When it comes to enjoying the music of Lana Del Rey, I’ve never been happier to be an ex-music journalist. I don’t have to overthink her place in society, what it means that she was pitched as “indie” but turned out to have been a chancer going on ten years in the industry; maybe an industry puppet, maybe her own vision, maybe who knows (or cares). As a civilian, I get to enjoy the music of Lana Del Rey for what it offers: widescreen drama, with an unsparing, complicated and often submissive woman in the center of these sad songs.
There’s storytelling in these songs, from Born to Die to the even better Ultraviolence, where a girl who’s been around — from nothing and living in California to where she is now, all due to sheer force of will and a willingness to trade on her beauty — finds herself in sad situations with sad older men who she calls “Daddy.” It’s a take on the American dream that won’t quite end in the fame and fortune expected. One thing that’s alluring about it is its commitment to a persona — Lana Del Rey is never trying to please you. She’s in her own private reverie, living in her own movie about love, lust, and tragedy, a sad girl, the other woman to the very end.
When I was reading Merritt Tierce’s debut novel, Love Me Back, I couldn’t stop thinking about Lana Del Rey. Part of it is because Tierce has an equally unsparing eye when it comes to detailing the day-to-day, quotidian existence of her heroine, Marie, a single mother working as a waitress in a fancy Dallas steakhouse.
Sex and drugs and the question of “service” are on every page of this book. “He talked to you while he chewed and bits of lettuce fell out of his mouth, then he belched, then he offered to refill your water. If he came up behind me at a computer terminal sometimes he would stand close enough to me so I could feel his erection and once he said Meet me in the walk-in… It wasn’t very comfortable and I had bruises on my knees the next day.” The sex starts early and just keeps coming, relentlessly, and Tierce writes about it with a cold, clean eye. Nothing like judgement on either end, just observations: “September was John, October was Luke, and November was Damon.”
Tierce was one of the 2013 winners of the 35 under 35 honors from the National Book Award. She had won some honors, graduated from Iowa, and her short story “Suck It” was in a 2008 anthology called New Stories From the South. “Suck It” reappears in Love Me Back, and it feels like the heart of Marie’s story. She gets by, “If you have an affliction, any remorse or anguish, eat it, drink it, snort it, fuck it, use it, suck it, kill it.”
Yet the snaky little trick that this book pulls off is that while you’re reading about Marie’s life as a waitress, the men that come by, the drugs she does, the nights she makes last, there’s a story beside it, the story of Marie and how she got to her life in the service industry. It’s elliptical, torn up over the course of the novel, and it creates a tension and mystery at the heart of the sad waitress tales. The book remains observational and cool, and that’s part of its power.
What Love Me Back and Lana Del Rey have in common is that they are two pieces of art that have absolutely no interest in pleasing their audiences, at least from the point of view of offering a woman that’s eager to please at the center. Rather, they offer flawed, realistic, messy girls, waitresses, younger, other women, who end up doing what they want, making their lives into a mess, and there’s something fascinating about watching their choices spiral out into the world. They’re both works you have to lock into — it’s easy, on first glimpse, to judge the art, to be like, who the fuck is this and why should I care? But once you work through that, as a reader and a listener, there’s something deeper behind the initial resolute sadness, and it’s a pleasure to figure it out.
Tierce has her beautiful writing, Del Rey has her drama — between her voice and the lush arrangements of the songs — and both works center around a persona that, despite its best efforts, beguiles. I’m greedy for more works messing with persona and women’s choices the way that Tierce and Lana Del Rey do it. Let the wounded women take over, the bad girls in too much makeup; looking for something like transcendence in the black inky night.