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L.J. Pemberton's Still Alive

Charles Holdefer

Still Alive
L.J. Pemberton
Malarkey Books, 2024


o describe a book as a love story can be misleading if it sets up expectations of domesticated emotions, or worse, syrupy resolutions. L.J. Pemberton’s first novel, Still Alive, flies in the face of such expectations and is an artful reminder of the disruptive power of love.

Set mainly in Portland, New York City and Los Angeles, this love story is narrated by Virginia, usually referred to as V. She is estranged from her family—a substance abusing mother, emotionally absent father, an otherworldly brother—and learns to look elsewhere for affection and solace. V is bisexual but the great love of her life is a butch artist named Lex. She also forges a deep friendship with Leroy, a gay man.

Still Alive evokes a “pre-hip Portland,” when rent was cheap and “we believed things like hardcore and straightedge could still be taken seriously.” It describes arty circles in New York, where V does temp work and pursues a passionate on-again, off-again relationship with Lex, which eventually leads to their marriage and a life in California, not as a happy ending but as another chapter in a troubled but irresistible coupling.

Pemberton writes very well about being hopelessly smitten with another person, the psychological disruption, how it is a source of both delight and misery, akin to a “heart-sick, clinging intoxication.” It hurts in the present and it will hurt in the future, but V cannot help but embrace it:

“I thought of the highs and lows of this cyclone, this us, and knew I would cry someday and knew that was okay because right now was still ours, and full of the possibility of her, right here, right near.”

This tumult takes place against the backdrop of trying to survive with temp work in the gig economy. V spends her days “click-monkeying” and underlines how enormous disparities in compensation are not only materially grotesque: they are corrupting spiritually, too. The successful people (“the blessed”) that V observes up close are not an edifying spectacle. “Money twisted the blessed” and makes them “suspicious of their family members and friends and expecting always a kindness to come with an ask, and an ask to come with a mountain of obligation.”

Still Alive is also a novel of friendship. In counterpoise to her dealings with employers and her relationship with Lex, V is fortunate to have a steady buddy in Leroy, who remains her reliable confidante, whatever the time and place. This, too, is a love story:

“He gave me the only freedom worth having: the chance to make mistakes without judgment. And I, him. How cruel the outside world, tick-checking every wrong word, every choice that shows your class of origin or aspiration, and how gracious this simple love: an open door, a shared knowledge, and rest.”

The narration is non-linear but in regard to V’s attachment to Lex, it respects nonetheless an emotional chronology of enthrallment, of dependence, fulfillment, disengagement and disillusion. Love will not fix V’s universe.

As her life with Lex unravels in the final chapters, the tension slackens somewhat and the novel becomes busy with other threads; the observations about Trump or digital culture, though unexceptionable, are a bit familiar; but the ending is sober and spot on. The novel’s trajectory is appealingly unpredictable, as the author resists easy answers or determinism.

Still Alive has the feel, the urgency, of a book that the writer could not not write, and that is its source of energy and attraction. At her best, Pemberton is a fine prose stylist who captures the buffeting forces of emotion. More than any novel I’ve read in a long time, this tale is deeply felt.


Charles Holdefer