Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Pursuit of Folly: Today Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life

Ulli Lust's teenage memoir Today Is The Last Day Of The Rest Of Your Life walks a fine line between being a sort of after school special and a glorification of relentlessly irresponsible behavior. It's important to refer back to the title of the book as a sort of totem that explains just why 17-year-old Lust did what she did. She felt bored and trapped by her life in Austria and was inspired by anarchist and punk movements. When a fellow girl she met had the idea to simply hitchhike to Italy with no money and no passports, it seemed the perfect opportunity to cash in on one's youth, to go where the winds and fate took you. Lust is unsparing in detailing the highs and lows of the experience and the increasingly crazy events that overtook her. Like William Blake's line about pursuing folly, Lust ultimately became wise as a result of her experiences. Because fortune loves a fool, she escaped from her circumstances unscathed, mostly through sheer dumb luck but also a fair amount of guile.

The book opens with a disaffected Ulli at a crossroads. Her parents are urging her to go back to school, but she finds more inspiration hanging out with her punk friends. In essence, she simply wants to drop out of a bourgeois society. That's partly a political rejection as she allies herself with anarchism, but it's also an aesthetic lifestyle choice: rather than live a life of deadened sensation, she wants to try a life where every act and experience is a heightened one, every memory seared into one's brain. That's when she takes off with Edi, whom she met the morning after Edie had had sex with one of her friends. Edie had shown some experience hitchhiking, so the duo just started walking until they fumbled across the Austria-Italy border. The early part of the trip found them dodging policemen (a frequent worry) and living off the land, as their migration brought them a number of idyllic moments.

Throughout the book, there are temporary alliances built on a sense of trusting others on the road. Once in Italy, she starts to learn the price of trusting others, especially men. While she and Edie do manage to find a community of hippies, drop-outs and anarchists living in various parks, Ulli makes the mistake of going off with a couple of guys to the coast. One of the book's darker tones is the way in which a homeless 17-year-old girl is essentially a commodity for men, especially in Italy where the application of the male gaze is relentlessly shameless. She comes to realize that every man who wants to "take care" of her, buy her a meal, etc really just wanted to fuck her and then cast her aside. Edie, on the other hand, was happy to fuck anyone with a pulse, an inclination that made it easy for her to get along with others for a while, but it carried its own price. The book takes a harsh turn when Ulli is raped and then attaches herself to her rapist when she is hungry, homeless and doesn't seem to have other options.

The virgin/whore binary that is so common in hypermasculine cultures was certainly at work here, as her "boyfriend" wanted her to dress better and never, ever disagree with him -- especially in public. That reawakened Ulli's inner rugged individualist and offended her burgeoning feminist sensibilities, though she made the mistake of traveling on to Sicily. That portion of the book was the most fascinating and most bizarre, as Ulli steps into a world that feels like something out of a bad story but was quite real. This was the heart of "family" territory, as the mafia ruled the island and the city of Parma in particular. That Italian hypermasculinity was such that prostitutes weren't allowed to operate in the city because they were immoral, but this only meant that young men were even more brazen and brutal in going after single, unattached women. Women like Ulli.

Her luck seems to take a turn for the better when she is reunited with Edie, who was separated from Ulli as part of a scheme by a would-be rapist. However, Edie winds up being a sort of warped mirror image of Ulli. While Ulli saw her as a fellow free spirit, capable of letting fate and chance determine their days, she also thought of her as a loyal friend, someone she could trust. It was one thing to be constantly disappointed by men on her journey, but being betrayed by Edie would be something else. Yet that's precisely what happens after Edie becomes the girlfriend of the son of a mob boss with a severe learning disability, rendering him brutal and especially stupid.

The core of this book and the essence of her experience was learning to retain one's humanity and dignity in the most dehumanizing and alienating of situations. It wasn't just the threat of rape and being viewed solely as a sexual object that was dehumanizing, but also simply trying to live on a day-to-day basis with no money of one's own. Ulli escapes from the situation with her humanity intact even after being part of harrowing situations like escaping from a mob house, something Edie is not capable of when she later goes back and abandons her friend. Edie is drawn sort of like a human switchblade: long, lean, and angular with spiky black hair. She looks sleek but is really dangerous like a switchblade, and she winds up mercilessly cutting off her friend. She's a hedonist with no moral center, no sense of loyalty and no real emotions. While one of her companions relentlessly calls her stupid (another dehumanizing tactic that Ulli does not stand for), her problem was that she was a near-sociopath, a creature of pure id like a toddler that doesn't understand or care about the consequences of her actions. In many respects, she was the example for Ulli of what not to do and what not to become as a human being. Both young women were working in a moral vacuum, but Edie represented total amorality while Ulli represented a more noble sense of morality, a way of navigating the world that wasn't bourgeois but also wasn't purely selfish. For lack of a better term, she discovered a punk ethic the hard way.

I've rarely seen a book where art and story were in such perfect harmony. Lust employs a loose, expressive line that's naturalistic but quite fluid. The looseness of that line aids Lust in her depiction of the funnier moments of the book, like when Ulli and Edie get crabs and have to shave their public hair. Edie breaking down because she "no longer looks like a woman" was funny and especially telling that this book took place in the 80s, before shaving became a more common and even expected trend. Lust's own self-caricature is a wide (and even wild) eyed woman with crazy, unkempt hair and tattered clothing. Lust also captures the staggering beauty of Rome perfectly, as well as illustrating crippling poverty and the anarchist society of the homeless. The two-tone color scheme grounds the work nicely, providing a pleasant warm surface for the reader to embrace throughout the book's more unpleasant moments. Lust embraces her past as a sort of rite of passage, one that was about living her life according to a certain aesthetic. Lust was after beauty above all else: the beauty of travel, the beauty of total freedom from expectations and consumer culture, the beauty of great cities, and the beauty within others. Even if that quest for the beauty in others resulted in a hideous confrontation with inner ugliness, it never dampened her resolve or her hopes to find that sense of beauty in the world, a quest that continues even today  in her career as an artist. Lust may have lost her naivete' in the course of the story, but she never lost her sense of wonder.

1 comment:

  1. nice review - I really love the switchblade characterization of edie.