Maggie Terry By Sarah Schulman
New York, NY; Feminist Press, 2018, 272 pages, $17.95, paperback
Reviewed by Nino Testa
Maggie Terry begins the day after the fireworks. On July 5, 2017, the titular antihero starts the first day of the rest of her life—in recovery. Maggie is a queer white woman in her 40s, a former detective with the NYPD who was fired for being drunk on the job. She is starting a dismal new career as a private investigator, the job a life-preserver thrown to her by an old friend. Having detoxed and rehabbed, Maggie is now faced with the neverending banal acts of daily life to be completed without the influence of drugs or alcohol. She lives in a sad, unpainted studio with no blinds on the sole window. (Will she ever buy those blinds? The reader hopes so. The reader understands what this quotidian victory would signify. The reader also hopes that she will buy those tea bags she needs. The reader might even try to remind Maggie as she turns the corner to her sad apartment at day’s end to just pop into a market and buy those tea bags! “Don’t do it for us, Maggie. Do it for yourself!” the reader implores.) She has no towels yet, so she dries herself with dirty laundry. She attempts small talk with an East Village deli owner. (Could she buy those tea bags at this deli? She is already there. Just think about it, Maggie.) But on Maggie’s first day sober after rehab, she has more to worry about than whether to eat the unappetizing apple she has just purchased or when she can sneak off to the nearest AA meeting; she is confronted with a murder.
Sarah Schulman, prolific author that she is, has written mystery novels before. Her iconic After Delores (1988) could be said to have established many of the conventions of the lesbian detective genre. Still, she is best known for her searing social and political critiques, in both fiction and nonfiction, including The Gentrification of the Mind (2013) and last year’s Conflict Is Not Abuse. Maggie Terry, which reads as a Schulman “greatest hits,” is short on neither mystery nor politics. We follow Maggie as she tries to discover who murdered Jamie Wagner, a young white actress with a bit part in a big Broadway play. Fans of Schulman’s work will find plenty of Easter eggs in Maggie Terry, which playfully references Schulman’s long career and weaves together several interrelated themes upon which she has mused since her first novel, The Sophie Horowitz Story (1984). One character in Maggie Terry, Steven Brinkley, the tortured writer who is Jamie Wagner ’s former romantic partner (and therefore a key suspect), is author of a novel called The Mere Future, which shares its name with Schulman’s 2009 sprawling dystopian satire. As Maggie peruses Steven’s bookshelves, looking for any clues about his relationship to the dead woman, she finds books by Schulman’s real life buddies Rabih Alameddine and Claudia Rankine. (Could someone with such thoughtful taste in literature really be a murderer?)
Less playful, and more powerful, are the oblique references to Schulman’s non-fiction and the theories of social injustice they have explored. Gentrification, police violence, the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, familial homophobia, they are all here—not buried like the clues to Jamie’s murder, waiting to be discovered, but on the surface. These are everyday forms of violence that should mystify and astound us, but that are all too easily accepted as the normal way of things. As we walk through the novel collecting clues with Maggie, we stumble over these normalized forms of violence. We might wonder what makes them less worthy of our attention than the sensational hunt for the killer. Maggie Terry is a murder mystery—it has all the narrative pleasures of red herrings, late night meetings, and cryptic foreshadowings that we would expect of the genre—but Jamie’s murder never quite seems to be the point of the novel.
True to Schulman form, the political world is the point. The novel begins: “Everyone was in a state of confusion because the president was insane.” What to make of this clunky reference to Donald Trump and the many similar references that follow? While my instinct was to cringe at these attempts to incorporate the Orange One (the omniscient narrator’s nickname for Trump) into the story, the persistence of their clunkiness becomes a vital element of the narrative. After all, does anyone know how to have an easy, organic conversation about all that Trump has come to signify? Could such a figure in American history be discussed casually, matter-of-factly, with ease? Schulman’s novel thinks not. Like her 1990 novel People in Trouble, which documents the art and activism of the AIDS epidemic in late-1980s New York, Maggie Terry attempts to document the political crises of our current cultural moment but finds itself referencing headlines that have, in the short span of a year, already faded from public memory under the deluge of Trump news. But, also like People in Trouble, reference to yesterday’s headlines doesn’t make the novel feel outdated; instead it gives the book an eerie, nightmarish feel, a record of the angel of history’s most recent rubble and a reminder that today’s horrors will be tomorrow’s archive.
While the intrigue surrounding Jamie’s murder is framed as the narrative center of the novel, the more compelling mystery, the one that is no mystery at all, revolves around the police shooting death of a young black man named Nelson Ashford. The shooter is Maggie’s partner and friend Eddie Figueroa, and Maggie (via flashbacks) decides, along with Eddie’s father Julio, to investigate the circumstances of this shooting and clear Eddie’s name. Instead of asking why Eddie shot and killed an innocent person (there seems to be no mystery here. The logic of anti-blackness remains unremarkable to the characters, though not to Schulman), Maggie turns an inquisitive gaze to the witness who filmed the shooting: “Why was he there?” she asks herself.
Like any good detective, Maggie wants to find the missing puzzle piece, the fact that will give this whole mess some meaning, some sense of closure. In the “mystery” of Nelson Ashford’s murder, the catharsis that Maggie seeks, the resolution that will answer her questions, clear her partner’s name, and assure her of the white worldview, in which her subjectivity has formed and around which she has organized her life—a worldview that posits the essential fairness of things, the rightness of her convictions, the value of camaraderie over justice— is nowhere to be found. What she doesn’t realize at the time is that her quest has nothing to do with justice, so long as it is centered on the clearing of her friend’s name. While Maggie’s struggle with alcoholism, her wife’s decision to leave her, and the loss of her job are at the center of her emotional life, in the end it is the murder of Nelson Ashford that reveals itself as the emotional crux of the novel; but this is not a mystery to be resolved. Maggie’s quest for resolution marks her persistent and unconscious reliance on her whiteness: Can this just be over? Can we just move on? No matter how desperately Maggie searches for resolution, absolution, to get her life back on track, to fix the broken systems that have decimated her city and, indeed, the entire world, resolution, unsurprisingly, does not present itself as a viable option.
It would be easy to say that Maggie’s struggle with addiction is a metaphor for America’s inability to recognize the hard truths about how we got to this place that feels so much like a cultural rock bottom; but knowing Schulman’s work, the use of marginalized people’s experiences as a metaphor would feel crass, exploitative, and appropriative. Schulman flirts with the possibility of this metaphor early on, saying of Maggie, “[H]er private disintegration mirrored that of her society. And this made her seem even more pathetic and small.” In naming the possibility of addiction as allegory, Schulman summarily dismisses the ease of the comparison the reader might be tempted to trace. So, perhaps, addiction is not a metaphor, but a story with its own apparent truth, that might be instructive to us. For instance, Maggie’s sponsor in AA is Rachel, a dentist and trans woman who seems to have her whole life in order. How? What, Maggie wonders, is the secret to recovery? Maggie tries to soak up Rachel’s aura, hoping to find the key to it all. Rachel has no magic bullet, of course, but offers Maggie the truisms of AA that have come to sustain her, one day at a time. No easy fix here; nor is there an easy fix to the problem of Donald Trump when that other Rachel, Rachel Maddow, makes a brief appearance in the story. Rachel(s) cannot save us. In fact, Rachel (Maggie’s sponsor) reminds us of the long legacy of exploitation that Trump and his family represent in New York. This cannot be waved away with a segment on MSNBC.
The backdrop of Schulman’s novel is evergentrifying New York City, that space of constant loss and perpetual erasure that allows its denizens no time to mourn what was, before the next coffee shop opens: “Whites move in latte first, and the wine shop follows.” There is no mystery here. Nothing with which to grapple. No hidden clues and secret meaning. The overpriced latte speaks for itself. The changing landscape of gentrification makes Maggie’s whiteness more visible to everyone around her: “When she’d first arrived in New York, she’d walk through someone else’s neighborhood with respect and quiet caution. When she worked for the NYPD, she was always in street clothes, but her whiteness laid out a carpet of silence. Now, just a few years later, a white person in Brooklyn was a threat: of eviction, raised rents, irrelevant business, and disappearance.” This commentary gives us the tools to understand the importance of Maggie’s racial identity to the novel’s plot, even as Maggie struggles to make the connections herself.
In the book’s final pages, with the resolution of the novel’s primary mystery tied up in a neat narrative bow, Maggie is free to explore (poignantly, quietly) that which must remain unresolved: the anti-blackness that has normalized Nelson Ashford’s murder. With all of the narrative pleasures promised at the start of a murder mystery made available by novel’s end, there is space for white readers, in particular, to consider the lingering impacts of racialized violence and their role in that violence: What does it mean to show up for anti-racist work, with no resolution or absolution in sight?
As much as white liberals might prefer an easy solution to complex systems of violence (the depths of which, if we are being honest, are being exposed to many white people, myself included, for the first time), Maggie Terry suggests that we not fall victim to the fantasy that all can be made right. With those clunky references to Donald Trump scattered throughout the novel, it is difficult not to consider the parallels between the narrative pleasures of this murder mystery and the narrative pleasures of an afternoon watching CNN, waiting with bated breath for the revelation that will bring down the monster himself: Russia! Collusion! Comey! Impeachment! Would this revelation, pleasurable as it may be, have the power to address the deepseated racism, sexism, and xenophobia that Donald Trump has come to represent, but is in no way responsible for creating?
Beginning, as it does, on July 5, the day after the fireworks, Maggie Terry challenges us to look past the shimmer of mystery and the noise of national media. Schulman’s novel grapples with the relentlessness of Trump headlines and horrors, but warns us not to yearn too deeply for the days of resolution, because anything that resembles a resolution to the tragedies of Trump’s America will not be justice; it will be something more like politics, which is what led us to this nightmare in the first place. It is a lesson we should have learned by now—that racial and gender justice can’t be achieved once and for all with the revelation of a mystery and the punishment of a “bad guy.” Maggie Terry is an important reminder of what this lesson has to do with the compelling pleasures of watching and hoping for the fall of Donald Trump.
Nino Testa is the Associate Director of Women & Gender Studies at Texas Christian University, in Fort Worth, Texas, and a board member of The Dallas Way: An LGBTQ History Project.