Dervishes by Neal Starkman seems to be equal parts beat novel, radical feminist ethnography, and discarded Woody Allen script with a dash of someones’ physics dissertation thrown in as a garnish. It had a decidedly John Barth-esque quality to it.
The book is structured as the diary of a one Carolyn Anderson: assistant physics professor in Seattle currently facing a crisis in her professional life when her research funding dries up. Carolyn, in a fit of teenage cheekiness, dubs her diary “Lady Di.” The entries are conversational; an ongoing back and forth between Carolyn and her silent foil. Lady Di is a good listener and gives Carolyn the space to dig up her old war wounds. At the time she starts diarizing, Carolyn identifies as a lesbian, but she uses much of her diary to excavate her relationship with Philip Lester, a former lover with whom she never quite got the closure she needed.
In the mode of Woody Allen, the book tries to weave together philsophizing and blase comedy. Sometimes, as with an anecdote about a wayward crab on a beach excursion that starts horrifying and ends bittersweet and funny and revealing a humanity about Philip I didn’t think would ever get revealed, it works marvelously. Sometimes it doesn’t. Always, it’s ambitious.
The philosophical questions that the book wrestles with—that Carolyn and Philip and Carolyn’s current lover, Stephanie, wrestle with—are largely questions of identity and authenticity. To what extent, Philip asks, can one be truly authentic when one pins one’s identity on the prattle of others? If you say ‘I am X’ (a lesbian, a feminist, a socialist, a professor) to define yourself, and take on the trappings of that group, then you buy yourself some comfort from thinking. You buy yourself an in-group. But what is the cost of that?
Carolyn’s current lover, Stephanie, is a radical lesbian, and she veers the other direction. For her, everything is the movement, the community. If you are not fully bought into that, Stephanie seems to feel, then what’s the point? What are you contributing?
Carolyn spends the book spinning between these two extremes. And they are extremes, each as equally misinformed as the other. Philip’s myopia about groups and affiliation leaves him more and more isolated. His insistence that he might be a man, sure, but his refusal to engage with what having been raised as a man and what living in the world as once means drives a wedge between him and his beloved Carolyn as she develops more and more of a feminist consciousness. Stephanie, on the other hand, takes things as given which should not always be taken as givens, and her reluctance to ask questions leaves Carolyn suspicious.
This is, all in all, a curious book. I love that it’s voice is Carolyn’s—a lesbian scientist, someone who is not perfect and does not pretend to be, someone who struggles and questions herself and those around her. But I wish that Carolyn herself had been more front and center. She too often faded into the background for me; though it’s her book, her story, and her diary, it often felt like she was reporting on what other people did around her. And in specific, though she was a lesbian, much of the text was devoted to the autopsy of her relationship with Philip, poor doomed misanthropic unlikable Philip, who all too slowly mansplains his way right out of her life.
Some of this can be attributed to Carolyn herself, perhaps. Maybe she perceived herself to be more passive than she really was. It’s her diary, after all, and there is room to interpret her as an unreliable narrator. But that could also be wishful thinking on my part. I wanted her to take her life by its reins. She does so at the end, but over and over we watch, as ‘Lady Di’, trapped as this brilliant woman (she has a doctorate in physics, come on) gets pushed and pulled this way and that. Her inner monologue as it’s poured out to her diary is acerbic and sharp. I wanted her actions to be as acerbic, as sharp.
But, still, there’s much in the book worth liking. The characters are well drawn—though I would’ve liked more time with Stephanie to have fleshed her character out more. Generally I am wary of men writing from women’s perspectives, but Starkman was a pleasant surprise. Carolyn felt authentic to me.