A New York Times Notable Book
A New York Public Library Best Nonfiction Book of 2018
What does it cost a woman to unsettle old boundaries and collapse the social hierarchies that make her a minor character in a world not arranged to her advantage?
This vibrant memoir, a portrait of contemporary womanhood in flux, is an urgent quest to find an unwritten major female character who can exist more easily in the world. Levy considers what it means to live with meaning, value, and pleasure, to seize the ultimate freedom of writing our own lives, and reflects on the work of such artists and thinkers as Simone de Beauvoir, James Baldwin, Elena Ferrante, Marguerite Duras, David Lynch, and Emily Dickinson.
The Cost of Living, longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal in Nonfiction, is crucial testimony, as distinctive, witty, complex, and original as Levy’s acclaimed novels.
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THE BIG SILVER
As Orson Welles told us, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story. One January night I was eating coconut rice and fish in a bar on Colombia's Caribbean coast. A tanned, tattooed American man sat at the table next to me. He was in his late forties, big muscled arms, his silver hair pinned into a bun. He was talking to a young English woman, perhaps nineteen years old, who had been sitting on her own reading a book, but after some ambivalence had taken up his invitation to join him. At first he did all the talking. After a while she interrupted him.
Her conversation was interesting, intense and strange. She was telling him about scuba-diving in Mexico, how she had been underwater for twenty minutes and then surfaced to find there was a storm. The sea had become a whirlpool and she had been anxious about making it back to the boat. Although her story was about surfacing from a dive to discover the weather had changed, it was also about some sort of undisclosed hurt. She gave him a few clues about that (there was someone on the boat who she thought should have come to save her) and then she glanced at him to check if he knew that she was talking about the storm in a disguised way. He was not that interested and managed to move his knees in a way that jolted the table so that her book fell to the floor.
He said, 'You talk a lot don't you?'
She thought about this, her fingers combing out the ends of her hair while she watched two teenage boys selling cigars and football shirts to tourists in the cobbled square. It was not that easy to convey to him, a man much older than she was, that the world was her world too. He had taken a risk when he invited her to join him at his table. After all, she came with a whole life and libido of her own. It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character. In this sense, she had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with the usual rituals.
She asked him what it was that he was scooping up from his bowl with tortilla chips. He told her it was ceviche, raw fish marinated in lime juice, which was written in the menu in she smiled, I knew she was making a bid to be someone braver than she felt, someone who could travel freely on her own, read a book and sip a beer alone in a bar at night, someone who could risk an impossibly complicated conversation with a stranger. She took up his offer to taste his ceviche, then dodged his offer to join him for a night swim in an isolated part of the local beach, which, he assured her, was 'away from the rocks'.
After a while, he said, 'I don't like scuba-diving. If I had to go down deep, it would be for gold.'
'Oh,' she said. 'It's funny you say that. I was thinking my name for you would be the Big Silver.'
'Why Big Silver?'
'It was the name of the diving boat.'
He shook his head, baffled, and moved his gaze from her breasts to the neon sign for Exit on the door. She smiled again, but she didn't mean it. I think she knew she had to calm the turbulence she had brought with her from Mexico to Colombia. She decided to take back her words.
'No, Big Silver because of your hair and the stud above your eyebrow.'
'I'm just a drifter,' he said. 'I drift about.'
She paid her bill and asked him to pick up the book he had jolted to the floor, which meant he had to bend down and reach under the table, dragging it towards him with his foot. It took a while, and when he surfaced with the book in his hand, she was neither grateful nor discourteous. She just said, 'Thanks.'
While the waitress collected plates heaped with crab claws and fish bones, I was reminded of the Oscar Wilde quote 'Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.' That was not quite true for her. She had to make a bid for a self that possessed freedoms the Big Silver took for granted – after all he had no trouble being himself.
You talk a lot don't you?
To speak our life as we feel it is a freedom we mostly choose not to take, but it seemed to me that the words she wanted to say were lively inside her, mysterious to herself as much as anyone else.
Later, when I was writing on my hotel balcony, I thought about how she had invited the drifting Big Silver to read between the lines of her undisclosed hurt. She could have stopped the story by describing the wonder of all she had seen in the deep calm sea before the storm. That would have been a happy ending, but she did not stop there. She was asking him (and herself) a question: Do you think I was abandoned by that person on the boat? The Big Silver was the wrong reader for her story, but I thought on balance that she might be the right reader for mine.
Excerpted from "The Cost of Living"
Copyright © 2018 Deborah Levy.
Excerpted by permission of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 The Big Silver 1
2 The Tempest 5
3 Nets 11
4 Living in Yellow 15
5 Gravity 31
6 The Body Electric 41
7 The Black and Bluish Darkness 55
8 The Republic 67
9 Night Wandering 83
10 X Is Where I Am 97
11 Footsteps in the House 107
12 The Beginning of Everything 119
13 The Milky Way 127
14 Good Tidings 131