In Other Words Land of Enchantment by Leigh Stein
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