At the beginning of The Nakeds, Lisa Glatt’s second and crystalline novel, Hannah Teller heads out to school after witnessing her soon-to-be divorced parents tear into one another in the dining room of their A-frame cottage in 1970s Southern California. The era is one of sexuality and revolution, a time of self-discovery and not just for the adults.
Hannah is walking, but she is also wishing “they lived on a street with sidewalks and that the neighbors’ lawns weren’t so neat and manicured. She walked on those lawns, tentatively, using stepping stones where she could find them. … The air was sweet from the roses to the left of her and sour from the garbage on her right. She held back tears and imagined her destination.”
As innocuous as her desires and the suburban landscape may seem, they intimate some of the central themes of the book — mainly, how being alive means living with desire and contradiction, and how often the way we surmount the mundane and the horrible, the ridiculous and disappointing is just by hanging in there and learning who we are and how we can endure.
Glatt conveys these messy complexities through the intersecting stories of Hannah, her parents Asher and Nina, and Martin, the drunk young man who hits Hannah on the street with his car and speeds off, “too afraid to come out and see what had become of the girl … as if she were capable of rising from the street to give him a beating, as if she were not an injured girl at all but a monster with great strength.”
Nowhere near a monster, but indeed a girl of vast inner resources, Hannah survives the accident, minus a spleen and with years ahead filled with leg casts, crutches and even more profound changes. Some of them surround her preoccupied father’s conversion into a “Jew for Jesus”; others require her to adapt to her new (and young) stepfather’s and mother’s growing interest in The Elysium, a nudist colony tucked into the oak-laden acreage of Topanga Canyon.
Glatt plots Hannah’s evolution from fearful, nervous child to a teenager who, if she does not wholly know her mind and heart, has the courage to figure out what lies there through trial and error.
Neither Hannah, her father, her overwhelmed mother, or even the restless and pathetic Martin ever resolve into the absolute roles of villain or wise adult. Instead, they exhibit all of the best and flawed and deepest parts of themselves: feigning interest in family stories while hiding a cave-black secret; playing gin rummy with their loved ones on the summer grass, then sneaking off for a lust-riddled tryst. They are at once filled with remorse and misogyny or with love and resentment. “Maybe he was right,” thinks Nina on her way to the grocery store to buy onions, after her new husband suggests entering into an open marriage. “Maybe she was afraid. She looked at him now in the car and thought about gluttony, about having too much of anything, a horrible abundance. ‘I give you enough,’ she said.”
The way Glatt blends the ordinary with the hidden rivers of the heart is part of what makes the novel so readable, as does the humor laced throughout even the most troubling scenes. After a dinner where Hannah’s stepmother is dressed in postpartum depression and a sauce-splattered robe, her father tries to discuss the state of Hannah’s soul while she tries to explain to him that she is a Jew who likes science.
“You know, Hannah,” Asher says, “You can ask Jesus into your heart and like science at the same time. You can believe Darwin too.” When Hannah responds that “Jesus isn’t for me,” Asher cries out “Mishegas! He’s for everyone.”
Glatt is also the author of two collections of poetry, and her sense of timing might be attributed to this skill set, which is not colored by lyrical descriptions but by precise and cinematic details that give The Nakeds its authentic feel. Time either hobbles along or flashes by with unnatural speed, just as it does in real life, and her characters feel like people we know and who, through the mind-reading powers of storytelling, we are now beginning to understand.
Midway through the novel Hannah admits to herself how dearly she longs to walk again, “how much she wanted it, and when Hannah thought of walking, it wasn’t a verb, but a noun, something she could hold in her hand like a book or clock. And when she imagined herself doing so, she wasn’t limping. In her dreams, her gait was perfect, balanced, and lovely to behold.” We don’t know if she will arrive at this place of perfection, but like her, we can always hope.
Emma Trelles is the author of Tropicalia, winner of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize.