“Lungfish” and the Alienating Act of Addiction

Longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2022 First Novel Prize, Megan Gilliss’s debut novel that takes place on a Maine island is rife with tension.

Meghan Gilliss’s Lungfish, out this past fall from Catapult Books and longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s 2022 First Novel Prize, is that rare novel of stunning, viscerally alive sentences with an equally propulsive plot. It tells the story of Tuck, who moves with her family from Pittsburgh to a small fictional island off the coast of Maine where her grandmother died. Technically squatting—as the island has been passed on to Tuck’s currently unreachable itinerant father—Tuck and her family are grappling with the dueling ticking clocks of the season (the house where they are staying isn’t winterized) and their lack of legal rights to the property. Add to that the caretaking of their two-year-old daughter, Agnes, and Tuck’s careful, complicated relationship with her husband Paul’s newly disclosed substance abuse, and the book is rife with tension from the start.

At the time of the book’s writing, Gilliss was, like Tuck, trying to care for and love someone struggling with addiction. “A terrible experience,” she says. “But not uninteresting.” It was a position she found both hard and alienating to explain to those not in the throes of it. “Here was a way of trying,” she says of writing Lungfish. “Not to tell any particular person’s story, but to say: Here’s a version, here’s some of what it feels like.”

Early in the book Tuck says, “What’s new, now, is everything I didn’t see. My life behind the curtain.” And she is not wrong. In addition to her husband’s struggles, there are truths about Tuck’s life that we, the reader, spend the book trying to see and understand. “It was important to me that we never come to any feeling that Tuck has seen everything rightly,” says Gilliss. “There is still much that’s obscured to her, and I think always will be—particularly around her husband’s relationship to drugs. And that was the trickiest part of writing this book—allowing the reader to inhabit Tuck’s own state of unknowingness, but to show them enough to make whatever interpretations they need to make in order to have the footing needed to continue reading.”

The reader’s footing comes from every new jump and scene being formed with quick elegance. Gilliss describes the natural world, the physical sensations of living on this island, with bristling, penetrating force: “The bulbous capsules at the fringe of seaweed pop between her teeth as her mouth accepts the slimy brine.” And later: “It was dusk, and she led me by the hand deep into the ferns, to show me where the spring bubbled up into a little marsh, the frog eggs attached to the underbellies of wide blades of pale grass.”

But, true to Gilliss’s intentions, the book’s emotional investments—its sense of knowing and not knowing—remain slippery. Moving in short sections, the chapters—sometimes a single paragraph, sometimes a sentence—are named with oblique words like “Slough” and “Fade,” and “Catch.” These titles don’t attempt to explain or answer any questions, but to show a specific type of yearning. They ask the reader to inhabit the liminal and the uncertain.

Gilliss goes on, “The novel began by archiving emotional states that struck me as the kind my own brain would forget or wipe away once they were past; the kinds that felt too slippery to hold onto.” She also had a young child while the book was being written and felt powerless in many parts of her life. The book was a way of acting, of doing. “It was a form of exerting control. There was word choice, at least.”

This control is evident not only in the language, but in the way the book keeps our attention focused explicitly on Tuck. “I watch him sleeping in the bed next to me,” Tuck says. “Feel tender, I think. Feel tender, feel tender, feel tender.” She is conflicted, desperate, trying to keep their child fed and alive, trying to trust and love Paul while remaining vigilant enough to keep her whole family safe. But Paul, for us, as he does also for Tuck, remains largely an absence, unknowable and enigmatic. This is not a story of addiction where our main investment is with the person struggling with a substance, but of trying to still love and be loved, to retain a sense of being tender, in the wake of addiction’s effects.

As Gilliss wrote the novel, “For five or seven or thirty minutes in the early morning, on the days I was able to sneak downstairs without waking my daughter,” she says, the book began “to burn” in her. “I wrote on scraps of paper at work.” She began to think about it constantly. This urgency, the small snips of time and the compulsion, is evident. Tuck is traveling back and forth from the island to find money, to try to locate her father, get food and propane, find her family a more permanent place to stay. The sentences throughout are elegant, but also shot through with desperation. They convey a feeling that, if the next choice isn’t made, the next resource unearthed, her whole world will fall apart.

One of the main tensions of the book, and one of its great successes, is Tuck’s seeming passivity, her deep interiority, her desire not to act even as circumstances demand she does. “Her habits may not help her handle the problem in a traditional, recommended, take-the-bull-by-the-horns kind of way, but she gets there, arguably,” says Gilliss. “Ultimately, she exercises extreme agency. She figures out a problem in her own way.” Books are often built on action, interaction, reaction, but Gilliss is able to craft a compelling, ultimately capable character while allowing her to stay fully and complicatedly herself.

We, like Tuck, end the book with few answers and very little certainty. In the last paragraph, here is Tuck, speaking of her daughter: “Seeing is not the same as making. I can’t make her; can only show her how it’s done.” Lungfish too shows us something, gives us immediate and visceral access to a certain type of yearning and of loving, and in so doing gets us closer, without ever being presumptuous enough to think that we could fully touch it, to the weight and texture, the elemental, desperate nature, of Tuck’s specific ache.

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