In Lynn Steger Strong’s ‘Want’, a woman collapses under the obligations of modern life

Pete Tosiello

THE WASHINGTON POST – Want is, to the credit of author Lynn Steger Strong, a forerunner in the genre of anti-white-saviour novels. Its narrator and protagonist, a white teacher at an underfunded Manhattan charter school, harbours no illusions about her ability to materially improve the lives of her black and brown students. As an educator she vacillates between a lenient paternalism and cynical disregard, renouncing the school’s harsh conduct policies while frequently calling in sick to spend time with her own small children. “They can’t see and don’t seem to want to see all the ways their good intentions aren’t worth much,” she remarks of her white colleagues. Readers seeking a syrupy redemption tale like Dangerous Minds or Freedom Writers should look elsewhere, and also get a clue.

Yet the narrator’s unfulfilling day job serves largely as context for a drifting parable on the gradations of privilege. The core of Want is a parasitic relationship slowly unveiled via flashbacks. The narrator (who, like most of the novel’s characters, remains nameless for almost the entire book) is racked with guilt over her estrangement from a childhood friend, stalking her on social media and sending late-night text missives begging for reconciliation. Outside of work, the narrator maintains a part-time adjunct role at a prestigious university; she and her husband, an investment banker turned carpenter, are approaching bankruptcy and collapsing under the obligation of tending to children in a cramped apartment.

Want hastily grapples with a litany of contemporary social issues, briefly alighting upon gentrification, infantilising workplace culture and the anonymity of urban life. Strong evokes digital relationships with keen precision, and there’s a well-conceived #MeToo subplot that nevertheless feels a bit shoehorned. The classroom scenes, while periodically hampered by hackneyed dialogue about dress codes and black women’s hair, derive incisive commentary from a self-conscious white gaze. The charter school’s focus on discipline and test scores reinforces an oppressive ruling class to which the narrator, grudgingly, belongs. She grades on a scale and buys lunch for her neediest students, the reflexive indulgence a function of both pity and lowered expectations.

To Strong’s narrator, public service and comradeship are manifestations of narcissism, even motherhood a means of assuming agency otherwise denied women. Considering her ruined adolescent friendship, she realises, “I like being needed, giving, but not so close that I can’t run away.” When she finally quits her job at the charter school, it’s “because I love my students but not as much as I wish I loved them, not enough to work harder and be better.” Entitlement undergirds her every rationale: She bristles when confronted with her husband’s rich clients, and doggedly pursues academic work as tribute to years spent studying literature at elite institutions.

Strong’s flat affect is reminiscent of Halle Butler and Catherine Lacey. The prose begs for attention, then shies away in shame and humility. “We had principles or something, made up almost wholly out of things we knew we didn’t want to be or have a part in more than any concrete plans for what we’d be instead,” the narrator reflects on her and her husband’s career paths. There’s an awareness of the privilege baked into this ambivalence, as well as in the deadened, overprescribed city they occupy. While the abundance of literary allusions can seem like scaffolding for a skimpy plot, the narrator’s obsession with highfalutin European fiction underscores the drudgery she perceives in her day-to-day life.

Still, an anti-white-saviour novel isn’t the same as an anti-racist one, just as acknowledgment of privilege isn’t synonymous with its rejection. Too often, Want feels like a study in allyship fatigue, the systemic inequities suffered by its black and brown characters ceding emotional territory to the domestic drama of their white counterparts. Strong writes convincingly of the desiccated American Dream, the hand-to-mouth existence of young adults in the recession’s shadow, but Want finds a white woman cruising the thoroughfares of black trauma before retreating to gentrified Brooklyn with a loan from her parents.

Recent novels by Danzy Senna and Kiley Reid have explored similarly liberal, rarefied urban precincts, featuring female protagonists reckoning with disparities in racial and socioeconomic privilege. In Reid and Senna’s books, it’s impossible to reduce race to a matter of subtext, and while various perspectives are incorporated, the emotional burdens are borne by the most persecuted. In Strong’s case, some of her book’s failure can be ascribed to the glacial pace of publishing – if nothing else, Want would have been far more resonant had it arrived a year ago. But as with any social novel, urgency is paramount.