Stephanie LaCava is sitting on a stoop on West 10th Street, attempting to summon the spirits of Zoë Lund, the actor, model, activist and all-around underground New York heroine best known for her role in Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant.
Lund is a particular fixation for LaCava, whose second novel, I Fear My Pain Interests You, came out this week to rave reviews.
It has been described as the cool-girl novel of the year. There is no uplift. The narrator, Margot, is not liberated or damned. Her burden is that she cannot feel physical pain and experiences it only remotely, refracted through others.
“The book, I hope, has a romantic noir aspect to it, a kind of nihilism and dark humor,” LaCava says, beneath the apartment where Lund lived with her husband and rats so numerous that the ceiling of the apartment below sagged with the weight of their droppings.
LaCava and Lund share surface similarities: strawberry blond hair, bright red lipstick and an interest in sensation – or lack of it. Lund, born Zoë Tamerlis, was unapologetic in her commitment to heroin. That’s not LaCava’s story. But Lund could also write like a dream, for days if circumstances were right. She turned out political pamphlets and manuscripts and was credited as co-writer on Bad Lieutenant, the film starring Harvey Keitel that became a pivot moment in 90s noir crime drama.
Lund herself delivered the film’s central “Vampire Speech”:
Vampires have it easy.
They feed on others.
We have to feed on ourselves.
We have to eat our legs
to have the energy to walk.
We have to come, in order to go.
We have to suck ourselves off.
We have to eat away at ourselves
’til there’s nothing left
LaCava has used a statue of the Madonna from the film and Lund’s political pamphlets as props for a reading and discussion of her book.
In person she speaks rapidly, sometimes with stray thoughts, and decorates the conversation with people of interest: the Jewish anarchist philosopher Emma Goldman, French actor Pierre Clémenti, Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, Italian author Natalia Ginzburg, Charlotte Rampling, the Destroy All Monsters singer, Niagara.
But it’s Lund to whom she returns.
“I always felt an affinity for Zoë. I contacted her widower, and he said we had a lot of similarities,” LaCava says. “She informed the novel in some ways, with her undertones of political commentary and taking back the narrative as a female.”
In I Fear My Pain Interests You, LaCava traces the journey of Margot Highsmith, a daughter of absentee punk musician parents who comes to New York to make it as an actor.
“Margot’s parents think they’re punk but they’re super bourgeois,” LaCava explains. “Within the culture industry she has privilege and access that she did not earn. She is existing in the world despite having these things. The whole book is really extremely lonely.”
Margot discovers that she cannot feel pain and in this dissociative or aloof condition forms relationships that may be good or bad.
“There’s no grand blaming, it’s not a trauma novel, a #MeToo or a blame-the-man narrative,” LaCava says. “You’re not defined by the traumas that happen to you; you’re defined by how you go through whatever it was, and what’s next.”
In geographic terms, LaCava’s novel fits within a burgeoning downtown New York cultural scene, collectively called Dimes Square, that is philosophically separate from the more solipsistic, Brooklyn-oriented sensibility across the East River – a situation recently described as transgressive versus progressive.
“Owing to my childhood, I’m pretty comfortable anywhere,” LaCava says. “Manhattan is so enveloping. I spend 100% of my time here. The things that interest me are all here.
“Before the pandemic it was like a deluge of events, people feeling compelled to be everywhere and show it. Now there’s more of a clan mentality, of do-it-yourself, and a desire to put attention on one thing.”
Which is perhaps part of what draws LaCava to Lund. We are sitting on a stoop in homage to a woman who defiantly followed her own path, at some personal expense. Like Lund, LaCava’s heroine, Margot, is possessed of an “energetic force to create in service to her ideas”.
Lund revealed little of herself, except creatively. LaCava is careful too. She would prefer to be thought of as a “multi-hyphenate freak show”, a former editorial assistant at Vogue, an American student in Paris at age 11 who found solace in books.
“Most people would say I’m way too oblique all around,” she says.
Which perhaps is why she finds it easier to describe herself through the description of others. Lund died in Paris in 1999. In an interview, she talked about Marx, Freud and Darwin and also referenced Goldman, who believed marriage was “paid whoring for one man”.
New York has a history of producing cool women, some productive, some dangerously idolised for their image. In a new biography of Edie Sedgwick, As It Turns Out, Alice Sedgwick Wohl observes that when it came to her sister, a star of Andy Warhol’s world, people had “their eyes on the image. It was the image that counted; it still counts, and reality seems to be beside the point, or rather it operates independently.”
Both Edie Sedgwick and Zoë Lund came to reject their mentors – Warhol for Sedgwick, Ferrara for Lund.
“I don’t think she was hiding anything,” LaCava says of Lund. “I think she was open emotionally and creatively without being pinned down.”
Which is perhaps true of her new heroine, Margot.
“She is taking responsibility for the things that happen to her and not allowing her experiences to define her,” LaCava says. “She’s not shrugging them off. She’s taking it on and trying to parse out what’s real and what’s fake. That’s the taking back of the narrative. Boom!”
October 2, 2022 at 11:50AM Edward Helmore in New York