Jardine Libaire—her life, her taste, and her work—is a study in contrasts. As a young woman, she spent four years in a boarding school at Connecticut, but she never felt at home among the society families that populated it. Halfway through her MFA at the University of Michigan, she switched from poetry to fiction. She still loves Jack Keroauc’s rambling, lyric prose—but equally praises the merits of Joseph Campbell and the comforts of mythologies like his hero’s journey. Drawn to both chaos and order, to both lyricism and the power of good old-fashioned story, and to both hope and grit, it’s no surprise that White Fur reflects all of this, a perfect example of how forging together contrasts can yield something fresh.
The book is, at its heart, a love story—and not an unhopeful one. Jamey and Elise are star-crossed, specifically across class lines. Jamey is from a prominent family with expectations of him to live a high-society life once he graduates from Yale. Elise grew up poor, without a father and uncertain of her true racial identity. Beyond love, the book is also a searing examination of class, filled with unsentimental observation of both topics. “I did want to write a love story about people that were unable to be together in this world, so they had to go to another one,” Libaire explains, “and then that kind of intersected with my preoccupation with social class.” She set the book in the streets of 1980s New York City in part, she says, to get some distance from the hairy ideas with which she was wrestling.
“There was some separation and perspective,” Libaire says. “If you’re writing about the present day everything is morphing as you write.” If you go back a few decades, however, “there’s this kind of established reality that you can go back and investigate.” Plus, she adds, there’s a library of insights and perspectives on that time available, too: “People have had time to write about it, and make albums about it, and make films. I think all of that is really helpful when you are aiming to write about something that to me is as bewildering as class in America.”
Some of the initial pieces of the novel were with Libaire for years before the book existed. There was an anecdote about a man she’d dated who suffered a psychotic break after an episode with LSD. There was a book she read, Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, a reporter who’d embedded herself with a family in the Bronx in an 11-year immersion. “The book is never patronizing, and it doesn’t explain to you what’s going on—it’s just a ton of data,” Libaire explains. “I just loved that, that there was no judgment.” And Libaire’s novel, too, accomplishes the same: Libaire seems to really know her characters as much as she seems to refrain from passing any judgment on them—even as readers might decide they deserve it.
The novel, then, feels as witnessed as it does imagined. And Libaire understands the importance of witness, especially to the kind of quiet incidents of class that can be incredibly damaging. At her competitive boarding school, she explains, she saw “resentment, prejudice, misogyny—but almost never anything spoken out loud. So it took me years to be certain it really happened.” The experience, and the kind of questions it produced, followed Libaire around. “I set out [to write] without an idea of what class is,” she says. “I think it’s so confusing, and I thought I would just try to explore these obscured areas that I was confused about. For example, what happens when a well-meaning father is totally racist? What does it mean that people consider [Elise] non-white even though her skin is paler than Jamey’s?”
White Fur opens with the two lovers on either side of a shotgun in a motel room in Wyoming. The question at hand is Libaire’s essential query: can love transcend class? Will Elise kill Jamey—and what will it mean if she does? The rest of the book explains the previous year leading the two to this room. In a close third point of view from both characters, the novel lets the pair share the telling of their story, whose ending we won’t spoil.
Worth previewing, however, is the sheer lyrical power of Libaire’s prose. A self-described believer in chaos (“I’ve submitted to it,” Libaire says), her tightly plotted story is interspersed with descriptive language so taut and metaphorical—She’s a greyhound, curved to run, aerodynamic, beaten, fast as fuck, born to lose—that it reads like poetry. “I like the rawness,” Libaire says. “I like the chaos of the human mind as it is, before it gets pasteurized into literature. The way I find that rawness or realness of organic chaos is through chasing down these pieces that feel like poems to me between plot points.”
And therein lies the true beauty for Libaire: she doesn’t have to choose. White Fur is successful because it is both poetry and prose, because it is dark and light, because it is sticky, difficult, earnest, and hopeful at once—not unlike love, which the beats at the center of this novel’s heart.
Jaime Netzer is a fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. Her stories have appeared in Black Warrior Review and Parcel, among others. Find her on Twitter.