My Heavenly Favorite Megan Milks

Taking a disturbing page from Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lucas Rijneveld’s second novel pens a tortured, hallucinatory love letter to the fourteen-year-old object of his obsession.

My Heavenly Favorite, by Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison, Graywolf Press, 334 pages, $28

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Magnum opus or hebephile’s apologia: whatever one thinks of it, Lolita has bestowed us with a useful reference point for fictional narratives of childhood sexual abuse, a model for writers to think with and against. For My Heavenly Favorite, nonbinary Dutch writer Lucas Rijneveld’s second novel, the Lolita parallels are almost a hook, and it’s true—if you want to lure readers into a deeply unsettling story about grooming, there may be no better way than to let loose your own Humbert Humbert.

Rijneveld’s narrator is a forty-nine-year-old farm veterinarian, married with two sons, recounting the story of what he refers to with delusional benignity as “that headstrong summer.” Though he can’t quite compete with old Humbert’s charms, he is, like his predecessor, as infatuated with language as he is with his prepubescent “favorite,” the fourteen-year-old child of a neighboring client. Both characters are unnamed, but he invites her—and us—to call him Kurt, after Nirvana’s lead singer, one of the favorite’s favorites in turn. Rijneveld (with his translator, Michele Hutchison) won the International Booker at twenty-nine for his debut, The Discomfort of Evening (2018, published in English in 2020). My Heavenly Favorite is in some ways a continuation of that semiautobiographical fiction: both involve farm families grieving the death of a child and the loss of their entire dairy herd to hoof-and-mouth disease, and share a Reformed Dutch village setting, several characters, and a bleak, uneasy worldview.

Addressed to the favorite, the new novel is presented as Kurt’s final love note, a delirious, deranged account that is sort of confession, not quite apology—written from prison, where he is serving a sentence for his crimes. He’s tortured, entranced, abashed, febrile; above all, guilty. As his story unfolds, we learn the shape and scope of his predation (also its weirdness: a key phase involves an otter penis) and how he ends up in a cell. Surging forth with pages-long sentences that swell and contract to the rhythm of the narrator’s desires, My Heavenly Favorite is as much a display of Rijneveld’s ferocious linguistic prowess as it is an unflinching portrayal of abuse. A wonder of art, it’s brutal to read.

Breathless, vertiginous, hallucinatory, Kurt’s musings slither on endlessly, twisting and torquing through lust, fantasy, pop lyrics, the quotidian details of life on the farm. (Props to Hutchison for this feat of translation.) He name-drops Beckett, Proust, Kate Bush; and though Nabokov isn’t explicitly mentioned, Lolita is never very far, invoked directly through phrasing like “fire of my loins.” Our vet’s combined obsessions with animal husbandry, preadolescent girl–types, and the literary make for a peculiar and unsettling—sometimes even funny—reading experience. “I knew already that we were unusual, unique,” he writes, “even though I considered the word unique as ugly as a tetchy bull after the manure has been cleaned from under its feet.” (Perhaps as a compromise with the reader, Rijneveld has kept the chapters, at around seven pages each, mercifully short.)

The novel teems with fantasies. Kurt’s range from the pathetic to the obscene, while the favorite’s involve conversations with Freud and Hitler. A troubled child with a loose grip on reality, she believes she can transform into a bird and an otter; in a particularly impressive imaginative flight, she understands herself to be the first plane that hit the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 (the second plane, she thinks, was a hoax). She also expresses transmasculine longings, particularly the desire for a penis. “You were wavering between a boy and a girl,” the narrator sees, and does not hesitate to exploit these desires to his own ends. Throughout, Rijneveld creates a provocative elasticity between the imagined and the real. But against this hazy dream space, the details of Kurt’s violations are indisputable and hideously concrete.

Using direct address may be a way for Rijneveld to avoid attaching endless “she”s to his book’s potentially trans character. It also brings the reader closer in. The other, more occasional addressees are the officials who have tried the narrator’s case: “I have to admit, dear judges, it was insane of me to fantasise about a life with my prize little animal.” The reader is thus invoked as a proxy for both the favorite and the court. It’s as though Kurt believes that if he could just put into words what happened, what he did and why, he could make her, and us, understand: “you were a wild animal and I was going to tame you, the fourteen-year-old I’d once been reappeared when I was with you.” We learn that he, too, has been a victim of childhood sexual abuse, that his actions repeat a cycle of violence.

Kurt’s close attunement to the favorite—evidenced in how he recounts her vivid, fantastical monologues in detail and inhabits her feelings and dreams—often defies the limitations of his perspective. “I slowly crawled under your skin like a liver fluke in a cow,” he attests. The effect of this queasy enmeshment is at once voyeuristic and subjectifying: we feel his invasiveness even as it grants us access to the favorite’s interiority and the arc of her life, which already eclipses his (she has since become a famous musician). With her point of view controlling the story from within, we are kept distressingly aware of the formidable gap between their experiences.

Late in the book, in an effort to break things off, the favorite sends the narrator a text message quoting Stephen King’s It. “Maybe, in the end,” the text reads, “it’s the voice that tells the stories more than the stories themselves that matters.” The quote pings on multiple levels: it reminds us (wincingly) of his advance a few months earlier, in the darkened theater where they watched the film together; and (also wincingly) of his victim’s age. Perhaps only a young person would find this quote “deep.” But I felt the resonance: the novel’s Russian-doll construction of voice—in which we feel the layered presence of the favorite, of Kurt, and of Rijneveld all together—is what makes the book. Reading My Heavenly Favorite, I did not feel seduced as one might by Humbert’s charms, but caught, gripped by the forcefulness and complexity of the narration, the maddening relentlessness of the prose. These things are difficult to take in, and Rijneveld is not interested in making them easy. If at times we might prefer to stop reading, the fevered pitch and majesty of his sentences propel us forward, determined to lead us to the end.

Megan Milks is the author of the novel Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body, finalist for a 2022 Lambda Literary Award, and Slug and Other Stories, both published by Feminist Press.

Taking a disturbing page from Humbert Humbert, the narrator of Lucas Rijneveldā€™s second novel pens a tortured, hallucinatory love letter to the fourteen-year-old object of his obsession.
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