In Other Words Land of En­chant­ment by Leigh Stein

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by Leigh Stein, Plume, 224 pages

New Mex­ico fig­ures promi­nently in the imag­i­na­tions of count­less cre­ative types, many of whom ro­man­ti­cize the lore they learn about Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe, Beat­nik po­ets, and hip­pie com­munes in the state. Writ­ers and artists come here in search of in­spi­ra­tion via the land, light, and sky, as well as the ex­pe­ri­ence of liv­ing some­where that many con­sider to be ex­otic and off the beaten track. Res­i­dents get used to, or are born used to, our cloud­less days and sweep­ing views, as well as how com­mon it is to meet peo­ple try­ing to make it as artists. Over time, it becomes easy to roll one’s eyes at new­com­ers who are still caught up in the magic of the place, a magic that we take for granted (but also wouldn’t vol­un­tar­ily leave). New Mex­ico has its more un­sa­vory at­tributes as well, in­clud­ing grind­ing poverty, drug abuse, and ram­pant un­treated men­tal ill­ness among the poor and ad­dicted. These is­sues are en­demic in some lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties, and they can also af­flict those who flock here to escape their demons.

Leigh Stein is the au­thor of The Fall­back Plan (Melville House, 2012), the first draft of which she wrote while liv­ing in Al­bu­querque in 2007. Land of En­chant­ment is her mem­oir about that time, and her re­la­tion­ship with Ja­son, with whom she left sub­ur­ban Chicago for a South­west­ern ad­ven­ture. Leigh’s ro­mance with Ja­son was strange and tu­mul­tuous from the be­gin­ning. She was twenty-two and he was al­most nine­teen, though she thought he was older. They met at an au­di­tion for a play, and he was so hand­some that she was be­wil­dered when he struck up a con­ver­sa­tion with her. His af­fec­tions are im­me­di­ately ques­tion­able — there are ob­vi­ously other women in his life and, in gen­eral, he has the per­son­al­ity of a charm­ing four-year-old — yet she falls so deeply in love with him that she soon agrees to move with him to New Mex­ico, where he prom­ises to sup­port them while she writes. It sounds like a ter­ri­ble idea that will head straight down­hill, and it’s clear that in hind­sight, Stein sees ev­ery risky de­ci­sion and self-de­lud­ing jus­ti­fi­ca­tion she made at the time.

Stein and Ja­son live in a non­de­script apart­ment com­plex near Kirt­land Air Force Base, where they drink heav­ily, smoke a lot of pot, and make friends with their neigh­bors. There is much en­trenched un­hap­pi­ness in this ex­is­tence, and cruelty be­tween peo­ple. Ja­son becomes ex­actly the per­son we ex­pected him to be, unable to con­sis­tently keep a job. Some­how Stein man­ages to write while she is com­pletely mis­er­able, work­ing a part-time gig as a diner wait­ress to help make ends meet. Ja­son, who tends to drink his pay­check — along with al­co­hol Stein buys for him — con­vinces her that ev­ery worry and bad mood she has is a re­sult of her de­pres­sion, so she starts tak­ing a va­ri­ety of med­i­ca­tions. He becomes more dis­tant, and even­tu­ally reveals him­self as overtly abu­sive. When their lease comes up for re­newal, it barely takes any discussion at all be­fore they de­cide to move back to Illinois. Not long af­ter that, through one of those dumb-luck kind of sto­ries, Stein is of­fered a job as an ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant at the New Yorker. She takes off for Brook­lyn, leav­ing Ja­son be­hind.

Land of En­chant­ment has many themes and plot threads, per­haps too many for Stein to ex­plore as deeply as they de­serve. It’s also pos­si­ble that Stein does not yet have enough dis­tance or ma­tu­rity to fully un­der­stand what drove her at that time in her life. One of the most po­ten­tially in­ter­est­ing roads she goes down is her ado­les­cence and teen years spent bar­ing her soul on the early blog­ging plat­form LiveJour­nal. Though she links the prac­tice to a long tra­di­tion of un­happy women keep­ing di­aries, she has mis­giv­ings about its last­ing ef­fects. “Girls with mi­graines. Girls who cut. Girls who wrote po­etry in gray low­er­case on black back­grounds. … On LJ, our cur­rency was pain and we were rich. … I was good at tak­ing a scar and turn­ing it into a story, a slight into a rallying cry,” Stein writes. LiveJour­nal pro­vided friend­ships and an out­let for her voice, but it also taught her that “sad­ness was what made me unique and beau­ti­ful.”

Stein is prompted to write Land of En­chant­ment when Ja­son dies in a mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent in 2011, a few months af­ter she re­solves never to speak to him again, and years af­ter she has moved to New York and is find­ing per­sonal and pro­fes­sional suc­cess. The great irony for Stein is that once she has the courage to re­turn, New Mex­ico becomes, for her, a fa­vorite va­ca­tion des­ti­na­tion and writerly re­treat. Her own tragedies merge with lore, and the ro­man­tic as­pects of the state in­crease rather than di­min­ish. She iden­ti­fies strongly with Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe, an­other woman who had to de­cide what place she wanted a dom­i­neer­ing man to hold in her life, and what she was ca­pa­ble of do­ing on her own. — Jennifer Levin

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