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Tricks of the Trade

Emily Hall joyously subverts literary effect

The Longcut by Emily Hall. Dalkey Archive Press, 120 pages.

An early and enduring thrill in the life of many readers is the discovery of the unreliable narrator. What a good trick, to string someone along, leading them places by telling them everything but what you want them to know. And what a strange pleasure, to follow, increasingly aware of all that is not being revealed, your trust for the teller shattered even as it’s bolstered for the tale. But like all subversive pleasures, the unreliable narrator depends on an unshaken normative foundation: under the rubric of realism, the unreliable narrator is less a literary technique than another character, a protagonist who ensures that whatever else may be discussed, there will always be the narrative safety rails of opinion, perspective, and personality traits to keep the reader engaged. All the realist assumptions about how mind, language, and the world relate—namely, as a functional mediation leading from the former, through the middle, to the latter, and then back—remain perfectly intact; indeed, they are shored up, having faced the challenge of disbelief and emerged more compelling, not less. In this way, the unreliable narrator is a shortcut to literary effect, a lesser challenge to the reader which obfuscates greater ones.

But what happens to the unreliable narrator outside a realist paradigm, when the object of the narrative is the narrator’s very mind? The Longcut, Emily Hall’s debut novel, is a dizzying experiment that takes this question as a starting point and turns it toward the foundations of narrative, not least what it means to trust the stories that make up identity, even reality itself.

What a good trick, to string someone along, leading them places by telling them everything but what you want them to know.

The novel comprises the first-person self-narration of an artist walking down the street toward a gallery. The purpose of the walk is a meeting set up by a friend of the artist (whom she refers to as “the well-known artist who set up situations”) with the gallery owner. However, as we quickly learn, the situation the novel is concerned with is not the meeting itself, but the fractal spiral of anxieties and preoccupations that stem from the question—inspired by but long preceding the meeting at the gallery—“What is my work?”

The depth of this question is hidden and revealed by turns in Hall’s hypnotic prose. On the one hand, it seems like a quotidian matter, a concern answered easily both by the job she has to pay the bills and, even in art, by the series of attempts she makes in painting, video, and photography. On the other hand, the possibilities of the idea of work itself—as activity, as object, as task, as self—make “what is my work?” a question of the most profound importance, the answer to which is most common and most strange, a constant, bedeviling companion. In this light, even the banalities of a day job take on metaphysical weight. “What is my work?” becomes the question of existence.

The question of my work thus was constantly haunting or dogging me, art being as it was something that could be made from anything at all and could be about or relating to anything at all, how therefore, I could not stop asking myself, did you—I—pluck from the stream of life or ideas the contents of your—my—work or the materials with which to do it.

Throughout The Longcut, long, compound sentences fan out and then contract into neat, if somewhat jarring, indexicals that seem to carry far more weight than they would otherwise be suited to bear. This practice is particularly effective as an extrapolation of the narrator’s main task at her day job, which she describes as “answering questions and moving them into the ‘completed’ column.” Thus every major preoccupation receives its category, a column in which the answer to the question might be slotted: “time, allotment of in the life of the artist,” “expenses, pressures of,” “job,” the latter of which differs, though not entirely, from the question of her work.

This penchant for categorization makes for strangely compulsive reading, coexisting as it does with Hall’s otherwise fluid prose, in which the flow of time seems at once to distend and shrink by turns. The nature of time—“allotment of,” “differences in opinion about lengths of”—is a major theme in The Longcut, as it is in so many novels. But with a narrative technique so recursive that it cuts through reference, representation, even performance, making what use it can of each, Hall acquits herself well in this well-trodden territory, bringing us to the edge of a genuinely distinct temporality, a different way of facing the world.

This effect, and the literary style with which Hall makes it happen, places The Longcut firmly in the quasi-tradition of what critic Dustin Illingworth, among others, has called “anti-realism.” Though more a posture than a discrete school, anti-realists emerged in the twentieth century in answer to the limping after-life of realist fiction that, according to Illingworth, citing Roland Barthes, accumulates “useless details,” simulacra of the real, which in fact serve to obscure the conditions of reality: namely, the twists and turns of consciousness not in the reception of reality, but in its production. Entering this term into the taxonomy of the last century and more of literary history helpfully cuts across the many false dilemmas produced by the modern/post-modern distinction. To cite a well-known example: What characteristics make a novel “post-modern” that could not be found in, say, Tristram Shandy? And insofar as realism emerged as a dominant form in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, why should novels that adhere to that style not be called “modern”? In fact, until recently, they were: the opening passages of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Là-Bas, a work not unrelated to literary modernism, has its narrator complaining about such “modern” novelists as Émile Zola. The apparent collapse of “postmodernity” as a useful heuristic and the persistence of “modernism” mitigates some of these concerns, but not entirely. Anti-realism as a category forces us to break with the easy out of periodization and refocuses attention onto what the texts in question are made up of, what work they do.

The arguable master of this tendency, alongside Clarice Lispector, Gerald Murnane, and László Krasznahorkai, is the Austrian novelist, poet, and playwright  Thomas Bernhard, and it is in his work that we can find The Longcut’s immediate predecessor. Bernhard’s famously digressive prose, like Hall’s, wends its way through permutations of idea and affect, always returning to questions which, so far from being answered, are only deepened, made more complex, and found, vexingly, in ever wider swathes of life. Also important to Bernhard was the question of work. In Correction, an unnamed narrator explores the descent into suicidal perfectionism of his friend, Roithamer, a Romantic antihero respun as a Wittgensteinian scientist. Roithamer was clear on his object: the Cone, a home designed and constructed to mathematical exactitude, in the direct center of a particular forest. He designed the home for his sister, the locus of all Roithamer’s worldly care, who dies upon entering the Cone. Roithamer, in turn, kills himself. As the narrator reconstructs this self-destructive spiral via Roithamer’s papers and personal effects, he is drawn into their mesmerizing repetitions as into a black hole. As a perfect record, indeed, an enactment of his quest for perfection, Roithamer’s self-narration acts upon his reader, the narrator (and by extension, us), as an entropic ritual of self-effacement.

It is, in its way, a very European story. Roithamer is desperate to divest himself of his past, of the disorder of family and commerce, tradition and obligation, of blood shared and blood spilled. Hall’s work, in this respect, is thoroughly American. In her narrator’s peripatetic “mental maneuverings,” as she calls them, there is plenty of activity, plenty of world, but nothing sticks, nothing bears weight. Moment to moment, step by step, thought by thought, images and objects present themselves each as the center of the universe, each as the portal into the real. By flitting between them, the narrator increasingly has no means of choosing between them. When she finally reaches the gallery, she is unable even to discuss the objects she has brought with her, trying on instead what she takes to be the role of the gallerist, another in a series of possible answers to the question of her work:

Whether I was not able to think of anything but what was right in front of me—the hoarse gallerist clicking through—whether it was a good idea or I was merely suggestible was an open question. But would considerations of the economic market allow it, I considered, even as I knew it was difficult or repellent, I said as I watched her clicking through, for me to consider the economic market. Any gallerist concerned with the economic market would have to be remedial in my mind’s eye. I was not easy with it—a gallerist’s functioning as my mind’s eye—I did not in fact care for it. So the photographs are nonobjects, the hoarse gallerist said. No, I mean yes, I said, even as the term nonobject was suspect, seeming to foreclose on other possibilities on which I was not prepared to foreclose.

If Hall has any didactic, not to say homiletic purpose, it is not to shake us loose from our investments (as the satirical streak in Bernhard may lead us to infer in his work), but rather to show how difficult it is, in this particular time-slice of hypercapitalist decline, to form attachments that are anything more than passing preoccupations.

Hall’s achievement, among many others, is to take every literary shortcut and turn it on its head.

But truth be told, there is very little moralism in The Longcut. The animating impulse in its prose is to locate and trace the formal as it emerges in the flow of experience, the bookish thrill of finding not that things make sense, per se, but that they are amenable to intelligence, even as comprehension remains elusive. Hall’s narrator is, in this way, totally unreliable, even a kind of trickster: in her telling, she never quite lands on what her work is, and she affects a narrative catharsis in a final conversation with a friend bearing all the markers of stability—a child, a straight-forward demeanor, identifiable work (she’s a printmaker)—wherein she becomes comfortable not knowing what her work is.

But in this catharsis, we realize (or perhaps, being such astute readers, we already knew) that the revelation is a false one, or partially so: the narrator is comfortable not knowing what her work is only because she is carrying it out all the time; her work is narration, even, given our encounter with her, literature. What a good trick! The answer was there from the beginning. Hall’s achievement, among many others, is to take every literary shortcut and turn it on its head, detaching us from every anticipatory impulse and bringing us the long way around to where we began.

At the end of the novel, the narrator is off to see her friend, “the artist who set up situations,” who arranged the meeting with gallerist and set the novel in motion. Well, then: What have we learned? Not much, if we’re honest. But we’re following the narrator back to the beginning, ready to start again. What a strange pleasure!