The Italian sculptor Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Venus of the Rags (1967) is a beautifully crafted, classically inspired statue faced with what appears to be a pile of dirty laundry. While it is both charming and humorous (even meme-worthy), it evokes a vivid image of the confrontation that can exist between the ancient and modern world. Cara Hoffman’s latest novel Running accomplishes much the same thing, albeit in a less jarring way.
It is the story of three companions hustling and swindling as a means for survival in the Athens of the late 1980s. Bridey, Jasper and Milo, expats and all virtually still teenagers, share a room at the Olympos hotel where they work as “runners,” tricking inadvertent tourists into staying at the less than reputable lodging. In this way they earn enough income to maintain their ceaseless intoxication and to purchase occasional meals. Milo and Jasper, who arrive in Athens as lovers, form a sort of queer family with Bridey, an American girl trying to escape her bizarre, paranoia-filled upbringing. Hoffman’s novel, however, is dual narrative, which often flashes forward to Milo, a poet teaching at the New School in present-day New York. There he is plagued with nostalgia and an obsession with his past in Athens with Jasper and Bridey, a void he hopes to fill with his relationship with a female student named Navas and a homeless lover. Throughout the book, Milo and his companions search for newness in the midst of ruins, both physical and emotional.
Queerness, race, class and the idea of family all feature prominently in the book. And Milo, who spends his entire life chasing a certain notion of family, is scornful of its modern manifestation in gay culture. Strolling through the Lower East Side one evening, Milo equates the incorporation of straight norms into the gay community as “cultural annihilation,” which he then turns into an indictment of American capitalism. “And the only reason you are let in at all is because someone realized your money was as good as theirs,” he states. “Their hatred was a compliment you should have taken.” Milo instead seeks an alternate family model: he connects emotionally with the women in the novel and physically with men, though the roles overlap and evolve increasingly over the course of the novel.
Running is Hoffman’s third novel, and she has great control over her craft. The deft handling of the two non-linear narratives, as well as between the perspectives of Milo and Bridey, underscore her storytelling powers. And this alternation is what gives the book its exciting rhythm, reading almost like a mystery novel in some places. The two narratives, however, do not simply parallel each other. They compete for the reader’s attention, alternating quickly in short chapters and few page turns. That said, Hoffman sacrifices a certain distinctness of voice in switching between the two characters, and two often bleed together—intentionally perhaps.
Hoffman’s prose writing ability is exceptional, something that is clearly defined throughout the book. She is energetic and detail obsessed. She consistently creates the illusion of walking through alongside her characters in New York and in Athens, in the ‘80s and the present. The cultural and literary references are varied and natural: the book refers to Grindr, Joy Division and John Donne without reaching too far or becoming ornamental.
Running is ultimately a book about our hunger for permanence in a crumbling world. And while it raises important questions about family and friendship, it reminds us in a forceful way that impermanence is not the most terrible thing about living. Rather, it is inseparable from our human experience. It is instead about our choices, and whether we choose to build from the rubble or leave it to crumble.
Running: A Novel by Cara Hoffman
Simon & Schuster