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Review: Lucy Ives' Loudermilk

by Grace Oeth

Loudermilk  .  via Soft Skull Press

Loudermilk.
via Soft Skull Press

A blocked writer, a cynic and a fraud walk into an esteemed writers’ workshop in Lucy Ives’ newest novel, Loudermilk. The story follows these three central characters—Clare, Harry, and his best friend Troy, who is referred to by his last name, Loudermilk—as they travel to the deep recesses of the American Midwest to attend a writing workshop, aptly named, “The Seminars.” Loosely based on Ives’ experiences in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, this book realistically portrays the pressures and reliefs a workshop atmosphere can produce, while managing to comically comment on every writer stereotype ever to exist. During a reading Prairie Lights Bookstore held on June 17th for the book, Ives discussed how her narrative takes a look at intensive courses and how they shape artists. “This is a book about writing, for writers,” Ives said to a packed house.

“The thing about stories is, you do need quite a lot of confidence about the way things come to pass in the actual world to write one.” (98)

Ives said, point blank, that the titular character is more or less a con-artist. Whom she goes on to say, “are their own kind of artists, if you think about it.” Even though Loudermilk is this seemingly vain and condescending hot guy, he’s the pull of the story. All the while, his friend and counterpart, Harry, sits idly by with his cynical and disapproving nature. Harry’s inward personality is reflected in Ives’ extensive use of free indirect discourse, which acts as a direct counterpart to Loudermilk’s utter lack of prose. All we get from Loudermilk are hollow phrases like “dude-bro,” and “That is stellar, dude,” and all we receive from Harry are third person reflections about what he does and how he acts. When questioned about free indirect discourse at the reading, Ives describes the reasons why she used such a crafted narration, and she explained the characters themselves are writers. She stated that this book shows the writing the characters create, which therefore “contain[s] the writers’ efforts.” Since Loudermilk is all image and puts on an act, he is only seen through dialogue. Since Harry is the person actually writing Loudermilk’s literary submissions, he is seen more through the prose, but also through the dispersed poetry meant to have been written by Harry. When Ives read one of these poems aloud, she closed the book in front of her and recited the poem to the crowd from memory—like an actor who has memorized lines, hoping for the character to break free. Ives told her audience including free indirect discourse in the book made the story a “mystery.” It’s the reader’s job to look at what she gave us (the sparse thoughts, the characters’ literary writings, etc.) and interpret who these people really are.

The famous Dey House, home of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop via writersworkshop.uiowa.edu

The famous Dey House, home of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop
via writersworkshop.uiowa.edu

What also makes Ives’ writing so consumable is the underlying yet present references to Iowa City. And more specifically, the literary community within it. Loudermilk revolves around these “Seminars” which are writing workshops in the middle of “Crete,” a college town in the dead center of Iowa. The allusions to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop are obvious, but that’s exactly the reason why we should want to read it. As a person who lives in Iowa City, who has participated in the university’s undergraduate writing workshops, and who is constantly surrounded by writers in their many forms, I appreciated seeing all the observations and allegorical descriptions of stereotypes Ives could fit it. As Ives builds up the pretentious atmosphere of a prestigious writing workshop, Loudermilk is the first to air out what everyone claims is the essence of their individuality: “Harry, when are you going to realize that nobody fucking feels good?” On Claire’s writing block, Ives voiced a writer’s fear, “The unfortunate things you wrote silence you, but, unfortunately, the successful things can do the same.”

Writing about Iowa and its writers’ workshop has been done before, but Ives executes this story and its setting so well, that its easily enjoyable whilst remaining critical. Loudermilk is hilarious in its hidden sarcasms and ironic jabs. It is as if Jane Austen wrote a book about a twenty-first century college town. When questioned about her use of humor and satire, Ives stated that she certainly wasn’t a comedy writer, but she did recognize that she was able to use that satire to hold and harvest room for difficult topics. Circling back to each of the characters, their developments in the novel are all comedic in nature, but they are all facing reinvention, struggled creativity, and the downfall of the human condition: the utter desire to feel seen.