The poet Eileen Myles is, of course, also an accomplished writer of fiction, and her recent novel Inferno has just been named one of the five books on the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List. In a glowing review of the book on Slate, Sasha Weiss hails Myles’s coming-of-age novel for capturing something essential about the experience of being a young and hungry writer in a New York that no longer exists:
Many New Yorkers suffer from a suspicion that they arrived here too late. Once, not so long ago, artists clustered in the Village, living in tiny, cheap apartments that squeezed them out onto the pavement, into theaters and music clubs. There was a fluidity between making work and hanging out; the art of New York painters and poets and novelists—the conversational wit, the spontaneity, the melding of high and low, pristine and dirty, from the ’50s up until the early ’80s, reflects this flow. Though you might yearn to, you can never hang out in that ragged, glittery New York—but you can hang out in Eileen Myles’s funny, wild, open-hearted version of it, in her second novel, Inferno. It will teach you that yearning has always been the primary emotion of New York’s artists.
Inferno—the second of the five books we judges are naming to the Slate/Whiting Second Novel List—is about a young woman, Eileen Myles, who is newly arrived in New York. She’s plunged into the downtown scene of the ’70s, ferociously determined to write, desiring other women, stomping around town. The book feels like it was put down in gusts of inspiration, between drinking and sex and poetry readings. It can be read that way, too: between meals, on the toilet, or standing under an awning waiting for a break in the rain. Or you can sit with it for a while, in the wintry light of an apartment cased in steam heat, looking out the back window. But the streets are its true territory; its weather is the storm of language.
Weiss acknowledges that the story of a young bohemian artist navigating the gritty city streets in search of experience is a familiar one, but she stresses what is so distinctive and new about Myles’s contribution to this lineage:
Her vantage point is also fresh. I’ve read plenty of kunstlerromans about brave and suffering young men; I hadn’t, until now, read one by a lesbian poet from a working-class family in Boston, with a thrashing, generous intelligence. She explicitly models her book on Dante’s (it’s broken into three, with its own hell, purgatory, and heaven, aligning roughly with different phases in Myles’s sexual and poetic career). In doing so Myles asserts her ambition to imprint her particular set of experiences on the canon.
And here’s a fun trailer for the book: