The Unreprinted: Notice by Heather Lewis
A look at the final word from a somewhat obscure writer whose life was cut short.
Welcome to another edition of The Unreprinted, where I look at books that are currently no longer in print anywhere. In today’s edition, I look at a disturbing novel by Heather Lewis, a tragic and somewhat forgotten author whose works are all currently out of print.
Heather Lewis seems to have been mostly forgotten by the literary world. Even her Wikipedia has little description beyond “an American writer” and a short biography. All three of her books are now out of print and difficult to find. In her lifetime, she seems to have been critically acclaimed throughout the 90’s, if not particularly popular.
Notice seems to be the most infamous of her books. It wasn’t published until 2004, two years after she committed suicide in 2002. It was actually the second book that she had written, but wasn’t published in her lifetime due to the distributing content. Recently, it seems have developed a bit of infamy among internet reviewers. Especially the ones who seek out the most disturbing books they can find. Myself included.
Notice follows a young woman named Nina. Despite having a job and living with her parents, she turns to prostitution. Her reasoning is that she views it as making her deep sexual trauma something physical, taking what was inflicted on her as an exchange without affection and reenacting it by turning tricks.
One of her regulars eventually hires her to come to his house and stay as a live-in sex slave. There, she learns he’s a deeply sadistic man. He regularly tortures his wife, Ingrid, and she finds out that he’s reenacting sexual acts that he inflicted on their teenage daughter, including one that eventually killed her.
Nina and Ingrid eventually grow close and develop a relationship, plotting to leave the sadistic husband together. When Ingrid takes off one day, Nina simply goes back home. However, Ingrid’s husband has a further reach than she anticipated. He has her arrested, assaulted by the police, and forced into a treatment facility.
At the facility, she meets a therapist named Beth. While Beth is assigned to keep her off the streets and off drugs, she also begins a love affair with her. A love triangle between Nina, Ingrid, and Beth begins. All the while, the threat of Ingrid’s husband seeking further retribution looms overhead.
The style of the book reminds me a lot of Less Than Zero. It has a very flat, detached voice, even when describing acts of intense sex or extreme violence. Often, it reads like Nina is reaching to express the intensity of her emotions, but can never quite grasp them.
“I spent the day in bed nursing a loneliness too large to ignore. A lovesick that wouldn’t let me alone. This was the place I called her from and so I wasn’t in my right mind.”
The afterward by author Allan Gurganus notes that the style is similar to a hard-boiled detective book that instead focuses on the victim rather than hero of the book. In doing so, it gives voice to an otherwise traditionally voiceless character.
It may not be intentional, but I also couldn’t help but see a parallel to the book The Image by Jean de Berg (a pen name for Catherine Robbe-Grillet). That book is an S&M erotica novel wherein a submissive brings in a substitute for herself for the dom to act his desires on until she finds herself able to submit herself. Notice, however, turns this on its head in an extremely dark way.
Nina is not just a third for Ingrid and her husband, nor a substitute for Ingrid. Ingrid’s sadistic husband is entirely in control and uses Nina as a substitute to reenact the sexual abuse of his daughter. Likewise, Nina seems to take both Ingrid and Beth as both lovers and substitute mothers.
While Nina lives with her parents, she says little about them, but makes it clear she has a very poor relationship with them. Both Ingrid and Beth take protective, maternal roles with Ingrid trying to protect Nina from her husband and Beth trying to keep her sober and off the street. Nina, in returns, develops a sexual relation with them. For her mother figures, she can only return their love in a sexual manner and her father figures are either horribly abusive (Ingrid’s husband) or completely absent (Beth’s barely mentioned husband).
This reading might be too Freudian on my part, I admit.
Like many stories where the protagonist seeks self-annihilation through acts of self-abuse, “transgression,” or just plain recklessness, the book climaxes in an intense act which leaves Nina permanently changed. Nina is attacked by two drug dealers hired by Ingrid’s husband who proceed to rape her and mutilate her vagina. This act of mutilation ultimately seems to drive away all the people she met, this apparent castration making her no longer viable as either a sexual partner or a target of sexual abuse.
This castration isn’t even liberating for Nina. While she’s able to develop a relatively normal life afterwards, she still finds the pain of her trauma following her everywhere. The book ends on her resigning herself to being trapped within her pain and without a real way to seek relief.
Notice is many things. It’s a deeply disturbing noir story. It’s an extremely dark lesbian romance. It’s a timeless examination on how powerful men use their position to abuse women. It’s a complex work of psychological fiction.
Heather Lewis put an intense sense of pain and trauma into this work. In the same way that pain and trauma always remain with us, I see this as a book that will resurface in spite of its obscurity. It’s a book that well-deserves to return to print and I believe it will soon. One can only hope.