CONTENT WARNING: GRAPHIC SEXUAL DEPICTION FROM ILANA MASAD’S NOVEL ALL MY MOTHER’S LOVERS.
REVIEW by Hugh Blanton
It’s fairly difficult for the safe and secure American bourgeois to write engrossing stories about themselves, but lord knows they try. A Great American Novel at one time may have been about trying to survive out on a wild and hostile frontier. At another time it may have been a story of enduring war in your own back yard. Over decades of rapid progress, America has made itself a world leader in comfort and satiety. A road tripping story today would have to be told in a Prius with NPR on the radio and global warming podcasts on the smartphone. You’d think that such a story would be too lame for anyone to even try to tell—but someone did.
All My Mother’s Lovers is the debut novel from Ilana Masad. Our main character, Gen Z’er Maggie Krause, has just found out that her mother has been killed in an automobile accident. When looking through her mother’s things trying to find a will, she comes across five letters addressed to five men Maggie has never heard of before. The will specifies that the letters are to be mailed in the event of her mother’s (Iris Krause) death. Maggie says fuck that and hops in the Prius to hand deliver them herself (even though one is addressed to a PO box), leaving her father and brother to sit shiva without her, and our road trip begins.
As we can infer from the title of the book, some of these letters are to men Iris had affairs with. She wanted the affairs to be kept secret and hidden from her family, so why she’d leave the letters lying where they could be found by anybody is a plot hole you could drive a Mack truck right up the butt of. Ilana Masad is an editor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Prairie Schooner, hopefully she catches other people’s errors better than her own.
Maggie is a lesbian in a somewhat committed relationship with her lover Lucia. Mother conflict has almost always been the bedrock of lesbian fiction and poetry, and All My Mother’s Lovers is no exception. Maggie describes her mother as ‘A mom not quick to express love,’ and then there’s the requisite are you dating anybody?‘s, the dreams that haunt Maggie in her sleep, the curt replies that Maggie takes for hostility. Maggie even feels shortchanged when her mother wills her a pendant necklace while willing her engagement and wedding rings to her brother Ariel.
The sex scenes here have enough vulgar grossness to make even E.L. James cringe. The novel in fact opens up with our main character Maggie being eaten out and in mid orgasm when she gets the call from her brother that their mother has died in a car crash. Maggie looks down at her girlfriend and sees her girlfriend’s ‘chin glistening’ with vaginal transudate—and it just gets cringyer from there. Old (straight) people having sex in retirement homes is something you might expect to hear about in a Steve Martin or Robin Williams stand-up routine, but Masad writes about it completely unironically here, giving us the details of sagging skin, aching joints and an inability to orgasm. We have another scene where we get, ‘sizzles up and down her flesh,’ which of course makes one think of frying hamburger more than erotica. As we near the end of the novel and think we may not have to utter another ‘Eew!’, the novel closes with, ‘Her underwear is fairly soaked.’
With a few exceptions, good queer fiction pretty much died with Jean Genet. Genet made no efforts to fit in with mainstream life, made no efforts to endear himself to the world, and in fact told the world to go fuck itself. Queer fiction now screams for and demands acceptance from a world that scarcely even rejects it (except for those backward and stone age societies where novels like this will never be read anyway). Now LGBT fiction and poetry also tasks itself with social justice, climate change, and other issues of wokeness. (The LGBT acronym has now expanded to LGBTQ1A2S+, I found out while reading this novel. I was socially engaged enough back in the late 90’s/early 00’s when the Q was tacked to know what the letters stood for, but now I have no idea what the newer letters of the acronym mean, and I ain’t googling it. – HB)
All My Mother’s Lovers had the potential to be a real page turner as we anticipate who Maggie might find as she looks for the men the letters are written to, but Masad’s bizarre take on stream of consciousness writing, the internal unspoken thoughts of the characters, ruins it. In lieu of action and dialogue, the characters:
wonder, (wonders if people are being nice to her because she’s white.)
thought, (Maggie has thought then, as she does now, that there’s nothing safe about being dead.)
felt, (she should drink an IPA because that’s what everybody else was drinking.)
on and on. It’s a multi-person stream of consciousness train wreck.
As Maggie thinks more about her mother’s affairs, she becomes more and more outraged. The outrage has to be taken by the reader with a grain of salt—Maggie herself has practiced infidelity, even revenge infidelity, in her own past. Perhaps Masad wants us to see Maggie as an imperfect person, but she is asking the reader to suspend a little bit too much disbelief with the level of rage Maggie is expressing, as if she’s a Focus on the Family evangelist.
Like most people of her generation, Maggie spends a lot of time on her smartphone and social media. Her Facebook is mostly shared articles about ‘queer injustice, climate change, and threats to healthcare.’ (We are also alerted to the scourge of cultural appropriation when Masad throws in a filler character for a very brief appearance—a white guy with dreadlocks.) Maggie and her friends are woke enough that they were all dealing with anxiety and fear after the election, and she of course does not mention President Trump by name. Even Lucia’s cat seems to be woke as it ‘curled up next to Lucia, intuitively knowing her person needed comfort.’
This annoyingly persistent fad of social justice and climate change in publishing today serves not much more purpose than to throw cold water on the story that’s supposed to be there. After almost a decade, publishers are still trying to wring the ‘revolutionary’ out of it. Simon and Schuster employees threatened a walkout in April of 2021 in protest of S&S’s two book deal with highly unwoke Mike Pence. There isn’t really much of a demand from readers for woke writing and stories (even from readers in the age group of our fictional Maggie Krause here), it’s a demand from the publishing industry people who can not tolerate thoughts and opinions different from their own. The sooner this fad is dead and buried, the better. Hopefully whatever comes next won’t be worse.
All My Mother’s Lovers
by Ilana Masad, 323 pages