I hope the following statement will come across in the spirit in which it’s intended (i.e. not too pervy) but I have always had a soft spot for stories about female adolescence. Not necessarily the fun ones—though I did once read Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in a single, delightful sitting—so much as the emotionally volcanic, sexually anarchic, sinew twistingly honest ones about what an all-consuming, convoluting, pain-in-the-ass mess it is being a girl becoming a woman. It is here, in the hot boiling marrow and indoctrinate shame of our respectively budding sexualities, that men and women first learn to start keeping things from one another—to see one another as both predator, and prey—and as such, it is only once all the pain and self-loathing is behind us that, through stories about this isolating and universally harrowing time, we best learn to understand one another again. In this way, they are among the most important stories humans ever undertake to tell—the ones that plant the seeds of empathy and intimacy, healing and love.
Nympholepsy is, just to be clear, quite adamantly not a book about or necessarily even for men, but as a male reader, it felt something like an intercepted communique from the other side. An epic poem ensconced in a cootie catcher, or a conversation eavesdropped through a dressing room door. A whisper not meant for my ears. The conclave of women at its center—”the hive”—(which could credibly stand in for anything from a sorority to a brothel to a coven, but feels more likely intended as a kind of poetic, magical-realist synecdoche for the fairer sexuality en masse)—share a fluid, ageless quality that belies concrete time and place. One imagines the central pair of initiates—Alraune and Luciana—could be anywhere from 14 to infinity (and possibly every age in between). But as they depart the safety of their youthful, cloudlet friendship and traverse the unknown wilds of their parallel sexual awakenings side by side, the where, and when, and how of what all happens between them is not particularly important. Their journey traces the universal across the ethereal, and deftly threads the one (well, two) through the all.
But enough preamble. The long and short of it is that Nympholepsy is an exquisitely sexy little book. There’s a lot more to it than that, obviously, but to suggest otherwise is to misrepresent the sheer sensuality of Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein & Lisa Marie Basile’s downy, demimonde prose. Trading off pages, conversing through the voices of their respective protagonist avatars (Morhardt-Goldstein writes Alraune, Basile is Luciana), the authors spin together the high romantic and the softcore erotic, childhood and adulthood, fairytale and myth, into a savagely sultry pas de deux of voracious feminine self-discovery. The practice playlets of dolls and dioramas beget the tentative truths revealed through late-night talks in secret sister languages. Girlhood games stretch further and further from the safety of the house, the yard, the neighborhood—each daring the other to venture a little bit further, to wear a skirt a little bit shorter, to hold each other a little bit closer, until, as if by magic, they both look up one day and find themselves Sapphically entwined, far, far from home.
Even as Alraune and Luciana come fully into their own (and each other), however, danger lurks ’round every corner. The neon chandeliers and corrupting influencers of hive society swallow them up like a stormy Charybdis swell, and their nascent affections are stripped bare and sorely tested. Strobelit dancefloors lead to swaying back rooms that spiral up to shadowy bedchambers—an ever-writhing labyrinth of bodies at their disposal. The cruel alpha siren Sydelle sows discord for sport. The needy, nosferatous man Levee tempts like Adam’s apple. The ravaged ragdoll Grace dispels any notions of going back to the way things were before. The hard lessons of hard living, at least for a time, bring a tempest, and that cloud for two they seeded together threatens to spill over with heavy rain and wash them both away. These are the days of finding out how you affect the world around you, and also how you decidedly do not; of learning what it means to be at the height of your powers, and how it feels to crash headlong into their smokestained ceilings; of coming to understand that no matter how bad you might think you are, if you fuck around long enough, you will always, eventually, inevitably, meet someone badder; of asking and answering questions like “who do I want to be?” and “how do I want to be loved?”
It is hard to overstate just how genuinely pleasurable Morhardt-Goldstein & Basile’s lines are to imbibe. For the first time I can really recall, I found myself wanting to read aloud, to myself, just to feel the beauty of this language on my tongue and let it curl up in the porches of my ears. Phrases like “we wore one another as necklaces” and “endless sea of mouth” sent little ASMR shivers down my nape, and Alraune’s and Luciana’s final words to one another as they abandon the illusory charms of the hive and reclaim their sacred world for two, had me swooning in the ornamental garden chair where I read them in the Nebraska morning sun (also in a single, delightful sitting). Kindred to Angela Carter, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and the early films of Catherine Breillat, there is something of both the profane, and the feminine divine captured in the pages of Nympholepsy—something so breathtakingly mysterious and, at the same time, primevally, preternaturally known—that as a man I could probably read it 100 times and still not fully understand. But that’s the gap this realm and caliber of art works to bridge—that rarest and truest expression of what it’s like on the other side—and I may well read it 100 more times before all’s said and done, if only in the vain hope of finding out. Maybe next time I’ll read it aloud.
Nympholepsy, by Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein & Lisa Marie Basile. Lawrence, Kansas: Inside the Castle, November 2018. 60 pages. $16.00, paper.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early next year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.