Notice Sasha Frere-Jones

Nothing will prepare you for this dark, dizzying novel
by the late Heather Lewis.

Notice, by Heather Lewis, Semiotext(e), 243 pages, $17.95

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Before Heather Lewis hung herself in a West Village apartment with the belt of a brown silk robe in 2002, at the age of forty, she had written three novels: one describing her life as a teenage horse rider who was routinely raped by her father (House Rules), one a crime story that portrays that father as a millionaire murderer (The Second Suspect), and one a book so fully saturated with her darkness that it was rejected by (allegedly) eighteen publishers and finally published (verifiably) in 2004, by Serpent’s Tail. That book is Notice, arguably one of the greatest novels of the last thirty years, now being reissued by Semiotext(e). Were she here, Lewis would object to that promotional phrasing, as well as the mention of “her darkness,” the kind of secondary coloring she avoided.

You can’t prepare to read a book like Notice. Lewis rarely editorializes or glosses what is happening; emotions run sheathed beneath a strata of facts so unpleasant you may get dizzy and need to stop every thirty pages or so. You will experience Notice physically before you start thinking about it. What bodies do is important, but Lewis rarely describes what people look like—not at first. The somatic nature of the Lewis characters in House Rules and Notice is given to you without moral footnotes. You will find yourself thinking, “Ah, yes—I too might need another ampoule of heroin before my horse jumping show,” or “There seems to be enough time now to turn a trick in the parking lot, why not.” That Lewis called her book Notice feels like a clue. She noticed more than anyone can possibly handle.

Her prose seems agreeable and clear until you realize you are several feet above the floor. Each sentence contains two or three blocks of lifting power, none of them predicted by their antecedent or explained by whatever follows. Lewis was able to slow down time and notice the deep detail of successive events that to a lesser writer would seem like one thing rather than five, a skill shared by Michel Leiris, Virginia Woolf, and Marcel Proust. Events are never framed with the fluorescent self-pity that so many writers use to highlight violent experiences.

Notice is narrated by a character who does sex work under the name Nina, when not at her day job. (We don’t find out what that job is, or Nina’s legal name.) Before we get going, she asks herself why she is turning tricks. “What the extra need is, the thing besides money? I’ve never pinned it down. I know it’s there, though.” Nina describes her actions without ever settling on a story about the story, which sums up the general Lewis approach. “The cover story of all time, that’s what money is,” Nina says. “The excuse of excuses no one will question because they so much need to use it themselves.”

Nobody writes about sex like Lewis, but more to the point, nobody makes you think about sex in the situations Lewis delivers you into. Notice revolves around Nina’s involvement with a couple: Ingrid and her husband, who is unnamed until a vague lateral mention much later. A trick turns into a sort of grudge match mediated by sex and money, which Nina initiates by going to their house and deciding to stay. Nina had met the husband at the train station, “kind of a rough guy, which made it harder to refuse. Not for the reasons you might think, but because that thing pulls me. And then, too, he’d dangled a carrot, which was his wife.” Nina will come feasibly close to death because of “that thing,” and Ingrid proves to be the hardest thing for Nina to quit.

Lewis’s former partner, Ann Rower, writes in her collection If You’re A Girl that the “grand villain” was Heather’s father, Hobart, and this was true “of all the pieces she ever wrote, every interview she ever gave, every thought she had, every breath she took.” Rower adds that, even after everything Lewis went through, Hobe (as he was called) still “tried to stick his tongue as far down her throat as he possibly could every chance he ever got.” But all three books Lewis wrote are about a couple torturing her stand-in, and the main relationship is always with the woman. In House Rules, fifteen-year-old Lee is connected to Linda, who dopes her with heroin while sort of managing her career as a show jumper. In Notice, it is Ingrid who Nina longs for, insofar as she longs for anything other than death. Letting the longing surface would mean noticing it, and after several rounds of physical punishment, Nina tells us that she has to keep herself “especially far from love and even further from being loved because, of the whole lot of them, these were the only two that could actually kill you.” Ingrid and her husband subject Nina to a kind of sex that derives at least part of its power from being potentially fatal, and as the events of Notice unfold, the most violent trace back to them as well.

Nina appears to be moments away from being killed at least three times, which does not stop her from being turned on and, against her own advice, falling into what seems like love with Ingrid. After being brutally raped—not by the couple, in this case—Nina ends up in a psychiatric facility, where she meets a social worker named Beth. In Lewis’s one strictly autobiographical piece, “Richard Nixon and Me” (first published in A Woman Like That: Lesbian and Bisexual Writers Tell Their Coming Out Stories, 1999), she describes a woman named Beth as the “young, pretty, and inexperienced protégé” of her shrink. “While I talked, and flirted, and soon wound up having sex with her, my father made strategic strikes,” Lewis writes as herself. In Notice, Beth has become the shrink, and the father character turns out to be the person orchestrating Nina’s various punishments from without. In “Nixon,” Lewis writes “I’ll spare you the gorier details,” but Notice gives them to you. Women with lobotomies are “the ones who’d been cut,” and the men who rape Nina at night in her cell are the ones “visiting” her.

Beth gets Nina out of the facility, and Nina’s life becomes a short loop between Beth and Ingrid mediated by sex that elapses in Lewis time: slow and delicate even when the acts are forceful. Reading Notice is to feel completely alive and alert while in the company of someone who sees her life “as simply about finding someone who’d do me in, do me in for me.” The violence that ultimately comes in Notice is much, much worse than anything you could expect, but still not nearly as bad as what Lewis gives herself and notices for us before she no longer can.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a musician and writer from New York. His memoir, Earlier, was recently published by Semiotext(e).

Nothing will prepare you for this dark, dizzying novel by the late Heather Lewis.
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