Lindsay Lerman’s debut novel I’m From Nowhere is a slim book that packs a powerful philosophical punch. Claire, somewhere in her thirties, has lost her husband John unexpectedly and the tragedy throws her into a full existential crisis. Meanwhile, two of her husband’s friends, both having expressed romantic interest in Claire, appear at John’s funeral, circling her expectantly. Claire finds herself listing off female literary characters who committed suicide: Anna Karenina, Ophelia, Juliet, Jocasta, Antigone, Emma Bovary, Hedda Gabler. “They all knew it,” she thinks. “Knew what?”
Appropriate to its title, the world in I’m From Nowhere has an anonymous quality. The novel is set somewhere in the desert of the southwestern United States at a time when climate change, referred to only as “the disaster” has advanced far enough that plants can no longer grow in the open air. Food is grown in vast greenhouses, and only the rich can afford fresh non-canned goods. Claire is one of the lucky ones, thanks to John’s “important” job, though we never find out what that job is, just as we never learn exactly how he died. Claire once had a series of unspecified jobs, but gave up on her career in anticipation of having a baby that never arrived. The setting creates a sense of urgency and doom, but some readers might find themselves longing for more concrete detail.
If at times the fictional world feels somewhat thin, Lerman, who has a PhD in philosophy, excels at painting a complex portrait of Claire’s shifting consciousness in the days following John’s funeral. The book is ostensibly about Claire grieving her husband’s death but really she is grieving lots of different things—her youth, the dying planet, all of which she sees as various forms of “waste.” Lerman writes, “An additional frame arrives, fleetingly—the situation of her sadness, the geopolitical, historical location of some her despair. How pathetic to think it matters.” The italics are Lerman’s and signal, perhaps unnecessarily, the direct quotation of Claire’s thoughts, but they also function as a kind of quippy other voice in the text, moderating and complicating the more lyrical assurances that usually precede them.
Her husband’s death has provoked a crisis of meaning for Claire, who struggles to understand her place in the world as a gendered being. Lerman writes, “She was in danger of disappearing. The only acceptable form of agency for a woman of her age, in this place, in this time, was tied directly to a job or, even better, motherhood.” As a young widow with no job and no child, Claire feels superfluous. Used to defining herself in relation to men, she turns naturally toward the two men who have already expressed interest in her, Andrew and Luke. Andrew is a local who supports himself with odd jobs and writes poetry on the side; he is promiscuous and ready for a hook-up. Luke has come in from out of town for the funeral and, after a difficult divorce, wrote Claire a letter suggesting that his feelings run much deeper. The surface drama of the novel consists mostly of Claire’s encounters with these two men, but the real drama is almost entirely internal, and goes back to the list of female characters running through Claire’s head like a refrain. She poses the problem to herself in stark terms: submission or suicide?
Despite the book’s futuristic setting, the concerns that occupy Claire—about the possibilities of female agency under patriarchy, whether heterosexual marriage is always a trap for women, whether any of her male lovers have ever respected her—are familiar second-wave feminist issues going back to Simone de Beauvoir, who lends the book its epigraph. Yet these themes, which could feel heavy-handed, emerge organically from Claire’s thought process and feel believably like the life-altering reassessments a person might make following a great loss. As Claire examines her life and her relationship with John, she proves capable of modulation, not ready to give up on the possibilities of love: “She wasn’t sure that it mattered that their respect was flawed and leaning toward patriarchal. What isn’t?”
Lerman also writes about female sexuality in a way that feels fresh, tracing Claire’s lack of agency to an early experience of learned passivity, when an acquaintance has sex with her on a park bench. Claire, a virgin, realizes too late that she is not ready for the experience: “She’s flat on her back and he’s climbing on top of her. She wants him to look at her face but she can’t—doesn’t know how to—tell him to look. At her. Can you see I don’t think I want this?” Of this first sexual encounter, Lerman writes, “She doesn’t know how to talk about it, even now… What if you don’t even know what rape is and is not?” Like Beauvoir, Lerman posits sex as an arena where women learn to accept their own passivity, and Claire sees the results of this passivity everywhere in her own life, that she has failed to create a self existing outside of her husband: “She knew that she had created herself with him—and that he had played such a large role as her co-creator—that to break away and re-create herself would be a monumental undertaking.”
At times, Claire’s views, like second-wave feminism itself, can feel a little blinkered, a little too contained within the world of a relatively privileged white middle-class housewife. We are told that people in the Southern hemisphere are starving for lack of food, that the only people left living in the desert—a strange place to ride out the advancing heat waves of climate change—are split between the rich and the desperate. Claire glimpses their trailers as she passes by on the highway, but I wish Lerman’s gaze had lingered there a little longer. Nevertheless, I found myself rooting for Claire throughout, eager for her to cast aside the two men vying for her affections, free at last for the “monumental undertaking” of creating herself on her own terms.
I’m from Nowhere, by Lindsay Lerman. Clash Books, September 2019. 170 pages. $14.95, paper.
Kat Solomon lives in the Boston area. Her short fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, Juked, Cosmonauts Avenue, and the New Orleans Review.