Oola by Brittany Newell, review by Bruce Jacobs
Lush, edgy, lyrical, bad-ass, pensive, taxing--it's hard to paint Oola into a picture that captures its striking prose and fearless curiosity about identity and obsession. In performance artist, drag queen, recent Stanford graduate and Pushcart nominee Brittany Newell's first novel, 25-year-old Leif is shaking off a "screamo and Foucault" adolescent past, "sewing Situationist patches to our jackets with dental floss" while housesitting for his moneyed New England family's network of friends with empty domiciles around the world. Oola is a striking six-foot music student raised by a metal band roadie and casino hostess "in a dinky town north of L.A., just around the corner from Neverland Ranch." They meet at a hipster London flat party; and with the impulsiveness of unencumbered youth of means, they take off on a global romance in great houses across Europe, the Middle East, Canada and, finally, at a remote cabin in Big Sur.
As the sparkle of discovery shines on the hidden pleasures of sex, drugs, food, conversation and the mysteries of each other, Leif becomes obsessed with Oola's body and habits, turning his observations into what he envisions will be a novel of celebration. He boasts: "I loved to watch Oola in the shower.... I came to memorize her postures, the hygienic loop (rinse, wash, repeat) that, like prayers of digestion, lent me a glimmer of infinity via the banal."
Deftly managing her narrator's adulatory voice, Newell eases her narrative from the lovers' giddy days when they "binge on rice and Siracha... play Twister on the porch by starlight... [and] sit on the porch in the morning, butt-naked, reading the paper," to when Leif becomes helplessly fixated: "I loved her mosquito bites, which pulsed radioactively under my lips.... I traced her scabs with my thumbnail and interrogated her bruises." Leif begins to wear Oola's tossed-aside clothes, blossoming into a streak of transvestitism as she retreats into insomnia, moonstones and "iron-fortified breads and blocks of cadaver-colored tofu." Five drafts into his manuscript, Leif seems to know neither himself nor Oola, as she falls into a dangerous downward health spiral and senses finally, "That's me. Never the poet, always the trope."
Like Leif's book, Oola is a novel of discovery--ever shifting and digging deeper. It is a diary, a romance, a dark trip over the edge. Capturing today's zeitgeist of an experimental, hungry, indulgent youth, it also harkens back to the masculine, queer, trippy work of William Burroughs and Hubert Selby. But Newell is very much her own woman, even with a male narrator who reflects, "I loved like no one else did, I went where no one dared to go. I planted my flag in the moon--then I swallowed it whole.... I went into a certain wild and things got wild indeed." Still, make no mistake. As the title suggests, this is Oola's story--not Leif's.
Bruce Jacobs's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.