Heather Lewis’s Notice – recently republished after decades out of print – is a blistering and disturbing work. Rigorously deviant, technically merciless, to read it is almost an act of physical exertion, the effect viscerally stunning like a gut-punch. The resignation implied by its title – in the sense of ‘giving’ notice, abandoning a task – impels you to encounter it as an agonizingly extended suicide note. Lewis’s final novel was first published two years after she took her own life in 2002 at the age of forty, having relapsed following a long period of sobriety; she had also suffered an addiction to OxyContin, and ‘knew her way around heroin’ from her early years. Notice’s unanimous rejection – publishers recoiled from its relentless catalogue of cruelties, as well as an assumed proximity to its author’s life – coupled with the hostile reception that met The Second Suspect (1998), were widely perceived as precipitating Lewis’s decline. She had ‘gone too far’, though experimenting with limits – and with seeing how much both writer and reader could stomach – was also key to Lewis’s triumph.

The Second Suspect was an attempted compromise. A portrait of a female detective struggling to prove the guilt of a corporate male sadist who has raped and murdered legions of young women, this was Notice repackaged as a commercial thriller. Yet the novel still attracted epithets of rote ‘transgression’ and jejune ‘shock tactics’. Such criticism must have stung. Educated at Sarah Lawrence College and mentored by the writer-teacher Allan Gurganus, Lewis’s youth had been scarred by sexual abuse and parental neglect. House Rules (1994) was Lewis’s first – devastating, jarringly controlled – attempt to transmute her experience into a novel. In high school, she had made a foray into the world of show-horse jumping: the novel tells the story of a teenage runaway, victim of a sexually abusive father, who finds work as a trick rider. Existential squalor follows. Trick riding refers to the act of performing stunts on horseback. The sentence which begins Notice is ‘For the longest time I didn’t call it turning tricks.’

Notice follows a young woman, Nina, as she becomes ‘mixed up’ in brutalizing sex work, drugs, violence and prison. It begins with an ‘ordinary’ commute home, except home is an empty house from which the narrator’s parents have been absent for months. This isolation perhaps makes Nina more prone to the seductions of ‘Ingrid’s husband’ (also never given a full name) who picks her up by the side of the road: ‘Right there he’d flipped the game, right from the start’. Her subsequent account melds stark description with a cavernous lyricism:

I did wake up. Woke up sore and feeling drugged, and wishing I really was, but having no inclination to even find my liquor. I wanted to go back to that blackness where nothing had ever happened or ever had. Wanted this the way a child wants death, or the way I had as a child. A want simply to stop it.

In her former writing mentor’s words, Lewis’s ‘truest subject’ was ‘the void’ between the half-truths we tell ourselves, and the more complex, unflattering impulses behind what we do. Here the premise of turning tricks for money is punctured by the narrator – ‘because it just couldn’t be as simple as money’. Lewis instead sketches an alternative economy where the currency is suffering. As she puts it in House Rules, the narrator is interested in ‘the kind of pain that kills pain.’

The situation that unfolds could be portrayed as tragic, yet the novel resists any trace of pathos. Lewis’s tone has often been described as ‘chilling’, but a more diagnostic term would be dissociative. The writing is glazed and flattened by torment. Yet it carries the weight of something profoundly lived (if not fully resolved). Nina ultimately fluctuates between wanting to feel nothing – ‘it would make me feel something, which naturally is about the last thing you want’ – and wanting to feel everything. Between wanting to endure – ‘to prove I could take anything’ – and ‘a tremendous pull to give in, to give up.’ She knows she must escape Ingrid and her sadist husband, but also that – for ultimately enigmatic reasons – she cannot.

The carnal scenes in Notice are frequently harrowing: those in which Nina is made to dress in the clothes of the couple’s deceased teenage daughter are particularly gruesome. Eventually she is committed to a psychiatric hospital, where she meets Beth, a therapist with whom she pursues a romantic relationship and who eventually ‘gets her out’, but not before Nina has to undergo nightly ‘visitations’ from the patrolling guards. It does not get any better. As the novel raced towards its climax, I waited, almost squinting through my fingers, for some pay-off catharsis, a release from the unabating build-up of traumatic incident, but one never came. 

It is hard to resist a ‘reverse-image-search’ kind of psychoanalysis, reading Notice as the culmination of a lifetime’s effort to deal with the trauma she suffered at the hands of her father (Lewis’s long-term partner, the writer Ann Rower, called Hobart Lewis ‘the grand villain’ of everything she wrote). It is also tempting to read the relationships that Nina has with women as possessing a more sustaining, nurturing dynamic. Yet these attachments sour and turn savage too. The French title of the novel – Attention, translated and published in 2007 – might better encompass the book’s ambivalence, the tightrope walked between vigilance and exhibitionism. Throughout, we are made aware of the narrator’s fear of ‘never holding anyone’s notice for very long’. Perhaps the nightmare Notice dramatizes is not that violence and abuse will lead to further escalation or even loss of life. The nightmare is that such violence will simply continue, without being registered at all. 

Read on: Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya and Nancy Fraser, ‘Notes for a Feminist Manifesto’, NLR 114.