On Knowing and Not Knowing Marlena

Katherine Fusco

There’s a tradition in American literature of the minor character, the survivor, narrating the life of the charismatic tragic protagonist, be it Moby Dick’s Ishmael, The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, or even Lolita’s Humbert Humbert. The trick of such tales is in giving readers enough to sink their teeth into, while also indicating the limited nature of the narrator’s vision. The result is often a reminder of the limitations of all human interaction—a document of how hard it is to know another person in anything like his or her full complexity.

If this is generally the case, then it’s heightened when the protagonist is an addict who also happens to be a teen girl. In Julie Buntin’s Marlena: A Novel, she does the hard work of making such a young woman’s life visible. During the now-past Nevada Humanities Salon event that featured author Buntin, she spoke movingly of her desire to write of lives she hadn’t seen in print when she was a young reader. Though she read voraciously, she did not see the stories of young women like her own friend who died from addiction represented.

One of Marlena’s projects, then, is to make readers see and attend to the lives of those who might be easy to overlook, whether because of identity or stigma. In our conversation, Buntin talked about needing to overcome the anxiety that came from writing a book about teen girls, which might mean being seen as part of an “unserious” literary tradition. Now, however, she sees the topic of young women’s lives as vital and notes the important work of other writers such as Elena Ferrante who also document teen girls’ friendships. Among her experiences during her visit to Nevada, Buntin highlighted the conversations she had with high school students who saw themselves reflected in her novel.

Buntin discussed this matter of reflecting the lived experiences of individuals as the kind of intervention she, as novelist, might make in the opioid crisis. Asked by one audience member what we should do about addiction, Buntin answered that she was only a writer, but that as a writer, she could tell the stories of individuals. She explained that the response to her writing that made her angriest is when readers ask why she would bother writing about miserable, “trashy” people. Buntin’s novel is itself a form of resistance to such questions—an insistence that particular lives and stories matter and that all individuals are deserving of curiosity and empathy, even if their stories aren’t fully understood.

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Katherine Fusco is assistant professor of English at the University of Nevada. She has published on American literature and film and is currently working on her third book, which focuses on celebrity and identity in the 1920s and 1930s. You can see her work at www.katherinefusco.com. Katherine recently moderated a Nevada Humanities event, The Salon: Nevada Reads with Julie Buntin.

Maren Rush