The shortlist for the Folio Prize 2015, said its chair of judges, sought to show the novel “refreshing itself, reaching out for new shapes and strategies, still discovering what it might be, what it might do”. The winner of the Prize has been announced tonight as Akhil Sharma, and his is one of the shortlist’s three novels I have yet to read; but on reading Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation and Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows, both superb novels in themselves, you might be forgiven for thinking that the Folio judges have a fairly narrow sense of what the novel might be and do.
Again, that’s not to say either of these books are poor – far from it, both are formidable (and more on this later). On the other hand, both feature a middle-aged female novelist struggling with life at the expense of her art; the narrator is self-recriminating and -critical, placing goodness and kindness and worth in people other than herself, and reflexively wondering why she falls short. Both are also written in that arch, wry, self-conscious sort of tone which I associate with much contemporary North American fiction (and, in all honesty, with the creative writing courses Offill teaches, an occupation she shares with her nameless narrator). Not only that, but Rachel Cusk’s Outline and Ben Lerner’s 10:04 also feature (though I haven’t read them) struggling novelists, and according to reviewers both also tackle this venerable literary conceit in ways designed to nod and wink towards the reader in order to re-fashion what has long been a stock literary situation. Here’s Elaine Blair in the LRB on how 10:04 achieves that:
Author surrogates are more often writerly types than actual writers – academics or journalists if not artists or musicians or something else entirely. We gamely suspend disbelief when the non-novelist turns out to sound like a novelist, though it’s harder for readers today (than, say, in Updike and Bellow’s heyday) not to find the everyman’s lyrical flights distracting and artificial. […] But Lerner’s poet and poet/novelist can shoot straight; their ruminations on matters of art are an important vein of sincerity in his novels. The most cerebral parts give the books substance: not just intellectual substance, but fictional substance – they make Adam and Ben seem real.
This is exactly the approach taken by both Toews and Offill: in the former case, its central pairing of two sisters (the narrator a writer, the other a suicidal concert violinist) constantly trade quotations from Romantic poetry, whilst the latter novel consists of a series of short gobbets, some narratively driven but many drawn from the research and reading undertaken by its narrator, a strung-out novelist, wife and mother who cannot begin, let alone finish, her second book. sa teenager, Toews’s violinist chooses a pseudonym from the same Coleridge poem which gives the novel its title, since Samuel Taylor “would definitely have been her boyfriend if she’d been born when she should have been” [AMPS, pg. 8]; Dept. of Speculation‘s narrator, meanwhile, intends when young to become “an art monster. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella” [DoS, pg. 8]. If the novel is refreshing itself here, it is doing so via great transfusions of the past.
Compared with other novels on the shortlist – most obviously my own tip for the top, Ali Smith’s How To Be Both, but also Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s hauntingly horrific and structurally twisty Dust – it might be fair to say that both Offill and Toews do not challenge themselves to imagine other ways of being: most superficially, these are both semi-autobiographical novels (Toews own sister and father also, sadly, killed themselves, whilst Offill really is a creative writing teacher with a husband and young child who has taken fifteen years to write her second novel); the novel-as-work-of-empathy may or may not be reconfiguring itself in these well-turned pages. Whenever I read novels like this, I think of Richard Milward’s Ten-Storey Love Song, as close as mainstream fiction has come to a novel in form and style separated from literary fiction’s increasingly narrow social echo chamber. The Folio Prize might wonder about that next year. (In its defense, one of last year’s shortlisted works – Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is A Half-formed Thing is, differently but no less fully than Milward, also a novel of a separate social class.)
I don’t, though, think that either of these remarkable novels should fall victim to a backlash which has more to do with the Folio judges’ apparent kink for novelist-narrators. To take the considerable virtues of All My Puny Sorrows first, this story of a woman (the writer-sister, stuck in a rut of children’s fiction and with two divorces behind her and two nearly-grown children in tow), and the struggles and accommodations she makes in her life following first the suicide of her Mennonite father, and then the absolute insistence of her internationally-famous sibling on achieving the same self-annihilation, is a thoroughly sad, and yet consistently funny, novel about not death but love. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other,” the narrator, Yolandi, says of her sister, Elfreida (or, as everyone knows her in a nod to her trickster-ish ways, Elf). In many ways, this is a novel without a plot: Yoli travels from Toronto to Winnipeg twice, on both occasions to support her mother and Elf’s husband after a suicide attempt; she then sort of kicks her heels a lot, encountering exes or dealing with lawyers; she faces Elf’s request to help her die in Switzerland; she considers writing her literary novel, about a harbourmaster who winds up in Rotterdam having got stuck on a boat he helps out to the open sea as a storm comes in.
This is a book of often gentle humour – “She told me how to say I have a little man when I should have said I’m a bit hungry,” recalls Yoli of Elf’s teenage mischief with Spanish homework – but also of tender poetry – the sisters’ mother is in many ways the hero of the piece, a woman who is initially “a loyal Mennonite wife [… who] didn’t want to upset the apple cart of domestic hierarchy” [pg. 7], but who is at the end of the novel calling Yoli from “somewhere having a burger and watching the game. Extra innings” [pg. 289]. This mixture of wit and sentiment gives the book a warm kind of vinegariness, and even the occasionally meandering structure – at times it feels like this most personal of novels might have been a little shorter, encompassed a little less experience – allows the characters and their relationships to be painted in all their ambivalence, leading to a far more affecting conclusion. On the other hand, it can be cute: those extra innings are a little too obvious in their double meaning. Likewise, Yoli has a “structural problem” with her novel, because she can’t explain why he doesn’t just use someone’s cellphone to ask for a pick-up – but she’s attached to an image of “one person … marooned at sea, helpless, and the other … standing on the shore, hurt and mad” [pg. 200].
This sort of pat-ness recurs throughout. At one point, Yoli says she understands another character’s “need to accomplish something, however strange, something with a clear rising action and a successful ending” [pg. 117], and we hear, Lerner-like, the author addressing her audience. This can grate, and, coupled with the novel’s vague bagginess, tells just a little against it. In its depiction of a woman raking over her “younger self, the person I was before I’d become all of these other selves” [pg. 198], however, All My Puny Sorrows is expansive and affecting; it also shares in this vision of a woman’s life as a succession of roles or poses the central conflict of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. The novel is presented in a sort of epistolary form, as a series of short memos-to-self which are often apparent non sequiturs, unconnected to the gobbet before or after, and yet which build with a quite extraordinarily invisible magic into an emotionally powerful depiction of a marriage. It begins with its narrator declaring “ideas about myself. Largely untested” [pg. 7]. Through the course of the novel, life happens – and the testing occurs.
This, of course, is a classic novelistic structure – we might think of Anne Elliot in Persuasion, or of Richardson’s Pamela. In terms of her moral journey, Offill’s narrator, who shares namelessness with every character in this short novel, treads a well-worn path, from youthful assumptions to self-knowledge (the novel’s final line is “No one young knows the name of anything” [pg. 177]). This might make Dept. of Speculation sound a little preachy or self-important, and it’s here that Offill’s structural experimentation really tells: where All My Puny Sorrows can occasionally intrude upon the reader’s reverie, Dept. of Speculation, with its tessellating paragraphs and intellectual fluidity, is entirely open and self-questioning.
In large part, this is down to the novel’s narrator (Toews’s novel, too, derives its best qualities from its brilliantly uncertain protagonist). She is almost painfully self-critical, and rarely allows herself the benefit of even the slightest doubt. This provides the novel with some serious emotional complexity: “Is she a good baby? People would ask me. Well, no, I’d say” [pg. 30] the narrator relates at one point, in a typical show of her antipathy for the child who changes her life; and yet she also exhibits so strong an attraction to her daughter that she thrills when her daughter insists “she will not go to college if that means she must go away from me” [pg. 91]. This facing-both-ways, this aliveness-to-complexity, means that each missive of every chapter cannot be taken to mean only one thing – simply in its very function in the story-structure of the novel, every paragraph works in many ways, sounds at many levels. A snippet of Wittgenstein or a memory of the narrator meeting her husband, when he was just her boyfriend, at a train station after a long time apart – every entry in this curious kind of pseudo-diary speaks to itself, to something else, and to something other.
The narrator attends great parties. She meets an artist whose work is in the MoMA permanent collection (incidentally, Yoli and her mother visit MoMA towards the end of their novel); her best friend is a philosophy professor; she gets a job ghost-writing a book about the space programme for a billionaire. She lives, that is, what many would see to be a gilded life. And yet her vision of herself – her shock at how “some women make it look so easy, the way they cast ambition off like an expensive coat that no longer fits” [pg. 92] – is violently expressed on one page, which reads in its entirety soscaredsoscaredsoscared, repeating until the bottom margin. Her delicate state of mind is indicated only subtlety – when her husband has an affair, the narrator takes to referring to herself not as “I”, but “the wife”, signalling increasing disassociation – and she holds a persistent view that “the most charismatic people […] were that way because they had somehow managed to keep a bit of […] light [… but] that the natural order was for this light to vanish” [pg. 30]. She seems unable for a long time to experience her life as reality rather than an interruption; in some ways, this is a novel for an ageing Generation X. At one point, you will excuse me, her daughter has an X-ray: “Here is the bone,” the narrator almost sighs, “shot through with emptiness.” [pg. 76]
In begruding balance, what Dept. of Speculation, which I cannot recommend enough, lacks a little is All My Puny Sorrows‘ humour, its lightness, its countervailing tendency; but there is black humour here, and also, in those gobbets where the moment is grabbed, something approaching transcendence. In this it shares much more with Toews’s novel beyond the upper-middle-class setting or novelistic protagonists which the Folio judges so admire. “Darwin theorized that there was something left over after sexual attractiveness had served its purpose and compelled us to mate,” the narrator observes many years into her marriage. “This he called ‘beauty’ and he thought it might be what drives the human animal to make art” [pg. 103].