As we have grown decidedly more virtual and unembodied, recent years have brought us gorgeous writers of the body, such as Garth Greenwell, Lidia Yuknavitch and Melissa Febos.
Febos’ new book of eight essay/memoirs, “Abandon Me,” follows her 2011 memoir of addiction and sex work, “Whip-Smart.” Here she trades in clients’ high-risk desire for her own, acquiring many wounds during an affair with gorgeous, controlling, married Amaia, a professor whom Febos meets at a conference.
Amaia is a central character throughout, as is the man who raised Febos, a merchant marine, and her biological father, a dissolute alcoholic whom she barely knows. Explorations of her relationships with the three — who each inflict or are afflicted with abandonment — form the main narrative line.
Amaia’s erotic power makes the author shake with desire and fear its loss. In the essay “All of Me” she offers her bare tattooed body as a treasure map of her secrets. The first time they make love imprints itself on her mind’s eye like a negative, as she writes in “Leave Marks.”
“The five o’clock sun simmered on the horizon, grazing her shoulders with its fire as she knelt over my body. I watched her mouth open on my hipbone and leave a wet print that shone in the light.”
The visceral beauty of such scenes is matched in evocations of the sheltered Cape Cod where she grew up, its shores, lake and woodlands replete with childhood tests and dangers. Fairy tales are ribboned into the essays, as well as myth, philosophy, Jung, Rilke and pop culture mirrors such as “Freaks and Geeks” — and much more. Though initially rewarding, by book’s end intertextuality and digression begin to cluster and fuse like a lattice, screening Febos’ stunning gifts for metaphor and raw emotional truths.
Arguably, the more compact essays carry greater power. “Wunderkammer” traces Febos’ ambivalence about Amaia’s compulsive gift-giving: “I like to be cared for,” she admits, although she knows her lover’s gifts are a means of possession and obligation.
Febos tends to mythologize Amaia as “my beloved”; her father is ever known as “the sea captain.” Her childhood is marked by the captain’s long absences, and her beloved keeps twisting out of reach. Febos herself has effectively abandoned her biological father, a member of the Wampanoag tribe named Jon, although at last, in the 170-page title essay, she chronicles a tentative new relationship with him and her native ancestry, alongside the full history of her unsustainable bond with Amaia. In this ultimate essay she confronts the need to liberate herself from self-censure and fear, embracing abandon over abandonment.
Marian Ryan’s work has appeared in Slate, Salon, the Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications.
By: Melissa Febos.
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 308 pages, $26.
Event: Craft talk and reading, 7 p.m. March 9, Loft Literary Center, 1011 Washington Av. S, Mpls. Tickets $10-15.