How to Adjust to the Dark, a new novella by writer and editor Rebecca van Laer, begins in a
rather straightforward manner. In the first few pages, our narrator, Charlotte, explains the
motivation behind the pages in front of us. After a long hiatus from writing, she has remained
unsure of what to do with her poetry, until she receives the following lines in a fortune cookie:
“All men should try to learn before they die / What they are running from and to and why.”
It might come off as somewhat cheesy—Charlotte addresses this early, offering that “like the
poems I wrote in my early twenties,” it contains a lot of rhyming and isn’t “very interesting to
anyone but me.” But for Charlotte, the couplet still carries significance. “Everything I come
across tells me I am ready to examine this writing, and what came after. To make all of it
And so the narrative unfolds, retreading Charlotte’s young adulthood interwoven with her poetry
and retrospective analysis. We are pulled from party to party, from lover to lover, from Anne
Carson to Ben Lerner. But “useful” is a loaded term, particularly to understand writing and
memory. Van Laer uses Charlotte to quote Auden quoting Baudelaire:
Everyone in his heart of hearts agrees with Baudelaire: “To be a useful person has always seemed to be something particularly horrible,” for, subjectively, to be useful means to be doing not what one wants to do, but what someone else insists on one’s doing.
Poems obviously have no agency or desires. Still, the implicit relationship outlined in this quote
remains; nothing is ever useful in a vacuum. The utility of these poems can only be understood
through Charlotte herself, through her desire to transform, “to look back, to be present, to
reshape oneself for the future.” The novella, then might be read as a fictionalized attempt at
metamorphosis, or self-actualization, an exercise in mastery of one’s being and memory.
As with any effort to change oneself, honesty is a necessity for success. But it can be incredibly
difficult to be honest about ourselves, our failings, and the contents of our lives. Van Laer
achieves the appearance of honesty to great effect here through an incredible balancing act.
There is a tenderness suffused throughout, but also a sense of distance. Charlotte’s tone never
veers into the maudlin or wallows in self-pity. Charlotte also never over-corrects—even when
she is critical of her poetry, it reads as genuine reaction, not an attempt at garnering sympathy.
“This now strikes me as incredibly sentimental and cloying,” she writes of a poem about an ex,
“Thinking with the Skin.” Van Laer has constructed a narrator credible enough that we believe
outright that this is her true reaction, even as it might not align with our own.
This trust between the reader and narrator—the certainty that, though Charlotte may be an
unreliable narrator, it is not via purposeful deception—becomes essential for dealing with some
of the heavier material that occurs in the novella. Throughout How to Adjust to the Dark,
Charlotte struggles with depression, bad relationships, and familial trauma. Moreover, her
younger self seemed to have believed that these were the materials or guiding forces underlying her art. This is a prevalent and harmful myth, that of the depressed or trauma-stricken artist, and her desire to rewrite it is echoed in her retelling the narratives of various women: little red riding hood, the little mermaid, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, her own.
Even before the novella’s outset, it feels that this reframing has had some success; the
Charlotte of the present day has changed drastically from these college years. She is in a
loving, healthy relationship, and though she is no longer writing poetry, she also doesn’t appear
to look to poetry to define her self-worth. But revisiting her old work has appeared to trigger
another shift in her. In the end, she reaffirms her commitment to dismantling these old myths, to “destroy everything that made those poems possible. Everything I was taught about what it
means to be a writer, an artist, and a woman… traumatized, depressed and diagnosed.” But
there’s an openness that accompanies this declaration. “What else?” she continues to ask
herself in the final paragraphs. “What else?”
That’s the feeling readers will leave the novella with as well—an openness to ourselves and to
the world, to whatever may come, even if it’s stuffed in a fortune cookie.
(Long Day Press, Fiction, April 2022)
You can keep up with Rebecca van Laer’s work at her website or on Twitter @rebecca_vanl.
Jefferson Lee is a Korean American, born in a small town in Western New York called
Canandaigua. He has writing in Maudlin House, AAWW’s The Margins, and The Rumpus. He
lives and writes in San Francisco. His Twitter handle is @jlee4219.