by Katherine Faw
Published 2017 by MCD
$25.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0374279660
By Noah Sanders
There is a drum-like rhythm to Katherine Faw’s cold-hearted thriller, Ultraluminous, a repetitive pounding of stick to skin that builds bit by bit in speed and fervor, the tension drawing tighter and tighter until it implodes upon itself. In breathless, staccato paragraphs, Faw draws the world of K.—a high-end sex worker recently returned to New York from the Middle East—and her interactions with a quartet of ultra-rich clients. The reader is given little about K. aside from her profession and the robotic way she interacts with the world and the men she sleeps with. She is a jumble of broken glass insides held just barely in place by the strange, almost inhuman repetition of her life. The book is purposefully repetitive, similar scenes of sex and drug use played over and over again, a pattern of self-abuse subtly altered over the course of the book as K. slowly comes apart at the seams. Yet, Faw isn’t content to merely pull her character apart in glorious slow-motion, instead she injects a wavering line of mystery into the proceedings, a looming series of questions regarding K.’s past and what her ultimate goal, if any, actually is. The mystery does add a sense of urgency, but in the end, as the story jumps the tracks and everything gets suddenly bigger and brighter, the simple beauty of K.’s sluggish unwinding is lost in all the clamor.
K. is more than a creature of habit, she is a woman made real by simple, mundane order. She fucks a different man each week for money, she eats cheap Duane Reade sushi, she snorts a certain number of bags of heroin, and in the cracks between she attempts to exist as a real person. She is obsessed with patterns—in dancing, on her nails, in the men she sleeps with—because containing herself within a tightly structured way of living allows her some conceit that she actually exists. If K. performs these tasks she’s given herself—eat, drink, fuck, sleep—then she has choices, and if she choices she’s still alive. “In my life, I have choices,” K. says, “Everything is going fine.”
This is a book rife with intense sexual experience, but Faw doesn’t ever sugar-coat it, doesn’t add even a lick of romance to the proceedings. Sex for K. is a way of giving up her control, of becoming a reflection of whomever she’s sleeping with at the time, throwing her own will out the window and fully giving herself up. None of her lovers have names, merely descriptions, as if giving them human attributes would reflect back on her, forcing her to engage in the emotional side of her being. She sets rules for each of her lovers, routines and patterns that dictate the sex they have, but as K. begins to fall apart, the rules breakdown and the sexual episodes become stranger, more violent. K. is defined by her routines—sexual or otherwise—and in the moments where she interacts outside of either element of her life, Faw writes as if K. is an alien, and the small details of life are strange, potentially wonderful moments held under glass. “I eat a plain slice on a bench beside two white-haired women who are bitching about their mailman, who steals packages,” K. says, “and I almost start crying.”
Faw’s ability to use repetition as a tool is beautiful thing to withhold. Though Ultraluminous hums along with a speed-addled sort of energy, faster and faster as the reader becomes attuned to the rhythm of K.’s world, Faw uses the pace, and her blunt style of writing to create a false sense of, albeit bizarre, security. K.’s patterns become ingrained in the reading experience and as Faw slowly subverts—slight breaks here, small tweaks there—the comfort starts to fray, and though it always seemed inevitable, the dissolution of the narrator’s life, her routine, becomes apparent in the most nerve-pounding of fashions. A sick sense of enjoyment is derived from not only experiencing the ordered chaos of K.’s life, but watching it fall apart. “There is no grand pattern,” K. realizes late in the book, “Only the small, negotiable, meaningless patterns I have created that have not kept me safe.”
If Faw was willing to simply chronicle K.’s attempts at holding herself together, this could be a gritty classic, a pitch black character study of a woman clawing at the walls in an attempt to stop her own decline. Faw’s unyielding writing style, her tight rein over the book’s pace is breathtaking, and K. is a fascinating character, but Faw stumbles when she starts trying to answer the questions of why and what comes next. The end of the book, twenty pages of violent reckoning, blows up the pattern, but it feels unnecessary, a garish extroverted end to a book that reads best when it resides solely in the mind of its engrossing protagonist.