seminars of a prestigious program, the Adonis-faced, Apollo-torsoed Loudermilk and his socially disabled friend Harry Rego scam their way into the world of creative writing, slithering into a fellowship and meeting a whole cast of strange characters along the way. Some may recognize Loudermilk and Harry as a more comedic version of sculptor Auguste Rodin and the jerk-poet Rilke. Loudermilk, the sculptor is a profligate, exhibiting an unremitting libidinous energy of “an over-sexed nihilist god.” Perfect in nearly every way, Loudermilk feels “sapped by the presence of his own magnificent frame in the world.” Thus, he seeks out that which was missing—academic recognition. Early on, it is established that everyone is infatuated with the idea of Loudermilk and his artistic newness. His name begins to collect scurrilous rumors, including a bounty’s worth of slander and glorification. Harry, the poet in hiding, is on his own quest for bildung, attempting to “cultivate his ability to be normal,” but he is “gagged by his own ungainly voice.” Loudermilk tries to socialize Harry in exchange for some poems, but it seems that Harry is set on making a castle of himself and dragons out of everything else.
Meanwhile, a large chunk of chapters follows closely to Clare Elwil, a visiting professor with a severe case of writer’s block who’s struggling to come to terms with a fear of time’s slippage. Clare is very much a proxy of Ives’s: she is the philosophical anchor providing readers a better understanding of how narration can slow or speed our perception of time. What Ives is playing with here is not just beautiful sentences and humorous situations, it’s the disharmony felt at the core of our experiences.
But this is not to say the book is a slow read. Ives’s voice does not begin as a trickle of the tap or a pitter-patter building toward flood. Instead, her tendency toward superlative make this feel like one of the first post-Trump novels to date. As one of Harry/T.A. Loudermilk’s poems reads, “I preceded this deluge: the phenomenon of a pseudo-president.” The novel’s first chapter serves as a reminder that anything can and will happen in the world, history be damned. On their way to school, Loudermilk nearly careens into a few head-on collisions, claiming to be “concerned about his future,” while listening to a tape where a professor, in an attempt to seduce, “clambers gamely onto her desk and begins to ‘lap cream’ out of a ‘saucer’” while purring. That is only the first five pages of the book. It only gets weirder from there.
Fiction, due to the insane nature of 2017 and beyond, can no longer subdue the way Valéry saw it or Carver wrote it. Fiction is in a place where it must outdo reality in order to keep up with it, and maybe it’ll take a poet to do the job. Ives has succeeded, to a paradoxical purpose, within her novel. Though the empirical distinctions between prose and poetry are often illusory, Ives finds a way to make her prose both a kind of communication—as is expected—as well as a construction of satire. Her words linger longer than normal trade, and find ways to avoid their disintegration, as if the must of a punchline is more lasting, more fragrant; words this eloquently framed and humorous imprint, and, often enough, hold us in their absurdity.