‘Risk’ by Elana Dykewomon
Author: Mikaya Heart
May 15, 2010
This story spans a dozen years in the life of Carol, a fat Jewish femme lesbian living in Berkeley. She gets involved with Z.D. and they eventually move in together. The devastating effects of war, manifested in Carol’s life by the death of her father in Vietnam when she is seven years old, are an ongoing thread throughout the book. When her mother dies of cancer, she suddenly finds she has enough money to stop working, but struggles to make sense of her parents’ deaths and turns to her gambling addiction for distraction. Following the passages set in casinos requires a knowledge of gambling terminology—but the reader will certainly pick up that Carol carefully calculates the risks and has a remarkable ability to come out on top.
This is a book about a real person, dealing with many of the issues with which politically aware lesbians in the United States struggle. Within the dialogue and threads of thought, both of which sometimes ramble on rather too long, there are a few analyses of concepts that concern many of us: therapy and its usefulness or otherwise, butch/femme dynamics, race, ethnicity, class, looks-ism, the effects of war, and so on: “…the whole world has post-traumatic stress from war after war, and keeps dealing with it by creating more trauma.” One of the issues addressed is what a politically conscious woman should do when she unexpectedly comes into some money. Unless gambling could be considered a solution, we’re not given any definitive answers—which might be because there aren’t any, at least not for Carol.
I was disappointed that the examples of relationships are so traditional: nonmonogamy is dismissed as unworkable and unethical. Considering that the way we live our lives from day to day is what really undermines or supports the status quo, I expected something a little more radical. Carol “owns up” to her one-night-stand speedily and honestly, but both she and her lover unquestioningly assume that Carol has done something bad, instead of seeing it as a life-enhancing expression of desire. On the other hand, the fact that they don’t move in together until they’ve been lovers for years models some sadly uncommon commonsense.
A great deal of the book is the characters’ thought processes, which tend to be long meandering passages. Although some of them contribute to character development, I found others tedious and irrelevant. Sometimes they are obscure, so that I had to read and re-read before I could grasp what was being said. In contrast, the action scenes tend to be glossed over. My favorite scene is the fat women’s swim, where Carol wears a bright magenta two-piece with fuchsia polka dots.
Political activism is an integral part of Dykewomon’s writing and the reader may sense some of the self-righteousness for which lesbians are infamous. With so much focus on the seemingly inevitable lesbian guilt syndrome, and individual powerlessness in the face of the war machine, the book tends to be a little negative. There is one brief passage where Carol sees a psychic who offers her a different and rather strange perspective on human existence, although it’s more of an isolated interlude than an ongoing source of positivity. [Spoiler Alert!] However, the book ends on a hopeful note, when Carol recovers from a near-death experience, makes up with Z.D. and decides the world can still be saved. In spite of the book’s shortcomings, it’s a pleasure to read fiction that is about real people questioning reality, and not just about white Protestants with “perfect” bodies.
By Elana Dykewomon
Paperback, $14.95, 261 p.