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In “City of Laughter,” a Story Doesn’t Have To Be Complete To Be Meaningful

In Temim Fruchter’s debut novel City of Laughter, story is everything. Story, the way we tell it or don’t tell it, the shapes it takes, the weight we give to it, the way retellings can then reshape it or stretches of silence within a family can erase it altogether, is everything. Protagonist Shiva becomes obsessed — or possessed, more accurately — by her passion for story. Adrift following the death of her father Jon and a subsequent dramatic queer breakup from her girlfriend Dani, she goes to grad school to study Jewish folklore, taking particular interest in the work of S. Anksy, the Jewish writer and thinker with a playful and expansive approach to asking questions and documenting folklore. A research opportunity presents Shiva with the opportunity to return to her ancestral homeland in Poland and try to piece together the missing fragments to all the story she holds in her body.

Shiva feels long denied inherited narratives from the generations of women that come before her. Long simmering tension between her and her mother Hannah boils over after Jon’s death. Hannah doesn’t talk to Shiva. Or, more accurately, she doesn’t tell her things, doesn’t answer her questions. Shiva feels like there are so many unanswered questions about her grandmother Syl, who died the day she was born, leading to Shiva’s unusual name that pays tribute to death, and about her great-grandmother Mira, who died not long after that, a quiet and mysterious woman living in Florida who no one seems to want to talk about, who might be haunted by something.

As the reader, we’re granted more information about the invisible ties between these characters and the ways their desires echo in each other, and that dramatic irony works exceptionally well in a story so powered by the missing, silenced, or shape-shifted parts of a story. Shiva’s lack of access to her mother repeats Hannah’s lack of access to Syl, who makes Hannah burn her notebooks before she dies, notebooks whose contents have been the object of Hannah’s deepest curiosities since childhood. How much do mothers owe daughters about their inner lives? Syl says her notebooks are just for her, no one else, but she gives Hannah so little it’s hard to give full credence to this intense need for privacy.

Again, we can see the ways the past and present intersect, the patterns that emerge, even if the characters themselves remain often enshrouded in silence, frustrated in their quests for more answers. Narrated in alternating points of view that sort of cascade into one another rather than being delineated by clearly marked sections or by a fixed pattern and including an omniscient Messenger character, the novel deftly moves between generations, with Fruchter weaving in folklore — much of it creatively imagined or reimagined, as an author’s note at novel’s end explains — in ways that surprise and also lend some rich textual ambivalence open to multiple interpretations. Many characters seem to be messengers. There are healers and spirits, too. But even while constructing a complex narrative steeped in the everyday magic of coincidence and signs, Fruchter never gives in to wholly contrived magical thinking. There are small revelations of course; the characters do find some of the answers they seek. But the process of gathering those answers is circuitous and incomplete.

From Shiva’s ache for answers emerges a striking portrait of the power of queer imagination when reconstructing our stories and histories. “Her friends—queer and trans people, Jewish people, people of color—were people whose ancestors’ stories had often been hidden, erased, lost, or coded,” Fruchter writes early in the novel. “Absent evidence of the lives and joys of their predecessors, they were left only speculation.” Speculation, though, can fuel a story. It can for queer people feel just as real, just as tangible as something explicitly “provable.” City of Laughter understands this well.

Everything about the novel feels so queer, from the way desire is compositely rendered on the page to the way the narrative even moves through time and between those alternating points of view. Shiva, Hannah, Syl, and Mira’s stories collapse and collide into one another. Sometimes we seem to be traveling through time as if in a spiral. Other times, we move linearly and with great realism, such as this simple sentence: “Winter break had been brief and busy and whiskey-sodden.” Often in the novel, we are moving through time like this, in ways that are descriptive even as nothing is technically happening. Shiva lingers on park benches, observing and imagining. She checks and avoids emails. The cadence of the novel feels both wondrous and often circadian, Fruchter imbuing the mundane with details that feel anything but.

The queer relationships throughout the novel are lived in and familiar. While we mostly get to know Dani through the lens of her betrayal and the breakup, small flashbacks hit hard, such as this gorgeous bit of sex writing:

“On top of Dani, she found she could issue wordless commands made entirely of vertiginous desire. She quickly developed both a voracious acuity, understanding the language of Dani’s clenched fists or her braided legs, and a quiet capacity for wicked benevolence, withholding pleasure until, at last, she gave it so thoroughly she thought they both might die of it.”

Queer friendship is foundational to the novel, too. Shiva’s friendship with Levi, who she briefly dated, is intimate and complex but also drama-free. I’ve long loved the trope of a dinner party from hell, but City of Laughter introduced me to the wonders of the opposite: a lovely dinner party that unspools into one of those nights full of wine, stories, laughs, and queer kinship that almost exists outside of time and space, a perfect little snow globe of cozy, congenial warmth. While there’s plenty of drama to the Dani situation, Fruchter also makes a great case for queer relationships in fiction that aren’t necessarily messy or fraught but still feel real and propulsive.

The ways Shiva develops crushes, uses dating apps, flirts, and yearns, at some points projecting all her desires onto an overseas stranger in ways that are ultimately unfair and yet understandable all read as extremely familiar to me as a queer femme, which is how Shiva identifies as well. But it’s when Fruchter really nestles into the nooks and crannies of that identification that then takes this to a whole new level of queer storytelling. Shiva sees a queer femme in her grandmother Syl — or, at least, in her imagined rendering of Syl, but this is a novel that doesn’t draw distinct lines between the real and the imagined. Echoes of queerness and of latent desires reverberate throughout the four generations

City of Laughter contains so many layered and textured queer concepts and contexts: the expansiveness of queer life; queer desire that can be spoken or unspoken but is just as meaningful either way; and a queer dismantling of investigation. A heteronormative approach to investigation means we ask questions, seek “proof,” and then answer the question and say that’s that. Shiva’s voyage to Warsaw and to Ropshitz complicates that, and Fruchter’s approach to storytelling throughout the novel does, too. Consider this, one of my favorite passages from the novel:

“Before she’d finally emerged into the queer and expansive life she was finally beginning to live, so many of her unformed questions had been about how to inhabit identities she didn’t quite yet  understand. How to want. These questions had never required articulation. They took the form of fashion experiments, like walking out the front door in high-heeled boots and trying to strut. They took the form of experiments in desire, buying a cock at an inappropriate hour of the morning—brilliant silicone magenta, currently gathering dust in her nighstand drawer—after a night spent in lace, trading queer erotica readings with Dani, eager to feel the cock’s malleable heft hang from her like nothing ever had. They took the form of experiments in femme excess, trying to move fully into herself—her body, her voice, her laugh, a bold color, a low cut—without worrying she’d expand past her own capacity.”

On her journey of self-discovery and past-discovery, Shiva uses queer experimentation and queer investigation to better understand the very questions she’s asking. It’s a romantic and somewhat unrealistic pursuit to want to walk in your great-grandmother’s steps and assume you’ll crack open all the revelations you might be seeking. And by eschewing that sort of neatly packaged storytelling, Fruchter gives us something much deeper and more profound. In a queer investigation, “proof” can look like an unearthed stone whose story you might not know but you can imagine.

With City of Laughter, Fruchter has crafted an intellectual but still deeply emotional narrative, one that pauses to contemplate but never feels lost in its musings and meanderings. Threaded throughout are lovely passages asking us to stop and consider certain language. “To truly immerse, you must at some level understand the word immerse as onomatopoetic. Make it so that the line between you and the water doesn’t exist. Make yourself porous,” Fruchter writes of the mikveh ritual Hannah is so attached to. These points when the narrative lens zooms out and seems to bloom beyond the characters’ lives give City of Laughter its charm and makes it, well, a genuinely immersive read. Conventional wisdom would have us believe a porous story is unsatisfying, but City of Laughter proves quite the opposite. Lines between generations can melt away. Holes in a story can frustrate, but they can also be filled with queer imagination.

City of Laughter by Temim Fruchter is out now.

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Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya

Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya is the managing editor of Autostraddle and a lesbian writer of essays, short stories, and pop culture criticism living in Orlando. She is the assistant managing editor of TriQuarterly, and her short stories appear or are forthcoming in McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Joyland, Catapult, The Offing, and more. Some of her pop culture writing can be found at The A.V. Club, Vulture, The Cut, and others. You can follow her on Twitter or Instagram and learn more about her work on her website.

Kayla has written 810 articles for us.

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