The Life of the Mind by Christine Smallwood. Hogarth, 240 pages.
Lately I keep reading new novels whose protagonists are engaged ruthlessly, sometimes sadomasochistically, in the act of self-criticism. Usually these characters are falling short of their ambitions—they don’t know how to live!—and it doesn’t feel good. Often they are writers or artists of some order, or at least they want to be. They know so much about their symptoms, and the social stratagems of their milieu, and climate change, yet enumerating each anxiety only leads to more of the same circular suffering. Andrew Martin’s Early Work, Kate Zambreno’s Drifts, Halle Butler’s The New Me, and Jenny Offill’s Weather come to mind. Reading such work has made me more aware of the ways in which novels themselves are massive records of wallowing. They require drudgery, time, solitude and take the form of what obsesses the writer most, life materials they can’t bear to hold at any greater distance. They are little shelters for neuroses.
Novels so nakedly about this state excite me; they exhaust me too. The best of them are those with the worst intellectual and emotional defenses. A character with too much of a gift for identifying what afflicts them doesn’t invite the resistance or curiosity of the reader the way a flawed communicator might. What seems like compulsive honesty can function more like a feeble sense of security (you can’t find anything to think of the character they haven’t already thought of themselves). In due time, this kind of exacting knowledge can itself become an affliction, a merciless taskmaster which shrinks the imagination of a character, or a book. Feeling that life is a failure—that it’s impossible, or gray, and there’s something else you need to do in order to be who you want to be—isn’t necessarily a good subject for a novel, but it’s nearly always the condition a person finds themselves in just as they begin to write one.
Life fails to feel like the genuine article as it recedes from the fantasy of secure employment at a top-tier university and the occasional well-reviewed book of scholarship for the general reader.
Christine Smallwood, herself a brilliant literary critic, takes on self-hatred with a full embrace of analysis and humor in her debut novel The Life of the Mind. Here is a largely plotless book in which it’s rare for more than fifty, even thirty, pages to go by without its adjunct professor protagonist Dorothy sitting on a toilet. For the majority of the narrative, she is either in therapy, in Vegas, or in a bathroom. Although, in all fairness, she also appears in classrooms (she teaches four courses at an unnamed New York City university, including one on “Writing Apocalypse” and another on “Writing Affect Theory); at the apartment she shares with her project manager boyfriend Rog (doesn’t seem to be short for “Roger”); and at a friend’s karaoke party, her adamantly scholastic mind is always returning to her body as a scene of irrepressible horror and fascination. For much of the novel, she is excreting the effects and after-effects of a miscarriage about which she feels ambivalent: motherhood has been foreclosed at this particular juncture, but her thoughts on the matter are limitlessly at odds with one another. Guiding her internal physical waste—which she only too recently understood as a vital component of her self—into the void of the toilet bowl is always followed by scattershot observations and complaints. She wonders if a life of mourning is a “pathetic waste” and other times thinks of herself as “not one of those women who love babies qua babies.” She is a body of self-criticism in search of a reader.
Whereas the miscarriage engenders a flurry of conflicting thoughts, in other areas of her life Dorothy sees herself as an unabashed failure. The close third-person narrator who follows her from social engagements to bathroom stalls tells us in a wry, patient voice that since obtaining her PhD in English, steady jobs in her field never seem to open up: “The hiring climate had dried into a dust bowl.” While watching former colleagues attain at least superficial academic success, Dorothy lingers in the purgatorial byways of the over-booked adjunct. She has yet to write a book or a “paradigm shifting” paper in her chosen concentration of “female confinement and the gothic novel,” unlike her colleague Alexandra, who with the far duller subject of “the function of doors in the Victorian novel” has managed to, well, break through. (Smallwood completed her English PhD in 2014 as a Victorianist.) Dorothy confides to her friend Gaby, a new mother whom the narrator also characterizes as a bit of a collapsed precocity, “It’s like every time I don’t get a job, my own sense of fraudulence gets closer to being accepted as the truth I always knew it was.” Life fails to feel like the genuine article as it recedes from the fantasy of secure employment at a top-tier university and the occasional well-reviewed book of scholarship for the general reader. It’s as if Dorothy’s fixation on fakes can no longer be directed outward, as in her early grad school days when she dreamed of writing a biography of Daphne du Maurier, whose romantic thriller Rebecca is perhaps the most famous novel about imposter syndrome ever written.
Dorothy’s self-esteem spirals down a staircase of false steps. She wonders whether Gaby’s pair of reading glasses from the pharmacy are somehow “fake” and why her second therapist’s tissue box is always full (does she replace them one by one each session?). More pertinently, she only has a second therapist so she can discuss her reservations about the first therapist, and she tells neither of them about the miscarriage. There’s a lot of intriguing material in the novel about surrogate mothers. Her therapists, her thesis advisor, and her biological mother are all overwhelmingly depicted as selfish matriarchs in their own way. At an underwater puppet show she attends with her mother and Rachel, a high school student at odds with her own parents whom Dorothy’s mother has taken on as a “mentee,” Dorothy muses that “the cycle of surrogacy could go on forever.” Even the doctor she sees for a checkup after the miscarriage speaks in the voice of “someone’s mother, or someone’s idea of one”—or like her first therapist.
The abundance of mothers is but one menacing float in a nonstop parade of contingent selves and lives not lived that winds its way through the novel. Selves are as precarious as money (Rog pays for Dorothy’s therapy), and professional jealousies are all the more wounding for the slim differences separating Dorothy and her competition. It gets to where it sometimes seems that “intellectual rival” is the broadest possible category of human. A ranting stranger “dressed in rags” on the subway gets the reaction, “Jesus, even this insane panhandler had finished his book!” Dorothy seeks succor in the alternate realities of literature, but eventually, in a slightly surreal scene, her copy of Franco Moretti’s The Way of the World starts talking back to her, and it hasn’t anything kind to say. “Your work is superfluous,” the book nags, then, “The problem of the twenty-first century is a problem of waste!” Dorothy even chastises herself for being a “snob” and “a slave to bourgeois narrative conventions.” Mistrustful of endings (and other narrative conventions), she develops a horror of writerly overproduction in academia, which she also perceives as waste.
Only the body can offer Dorothy a sort of hidden clarity. It is likened to “some warehouse or shipping center” disposing of incarnadine products. The novel is intermittently punctured by cysts bursting, drains clogged with hair, lips chapped to the point of bleeding. The descriptions of the blood from the miscarriage, self-administered with the drug Misoprostol, are particularly harrowing and gushy. We get “tissue strands”; a tampon that’s “like a bruise, or rotting fruit, and soaked to a gloss”; the womb as a “junk drawer.” Walking the streets of New York City, Dorothy sees strangers as “grown-up emergency caesareans, these prolapsed uteruses, these givers of preeclampsia.” All this exteriorized inner funk recalls the original connotation of “grotesque,” from the Italian grottecschi, meaning art painted on the walls of grottos. What’s briefly exposed then flushed is that fantastic and terrifying inspiration which has no natural audience and can only survive in dark, moist places.
Reading all these dauntless descriptions of self-laceration and bodily fluids, I found myself, as a critic, awash in potential subjects, every symptom a theme, every doubt a fresh furrow for the superego to nestle inside of. Now, I don’t mind digging for symptoms—that’s why I have all these pens—but the reading was most challenging and animated when the text absorbed me, rather than me absorbing it. In such moments we are granted a reprieve from Dorothy’s cloistered fault-finding and get to see more about relationships, which also have their foibles. A section in the middle of the novel set at an academic conference in Las Vegas is so disarmingly funny and wise it didn’t even occur to me for days after reading to explain why. In it, Dorothy’s colleague Elyse describes lusting after her neighbor’s boyfriend. The neighbor is Elyse’s friend and Dorothy’s rival: Alexandra. It turns out that the boyfriend also has an identical twin, and some “psychic threesome” mischief ensues. The elasticity of identity is worrying to Elyse, but it is also at various points in the story provocative, satisfying, and erotic.
In another silly yet totally compelling conceit, it’s revealed that Dorothy’s second therapist has a podcast in which she talks to current patients, but Dorothy has not been invited on as a guest. Dorothy’s discomfort with the situation is sort of amusing, but it’s the discordance of two people gathering ritualistically to make ridiculous demands of one other that really works. And podcasts are just funny:
Dorothy admired the therapist’s willingness for candor, but also felt that it was pandering, that the therapist was playing on her financial anxieties in order to distract her from the question they both knew all this was leading to, namely, whether or not the therapist wanted Dorothy to be a guest on the podcast. At the answer—which was, as it could only ever be, “no”—Dorothy felt a pricking behind the eyeballs. A dopey grin spread helplessly across her face, the clownish tell of embarrassment and rejection. She sat stupidly and silently stumped.
The Life of the Mind’s close third-person narration serves the novel best in scenes likes these. It’s a self-conscious voice, one I associate with bildungsroman and detective novels, forms in which the impossibility of accessing other people’s minds can propel the story forward. Close third is cooler than first, more procedural, given to a surer sense of authority. Our hero’s excesses and errors in judgement, mediated through this professional favoritism, don’t stand out in red ink. It’s the difference between diligently surveilling one’s subject and having them wear a live wire. In Smallwood’s novel, the voice feels distinctly psychoanalytic too. Where Portnoy’s Complaint, or more recently Katharina Volckmer’s The Appointment, fashioned a work of literary fiction from the patient’s first-person screed, The Life of the Mind could be read as speaking in the register of the therapist, or of the therapeutic relationship itself. It’s a generous mudslide of notes, hung lightly on a frame of semi-regular sessions with Dorothy (chapters are titled “Ten Days Later,” “A Few Weeks Later,” etc).
Only the body can offer Dorothy a sort of hidden clarity.
True to their psychoanalytic form, these sessions don’t end with grander insight. There is, however, the occasional clinical summing up, as when the narrator explains that Elyse’s story, the one about twin stuff, “was a parable about academia and what it did to pleasure, how it took the most simple and innocent desires—to tell stories, and stories about stories—and made them ugly.” This line reminded me of something Adam Phillips wrote in Becoming Freud, his biography of Freud’s early life and practice. He writes that, for Freud, “the person intent on knowledge” is not a failed sensualist “but rather a troubled one.” Novels are wonderful vehicles for such trouble. Criticism can make knowledge king, if it chooses, but novels won’t find a foothold there for long. They may not know anything, but they remember, they mourn, they love, they doubt. They save something from the wreck of life; sometimes they even save their makers from becoming total wrecks themselves, although I wouldn’t count on it. For all their trouble, I couldn’t bring myself to think of them as a waste.