This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Lisa Birnbaum’s Worthy (Dzanc Books, 2016) tells the story of Ludmila, an eastern European woman managing a run-down strip joint in Tampa, Florida. The novel is narrated in Ludmila’s broken English to a guest at the club, and tells the story of her life. She’s been many different people in her forty or so years, and by book’s end we’re still not sure exactly which one is the real Ludmila.
We come to understand, by her own admission, that she and a former lover were con artists, pulling jobs in Mexico, southern France, and the United States. She tells tales of friendly strangers tricked out of their money and a fake marriage arranged to fleece a wealthy family of gifts. Ludmila pulled these jobs with her now deceased husband, Theodore, an occasional professor twice her age. Their most common trick was to pose Theodore as her ailing, elderly uncle and convince rich, lonely men in bars they are out of money. Theodore would go to bed, leaving Ludmila to flirt with these men who are as desperate to feel useful to her as they are to get into her pants. She convinces them she is out of money. They offer her some to help out, and she accepts with the protestation she’ll probably give it all back at breakfast the next day. They never see her or Theodore again. Rinse, repeat.
The main trouble I had with the book is that “rinse, repeat” starts to feel like it describes the entire text of the novel. Ludmila is a terrific creation, to be sure, a unique character Birnbaum no doubt lived inside of for years to sculpt this novel. The problem is we’re not able to do the same to any great degree. It makes sense for Ludmila to hold cards back, both from us as readers and from the club guest who is our proxy, but she holds back so many, we never feel like we actually understand the deeper motivations and restrictions that have guided her life. We’re missing a key we’re never really given. The plot unwinds as a clump of twisting, jumbled strings, like a conversation does, and I hoped throughout its length this structuring was going to slowly reveal truths about Ludmila that would cause her to blossom as a fictional character. For me, this never happened. I can applaud Birnbaum’s fully realized creation of Ludmila, but she left so much off the page in order to show us this guarded individual, we’re never able to get behind the various masks to know her well ourselves.
The book is written in Ludmila’s broken, accented English, and writing a novel in this dialect must no doubt have been a challenge in itself. It’s not as difficult to read as I feared it would be early on, and while I can’t testify to the cultural accuracy of the diction, it has the effect of anchoring us to Ludmila’s storytelling and never letting us forget whose story this is.
“I wish it would be fatal to be often an asshole. Maybe it is really. This guy who beat up Bella maybe is not going to die immediately, but down the way could be we don’t know the cause of death is not cancer. Autopsy doesn’t show any information, but life stops from pile up years behaving like incredible asshole. Do you think we know everything about the body?” – page 81
Lisa Birnbaum crafted a complete human being for a main character here, but unfortunately we don’t have enough opportunities to really get to know that human being in Worthy, and consequently it’s hard to feel much emotional connection to her. I didn’t need to like her. I could have actively distrusted her, in fact, or felt ambivalence. But I never got to know her well enough to feel much of anything. Worthy shows the work of a talented writer, but the product of that talent is intentionally, frustratingly obscured.