"Ultraluminous" is More Than the "Female 'American Psycho'"

Katherine Faw's new novel is the dirtiest, most timely literary bomb.

by Philippa Snow
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Jan 30 2018, 2:00pm

Late last year, there came a day when I lost the residual last of my patience for very rich people, and maybe for large sums of money in general. Moneyed, brutish men, especially; although the rare-but-extant women who enabled them, or fêted them, or stuck with them for access or exposure, even though they were quite obviously amoral, did not make me feel exactly good. (Most women, being women and aware of how such men live, and possessed of a certain loyalty, do not willingly align themselves with monsters; then again, you’d be surprised.) I despised the way that money nixed mistakes, and men’s mistakes in particular—I despised the way that evil stayed mysterious, smoke-screened, when heavily financed. Being parasitic can be necessary, but is never healthy when the blood is bad. A lot of the blood, I do not need to tell you, is bad; there is a poison in it that is sometimes lethal, but more often only helps the rot start. There are better ways to live, and saner ways to die.

One of the sanest ways to die of all might be to take four, five or fifty of the worst of the monster-money-men down with you; which propels me, neatly, to the fact that not long after that unhappy day, I read—in a single evening, in one sitting—Katherine Faw’s new novel, Ultraluminous. Spaced-out in both senses, druggy and explicit, mean-spirited in the very best way (and just “mean,” come to think of it, in its unwillingness to give the reader very much at all), it is the story of a hooker living in New York City. Variously called Kata, Kasia, Karina and Katushka, it is easiest to call her “K.” She cut her teeth as a prostitute in the Middle East, at orgies so unpleasant that the author does not tell us much about them, only that “it hurt to walk the morning after,” and returned to America after two formative happenings: falling in love with a man, and being the victim of an attempted murder, also by a man, one of which hurt more than the other. It should not surprise you to discover, if you’ve ever read a novel or you’ve ever dated as a heterosexual, which is which.

Image courtesy of Macmillan.

Faw’s first and only other novel, published under the name Faw-Morris, was Young God (2014), another bare-bones, bared-teeth, breakneck piece of work about Nikki, a woman (maybe in this case a “girl,” as she’s thirteen years old) who lives outside the law. A motherless catastrophe, the “lover” of her stepfather and, finally, a dealer in her father’s employ, Nikki’s age and preternatural assurance make Young God read like Lolita crossed with Faulkner, interbred with something by the Safdie Brothers; or, to quote the blurb, “like Winter’s Bone meets Less Than Zero.” “Comparisons are good for marketing, I guess,” Faw shrugged in an interview with Huck magazine. “I’m trying to think, if I had been in charge of comparing it, what I would have picked. Maybe Jesus’ Son meets Wise Blood or something…. I like precision."

Comparisons, it’s true, do help with marketing. You may have seen a write-up pegging Ultraluminous as “the female American Psycho,” which to me seems totally wrongheaded when the better match of Glamorama, my own personal favorite Easton Ellis novel, is right there. Although I would in normal circumstances be more circumspect about the plot for fear of being hounded by the “spoiler” crowd, I ought to point out that Macmillan do not seem especially concerned about maintaining silence—“Girlfriend. Prostitute. Addict. Terrorist?” asks the book’s official tagline, with a marketing department’s maddening disdain for mystery—and so it seems fine to me to say that K knows how to make a bomb. It would be fine to say, too, that the thrill of the book in part is seeing her begin to realize that she is a bomb. Like certain other female libertine millennials, K—a heroin addict—is also an avid collector of baggies, a blotto talker at bodegas, a monochrome dresser, a Duane Reade fan, a buyer of old fashion magazines from strange men on the street, and the kind of woman who sees “a pro in from Kyoto” for high-concept manicures that make her nails ten evil eyes, or minute galaxies, or gold teeth, or—in one brief, funny, bleak-in-retrospect vignette—the lifeline on an EKG machine:

I get spiky EKG lines in crazy pink.
“You want any flat lines?” she says.
She does the sound of death, the hospital-machine sound, and then laughs.
“The last five,” I say.

“A few times I have practiced stabbing melons,” K says casually at one point. “All I have is surprise. If a man wants to pin me down by the neck he will.” The men she sees are sometimes named, like very specialist male Barbie Dolls, according to their occupation: The Art Guy, The Junk Bond Guy. There is a “Guy Who Buys Me Stuff,” and a “Calf’s Brain Guy,” named after what he ordered once in a restaurant. (“Are you a zombie?” she inquires—then, as if this were a worse idea: “Are you a peasant?” He is actually both very rich, and nominally human.) All of the johns are interchangeable, and I forget which one is the one who punches her for a thousand dollars a pop, and which is the one who asks her: “If I wanted to break one of your bones, like a little one, how much would that cost,” and evidently settles on a figure high enough she lets him do it, but they all contribute to a single idea: that lot of the blood is bad, and that there is a poison in it that is sometimes lethal, but more often only helps the rot begin.

Faw's book is a fantasy novel for furious, anti-capitalist misandrists.

The way that rot might manifest, or be allowed to manifest, is obviously different for rich men and peasants, or rich men and paid-for women. Ultraluminous, in other words, is a confirmation of the grimmest feelings of the age—a nasty, nihilistic, gorgeous little novel. Faw describes her fiction writing as “emotionally, psychologically true, even if all the events are not.” What I’d guess this means is that although she may not necessarily have been a high-class prostitute with a knack for the manufacture of explosives, there is something knowable, familiar, in her figuration of K-Kasia-Katia-Katushka as submissive, then subsumed, then as a living submachine gun: automatic, weaponized. What K represents is less about the sex trade than the subtext of her sex; she is a casualty of gendered war. “I met a man,” she says, “when I was a whore in Dubai, who shook my hand and then passed it to his other palm and held it there. At the time it was mildly confusing. Now I know what he was doing. He wanted to see if I was wide-open, if he could fill my mind with anything.” A hundred or so pages later, she is high on coke and talking about Derek Jarman’s movie, Blue:

I saw this movie that was only blue screen. The filmmaker was going blind from AIDS. You could hear him but all you could see was blue. He said this thing about his mind being fine but his body dying. He said it was like being a naked lightbulb in a dark, ruined room. I’m the opposite of that. My body is a lightbulb and my mind is a dark room.

What we might initially have taken for wide-open in her character is more like darkness infinite; without illumination, there no clear outlines, so it’s no surprise when she begins to lose herself around the halfway point of the novel. There is a blurring or a bleeding in the middle stretch: a slackening, not of pace but of resolve. “It was my decision, early in life, to insinuate myself into the middle class, like a spy,” John Cheever wrote once, in his journal, “so that I would have an advantageous position of attack, but I seem now and then to have forgotten my mission and to have taken my disguises too seriously.” For the serious sexual double-agent, distant and dissociative for self-protection, it is easy to unravel from the plot—to drop the thread. K’s personal obsessions, her routine’s picayune patterns and coincidences, fail to offer purpose. Meaning—meaning structure or a narrative resembling anything like forward motion—ebbs. “It’s more like utterly not caring,” she says, numbly, “so that dying’s okay”—which is why when, very near the novel’s end, her previous assertion that all violence happens to be random other than the violence you yourself enact finds purpose, meaning, forward motion, it’s cathartic rather than calamitous.

Faw’s violent un-delights have logically, inevitably violent ends. When K begged, via text, for the man who paid to break her finger to repeat the act, I felt far worse than at the gory denouement; I felt worse still, probably perversely, when the john did not reply. Most of all, there is this scene I can’t forget where she goes to a dingy cop bar in her downtime, catching early morning’s half-light like a dope-sick Hepburn browsing Tiffany’s post-trick, and takes a homeless kid she’s just met in there for a drink—and the kid is giddy, maybe also high or maybe vaguely crazy, dancing in his seat as he interrogates K-Kasia-Katia-Katushka on the finer points of hooking when the hookee is a man and has the power and the money to destroy the hooker. What could be an abstract and specific bummer of a scene reads more like something, if not totally instructive, then suggestive: it defines and crystalizes Katherine Faw’s description of a character, a charge, that is “emotionally, psychologically true” to real life, even if the events themselves are not:

“Do you know who’s going to rape you and steal your shit? Like, do you get a feeling in your gut?”
I flick my Cherry Bomb cup at the trash. He does half his dance and then stops.
“No, you never can tell,” I say.

And no, you never can; which is why women write, and read, femme nihilist revenge plots. Ultraluminous is the dirtiest, most timely literary bomb. It’s a fantasy novel for furious, anti-capitalist misandrists, and I read no other book that I loved half as much last year.