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In ‘We Were the Universe’, Grief and Motherhood Are Horny

In Kimberly King Parson’s debut novel We Were the Universe, narrator Kit can’t stop thinking about her dead sister. Everything, every flickering light, presents the risk of ricocheting her back in time, back in place, the recent loss of her sister Julie unprocessed and ever-present. Also, in Kimberly King Parson’s debut novel We Were the Universe, narrator Kit can’t stop thinking about fucking strangers. These obsessive thoughts about loss and death, about sex and unbridled lust collide and constellate, yielding a heartrendingly sad and gut-bustingly hilarious novel that gets at the galactic nature of grief.

We’re talking all kinds of strangers Kit thinks about fucking: Bad Dad, the handsome married playground dad who knows he’s handsome; a mysterious woman on the playground whose peculiarities are easy to ignore when Kit’s so lost in the contours of her own fantasies; her toddler daughter Gilda’s young gymnastics instructor. “It’s not that I want to masturbate in the vestibule of the Tiny Toads gymnastics class, specifically,” Parsons writes just over a dozen pages into the book, and at once I knew it was a novel for a twisted bitch like me, someone who loves to find the horny side of just about everything, even something as wretched as deep grief.

Neither that haunting, destabilizing grief nor the exhausting repetitions of parenting routines with Gilda get in the way of Kit’s frequent fantasies and persistent porn consumption. If anything, the lack of control presented by both motherhood and the death of her sister — as well as her mother’s troubling descent into hoarding back in her hometown — amplifies Kit’s latent libido, which she never acts on with others but instead keeps locked up and private, a fuckfest forever festering in her mind. Told in first person present tense, We Are the Universe is indeed intensely interior. We rattle around in Kit’s head as she navigates the simultaneous chaos and mundanity of early motherhood. Heightened cerebral experiences — panic attacks and drug trips, to be specific — that are difficult to evoke in writing effectively and without cliches appear here in immersive, charged, definitely unhackneyed prose.

Rather than divided into neat chapters, the novel is split up into thick parts, six of them in total, with only occasional section breaks inside those parts to provide brief pauses, but if the experience of reading the novel feels a bit overwhelming, a bit relentless, I think it’s by design. The book’s circadian rhythms are about as calm and measured as Kit’s, which is to say not at all. She can’t get through a grocery run without everything completely unraveling. She screams in her sleep. She’s still breastfeeding long past the socially acceptable age for Gilda to be. Likewise, the novel itself is disturbed and distorted in its craft. Two of the six parts break form to great effect. Part Three, “The Pink Rug,” opens: “Like a dream, this happens in the present tense, is still happening.” Timeline-wise, we’re in flashback when Kit and Julie are young, tripping on mescaline from a San Pedro cactus with two friends, but indeed the section unfurls in present tense, more like a reliving than a retelling, and also in second person, making us Kit, making Kit her younger self, zooming in. The novel’s sixth and final part again breaks form, and though I’m wont to give away too much in these reviews, this is one sleight of hand I won’t reveal here. But this sixth part is both connected to that fourth part and also a refraction of it.

Crucially, We Were the Universe doesn’t get lost in its own interiority or become overly cerebral, the physical world detailed and active, too. Small Texas town Pivot where Kit lives her adult life and smaller Texas town Wink where she flails through youth with Julie are sticky, ovenbaked places. Kit escapes her daily life briefly with her child-ambivalent, recently dumped gay best friend Pete in Montana, all big skies and hot springs. Nature is both beautiful and unsettling here, Kit taken out of her usual surroundings but still haunted by memories, loss, the things she keeps from Pete and from her well meaning but often clueless husband Jad.

Kit has her internal versions of the characters around her, but we also get glimpses of who they really are through their interactions with and relationships to her. Friendship, for example, isn’t at the forefront of the novel, but it’s a persistent thrum beneath the surface. I adore art that features best friends between a queer woman and a gay man (a dynamic that has been a consistent throughline in my own life and yet is oddly rare in fiction), but I’m also drawn to the contrasts between Kit’s relationship with Pete and her relationship with Yes, a close friend from childhood who was also in a band with Kit and Julie and has now become Kit’s motherhood confidante (not that Kit really listens to any of her firm but sage advice). There’s a difference between “back home” friends and friends who know the new, adult version of you.

And while we’re talking relationship dynamics, I’d be remiss not to note just how magical and composite the writing of sisterhood is in this novel. I’ve long told people my sister and I share a form of telepathic connection usually only associated with twins, despite the fact we’re two and a half years apart, and never have I seen that kind of nearly mystical connection rendered on the page as convincingly as here. There’s memory mixing, sure, a lot of siblings do that, but then there are those weird paranormal rifts in the universe that can happen between sisters. At one point, a young Kit’s fantasy spills over into Julie’s head. Strange but not impossible. Kit’s sliding-scale therapist attempts to explain away some of the coincidences Kit experiences, but don’t so many supposedly explicable coincidences in life feel beyond the realm of our universe? Even in death, Julie’s still tethered to Kit beyond just figurative ways.

Kit’s so bereft and adrift that it’d be perfectly understandable for her to seek out sex and drugs as a means of escape, especially since risky sex and drug usage have long been a part of her life, but that’s the problem: She has already exhausted these coping mechanism cheat codes. Long before Julie died, Kit milked those mechanisms way past their usefulness, and besides, she wants to be present for Gilda. Very, very present. Some people parent the way they were parented, and some parent the way they weren’t, Kit overwriting her father’s absence and her mother’s neglectfulness and general disinterest in parenting (“trouble wasn’t the sort of thing we could get into at our house,” Kit recalls of the complete lack of consequences for her and Julie’s shoplifting habit) with being, almost, too present for Gilda, who sleeps in the bed with her and Jad and, again, breastfeeds despite already having an impressive vocabulary.

And long before Julie died, Kit was already losing her. This is due in a literal sense to addiction, portrayed with great complexity in the novel, but it’s also partially due to that inexplicable sisterly telepathic connection. There’s a prescience to Kit’s moving away from Wink, pulling away from Julie, like she’s practicing saying goodbye. But of course, nothing can actually prepare her for it.

We Were the Universe eschews the conventional grief novel in its horniness, the conventional motherhood novel in its queerness, and even the conventional sex novel in its emphasis on fantasy over reality. It’s a sex novel in which not so much sex actually happens in the present timeline, but rather sex is recalled, sex is imagined. Whereas many sex novels are about literal sexual escapades, Kit’s escapades are in the past (she does have sex with Jad, but this sentence sums it up pretty well: “This is sex in marriage: confused euphemisms, reality TV.”), a mental bank into which she constantly reaches and pulls out amalgamated memories like a horny archivist. Kit’s bisexuality is established casually from the start and remains conflict-free throughout, though queer desire and fantasy are written with both directness and wonder. When Julie and Kit are young, they flip through both Playboy and Playgirl magazines, and Kit wonders when she comes out to Julie if the dual subscriptions made her queer, yielding this exchange:

“No way,” Julie said. “I always fantasized about the girls too, but I knew I was straight.”
“Because I wanted to be them,” Julie said. “I wanted to be a woman getting done by a dude. Did you want to do the girls or be them? Or do the dudes or be the dudes?”
“Yes,” I said. “All of it. Everything.”

Yes, all of it, everything. I thought about this line a lot as I read the rest of the novel, this all-encompassing feeling of desire, hunger for sex, presented so baldly and also not as a problem to be solved or fixed. Not only is there compelling bisexual representation here, there’s compelling switch representation as well, a perhaps even rarer thing to find in fiction, Kit’s fantasies encompassing both being and getting fucked. The erotic can be just as strange and amorphous and shifting as grief.

We Were the Universe by Kimberly King Parsons 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 861 articles for us.


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