Review: Love Me Back

Novel by Merritt Tierce
Review by Kelsey Osgood
Issue No. 7 – March 2015

Being asked to review contemporary fiction occasionally drives me to employ the corny opener of a stand-up comedian. So, on that note: Is it just me or are we seeing a wave of novels narrated by near-unbearably nihilistic young female protagonists? Perhaps because I was assigned Irish novelist Eimar McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing just before I read Love Me Back, Merritt Tierce’s saga of an aimless Dallas steakhouse waitress, I ended 2014 feeling very concerned that the young women of fiction are definitely not all right. And make no mistake: When they aren’t all right in fiction, they aren’t in real life, either.

McBride’s Girl was widely praised last year for its jarring, telegraphic prose. The author’s command and subsequent decimation of the English language was compared to her garrulous countrymen Beckett and Joyce. The ingenious word play (no doubt entire dissertations will be written on the linguistic similarities between Gaelic and the protagonist’s post-rape sputterings) saved what is, underneath, a sadly typical tale: A repressive Catholic girlhood, a father fleeing family stress, a handsy uncle, a descent into self-destruction. Merritt Tierce exhibits no such lexical dexterity, but then again, her heroine, a twenty-something Texan waitress named Marie Young, does not come from such a literary bloodline. No, Young’s lot in life, it’s clear from page one, is to be the object of service to those around her, particularly the men. Endless breadsticks, thick cuts of Wagyu beef, blowjobs, bottles of Caymus or baggies of cocaine: Everything she has, she turns around and presents to the customer. This list includes, a reader might argue, her child, the being who acts as a beacon of unconditional love shining in the distance, to a boat that just cannot seem to steady itself in the choppy sea.

The book, structured with little apparent logic and nearly without plot, paints a portrait of Marie Young mostly during her shifts at the various restaurants she works in over the years, from low end (Chili’s) to high end (a swanky steakhouse simply called “The Restaurant.”) Polishing tables and plastering a smile to your face is not glamorous work, to be sure, but Marie has problems far bigger than the usual occupational hazards. Just out of high school, she has a baby with a good guy she meets on a Youth Fellowship trip, her devotional childhood perhaps the only clue to why she feels so comfortable in the “service” industry. She cheats on her baby’s father not long after they get married, then proceeds to do massive amounts of blow, holds hot pokers to her collarbone, cuts herself, spreads her legs and lets herself be fucked by almost every male character in the book.

She says things like, “But my mind was an open sore. It was black… I would imagine being fatally cleaved all day long. By a gallows axe, the T-shaped kind.” I get the impression that the reader is supposed to both pity and admire Marie, that she is the perfect heroine for fourth-wave feminism because she is both passive object and active subject, at the mercy of a meat-eating patriarchy and yet also defiant of it. I could get on board with this if she wasn’t so dangerously unhappy, or if basically anything in her story suggested her difficulties were the result of anything other than the slackening of her own will.

Reading Love Me Back feels a little bit like being in a literary version of high school, like if you somehow don’t admire or condone or ascribe profound meaning to the actions of a neglectful, drug-addled parent, you’re opening yourself up to ridicule, to being labeled “uncool.” It feels as if the cadre of jaded creative types (Carrie Brownstein, par example, or Roxane Gay, who says Young opts for “the life and motherhood that is best for her, without apology”) whose praise covers the back of the book are secretly mocking you for not understanding despair so deep that it hardens into non-feeling, and then eventually, callousness. And perhaps I don’t, not to the extent that Marie Young does. I just wish, if this were in fact the point, that Tierce had done her part to help me comprehend it.

Another curious similarity between this book and Eimear McBride’s: Neither distinguishes dialogue with quotation marks. The existential critic would ask, “What does this mean?” Reading both, I remembered periods of my youth when I felt so disconnected with the world outside myself people around me began to lose their distinctive tones, when voices were basically whispers by the time they managed to get through the thick layer of melancholy surrounding. Even direct addresses failed to get my attention. Maybe that is what this means, the dialogue blending seamlessly together with the prose, for these young girls: They can’t hear anyone, because everyone sounds the same, and no one is saying anything at all. It’s enough to make you want to rewrite the stories, but this time, insert a caring psychologist in there, or an intuitive friend, even a bus driver who takes an innocent interest. “Wake up,the savior would say, “This is your life, and it is an emergency.”

Love Me Back
Merritt Tierce

224 pages, $18.42

Kelsey OsgoodKelsey Osgood has contributed pieces to numerous publications including New York,  the New Yorker’ Culture Desk blog, Time, Harper’s and Salon. Her first book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, was chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program.

Content © 2013-16 Buffalo Almanack.
Illustrations by John Gummere. Site powered by Wordpress and the Melville theme.
Please address all inquires and concerns to Maxine Vande Vaarst and Katie Morrison, editors.
Thank you for your patronage.