Reading Marta Balcewicz’s debut novel, Big Shadow, I couldn’t deny my subjectivity. In 1998, I was the same age as Judy, the novel’s inexperienced 17-year-old narrator. And like her, I desperately wished to make a living as an artist. I haunted NYC’s East Village, near my home; I held court with some unusual characters much older and wiser than I was, punks and squatters and witches, queer dance and theater icons. Looking back, there was a lot of self-deception. I believed everything happened for a reason. The tragedy of middle-age is that disappointment feels inevitable, and what I thought were choices in retrospect now seem like chance, and vice versa. In Agnès Varda’s words, forty years old is “the perfect time to do your portrait.” And like any sophisticated portrait, Big Shadow teems with cultural references like guideposts to its central themes of artistic ambition, fandom, familial disconnection, and the evergreen question: “What’s my life about?”
Set in a small unnamed East Coast city, the novel opens with the avant-garde: three teenagers scanning the clouds for signs of Big Shadow, a mysterious X-factor that will spirit them to another realm. Judy wants to escape her paranoid mother, her cousin Christopher, and their rich friend Alex who wants Judy as a devotee. Fed up with the boys, Judy has a chance encounter with Maurice Blunt, a has-been from the NYC ’70s punk rock scene slated to teach a summer poetry course at the university. Immediately, Judy and Maurice recognize their luck in meeting one another. He’s her ticket to New York and art-stardom; to him, Judy isn’t some prostrating sycophant, but the muse who’ll revive his career. At Maurice’s invitation, Judy goes to great lengths to join him in New York, including theft and lying to everyone she knows. But when she finally gets to the city, Maurice’s scattered lifestyle leaves her disillusioned, wanting. Judy doubts herself and this much older man’s distrustful cajoling. But undeterred, she signs on to collaborate with Maurice until it’s clear he won’t deliver, and the spell is broken.
Still, Judy identifies deeply with her interpretation of Maurice’s poetry, about the grave disappointment of having been born into the wrong generation:
“It seemed a creative enough way to sum up the human condition. That we have more in common with those who share our brand of pain than those who share our time, our contemporaries. That really there are very few of us to get along with before it’s time to enter the ground.”
I can’t go further without mentioning that this book is grimly funny in spite of its disenchanted portrayals. Balcewicz has a knack for humor both observational and deadpan, symbolism both ironic and earnest, and peculiar turns of phrase. In Balcewicz’s world, termites are, “drops of sentient hungry water.” In fact, water figures prominently in both setting and plot: a rainstorm is a gateway to the artist’s life; a decrepit swimming pool becomes a portal to Reality+, or so the boys believe. At times, Balcewicz’s prose channels Sheila Heti’s wry brooding. But for a book concerned with art both as a scene and as a calling, Balcewicz finds humor in the maladapted, cheeseball poet with famous friends. The icon who stuck around long enough to come back in style.
The cultural references—and there are many—sprinkled throughout feel curated for maximum impact on the story, either as a hinge or as foreshadowing. They cement Judy’s character as a budding enigma suitable for the NYC scene. Nothing feels gratuitous or name-droppy. If anything, the New York sections might have benefitted from more references. Although Washington Square Park comes up, as does The Strand, and even CBGB gets a dead-hour glimpse, world-famous East Village landmarks like Veselka—on the very corner where Maurice lives—go unmentioned. But I don’t fault the author for leaving out the Ukrainian borscht. Judy knows only what she’s gleaned from cinema and literature, and what Maurice shows her, which isn’t much. Here’s where my subjectivity became a limitation, my desire to see my city mirrored back to me non-valorous. In the words of Claire Dederer, “I kept slipping up and being the audience.”
Big Shadow toys with the zeitgeist (art-star bildungsroman), smoothly blending in today’s inclinations (’90s retrospective, #MeToo campus novel). Although books about horny women have been getting attention recently—see Rebecca Rukeyser’s wildly popular 2023 AWP panel, for one—Big Shadow is a bande à part. Would-be libidinous encounters are brief and bathetic, never serving, from a reader’s perspective, to eroticize Judy’s character. Maurice does make a few feeble attempts at sexualizing Judy, her ambition, but as if out of obligation to his own archetype rather than any real desire on his part. Absent from this narrator are the problematic thoughts young horny women involved in hetero power dynamics with older men seem to have, as in Alyssa Songsiridej’s Little Rabbit, or Daisy Alpert Florin’s My Last Innocent Year, also set in ’98, the year of the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal. Perhaps the closest thematic comparison, with its disillusionment and sticky familial relationships, is Madeleine Lucas’s Thirst for Salt. While Balcewicz certainly delves into consent, sexual assault follows different rules for Balcewicz, and the task of sorting through ethical ambiguities rests primarily on readers.
Toward the end, the question of morality—of law—takes an edge when Judy believes her mother has discovered her secret trips to Maurice’s apartment, and that the police will arrest Maurice for statutory rape. That doesn’t happen. Instead, Maurice, spooked by Judy balanced on a rooftop’s edge in an earlier scene, chooses art over muse. Maybe his former bandmates played an off-the-page role in schooling him on the boundaries he’s overstepped in “collaborating” with a 17-year-old girl. Whenever the story seems to be going one way, Balcewicz swerves on to a backroad plot, offering tightly orchestrated alternatives that skewer heart and mind.
What I most admired about this novel is the way Balcewicz juxtaposes youth’s emotional tempests with the Artist Persona as a construct. What is the creation of art but cloud gazing? Chaos, signified. We can pine for bygone eras when the big shadows of Bush Jr., 9/11, and the dot-com boom were blips on the horizon. Before CBGB became a functional museum ahead of its eviction. But Balcewicz, like East Village chronicler Leonard Abrams, reminds us that in the ’90s we pined for the ’70s, before AIDS and Reagan, when you could make rent in three days working as a bike messenger. “It was easy to survive,” Abrams said, “unless you got killed.” And if you survived you might as well have been a ghost, making the same recursive pronouncements—“Listen to me! Hear me!”—as every generation of moussed myths and legends who graced the scene. On our journeys, some of us pin our hopes and dreams to a wall that’s already been torn down.
By Marta Balcewics
Published May 16, 2023