Nothing is off limits in this searing account of love, loss and a life collapsing.
When an author you admire tells you that her life has imploded, that her baby has died, that her partner has left her and she must sell their house, and that at times she is so bereft she collapses in sorrow, you must read on. By chapter three of The Rules Do Not Apply I was ordering copies for every woman I love.
I knew Ariel Levy before as the strident pop feminist who chronicled raunch culture in her book Female Chauvinist Pigs (2005). Documenting young girls in Playboy clothing with Brazilian waxes branded as “empowering”, she observed how red-light-district sexuality was becoming mainstream.
That book marked Levy as a fun Germaine Greer who specialised in exploring gender and modern sexuality for the New Yorker magazine. The Rules Do Not Apply, however, shatters any preconceptions one might have of her. I read it in one breath until the early hours, reminded why some writing makes you feel you are no longer alone.
It details Levy’s life before and since her first book. She grew up bookish yet bolshie in a liberal Jewish family in New York. Her father encouraged her make-believe (always about knights and pirates rather than “playing house”) and her mother insisted that she never be dependent on a man.
Levy was consumed by establishing herself as “the kind of woman I wanted to become: one who is free to do whatever she chooses”. By 22, she was living in an East Village walk-up “with a roommate and roaches” and pitching her first story to New York magazine. It was about a nightclub for obese women.
Levy found freedom easily — on nights out in New York, at parties, waking up with men and women, in drinking and more drinking, and most of all in journalism: “Writing was the solution to every problem.” Her stories were adventures: interviewing revolutionary 1970s lesbians, the “Van Dykes”, and flying to South Africa in search of Caster Semenya, the runner required by the international athletic authorities to undergo a sex-verification test.
At 28, Levy fell madly in love with Lucy. They wed in Virginia — “on the wet grass with the sunflowers strung to the fence posts” — and made the vow that “I promise to make life a party”. For Levy, marriage did not mean resigning her hedonism. She did not even think it should mean being a “wife”, and she was indifferent to motherhood: “To become a mother, I feared, was to relinquish your status as the protagonist in your own life.”
Still, eventually pregnancy (“the wildest possible trip”) called. With Lucy, Levy decided to become a mother and was inseminated by a male friend. In doing so, she assembled “the kind of life I’d imagined I was due” (financially stable, with a home, a marriage, a son). “I had managed to solve the Jane Austen problems that women have been confronting for centuries … in an entirely unconventional way.” Then, within a month, it was all gone.
Levy’s honesty and grief are dazzling as she describes how her life collapses. No subject is off limits: infidelity, suicide, alcoholism. Unpicking the seams of her disintegrating life, she describes her “smutty daydream” of an affair with an ex-girlfriend who has had a sex change to become a man. This sociopathic incubus, as needy as he is manipulative, hacks Levy’s email to send Lucy cruel details of their affair: when they went to Ikea, when they had sex. Lucy crumbles into alcoholism, becoming so desperate that she tries to take her own life.
Most horrifying of all, Levy describes how, at five months pregnant, she loses her son, giving birth to him alone in a hotel room in Mongolia (where she is working on a story), yanking out her own umbilical chord, then watching him turn purple in her hands as she lies in a lake of blood. Rushed to hospital, he is pronounced dead. For Levy there is no happy ending, just the dark truth that “the 10 or 20 minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is nothing I would trade them for. There is no place I would rather have seen.”
Image: DAVID KLAGSBRUN