Christine Smallwood’s dark and funny novel of a stuck generation
Dorothy, the protagonist of Christine Smallwood’s first novel, is, like its creator, a trained critic. Unlike Smallwood, however, who left academia for journalism (she is a contributor to the New York Times Magazine and a collaborating editor at Harper magazine), Dorothy is holding on. As an adjunct professor in his 30s at a New York University faculty of English whose “tuition was double her annual earnings,” Dorothy joylessly teaches courses such as “Writing Apocalypse,” by failing to write the book that “would get him the contract it would earn him the job that didn’t exist.”
The modern university is therefore just one end of the title joke – less a refuge for exalted learning than a brutally competitive “contingency limbo”, somewhere to get bogged down in petty rivalries, loose postures. and grotesque power imbalances between baby boomers and baby boomers. precarious new arrivals. “The problem was not the fall of the old system, it was that the new system had not appeared.” In the interregnum stated in The life of the spirit, morbid symptoms appear – or morbid details anyway. This is the other joke of the title: “the life of the spirit”, or Dorothy’s spirit at least, is mainly occupied by the vicissitudes of the body, the peculiarities of which most fictions spare us, but which Smallwood meticulously documents in fascinated fascination. boldly graphic, sometimes disgusting detail.
The first sentence sets the tone satirical and candid: “Dorothy was shitting in the library…”. In the following pages alone, we learn that stroking a tumor dog is “like stroking a sock filled with gravel” and that the explosion of a cyst from a friend releases “waves of white confetti” that “Decorate” the surroundings “with a foamy spray”. The rest of the novel is punctuated with descriptions of more everyday forms of bodily disintegration – a pinch of the nose, dirt lodged under the fingernails, shedding of hair clogging the drains. Most significant (and not daily) are updates on Dorothy’s prolonged menstrual bleeding following miscarriage of accidental pregnancy six days before novel begins, event – “less than trauma and more than inconvenience” – Dorothy does not know not quite how to feel. Too self-aware to be openly on the defensive, Dorothy nonetheless hides it from her best friend and her therapists – she has two – and takes a sort of verbal interest in it (“What did you call her when a life has stopped developing, but t end? ”) which looks like a strategy of dissociation.
The physiological counterpart to her stalled career, Dorothy’s prolonged bleeding is vanity, a substitute for suspense – toned down to wait for the flow of blood to cease – in a novel preoccupied with expanding without development, not just in life. of Dorothy but among her generation. The life of the spirit captures what Raymond Williams has called a “feeling structure”: in this case, a loss of conviction in the future, a feeling that the world is running out without offering closure,[ing] with urgency ”, persisting in a sort of Beckettian backlash:“ The ends have come and have come and they have not finished.
There is surprisingly little sex for such a physically explicit novel, and no sexual desire – or desire of any kind: Dorothy “lived in the epilogue of desires.” Without libido or suspense, we are propelled into The life of the spirit by the sentences: practically everyone shore, and many of them dazzle. It is conventional to describe a narrator following a character’s cogitations to a “near third person”, but here it is as if Dorothy’s critical training is surfacing in Smallwood’s prose, including observations of contemporary life. almost conceal an excess of insight and wit. The novel is a repository of rambling perceptions of an underutilized critic applying his intelligence to inferior things – the life of the body, but also the digital devices through which so much of our mind’s life now unfolds.
“The problem of the 21st century is a problem of waste! Dorothy thinks. At first, a spotless bathroom is described as having “not a speck of dirt” on “any part of the toilet.” Neither the lid, nor the lip, nor the rim, nor the trunk. It occurred to me that Dorothy’s exorbitant eloquence here, her palpable taste for words, is spent, symptomatically, in a receptacle of waste. The sentences in The life of the spirit Amply support the novel, which won acclaim when it first came out in the US earlier this year, but I’ve sometimes feared their exhaustion – a novel can afford a little more slack. One only hopes Smallwood has such a richly watched preview stock to fund more.
[See also: Jonathan Franzen’s bland late style]
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This article appeared in the November 03, 2021 issue of The New Statesman, Britannia in Chains