Want as Oblivion: A Review of Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back
Love Me Back
by Merritt Tierce
224 pp. / $24.95
I worked restaurants for three years starting more than ten years ago because I’d been dumped and was miserable, swimming in loss, no different than any other jilted young person. I took the job because my sister said it was a good place and good money–I worked in the Mall of America, which actually is amazing–and the first weeks were harrowing for needing to care again: having been so decleated by my heart’s sad tearing I’d stopped even bothering to care about things other than myself or the woman who’d left and what I might do to fix things and get her back.
The part in Infinite Jest I like most, or feel most most times I return to, is that section that starts around page 199 or 200, right around there; in it Wallace wrote something about how addicts new to treatment want to actually lose their minds—wrap them in newspaper and leave them elsewhere, I think, is close to the crappiest way of paraphrasing. I bring it up because it’s how I (and I imagine most) folks have felt on having their poor little hearts stomped: wanting an escape by jettison from self. What was it K didn’t love about me? What could I have done? What could I now do to fix it? What could I do to stop thinking about wanting and not wanting her?
The answer came in the form of black pants, white shirt, black shoes and immense ingredient recall. If you need monumental distraction, get a job at a restaurant: nothing other than parenting or maybe training for insane sporting events presents such an opportunity for the sublimation of self. I don’t remember how long it took to get over her, but I remember clearly how much—the realization hit two months in—I was enjoying being forced out of my own shitty wah-wah galaxy, replacing her name with table numbers, subbed ingredients, sauce on the side.
All this is sort of unnecessary preamble to the fact that Merrit Tierce‘s Love Me Back is just a devastating book regarding pain and loss and satiety and desperately trying to be away from your own head. The central way the book presents and works through these things is through waitressing. Marie, our lead, is a raw daggery incessancy, her rhythm a clipped, curt beauty of sentences like: “First the loveseat was in the dining room, that’s where Cal told me about Angeline and I told him about how I’d married my daughter’s dad when I was seventeen because my own dad had hit me for the first and only time.” And “I was always that heavy, iron kind of tired.” As easy as it is to freak for subject-matter or thematic stuff in Love Me Back, know that the thing’s all lighterfluid language, shocking for the rapidity with which it goes up.
Which’d be great and would make the book solid enough if it was just that, but it’s not: it’s the best book I know of to cast real light on the sinister enginery of restaurant workers, or at least the ones I knew–both in MN and NYC (the silmness of the differences between which would, I’d guess, make the NYC folks sad). Prior to this if you really wanted as close to a legit feel of waiting tables as possible in a book there was O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, which I still do and always will adore, and which certainly comes up heavy trump on verisimilitude. But there’s an endlessness to everyone and everything in Love Me Back, an endlessness of want and speed and work and money and hunger and drugs and the only thing missing, maybe, were the here’s-what-I’ll-do-someday stories all restaurant workers carry like business cards (however: the book’s not interested in someday, and, really, not much on its characters’ here’s-what-I’ll-do-later ideas: the book’s a lazer on Marie’s present).
If I say this is a book obsessively fixated on compromised appetites, I need you to trust me enough to know I’m not trying to cutely introduce a food-based metaphor to garnish (ok, that time I was) the review. Marie, the book’s conflicted, conflicting center, is a young mother—seventeen—who hungers, and at the start it’s not entirely clear what the object of her hunger is. The book itself starts with a work-then-sex scene, but the next one’s Marie, age 16, getting her first restaurant job at, of course, the Olive Garden. As the book unspools jittery and harsh—we jump times, present back to when Marie slept with her ex-husband and her daughter’s dad, when they tried to make it work, plus there are chapters written to you, which person is: Marie’s child, and we trace Marie from the Olive Garden to Chili’s to eventually The Restaurant, a Dallas five-star place—we learn Marie was accepted to Yale and got involved and subsequently pregnant on a mission trip though mercifully, beautifully, awesomely, there’s no *message* there, no if-then morality involved: that’s when Marie got pregnant. It was a cold night, and she’d needed and received warmth.
Which is as much of a summary of the significance and lack thereof of why in Love Me Back as anything: the point’s not to wonder why Marie does the drugs she does or fucks the men she does, the point is to sit consciousness-side as she longs to be the mother she’d like to yet can’t be. And not, let’s be clear, for any Sad or Big reasons: she can’t for the same small, shitty reasons we all are who we are, conflicted and aware of what’s best for us and swearing to do better tomorrow as we hit the Wendy’s drive-through, sneak a pack of American Spirits, scan porn or porn or twitter instead of reading the book we keep claiming to want to read. We are appetites, hungers, longings, and pretending there’s any decency or order in how they’re layered and lathered into us is a dozen sorts of pathetic. That night that Marie got pregnant on the mission trip? She could’ve stayed cold, which presented its own dangers, or she could’ve got warm, which presented others. That is all. No message.
And it’s worth noting that one of the things that makes Love Me Back such a devastatingly good read is how ‘unapologetic’ and ‘unflinching’ and ‘raw’ this book is. Scan this and other reviews: those buzzwords show up like ‘heirloom’ or ‘artisinal’ stud farmer’s markets. While those qualifiers are true, and are breathtaking, it doesn’t feel fair to merely name them, to point lights square at what feels like the monumental daring Tierce must have to pull such work off. Let’s not be dazzled by the rawness and all that: what Tierce—what Marie—is rawly offering is a monumentally conflicted (meaning true) take on the ways in which our hungers ride us like unbroken horses, the way knowing we should with some ease be able to take dominion over our wants doesn’t mean a thing in the actual battle regarding that dominion. What I mean is that when the book ends with Marie twisting (in a way I won’t ruin here) and addressing even more wants—more than hers, more than those of her coworkers—you may, as I did, feel so acutely seen you’ll slam the book shut, hard, saying damn it the way you do when you know someone’s got your number.