On Lauren John Joseph’s “At Certain Points We Touch”

Novel by Lauren John Joseph In some of the points we touch on Starting at 4:30 am in Mexico City. The first-person narrator — unnamed but alternately addressed as JJ, BB, and Liza Minnelli throughout the book — picks up a handsome American at a house party. On their way to an all-night taqueria for breakfast, the two get lost,

From crumbling residential streets, to a massive six-lane highway, we were told we had come a long way. Gargantuan heavy goods vehicles, huge petroleum tankers and giant Coca-Cola trucks thundered into the dying night, diesels rumbled through the city and the pavement rumbled beneath our feet. We stood still, bewildered, shocked, in front of a shuttered mechanic’s shop, in this interminable traffic, bewildered by each other, Well, now what?

A pharmacy’s digital date, time, and temperature clock provides the answer: the narrator realizes that it is February 29th. A leap year:

That’s when I felt it.

‘I have to go,’ I say.

‘Where?’ he asks.

‘Home,’ I say. ‘Do I have your number? I’ll call you tomorrow, later, tonight.’

He looked confused, ‘Well…’

I see he was fired. He thought he was going to have a tantrum, but I don’t care, I’m already hurrying.

You see, like a compulsion, like food poisoning, like a scream in the dark, like violently tearing me from a dream: the exhortation to put it down on paper at last.

February 29, as it happens, is the birthday of one Thomas James — alternately called Tom, Leapling, and, more often than not, “you” — when the accidental death of an ex-lover left everything unfinished between them. Constantly Unfinished. As the narrator sits at a kitchen table in Mexico City, he traces, or excavates, this connection from its beginnings a decade ago to the present, covered in old letters like “an endless tundra covered in cigarette ash and lined with Coke cans.” ,” is a task the book accomplishes with virtuosic skill.

Tom – a university and party-circuit-experienced “Leapling” – is a classic Mr. Wrong, a gifted photographer who shoots everything from wedding ceremonies to brutalist buildings to fellow dancers in gay clubs with film stock. Be practical. He is described as self-centered, with ironic or cynical political views and ironies. He breaks hearts and doesn’t wash his sheets. But he’s brought to life so three-dimensionally — as a reader who knows as much as the narrator does that it’s best to stay away from this “handsome bastard” — that it’s hard not to see his deadpan appeal. Take the early encounter described by the narrator:

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I’m performing, so I dress up like some kind of nymphomaniac Christ; I have a pink bra and a crown of gold jewelry, strappy high-heel sandals, and a burgundy sash that I fashioned from a bedspread or a curtain. Although I don’t know why, I have a streak of fake Halloween blood from a tube under my nose. You look at the group with complete indifference, with a chin-up gesture, the same kind of gesture you’d see from a static buyer bidding on antiques at an auction house.

‘Okay BB?’ You offer, no rush.

I nodded, ‘yeah, good – you?’

With your right hand, you extend what I first read as a gun gesture, then you wrap the two straightened fingers around the twisted strap of my bra, ‘And what?’

But the relationship with Liepling gives the book its texture, its beating heart In some of the points we touch on It’s the first-person narrator’s journey — an epic exploration of an artist’s world, self, and what’s to come.

We first meet the young, red-haired, green-eyed narrator, who has inherited her love of words as much as her tendency toward depression, from her mother, in London. Life there is bleak until a chance encounter in a post office opens up “a mirror world of counterculture” – saloons in cellars, parties in gas stations and graveyards, advice the narrator soon follows. Forget writing and get on stage instead. Despite the attractions of this mirror world and the leepling at home there, the narrator finishes university and sets out as soon as possible for “acid-soaked northern California”—a destination not so much chosen: “[A]All butterflies follow their predetermined migrations, and it was in my weird genes. I was looking for a place to be reborn, why choose San Francisco? There, living rent-free above a laundromat with two semi-employed Berklee students, the narrator survives on prized half burritos and performance art, and discovers a “golden-age drag mother” who encourages and charms the trio’s performances. Hopes and Dreams of the Haight-Ashbury Period.

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In classic bildungsroman fashion, we follow the narrator from San Francisco to London, then to New York City’s Demimonde — the high-wire life subsidized, barely, by table dancing — and back to London again. Excursions into the self lead to a difficult childhood in northern England, to snowy and melancholy Berlin, to a sun-drenched Greek island. The transition from a stage performance to a writer will occur later – that is, the pharmacy clock in Mexico City, the reminder of the lost Liepling’s birthday, when the narrator’s writer himself is forced – the only “I” who has the courage to face this. Of loneliness, as the narrator says – forward.

Meanwhile, the narrator initiates another internal shift—one in which, years later, the leap remains a touchstone:

Would it insult your pride to know that I started entertaining your advances because I wanted you to include me instead of Lulu? Can I be her in a way, even if only in my mind and your arms? And so I was able to take on the beautiful transgender body that I still couldn’t accept wanting.

At another point, the lost Liepling is addressed: “I wonder if I had left the last vestiges of masculinity during our courtship, during your lifetime, if you would have hated me? Or, as you share in this transformation, will you love me more?”

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Everywhere, there are friends, artists, art, parties, performances, lovers, collaborations, heartbreak, betrayal, more art, more performances, more parties. Joseph paints these various worlds and relationships with heart and humor. But the book is also an excavation of the world we all live in, a depiction of the ways in which romantic relationships reflect and deflect political situations and beliefs, exploring how technology has changed and how it has changed us. It’s a sort of millennial time capsule, chronicling a love affair that begins with an email flirtation and ends with a lost cache of messages and pictures:

It’s crazy to know that so many other pictures have been destroyed now. I wish I could click and drag them all to the desktop and open a new folder and deposit them on my hard drive with all the garbage you sent me in private messages. Now that’s all gone. Why maintain a MySpace profile when entire civilizations have been destroyed to boost the egos of European monarchs? When will the entire planet be destroyed at present? Everything is fleeting, and digital life is swept away with no more ceremony than physical life, and that’s just the way it is.

Lucid and libidinous, In some of the points we touch on It is a tender documentation of a love affair and the writer’s life. The narrator describes Liepling’s photography as “an experiment in seeing the world”, carried out with old cameras and old film, meaning that the images could either come out pretty or result in a series of completely black frames with red lines. Fortunately, Joseph chose a more solid medium than flea-market film to accomplish the same goal in this excellent debut novel.


Sally McGrane is a journalist and author based in Berlin Moscow at midnight (2018)A spy novel. Her new novel, Odessa at DonReleased in summer 2022 in the United Kingdom.


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