‘Zipper Mouth’ by Laurie Weeks

Momentum has a language, and in her long awaited debut novel Zipper Mouth (Feminist Press), Laurie Weeks speaks it fluidly. Every verb pops, and sentences fling themselves forward with colorful climax. In a slim 158 pages, there may not be a denouement—no coming of age, no epiphany, no peak accomplishment—but there is so much movement that to finish the book is to come to a dizzying halt. The novel tells the jarring love story of a strung out young dyke, traipsing around the squalor and beauty of New York in the mid 90s. Influenced by the manic pages of William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker, among others, Zipper Mouth a magnetic narrative well worth the trip.

It would be easy to catalog Weeks’ novel with its peers on the tiny bookshelf of urban lesbian novels and memoirs, addled with drugs and girls. Weeks is already a name synonymous with them: her stories have been anthologized alongside Michelle Tea and Eileen Myles, she was a screenwriter for the film Boys Don’t Cry, has toured with queer poetry troupe Sister Spit, and is even one of the shouted Hot Topics in the Le Tigre song of the same name. Zipper Mouth is dynamic: this story isn’t being told in the heat of the moment with no time around it, but instead slips back and forth between childhood and the fucking up of the present life, giving the novel the breadth that just a few days in the life could not provide.

Scenes of a girl’s childhood (the “I” of the book remains nameless, sometimes seeming to be Weeks herself and sometimes not) set the reader up with just the right amount of identification with a character who later shoots up, makes messes, and fails with huge amounts of self deprecating humor. The first episode of longing Weeks describes is the girl’s teenage love of the actress Vivien Leigh, which then quickly leads to the novel’s main object of unrequited love: straight, straight Jane. Maybe this is the coming of age of Weeks’ novel: the all too frequent lesbian plunge into obsessive love with a straight woman.  Weeks is flawless in embodying the way we spoke when we were young and reckless and in the jaws of love. When Jane calls the girl to say “I have to see you,” she sums up the sensation as so:

I’ve pursued a few girls; this is the luxurious part, when the friend thing begins to shift, slippage in the electrical impulses between you, waves start to oscillate in sync whether you know it or not, you’re on the phone, say, discussing whatever, and halfway through, say, a character-assassination sentence about someone, you realize you’ve slid through some portal into a delicious game of anticipation, so surprising although expected that you might drag it out a bit to be sure and you half want it to go forever but the tension’s unbearable and finally unsustainable, you hit the tipping point and Jane calls like you knew she would.

The taut novel maintains this tipping point throughout, the agonizing portrait of one girl screwing mercilessly with another girl’s heart, constantly on the brink with no resolution. She gives painfully careful attention to those intense moments of longing before the object of your desire is ever yours—if you’re ever lucky enough to even cross that line. But even with all of this tension, the story never suffocates. It’s cut with just enough fantasy, recounted dreams, letters to Sylvia Plath or Judy Davis, self-deprecation, lists such as “Times You Have Touched Me” and snaps of childhood. The book’s narrator is a greatly self-aware fuck up.

Especially in writing the life of a junkie: Zipper Mouth nails it all, from the ridiculous conversations when high, to the choke-hold obsession when looking to cop, and the absurd humor that comes when you’re not in it (in one scene where she and Jane are high Weeks writes of them “vomiting companionably.”) And while this grimy version of the city has been captured on the page over and over again, it’s also a New York that any lover of the urban will never grow tired of. “September light shattered against the cars,” she writes. “Sunlight showered down onto hubcaps, bike rims, chain-link fencing, aluminum cans. How best to use the gleaming day?”

The voice is infectious, especially in a short series of letters to Sylvia Plath, which pop up towards the end of the book. They begin: “Hi I am fourteen and I know you’re dead but it’s 1 a.m. and my dad is swearing and falling around in the pool like a drunken pork sausage.” Here’s the humor, the tragedy, the trajectory from who you were then to who you are now, all packed into a letter. The girl writes to Plath of how she felt to first read The Bell Jar, and for those of us who may have found our first selves in copies of Valencia or Blood And Guts In High School, we can relate:  “For the first time I saw someone in a book portraying emotions that were exactly mine. I never even knew it was okay to write about them!” Oh, the teenage use of exclamation point: Weeks captures it all.  And later: “Sylvia, there’s so much to express but it’s a school night.” It’s a place every lonely, hungry teenager has been.

The book’s pulse is evident on every page, catapulting itself forward. Pop culture’s current nostalgia for the 90s makes it a good a time as ever to debut such a slicing portrait of that time. It’s a novel that has been well worth the wait.

Zipper Mouth
by Laurie Weeks
Feminist Press
Paperback, 9781558617553, 394pp.
October 2011