Dryland is an ‘anti-coming out’ novel full of shifting surfaces and unplumbed depths, where the reality of relationships and queer desire are alluded to but never fully disclosed, writes Anna Kate Blair.
Dryland, Sara Jaffe’s debut novel from Cipher Press, begins with a multiplicity of surfaces. It opens in a newsagent where the protagonist, Julie, scans covers of swimming magazines. There is a ‘face obscured by splashes,’ and a sign nearby that says ‘No Reading’; there’s no easy way into things. Julie has answers ready for anyone who might question her skimming, but a stranger, standing nearby, tells Julie that the sign isn’t meant for her, anyway, gesturing to another shelf, and the reader’s gaze is shifted from the bodies of swimmers to those in pornographic magazines, hidden behind ripples of plastic.
It’s a cliché to talk about “diving into” a book centred upon swimming, but there are so many shades of blue on the cover of Dryland’s new edition that it’s necessary to get this phrase out of the way, to push into the pool itself. It feels natural to be seduced by surface here, because Dryland is a novel that’s about shifting surfaces, their transparency, opacity and duplicity, and the way that the surface interactions of adolescence, can, like water, reveal or distort the scale of things below.
Dryland is described, in the blurb, as an ‘anti-coming out novel,’ but it isn’t, really, because sexuality isn’t at the centre of the novel; a crush, here, isn’t exactly a false surface, but it’s certainly a fluctuating surface, an unfixed boundary that’s easily ruptured and gives way to something more. When the novel opens, Julie hates to be asked if she swims, but when Alexis, an older girl who offers her pretzels in Yearbook, asks the question, Julie buys a bathing suit, in secret, and joins the swim team. Julie’s attraction to Alexis provides direction for the plot, and some beautiful, painful moments, but Dryland’s peculiar gravity, to me, lies in the exploration of sibling relationships and the frustrations of adolescence.
In the newsagent where Dryland opens, it is the faces of swimmers that are notably concealed, and soon we realise that this is significant, that Julie is searching for somebody. Her older brother, Jordan, who almost made the Olympic Team, has moved to Berlin and his life is indistinct to Julie; she sees him as a swimmer, but she can’t really see him at all.
I thought, when reading Dryland, of Juliet Mitchell’s work on siblings in psychoanalysis. Siblings are neglected, in comparison to parents, teachers and even friends, in analyses of the ways that childhood shapes us. Mitchell writes that the complexity and significance of sibling relationships arrives, primarily, in the way that siblings introduce us to horizontal bonds and threaten our uniqueness; we love siblings as our mirrors but we struggle with the fear that these siblings render us unnecessary, obsolete.
Jordan was born before Julie; he is a model for the ‘next stage’ in development, as Mitchell suggests is often the case with an older sibling, but he’s also absent and his achievements are intimidating. Over the course of Dryland, Julie tries on her brother’s life as if it is a swimsuit, tight in some areas whilst ballooning in others. It’s necessary, Mitchell notes, for parents to mediate sibling relationships, visibly differentiating their children in order to show that there is room enough for both in the family and, by extension, the world. Julie’s parents are omnipresent yet rarely forthcoming, supportive and yet afraid to broach difficult topics, and Jordan is indistinct enough, known through trophies and magazines, that it’s unclear which of Julie’s ideas about his life beyond swimming are inventions and which are true.
Jordan was ‘a natural’ at swimming so Julie assumes that she, too, will be. ‘I want you all to think about who you want to be out there in the water over the next few months,’ says Coach, and Julie closes her eyes and anticipates visualising her brother. But Julie doesn’t see him, and quickly dismisses the exercise as pointless.
Julie struggles with swimming, but her struggles appear to come primarily from being seen, measured and found lacking. Swimming is ‘like sugar, like a dream,’ until Julie feels somebody’s hand tapping her foot, trying to pass her. She feels her body sailing, flying, in a ‘cool, fast color’ until she looks up and realises that she’s been left behind.
Julie fears Alexis seeing her swim, but Alexis doesn’t seem to see her at all, really, which is convenient for Julie yet a little devastating for the reader; it’s painful to realise that a crush can’t see you through their own projections and we see this, even as Julie doesn’t. “You’re modest”, Alexis says, when Julie claims the first practice ‘went okay,’ when in truth Julie’s performance was terrible. Alexis looks at Julie and sees Jordan. “In a way I think you don’t look like your brother, and in a way I think you do,” she says, later, in a more intimate moment, echoing the tension that animates Julie’s sense of self throughout the book. Jordan is part of the equation of attraction, for both Alexis and Julie, but this doesn’t make the relationship less significant or less queer.
Julie decides to swim the 500 Free, after Alexis tells her “distance can be kind of magical.” Julie repeats the line to Coach, passing off the reasoning as her own, and in repetition it takes on a particular significance. So much of Dryland is about distance, but a different type of distance to the one that Alexis and Julie are discussing; instead, it’s the distance between Portland and Berlin, between Julie and Jordan, and perhaps even the distance between Julie’s adolescence and the reader’s adulthood.
There’s something really devastating about adolescence, or at least it seems this way to me, and yet I find myself feeling envious, reading Dryland, for the formative pain of it all. I can identify with moments when I, like Julie, felt perplexed when a friend asked me about boys, but I never had an adolescent crush that tore at me or taught me about myself. I wish I’d had somebody that guided me, as Alexis does Julie, into my own experience of my body. I wish, also, that I’d paused to savour the small, sensual details of everyday life that Jaffe evokes: the softness and warmth of flannel in winter; the ‘warm, salty smell’ emanating from a pizza shop in the rain; the trickiness of cutting out magazine letters neatly.
I suspect that one of the reasons that adolescent pain still resonates as we get older is that so many of the mysteries that adolescence establishes are never solved. We never learn, really, what our classmates thought. We never know how our first crushes might have progressed had we, and the objects of those crushes, known ourselves better.
Julie lies often, using lying as a sort of armour, but she fantasises about telling Alexis, a girl she barely knows, stories that she’s beginning to believe are true. Julie tries to intuit what Alexis wants, shaping her actions and her own desires accordingly. She can’t, of course, entirely figure it out, which is as much or more Alexis’ fault than her own, and there’s a real horror to the novel’s climax, which is echoed in the prose, which leaves the reader feeling as disoriented, dizzy and drunk as Julie at a high school party.
As I finish writing this review, I think, again, about this idea of Dryland as an ‘anti-coming out novel.’ Earlier reviewers make so much of the fact that Julie never explicitly asks herself if she’s gay. It makes sense to me, though, with so much in Julie’s life unspoken, that desire never quite coalesces into taxonomy.
Julie asks questions of Ben, her brother’s friend; she’s trying to get at ‘something,’ but she doesn’t know what it is. Ben, though, assumes she’s being coy, labels her ‘priceless,’ and counters with: ‘“do you want to just ask me what you want to ask me?”’ They start talking, as at the opening of the book, about magazines, but they’re communicating at cross-purposes; Ben is talking about a pornographic magazine while Julie is talking about Swimmer’s World. ‘He laughed like there was a third person at the table who was telling the most insane joke,’ Julie thinks, frustrated. ‘I was sitting across my kitchen table from a person who could tell me everything, and he wasn’t telling me anything.’
It’s not easy to formulate the question of sexual identity in a time and place where queerness is largely unspoken, discussed only in codes that are tricky for a teenager to decipher. Julie does touch on the question of whether she’s gay, but she’s much more interested in asking about her brother than about herself, which seems natural given his mystery.
Dryland could be subtler sometimes, and at other points the reader longs for resolution, for answers to Julie’s many questions. But I’m reluctant to phrase this as criticism because, in Dryland, form matches content: adolescence is stumbling rather than smooth, and Julie, too, stumbles, and the book stumbles with her. I want to protect this book from harsh readers in the same way that I’d want to protect a teenager like Julie from cruel words. Dryland is sweet, like the scent of the green conditioner with which Alexis washes her hair, but it has the strength and sting of chlorine, too, and lingers like the memory of adolescence.
This piece was commissioned for our latest guest editorial, BAROQUE
The ‘baroque’ is an intemperate aesthetic. Once a period term to describe the visual arts produced in the seventeenth century, its use and significance has exploded over the last fifty years. No longer restricted to the fine arts, the baroque has fallen into pop culture and become an icon.
Inspired by the work of Shola von Reinhold, this series takes ephemera and excess as its starting point for a new exploration of the b a r o q u e. It wants to look back at the past and queerly experiment with it, to rip it up and reclaim a new space for the future – or, in von Reinhold’s words, ‘to crave a paradise knit out of visions of the past’. The b a r o q u e is present in moments of sheer maximalism, in ornament, frill and artifice. It celebrates the seemingly bizarre and the unintelligible, the redundant and fantastical. Disorienting and overwhelming, it offers a decadent way of experiencing present and past worlds.
Click here to see the full Call Out and submit to b a r o q u e, Guest Edited by Frankie Dytor.