“‘You tired, runner girl?’ They all call me runner girl,” confesses the narrator in the opening of Lynn Steger Strong’s second novel, Want. Having lived a former life as a competitive distance runner, this immediately brought me back to my college locker room, where we had a poster of Lauren Fleshman, runner-writer extraordinaire, standing on an empty track with her arms crossed. “Objectify me,” the poster read. “Look at me, study me, and understand me. Then, and only then, can you make my running shoes. Don’t give me small, pink versions of a man’s running shoes. I’m not a small, pink version of a man.” I looked at this poster every time I left the locker room.
Fear not, Want is not a tome on running, but a fierce examination of the systems we run from and live in, in spite of their brokenness. It’s a novel that infuses big ideas into concrete actions and distinct scenes. It explores motherhood, economic anxiety, and complicated friendships, and Strong examines performativity: accidental, purposeful, or assumed. The exterior of the narrator’s life, who is unnamed for the majority of the novel (spoiler: her name is Elizabeth), is that she has two little girls, lives in a Brooklyn apartment, has an Ivy-League PhD, and her woodworker husband is charming AND social. Yet, these supposed markers of success within our capitalistic, white, heteropatriarchal society don’t hold up. They are bankrupt. They struggle with schedules and sippy cups, with management of the ”magic” credit card, and Elizabeth’s portrait of motherhood is not awash with light-filled Instagram posts of bouncing toddlers engaged with water play. Her portrait bleeds in all the ways mommyblogs fail to capture, in all the ways they don’t highlight the reality of tired moms cyberstalking old friends on social media in the late hours of the night, and acknowledgment that her body “almost single-handedly bankrupted (them),” thanks to an emergency C-section and multiple root canals.
Strong’s prose presents precise, staccato sentences that, even in their profound minimalism, are laden with anxiety that propel us to keep turning the page. The propulsion tells us that Elizabeth knows exactly what she wants, even if she’s never asked, even if she’s been deprived of those desires in all the ways society tells us women shall stay deprived.
Before I started reading Want, I saw it on summer reading watch lists and read reviews praising it as something to look out for, one preview placing it within “contemporary female fiction.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a review hailing Jeffrey Eugenides’ work featuring female protagonists as “contemporary female fiction.” The complexities within Want are owed more than painting it with such a simple, imprecise brushstroke. And yes, that’s even if the cover is colored in a viscous pink swirl.
The book journeys through Elizabeth’s present day as she navigates her day job as a charter school teacher, her night job as an adjunct professor for a graduate-level night class, her ensnarement with a circular university-level sexual harassment and abuse case, and the possible overstepping of boundaries in an attempt to help a high school student. Her complex estrangement from her childhood best friend, Sasha, underscores most of the book. Once an enmeshment, it is now a distant relationship that, like most IntenseFemaleFriendships™, we come to understand at times blur the lines of obsession, romance, dependence, and need. The novel presented here is not one where Elizabeth and Sasha end up in a love affair a la Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but the possibility remains. And perhaps if not beholden to the terms they think must define them, that story exists: “Whether I wanted to love or have or just to be her never felt as easily discernible as this or that, one or the other—more like all of it, and then more, at once.” Instead, what’s left is fractured friendship whose scaffolding are odd-hour DM responses to Elizabeth’s Instagram stalking. There’s a very obvious Sasha-sized gap that never quite gets filled with anything other than Elizabeth’s guilt surrounding the circumstances of their estrangement.
Want is firmly cemented in our present day, and though written in a different calendar year, it’s hard to not hold it up side-by-side with 2020. The book is a fierce indictment on the failure of the American Dream. The characters aren’t asking for Gatsby-level riches, they’re just trying to get by. At one point in the book, Elizabeth asks her husband “what do you want, though?” He responds, “to pay our rent… to take care of our kids.” Raw needs. Overlaid with our current reality, we see unemployment rates skyrocketing and millions of Americans without the security of healthcare. Under the current fascist presidency, a pandemic rages on, disproportionately affecting Black and Brown Americans, and continuing to highlight the extreme systemic inequities in this country. In Want, these inequities are constant and acknowledged; Elizabeth is one of few white teachers at a charter school whose student population is all Black and Brown children. She frequently leaves in the middle of the day to attend to her kids, or to read one of the many literary selections that dot the novel while sipping coffees in cafes. This is her first full-time job and she knows she can get away with her midday departures:
“I’m pretty sure by now I won’t get fired no matter what I ask for. I’m a thirty-four-year-old J. Crew-cardigan-clad white woman with an Ivy-League PhD and, though both of my co-homeroom teachers work harder than I do and are better at their jobs than I am, when the CEO walks from classroom to classroom to watch all of us teaching, she always reports back to the principal that she likes the feel of me.”
It’s peak white privilege with a smidge of Karen energy, and that’s the point here, that it doesn’t take an Amy Cooper-level incident to uphold all the ways in which the system stays rigged in white people’s favor; but rather it’s entrenched in the day-to-day, in the comings and goings of not just white women asking to speak to the manager, but in the acceptance of privilege as status quo, void of action to change it. Elizabeth is culpable in her whiteness. That Elizabeth is able to enjoy her pre-dawn Brooklyn runs as a respite is a privilege that Strong wants us to contend with.
Years later, after my second-to-last place finish in the Armed Forces Cross Country Championships, I would bump into Lauren Fleshman in the Bend, OR airport ticket counter line. As we snaked through the nylon-belted turnstiles, I mentioned the locker room poster and how she had been an inspiration. She took my running log while holding her son on her hip, and after one more snake through the line, handed it back to me with a personal inscription. I’d later email her about failure, about running, about work culture that valued older, white men before all else. She’d write back, sugarcoating nothing, including six words that I’ve written in every notebook and stuck on every wall since: dissatisfaction is fertile ground for innovation. It’s important to know that Lauren has since called out Nike, the company that the ad was for, and the many ways in which that company is a broken system, a “sports system built by and for men,” as she wrote in an opinion piece for the NYTimes. She called for the reform of that system and its culture: “we do not currently have a sports system built for girls. If we did, it would look very different—and it would benefit everyone.”
We see this brokenness extend to the NFL, in its treatment of Colin Kaepernick. We see this brokenness in how Ahmaud Arbery couldn’t go for a jog without being murdered by white supremacist racists in broad daylight.
Strong said that writing Want was born out of initial failure and dissatisfaction: “ I might never have a career, what would I write if I just wrote?” In giving us a novel that focuses on precarity instead of just a woman’s anxiety, she gives us innovation, delivers us an indictment of these systems: Elizabeth states “we cannot live outside the systems and the structures, but, it turns out, I cannot live within them either anymore.” To be able to exit the system in the first place is a privilege that must not be ignored.
There’s innovation in a group of Hollywood women and athletes banding together to fund a Los Angeles women’s soccer team.
There’s innovation in NBA players using media sessions to continue to call for the arrest of Breonna Taylor’s killers: Brett Hankison, Jon Mattingly, and Myles Cosgrove.
There’s innovation in the call to abolish the police and end mass incarceration.
And though certainly not the same, there is innovation in Want delivering us a protagonist that forces us to look at the ways these broken systems are enabled when inequities are recognized and named, yet the people recognizing them still make choices that don’t push the needle forward. Want becomes a magnifying glass held up to the world at large that suggests a reckoning with the societal reform that needs to occur.