This past weekend, I finished this year’s Lambda Literary Foundation‘s selection for its Bisexual Fiction award, Susan Choi’s My Education. A first-person narrative about first love, circling the drain, careening into and out of academia, and sex–oh, and growing up. I loved it.
I enjoyed reading the reviews of this complicated book, and I was very curious to see how other more experienced critics with more reading under their belts reacted to Choi’s story and language. What a mixed bag! I am fascinated by the ways this book prompted such a scattered reaction among critics. I don’t agree with a lot of the reviews, but one point of disagreement stayed with me. I disagree with Emily Cooke‘s point in her New York Times review that Choi doesn’t reveal what matters to her as an artist.
Cooke has read other books by Choi, and I haven’t. So, I’ve read one book. This one. So, I am working with way less material here. So I am going to say what was clear to me about what Choi values as an artist based on this novel. So, I guess it’s fair to say that I’m not arguing with Emily Cooke–perhaps throughout all of her books, Choi hasn’t made clear one consistent thing she cares about.
I’m about to say that I read one book and came away with a very clear idea of what Choi cares about: sentences. Yes, Choi makes bisexuality as a thing of little consequence in the narrative. But how language captures memory? This artist cares deeply. Finely tuned, expertly accessorized and oftentimes with almost-reckless –but not quite reckless–disregard for commas–in a super sophisticated embroidery of GRE-level vocabulary. I think she is obsessed with trying to match the act of remembering a memory to the language that expresses that, and she uses serpentine structure of her sentences to reflect that process of remembering and making sense of one’s life events. The long, difficult sentences Choi uses are kind of stand-ins for the long, difficult path of the present-day character remembering her own love affairs, and how she is taking stock of them. And I think that bears on the politics of bisexuality, because if there’s one thing bisexuals are constantly nagged, interrogated, and undermined about, it’s how we make sense of our pasts.
“Wait, so because you dated a girl in college, you are/are not calling yourself ________?”
“Wait, so because the love of your life is a man, you are/are not calling yourself ____________?”
See?! It always goes back to the past. No other label besides “bisexual” requires you to think about a person’s past history, because bisexual implies more than one partner.
Choi’s sentences are complicated, varied, and at times, they verge on incomprehension–a lot like sexuality.
The very fact that the main character, Regina, doesn’t worry herself with whether she’s straight, bi, or lesbian at any point is definitely a luxury in my opinion. But the very fact that Choi doesn’t go there, I think, makes this an important work of bisexual fiction. This is a character whose love affairs with women and men have deeply shaped her. Period. No weird ranking thing, no “lesbian until graduation” or “crazy lesbian chapter” (so annoying). Hurray, Susan Choi, and Hurray, Lambda Literary Foundation for demonstrating that the “club” is wide and elastic and doesn’t require a fixation on on-the-nose political decrees. And that people can describe who they are without jamming themselves into specific words.
My education in My Education was How to not carry around your messy, shitty first-love disaster in a way that it forms a razor-sharp chip on your shoulder. Growing up. Or, as a good friend of mine likes to say, putting on your big girl panties.