Daphne Gottlieb’s latest, Saint 1001, is a damning, weird, sexy, tremendously literary, and extremely Gen X novel, told in a thread of letters and later emails through story, allegory, poetry, and Craigslist personal ads.
Remember Craigslist? I didn’t use it in its heyday, which I guess was the ’90s, but I was around in the early 2000s and have quite a few fond memories using and perusing the site. Some of the best apartments and roommates I’ve ever had were found on Craigslist. There was a period of time when I was working at Whole Foods as a cashier when I got my name mentioned on the Missed Connections section what seemed like every other week (I was probably too friendly back then, always asking customers about what they were going to do with the ingredients they were purchasing, making conversation with everyone as we were prompted to do by management). I met some interesting people on the Strictly Platonic section, once a paralegal who was in town for a lawsuit and wanted a dining companion, and I as a super broke 21-year-old was down for pretty much anything and happy to meet up with the stranger who happened to be staying at the Four Seasons Hotel. He didn’t come on to me but we did smoke weed on the patio outside the hotel and on his last night in town I convinced him to have a party in his hotel room where I invited all of my rag tag friends and some guests down the hall complained to security of a funny smell coming from the room. Those were the good old days, I guess. Today I’m not sure if I would use Craigslist in the same way that I did in the early 2000s, but I like to browse the real estate section for San Francisco apartments I can’t afford. The idea of Craigslist and the way this liminal space is employed in Saint 1001 still holds this kind of mystique that reminds me of a more rose colored time, prior to the Craigslist killer being a news item.
Saint 1001 takes place in this more idyllic online time, before FOSTA-SESTA criminalized consensual sex on Craigslist Casual Encounters and forced sex workers underground. The story unfolds via foot-noted emails and letters between S and her first love, J, who she regales with stories of her hookups, fears, life updates, and memories from her past. Much like Scheherazade of 1001 Nights, who nightly escapes her fate of being murdered by her husband the king, S ends her notes to J on cliffhangers, leaving him wanting and asking for more.
The reader only sees S’s side of the email chain. According to a note at the start of the book, J’s responses have been omitted to protect his and his family’s privacy. Even with this omission, none of the story missed. The opacity of online communication instead adds a layer of depth to what we are shown, and S’s impressions and responses provide all the context that we need. Through reading we learn that S spent her younger years moving from apartment to apartment, city to city, and job to job (at different points she’s a dog walker, nanny, office admin, sex toy store clerk, barback, bartender, pet sitter, and a short lived life on the road with a punk band which ended when S gets ditched by the band after a gig because she stayed to save an underage girl from predatory men in a bar). S is a transitory figure. The only constants seem to be an underlying and understated feeling of unspoken trauma, and how she relates to J.
1990: Once, I wished you and I’ve taken so long to unwish you and still I wish you everything, the good story, the right one, with the right ending. I forgot to wish me. I never wished me. I stopped.
2001: Even so, our letters, even together, capture only the extremes, not the important day-to-day things, the sidewalk and the sun, driving with the windows down, talking in the dark. From our whole history, this is what I rescue. These artifacts. Memory cues. The scars left from happiness.
There are so many things I don’t tell you about because sex is easy and love is hard and trust is even harder.
S is searching for a connection, human kindness, a gentle lover, but only for the night, and Gottlieb creates this dreamy and frightening Never Never Land by mixing elements of mixtapes, allegory, fables, herpatology and botany factoids from reference books, Britney Spears song lyrics, biblical callbacks from Genesis, an equal smattering of Freud and Lacan, video chat sex, news headlines regarding the murders of sex workers, and letters between Anais Nin and Henry Miller.
A guy like you should wear a warning.
 “Toxic”, Britney Spears
You destroy and you suffer… I often see how you sob over what you destroy, how you want to stop and just worship…
 Anais Nin to Henry Miller, www.rebellesociety.com
 Henry Miller to Anais Nin, theamericanreader.com
The result is rich and engrossing, what Gottlieb refers to as a “crazy quilt.” Unlike a crazy quilt of random patches stitched together wherever they find a place to fit, there is a repetition of motif in Saint 1001, a general mood that runs throughout, and despite switching contexts without warning there never is the feeling of an interruption. It is an amalgamation of different narratives woven together seamlessly into a singular voice.
Sometime this past spring or summer (what is time), I was given the opportunity to read Saint 1001 before its official release. Every night I sat at my computer in the blue light of my computer screen and scrolled the PDF version of the novel Gottlieb sent me for review. Along in the dark taking in this private correspondence, I felt a bit like a spy, eavesdropping in a dirty and fascinating way. I’m the type of person who can spend hours reading through comment threads online featuring people who I do not know, and this book was an overindulgence for my voyeuristic curiosity. And perhaps that is the intention, to sit in the place of J and feast on S’s thoughts, interpretations, and exploits.
I had a brief and stimulating chat with Gottlieb over Facebook chat and asked some questions about the concept and her process of writing Saint 1001.
I didn’t realize until I finished the novel, the allusion to 1001 Nights. From all the footnotes, it seems like a ton of research went into writing this. Were you constantly reading while writing?
Reading, researching, and re-calling. Yes. A lot of times I knew what I was digging for but I didn’t have my hands on it and I had to go find it.
I literally just went, oh right 1001, the cliffhangers and the murderous king, duhhh. It’s so good. I’ve never read a novel like this.
When I started, it was just about the structure, the story inside the story inside the story — but as I got deeper and deeper into it, it seemed like it would be missing so much depth and resonance not invoke the text I was mirroring. I felt strange about taking even the format of something called “Arabian,“ so I had to do all this research about 1001 Nights. And it turns out, it was intercultural, picking up different texts from all sorts of different cultures and revising them as they were adopted into individual cultures, so the original text is itself a bastard and not at all really “Arabian.“ But definitely orientalist. I needed to really dig in around 1001 Nights.
The nicest thing you could say in the world to me is that you’ve never read anything like this. Thank you.
What was it like trying to find what you were digging for? There’s so many different sources referred to.
There’s always research in my writing, which might be weird for a poet. I’ve always done a lot with found text. Usually, I really enjoy it. It’s a way of seeking, and it’s the way the book and I know each other, it’s the journey that we are on together, it’s our story. Maybe that’s hokey to say. So if I know I want poems by dead white men, maybe I can Google something like “classic poetry“, knowing that that will give me an approximation of what I’m looking for, and then I start pulling first lines and start seeing which will sort of mesh together to make instant poems. I always pretty much have an idea of what I’m looking for, just not specific. So I want stories about frogs, or I want song lyrics about little girls, or I want New Wave song lyrics from 1985, or suddenly, for example, something has to happen to a frog, and my first association is frog dissection and kissing frogs so look for texts about both. I end up keeping a “morgue“ of bits of texts, URLs, and other things but I know I’m going to want to use for that or follow-ups to something that I used. A lot of the time it’s stuff that I think I’m going to use that never finds a home.
I love doing research as a form of procrastination, but I think it also makes whatever you’re writing more informed and richer. I really liked the collections of first lines from books and how they were strung together to make the seven veils.
Absolutely. You get the resonances and the repetition goes deeper and wider and more visceral.
How big is your morgue?
I delete what I use from the morgue so I end up with all the stuff I didn’t use, so I can’t say for sure. In general, I will start a new morgue when I have about 10 pages, and I make the title of the file whatever is in it, so “car, Artaud, tattoo.“ If I can’t find something quickly, it’s not really useful. I end up rereading everything over and over and getting frustrated.
I was really struck by the passages that had what looks like most of the text omitted. I wasn’t sure if those passages contained redacted text because of identifying information, but it made me think of how recounting traumatic experiences can often be full of holes, with pieces missing because the brain just doesn’t want to remember.
Which “redacted” parts specifically? The book has lots of “holes.”
Right, that is a recurring theme. There is the story about what happened in the alley that comes up again and again but does not get told, though we can tell that something bad happened there just from the sparsity of language. There are parts of the book where the page is mostly white space, with the beginnings of sentences like “do you” “will you” surrounded by white. It reminded me a bit of blackout poetry.
Do you How
What do you
DG: I love blackout poetry! I think that for me it was part redaction and also reduction of the letters almost to the point of ritual or just repetition — the specifics are less important than that the line was open, right? It doesn’t matter what was said as much as something was. And her overarching need for information, connection.
I was going to ask you if the allusions made to sex workers being murdered were to serve as a foreshadowing to FOSTA-SESTA, but it also fits into the overarching theme of men wanting to control women’s bodies. I copied and pasted this into my notes because it really affected me:
The price tag on men’s desire is death. If you do it for money, you’re asking to be killed. The rest of us are just asking to be raped.
Does this sound like rhetoric?
That’s because you’re a man.
Yes, and also to sort of point to the idea that sexual women get killed and attacked and whatever else and that that is sort of considered a moral penance, and it’s by degree. So if you’re a sex worker, you get killed, but if you’re just a slut, you get off getting raped in an alley, maybe. It is the price that women pay for being sexual in this repressed and repressive culture.
I think it’s important to talk about rape culture and sexuality and have important writings like this book which thoroughly explore the subject. I really appreciate this book, and I thank you for writing it.
Saint 1001 by Daphne Gottlieb can be purchased online from MadHat Press.