A provocative and impressive debut delivered with a uniquely sinister lyricism by a brilliant 21-year-old; a story about sex, privilege, desire, and creativity in the post-college years
The first thing Leif notices about Oola is the sharp curve of her delicate shoulders, tensed as if for flight. Even from that first encounter at a party in a flat outside of London, there’s something electric about the way Oola, a music school dropout, connects with the cossetted, listless narrator we find in twenty-five-year-old Leif. Infatuated, the two hit the road across Europe, housesitting for Leif’s parents’ wealthy friends, and finally settling for the summer in Big Sur.
Leif makes Oola his subject: he will attempt an infinitesimal cartography of her every thought and gesture, her every dimple, every snag, every swell of memory and hollow. And yet in this atmosphere of stifling and paranoid isolation, the world around Leif and Oola begins to warpthe tap water turns salty, plants die, and Oola falls dangerously ill. Finally, it becomes clear that the currents surging just below the surface of Leif’s story are infinitely stranger than they first appear.
Oola is a mind-bendingly original novel about the way thatparticularly in the changeable, unsteady just-post-college yearssex, privilege, desire, and creativity can bend, blur, and break. Brittany Newell bursts into the literary world with a narrative as twisted and fresh as it is addicting.
|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.80(d)|
About the Author
Brittany Newell, who often writes and performs under the nom de plume Ratty St. John, is a 2017 Stanford graduate. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and is the winner of the Norman Mailer Award for Fiction. Oola is her first book.
Read an Excerpt
By Brittany Newell
Henry Holt and CompanyCopyright © 2017 Brittany Newell
All rights reserved.
Oola wore a poncho through which her nipples showed.
I remember her like this.
Summer. She was browned and sanded by the beach, our second week in Florida. She was sitting on the wooden kitchen table, ankles crossed, eating an avocado. She ate it with her hands. She ran her knuckle around the inside of the husk, stripping off the meat. She licked the soft flesh off her fingers. They were stained an oily, vivid green. Theo, the cat, sat beside her, tail bent into a question mark.
It was three in the afternoon in late May; I was tired in that drawn-out, nonsensical way, when your body assumes a vaguely erotic position no matter the task and despite your actual urges. The humid air was like a hand incessantly smoothing my hair back. I slumped in the doorway, balancing a sack of groceries on one hip. She didn't notice me. This is how it often was, she the show and I the crowd, but that day I was keenly aware of the fact that this was what she would be doing if I weren't around.
The idea titillated me. I was reminded of the high school fantasy of being unseen in a locker room, watching the object of one's fancy strip and gossip about bigger boys. Except my pleasure was tinged by new panic: How many moments like this had I missed?
Very gently, I set the groceries down.
It had never bothered me before, the hard fact that she lived a life outside my range. I had parents, as we all do, and I never thought about them as people who could have once been children or had lovers or liked music or worn skirts, the clouded majority of their lives sans moi. If I ever spared a thought for them, it was to situate them in my memories as witnesses, those two salt pillars of my youth who had watched me become real.
As I watched her suck the green meat from the webs of her hand, something in me shifted. She turned the avocado skin inside out and scraped it with her front teeth. It was not that she looked more beautiful than usual; don't mistake me for a butterfly hunter. If anything, I was in that moment a mathematician. I realized how truly little of her I laid claim to. I was antsy. I nudged the grocery sack with my foot. I wanted to see all her states of disregard, of neutrality and slobber. I wanted to see her alone, all alone, treading the lunacy that even the briefest periods of solitude induce. To this day, far sexier than the memory of her with no clothes on, hovering her freckled breasts over me, is the memory of her leaning forward to put the avocado skin on Theo's head, the darker pigment of her nipples visible but oddly frosted by the rain-resistant plastic of the ninety-nine-cent poncho.
Theo meowed angrily. She caught sight of me in the doorway and only then did she laugh. "I made him a hat," she said.
She got up, began unpacking the groceries. Here was the Oola I knew. Imperceptible changes warmed her to me. She looked exactly as she had ten minutes before. But where did that other girl go, the identical animal?
"Should I make coffee?" she called over her shoulder.
One drunken night early on in our travels, Oola told me about a friend who could always predict when she was ovulating; she claimed she could feel the egg exit her ovary with a tiny pop. We choked on our wine. But truth be told, that's how I feel when an idea strikes me. I can feel the obsession taking shape. I can feel the click. That afternoon in the kitchen, I stared at Oola and felt it, the snapping into place. "Yes, strong," I mumbled. I'd watched a tree fall in the proverbial woods and now I struggled to name the sound it had made. Perhaps a low sigh, as when one turns over in their sleep. A muffled oh! or that feels nice.
Why is pleasure so easy to express to oneself, in a half-asleep babble, but so difficult, so awkward, to express to somebody else?
We sat down and drank our coffee. I don't remember what we did with the rest of that day. We were house-sitting for a family friend, Mr. Orbitson, and his young bride (the ex-nanny), rewiring an underused beachside mansion in Florida with our foreign smells and bad habits. After two weeks, the towels would never be the same. Theo was a stray who'd taken a shine to Oola; after a very short courtship, he slept in our bed.
All I know is that I told her later, as we changed for bed and turned down the duvet (already speckled with cake crumbs and cat hair), that I had an idea for a new project.
"A TV show?" she said. "That'd be good, bring in some dough. If it's poetry, I'll kill myself." She eyed me. "Is it vampires?"
I smooshed a pillow on her face. "Just asking," she cried. She wriggled free. "So tell me."
"I'm not sure yet. But you're the main character. Or she'll be based on you. Whatever. We'll see."
She flipped her hair. "Me? Well, fuck, I'd read it. Guaranteed five-star rating. I turned the light out last night, by the way. So scoot, fatty."
And that was all. Perhaps she didn't believe me. I got out of bed and flipped off the light.
"That's the stuff," she sighed. In the dark she was a lump. I stumbled across the floor and squatted near her side of the bed. I tried to make out her hair. White-blond — you would think it would glow in the dark. But it graded into the pillow, became the bedspread. Everything that was Oola dissembled at night, aired its joints and swam about in a nameless soup. I needed a cauldron. I needed a net.
I gently bit the tip of her finger.
"Drop dead," she cooed.
I lay down beside her and fell soundly asleep.CHAPTER 2
During our stay at the Orbitsons' beach house, we made up a game. This was after Europe but before Big Sur, before the pact, when we still had time for minor games. We played it in the evening, after dinner, wearing clothes that we'd plucked from the Orbitsons' closets.
We entered the living room. I poured us each a drink, choosing from the Orbitsons' expansive wet bar. We sat down on the davenport, each wedged in a corner, with an empty space between us. Theo liked to hop up and nap in the gap. Gripping our drinks stiffly, we were like children with taped-on corsages, estimating our own depths, guessing at love. The windows would be open, and an ocean smell suffused the room. It ate at the curtains, warped the blond wood, did all the things we as house-sitters were supposed to prevent but as self-absorbed lovers found excusably moving. Suckers for atmosphere, we donned evening attire and welcomed that iconic tang of wood smoke and salt that would outlast, once absorbed by the drapery, not only the Orbitsons' marriage but also this era of insouciance, of Oola's and my self-contained exhibitionism (which is to say, wearing our hearts on our sleeves).
I liked to wear Mr. Orbitson's gloves of kid leather, partially for how kinky I found that pairing of words, and one of his collection of gray cashmere sweaters. Sometimes I wore a burgundy smoking jacket, and once (and only once) a cummerbund without a shirt. Relishing the glide of my gloves over the stereo knobs, I got up and put on sad music: songs with lost or heart or broken in the title. It was the kind of music that I used to love to listen to when I came back from a party, drunk and horny and alone. Since meeting, Oola and I had fused our music collections; she gently steered me away from hardcore (that shit makes my nipples hurt) and introduced me to Massenet. Feeling rather like a bank robber cracking a safe, I fiddled with the Orbitsons' state-of-the-art sound system until the chosen drone or wail mummified the room. Then I returned to Oola's side, ankles crossed. It could be Otis Redding, Maria Callas, Kate Bush, ANOHNI, some droopy-eyed teen with a broken guitar, a spinster giving herself up to Chopin. More often than not, it was Enya. No matter who sang, we sat rock-still and sipped our drinks.
Then, when she felt moved to, Oola would put a pair of nylon stockings on her head. We'd found them draped over the shower rod in the oceanfront guest room, hung up to dry for God knows how long, the shape of someone's ankles (the original Lady Orbitson? A friend from long ago? The maid?) still retained.
She wore Mrs. Orbitson's perfume and an unseasonal dress, a long-sleeved velvet number with a skirt that hazed the floor, the hem furry and teasing as a frat boy. For convenience's sake, she wore her hair back, cleaned and low. This allowed her to stretch the stockings easily over her head, encircling her braid and pulling them down to her collar with the gravity due ritual. With the stockings in place, she turned to face me, and it always gave me chills to see the fucked-up ex-face swivel, seeking mine, like any blind animal that knows to seek heat.
Through the stretched fabric, her features were blurred, as if a left-hander had been penciling her, smudging the last stroke as he made the next. Her eyelashes were crimped, her nose squished, her mouth forced open, her cheeks Botoxed back. As best we could, we made eye contact. Nina Simone would continue to croon, to make promises, as I studied a face not so much ruined as erased.
We would take turns wearing the stockings, swapping after every song. When I wore the nylons, I felt like I was underwater. The living room looked ghostly through my tight beige veil, Oola like the silvery streak on a photograph labeled PARANORMAL. I liked being looked at without being seen. The floor dropped away; Marianne Faithfull started to slur. The atmosphere was violinish. My sit bones turned numb as I tried not to move, to fix Oola's mouth (a pink postage stamp) in my sight. She could've been anyone as she sat there, my grandmother or my first true love, a fine, feminine smear.
We played this game late into the night. The ice in our drinks melted and our eyes began to ache. The ocean smell grew sweet with distant breakfasts. We stopped only when the day's first rays threatened to penetrate the stockings' mesh and clarify the face beneath, to recognize its bones and restore it to a gender, a history. At this point, whoever was wearing the hose yanked them off and balled them up in embarrassment, stuffing them into the crack between couch cushions. This is where they stayed until the next evening that we played our game. During the day Theo sat on them, keeping them warm. I gagged on his hairs more than once.CHAPTER 3
The first time I saw her was at a party. It was thrown by a mutual friend neither of us knew we had in common. It was in London.
Or perhaps I'd met her before, and perhaps I knew she'd be there, and maybe it wasn't even in London proper but some more obscure borough. When traveling cheaply, one has a tendency to mistake sleep deprivation for an ecstasy. In the beginning of my travels through Asia and Europe, I was guilty of reading a certain eloquence into my discomfort. For months on end, my nose ran too fast for the pretense of tissues. People scooched away from me on the metro. I'd walk for miles to get to an art opening or some second-rate manor. I didn't care about culture; I just wanted to tire myself out, to distract from the fact that nobody knew me. I found that I liked graveyards because they were conducive to walking in circles. The nonspecific pains of my body entertained me when I finally crashed back at my hostel, a depressing but effective alternative to going out for a drink — never before had I sat at so many little tables alone. Rather than sit at one more with a glass of cheap beer, I took off my shoes with unusual relish or else hid out in undubbed English movies. Sometimes I'd join the dinnertime crowds, thronging up and down High Street or around the train station, and pretend that I too had somebody waiting, some exterior schedule to keep.
Oola admitted to the same self-flagellation. "I couldn't enter a restaurant," she told me. "I'd hover outside, reading the menu, then chicken out when the hostess came over. I couldn't bear the way the diners were looking at me." Why not? "People are suspicious of meandering women. I couldn't make decisions quick enough. Most nights I had Nutella for dinner."
Cold showers at ungodly hours, when I crept naked down the hostel hallway, stirred me into a state I have seldom encountered since that overlong summer I spent traveling alone. I got the axiom backward: The always-cold water aroused me, opening an awareness of my body that was erotic if only for how endearingly human I felt. When I turned off the water and stood with my arms crossed, drip-drying at an excruciating pace, I felt so cold and weak that my mind unscrolled, like at the end of a movie, leaving only the scarred screen. No words could penetrate this glossy white. I thought of a tooth, its hard white enamel, and as I stood shivering, for twenty, thirty minutes on end, I slowly became certain that the hard white surface of the sinks, the shower's edge, the skid-marked floor, were the dents and pits of my own teeth, that I had entered myself, somewhat surprisingly, via the mouth.
Sometimes this revelation seemed cartoonish, like an anatomy book for children wherein one zips through veins and pulpy valleys, and at other times, when my toes turned blue and strange muscles that I rarely gave thought to started to ache, the entire situation seemed like a surgery, an inevitable violation. I couldn't remember what city I was in or why I was there. There was often no real reason to remember. I fled back to my bunk and put on every shirt I'd packed (which, sadly, was not many). I would shiver myself back to sleep.
I come from a New England family of some means, the most valuable of which turned out to be a vast network of empty houses. This is partially how I found myself in Europe, fresh out of college and desperate to prove that I was somehow different from all the other bookish boys with backpacks and the star of privilege beaming down on them, illuminating hickeys. Different how, I couldn't quite say; more in-tune with the world, maybe, or less of a threat to it, preternaturally sensitive instead of just chill. My parents' friends traveled frequently and were always in need of a semi-responsible young person with few attachments to look after their townhouses, their big-windowed villas or cutely ramshackle cabins, while they were away at some new-age retreat. I think they especially liked phoning me up, the Kneatsons' wayward youngest son, isn't that the one, honey? The artist, now I remember, the one with the hair down to here, but polite. I'll bet he's available. And I was; after my expensive education and a summer that turned into almost two years abroad, where I tried to rinse myself of WASPery (my #1 tactic being hitchhiking, a hobby every child of my generation had been trained to associate with extravagant rape), I found myself returning to the gated communities and circuitous drives (never called driveways) that as a teenager I'd defined myself against. My truck might as well have had a bumper sticker proclaiming the return of THE PRODIGAL SON.
I remember my first night house-sitting a cousin's Parisian flat, egregiously sunlit, blue with cream trim and a riotous bidet, the first in a long series of houses I'd inhabit for two to five weeks at a time. After countless months fetaled in hostel bunks, counting the farts of invisible roommates until, however perversely, I was lulled to sleep, this sixth-floor walk-up on a quiet street struck me as more foreign than the silence of Parisian subways (every profile turned to the window, every luscious mouth shut tight). It was like an amusement park, this sparse and tasteful flat, my shut-in Tivoli. I didn't leave for a week. I subsisted on beans from the cupboard and spent my days in the bath. Sick of sickness, I was only too glad to return to the domestic sphere. I did my laundry daily, stripping the sheets with inappropriate glee. Sitting atop the bared mattress and watching the sunlight alter the room, did I have any idea that this would be my life's future format? That this solitude would follow me? If I did, I would've wept for joy. An empty bedroom still excited me with possibility; I was yet to reach the point at which no bedroom I entered would ever seem empty.
Picture me there, like a pig in mud: sitting cross-legged, shirt off, on the off-white carpet, gnawing a baguette, finishing a pack of cigarettes before noon, pulling the box apart and holding the foil up to the light. What you are witnessing are the early stages of a long, imperceptible, drawn-out transition, the study of which means nothing at all, from bachelor to hermit. The former devotes himself to the study of himself. The latter seeks desperately for something just as interesting. Something only he, in his hermit hole, can master: Soap-carving? Millinery? Conspiracy theories? I watched the noon light play off the foil and wondered what would be next. The answer was so obvious that I could never have imagined it: a girl, introduced to me by the boy I once loved.
Excerpted from Oola by Brittany Newell. Copyright © 2017 Brittany Newell. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
On the Road,
About the Author,