Reviews — From the February 2020 issue

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There’s much to be said for being maladjusted. More and more, perhaps, as the environment to which one is expected to adjust becomes more ruinous. The climate activist Greta Thunberg has flung back at her enemies (Donald Trump included) their attempts to shame her for her experiences with depression and for being on the autism spectrum. Her differences, she has pointed out, have helped her to remain focused on a problem many find too large, too painful, too intractable—and to keep saying what people don’t like to hear. It’s one thing to be willing to burn the world for profit; to allow it to happen out of embarrassment (as so many citizens, uncomfortable disrupting the status quo, could be accused of doing) is another. A feeling of social dislocation, of norms that can’t be upheld or that have ceased to make sense, pervades Jenny Offill’s slender novel, WEATHER (Knopf, $23.95). Like its best-selling 2014 predecessor, Dept. of Speculation, it also addresses disconnection formally, unfolding in isolated paragraphs and sentences, leaving out much of the flesh that would often cover a narrative’s bones. “Young person worry: What if nothing I do matters?” Offill writes. “Old person worry: What if everything I do does?”

The Lost King, by Thomas Broomé © The artist. Courtesy Galleri Magnus Karlsson, Stockholm

The Lost King, by Thomas Broomé © The artist. Courtesy Galleri Magnus Karlsson, Stockholm

The narrator, in middle age, having dropped out of grad school years earlier to help her brother, Henry, deal with his drug addiction, is now an underqualified college librarian, meaning she’s surrounded by people even less secure than she is. As well as propping up her husband, Ben; son, Eli; and Henry—now mostly clean and a father, which if anything has made him more dependent on his sister—the narrator attracts strangers and is moved to listen to them all, witnessing unmet need and disintegration everywhere. A library, theoretically the flower of civilization, is of course also a space symptomatic of its failings: Narcan is on hand to tackle the frequent overdoses, and all around are those with nowhere else to go. “At first it was unnerving,” the narrator learns from a man she calls “the doomed adjunct,”

to work somewhere where no one remembers your name, where you have to call security to get into your own room, but as regular life becomes more fragmented and bewildering, it bothers him less and less.

Offill chases this nugget with a joke about “the philosophy of late capitalism”: “You can’t outrun a bear,” one hiker warns another, who’s swiftly changing into sneakers after spotting the creature nearby. “I just have to outrun you,” the other replies.

The novel’s warm yet depressive, gently apocalyptic tone—just like its sinewy form—is similar to that of Dept. of Speculation, but the new book carries with it an additional, grim implication that the world outside may be catching up with its sensibility. The narrator of the earlier novel, at home with her infant daughter, observes that “The Long Now,” the title of a lecture series her unfaithful husband listens to, should refer to “the feeling of daily life” rather than to “topics such as Climate Change and Peak Oil.” In Weather, the entire texture of everyday living is infused with the mood of political and ecological disaster. The narrator manages the deranged and deranging correspondence of her onetime mentor, Sylvia, whose version of “The Long Now” is the more bluntly titled podcast Hell and High Water, and collects alarming or weirdly soothing tidbits about disaster preparedness. The most practical is Sylvia’s tart advice to get “rich, very, very rich.” A guest expert on the podcast says that, far from the cliché of mass panic, 80 percent of people will have the fatal “incredulity response” and “just freeze.” Offill doesn’t add that we’re all participating in a vast slo-mo experiment on reactions to emergency, though by closing the novel with a link to a website that recommends “collective action [as] the antidote to fear and dread,” she hints at an awareness that some readers might prefer to inhabit the mind of a Greta Thunberg rather than that of a climate pessimist closer to the Jonathan Franzen mode.

Offill’s frequent jokes about depression, featured in both works, here unmask themselves as what they maybe always were: reminders of how nearly impossible it is to learn to live with things as they are. “Instead of saying that life is suffering,” the narrator’s meditation teacher says, referring to alternative translations of the Tibetan Buddhist term dukkha, “they might say that life is tolerable. As in just barely.” Like a song in which riffs keep returning and shifting, the book sends this idea back to us in a few different contexts—“It’s barely bearable,” characters say; “You can barely bear it.” Yet light seeps through. The narrator’s propensity for tending to others is almost universally discouraged—her concern for her brother is an unhealthy “enmeshment”; not having dependents is recommended as the top technique for emergency survival—and still she carries onas before. Disparate people share moments of makeshift solidarity, especially in the library, that remaining bit of public space, in which there is some hope of being given what you need rather than what you can afford.

Static Image Painting/Orange/Candle/Medicine Hat, by Martin Bennett © The artist. Courtesy Wilding Cran Gallery, Los Angeles.

Static Image Painting/Orange/Candle/Medicine Hat, by Martin Bennett © The artist. Courtesy Wilding Cran Gallery, Los Angeles.

The equivalent place in Amina Cain’s elliptical debut novel, INDELICACY (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25), is more refined than the library: a museum, where the heroine, Vitória, starts out working as a cleaner while longing, as waves of wealthy visitors flow in and out of the galleries, for the freedom to write. The museum provides: the book is narrated from a later time in which she has obtained what she wants via a lucrative marriage that’s now also behind her. “Sitting at my desk,” she writes at the close of the first chapter, “I feel loving toward my wrists. I’ve made them do too much.” Direct and elusive at once, this is an economical encapsulation of the limited options for advancement—while each has its particular trials and compromises, scrubbing floors and keeping a rich man happy both involve long hours and physical labor.

Where Offill’s narrator navigates a world growing unfit to house her or anyone else, Cain’s is a more familiar misfit, reluctant to occupy the social space provided and suspicious of emotional ties that will confine her further. Her problems resemble those of women in the mid-twentieth century and earlier, though the book resists evoking any fixed period or place. Old-world markers abound—horses and candlelight, embroidery and feathered hats—but the atmosphere is that of a parable, as if Vitória is writing herself into existence outside historical time, an effect enhanced by the snippets of other books that weave in and out of the text. One acquaintance of Vitória’s, Antoinette, is named after Jean Rhys’s reinvention of Charlotte Brontë’s madwoman in the attic in Wide Sargasso Sea. Then there’s Solange, Vitória’s husband’s maid, whose frosty reserve increases the mistress’s discomfort at now employing a woman in a role she herself hated. Her name is shared with one of the young women in Jean Genet’s play The Maids, who take turns dressing up as their mistress and acting out rebellions against her, eventually plotting to kill her in real life.

These references, though they impart the odd frisson, invite unflattering comparisons. Cain’s sentences are elegant and often suspenseful, but the narrative can’t fulfill the promise of their strangeness. Vitória lacks the stark self-pity of Jean Rhys’s heroines or the swooning, spiritual intensity of Clarice Lispector’s, and Cain doesn’t manage the magic trick accomplished by those predecessors, in which a mind becomes the world and all outside it vanishes. Meanwhile the social constraints that serve here as Cain’s artistic ones also feel too filmy and indistinct to sustain the requisite tension. Indelicacy makes a tacit claim as a feminist fable, in which Vitória attempts to carve out room for herself without either submitting to or being complicit in exploitation—but the book’s very ease makes it slight against its much darker lineage. It couldn’t have been written in the past it’s set in, yet it also doesn’t draw much from the time in which it appears. Genet spawned The Maids out of a true and violent story—it’s intriguing to consider what Cain might make from sturdier material.

Nemora I, by Jaco van Schalkwyk © The artist. Courtesy Barnard Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

Nemora I, by Jaco van Schalkwyk © The artist. Courtesy Barnard Gallery, Cape Town, South Africa

The twentieth-century British writer Anna Kavan, best known for her last, dystopian novel, Ice, published the year before her death in 1968, could easily be mistaken for a Jean Rhys figure, with the heroin Kavan depended on for decades standing in for booze and the intermittent falls out of public favor. Both writers created bleak moods of alienation and mistrust, and depicted the inevitable, mechanistic crushing of the sensitive and powerless. That bleak sensibility, combined with the mysterious, featureless protagonists and indeterminate plotting that appear in Kavan’s mature work, may make her vulnerable to charges of solipsism, of being, as Mary-Kay Wilmers memorably wrote of Rhys, “always incredibly lonely because in her own mind no one else existed” (though the aloneness of Kavan’s protagonists evokes Kafka far more than Rhys). Most of all, perhaps, a reading of inwardness could be prompted by her own layered self-invention, exemplified in her decision to become Anna Kavan in the first place. Born Helen Woods, she wrote several relatively conventional novels under her married name of Ferguson before she began to produce markedly stranger work in the Forties using the name of the protagonist of her 1930 book, Let Me Alone. MACHINES IN THE HEAD (NYRB Classics, $15.95), a selection of stories (one previously unpublished) written during her career as “Anna Kavan,” declares up front its intent to banish any suggestion that Kavan’s work retreated from engagement with the world. “One reacts to the environment and atmosphere one lives in,” she writes in a 1966 letter, quoted as an epigraph to Victoria Walker’s foreword, “and my writing changes with the conditions outside.”

Walker goes on to emphasize that “little has been said about [Kavan’s] politics . . . political she most certainly was in her singular way,” and the sampling of work here—including stories from Asylum Piece (1940) through A Bright Green Field (1957), to the posthumously published Julia and the Bazooka and My Soul in China—makes a convincing case for that, as well as offering a seductive initiation for new readers. Kavan’s narrators often experience social persecution or emotional isolation in climatic terms—fog and ice and other forces threaten destruction—making that time of world war, mass displacement, and imminent nuclear winter feel intimately connected to our own, in which looming environmental catastrophe provides an ever-available metaphor for societal and psychological ills. Meanwhile the increasingly anomic autonomy of Kavan’s stories only enhances their precision as reflections of the twentieth century, with its bomb shelters and mental institutions, its traumatized soldiers and alienated workers, its totalitarian bureaucrats and rioting students. The eponymous story from A Bright Green Field describes a steep meadow of monstrous, fast-growing, phosphorescent grass mowed by unskilled workers drawn across its surface by ropes and pulleys. Yes, the narrator learns, “unfortunately the limbs, and even the lives, of the men up there were in danger,” but she says

I should not pay too much attention to the spasms and convulsions I was observing, as these were mainly just mimicry, a traditional miming of the sufferings endured by earlier generations of workers before the introduction of the present system. The work was now much less arduous than it looked and performed under the most humane conditions that had as yet been devised. It might interest me to know that it was not at all unpopular; on the contrary, there was considerable competition for this form of employment.

In Kavan, sardonic, absurdist humor shoots through the dark, finding its fullest expression in the late story “Five More Days to Countdown,” the narrator of which, “in [his] straightforward, manly way,” keeps trying to get a handle on the deteriorating situation at an educational establishment in an unnamed country that is besieged by unrest along the lines of the 1968 uprisings. (The story was actually published that year in Encounter.) The narrator must contend with students “equipped with Lugers, an enlarged vocabulary, aerosols and slinky stretch-pants in glittering fabric,” “a khaki character (communist?) on the all-kill wavelength” who affirms that “my gun has real bullets in it!,” and a nattily dressed love object named Esmerelda, a “dedicated idealist” and “inventor of a revolutionary system of education,” who keeps foiling the narrator’s plan to escape with her by helicopter to “some lost Antipodean island” immune to the fate facing everywhere else. Within the story’s nine pages, realist literary conventions go the way of social ones, and Esmerelda gets a happy ending just as untenable as the one she’d conceived for her society through liberal education: “In a century which has exalted war to unprecedented heights,” the narrator notes,

regarding it as the finest flower of human endeavor and scientific progress, subordinating everything else in life to it as a matter of course, she sees the all-powerful giant mushroom shape menacing us as a mere bogey to be eliminated simply by depriving children of warlike toys.

The prospects in Kavan’s world look at least as dire as those in Offill’s. Yet just as the form of Weather conjures a contradictory optimism—the author trusts that in the leap across white space from one thought, one incident, to the next, you’ll stay with her—so Kavan’s work, read in this form, spanning decades, is heartening in its willingness to strike out alone, growing only bolder, stranger, more adventurous. That tendency cost her many times, but readers eventually met her where she was, and now the things she depicted look more eerily recognizable than ever.

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