Early in the pandemic, it seemed apparent the world—and certainly my world—teetered on apocalypse. Against a backdrop of empty shelves and crowded hospitals, my relationship ended and I lost my job to layoffs. For an addict like me, it was a recipe for disaster. I self-medicated my commingling paranoia and grief into submission, turning to binge-drinking and self-harm. But those empty days also gave me an awful lot of time to reflect. When I finally sobered up and entered recovery, I tore through contemporary addiction narratives, desperate for company. I needed reassurance that I wasn’t alone, that others—living or fictional—felt the same awful urge to self-annihilate. I found it in the shoot-from-the-hip works of Scott McClanahan, Nico Walker, and—most of all—Ruth Madievsky.
Madievsky’s searing debut All-Night Pharmacy captures the manic highs and savage lows of addiction. Like Denis Johnson’s seminal Jesus’ Son, the novel stares down the maw of substance abuse and takes us inside, painting an ecstatic portrait of early adulthood in the process. The story follows an unnamed narrator living in the shadow of her iconoclast sister Debbie. Both young women frequent a bar called Salvation where construction workers, pill hawkers, and spiritual mediums drink and dare each other to perform various acts of debauchery. But when a violent confrontation prompts Debbie to disappear, our narrator is forced to figure out what it means to be her own person, wrestling all the while with her autonomy, queerness, and addiction.
Of course I saw myself in the narrator’s chemically fueled oblivion—what she describes as “the black holes eaten away by things we’d taken.” She has a relentless urge to auto-obliviate, enduring the whiplash that comes with toggling between her sober self and her addict self. “I couldn’t reconcile the me that might perform mass spectrometry in chem lab with the me that had a drug-resistant UTI from skinny-dipping in the LA River,” she muses. We follow her into blaring parties, vile dives, lovers’ beds, and prescription-drug wormholes, all backlit by the trademark grit and smog that permeate Los Angeles.
What sets Madievsky’s novel apart from most other addiction narratives is how it’s situated at the intersection of addiction and gender. Early in the novel, our narrator complains, “I was tired of being a knife block. I wanted to be a knife.” The line reminded me of a platitude I’d once read explaining gendered addiction: “When a man gets drunk, he acts upon the world. When a woman gets drunk, the world acts upon her.” It always struck me as a bit presumptuous, paternalistic. In active addiction, I certainly felt like I acted upon the world; I sought out dangerous situations and found them, emerging relatively unscathed (thanks in equal parts to privilege and luck). Somehow, even in my most out-of-control interactions, I always felt like a knife. Reading All-Night Pharmacy, I asked myself anew how much of my intoxicated agency was thanks to being a straight, cis man—and how someone unlike me might crave this freedom I largely took for granted.
To this end, Madievsky rejects the aforementioned platitude and confronts gendered agency head-on, presenting a female protagonist who gleefully pursues oblivion in similar fashion to those of Ottessa Moshfegh, Jean Kyoung Frazier, Kimberly King Parsons, and Lisa Locascio Nighthawk. Which is to say, Madievsky is in excellent company among the pantheon of authors who write women on the verge, women under the influence, women barely holding it together. And she pushes the genre into exciting new territory as the novel moves beyond addiction and further explores trauma, recovery, and spiritual awakening.
On the level of prose, Madievsky wields imagery like an emotional sledgehammer. With her background in poetry (and an excellent collection, Emergency Brake, to her name), she offhandedly peppers her prose with brutal, brilliant figurative language. A brief sampling:
“Light poured through the flimsy blinds like milk.”
“The folds of my brain had been set aflame and sprayed down with a firehose.”
“I began walking, waiting for the universe to take me in its jaws or to forget me as usual.”
“It was warm and the night air dripped with the honeyed scent of magnolias.”
“She pushed aside a branch from which dried leaves hung like the wings of terrible insects.” Madievsky’s metaphors blur the edges of the world, altering one’s perception long after reading them. Hanging air conditioning units become “unsocketed eyes.” Mangled roots push a headstone out “like a crooked tooth.” Air thickens “like the liquid within snow globes.” In bedrooms and barrooms blurred first by addiction and then by sobriety, Madievsky conjures a complicated California where sisters disappear, mysterious strangers spark epiphanies, and sex and selfhood teeter on a knife’s edge.
Today, sober-me finds new meaning in the addiction fiction that addict-me once admired. Following the advice of activist and educator César A. Cruz, I used to believe good literature must “disturb the comfortable,” but having just hit three years in recovery, only now do I appreciate works that “comfort the disturbed.” All-Night Pharmacy does both. Reading it, addicts will find catharsis. Non-addicts will find empathy. Women and enbies will find affirmation. Men will find new perspectives. And I found what I needed most: proof I wasn’t alone.