‘Life of the Spirit’ LRB May 26, 2022

Dorothéeis a poorly paid and unenthusiastic assistant professor of English at an anonymous college in New York. Trained to criticize and evaluate, she pays meticulous attention to herself and those around her – to no particular end. the life of the spirit, Christine Smallwood’s debut novel begins with Dorothy’s miscarriage and traces her mental and physical state over the next six weeks. She has a boyfriend, Rog, who has no discernible influence on events or on her. The plot largely consists of a series of encounters and conversations between Dorothy and her most successful friends and colleagues: pampered, talkative, and beautiful Gaby; smoothing and manipulative Judith, Dorothy’s former doctoral supervisor; and Elyse and Alexandra, who both have the kind of college work that Dorothy tells herself she can’t hope for. She doesn’t expect much else either.

Instead, she watches and listens to herself and ruthlessly reports the “shabby and student” impression she thinks she is making on others. The action moves from classrooms to therapists’ bedrooms to a college conference, from apartments to hotels, from trains and cars to airplanes. But it doesn’t matter where we are because Smallwood is mostly interested in showing us what’s going on inside Dorothy’s head.

“If only there was a way to have the intimacy to tell,” Dorothy thinks at one point, “without losing control of the story. It was the worst, when all your little bits and pieces fell apart. Her tendency to worry about many possible courses of action, while not deciding on any of them, makes her funny in a Woody Allen way and somewhat of a non-starter. -ci: “The ancient notion that art holds up a mirror to reality was complicated in the 18th century by the idea that the mirror of art should reflect only certain parts of reality, those that people should And then, in direct contradiction to such a view of what art should refrain from expressing, we get:

When she wiped something stringy was on the paper and she felt it come off a bit, so she put a finger inside and pulled. A short rubber band of grime came out, wrapped around the first knuckle. She rubbed her fingers and put it in the toilet, where it settled on the surface of the water like kelp. The blood on the panty liner was jewel red and gelatinous and a little thinner and underneath was brown like dead leaves. She rubbed a finger on the red part and put the finger on her tongue.

Smallwood is preoccupied with excrement, blood, toxins, tissues and secretions: the novel begins with the words “Dorothy was shit”, which risks emphasizing the demotic a little too much. This trend might seem to mark the novel as decidedly modern when in fact it belongs to a long line of women’s books about what women think and how they think about them. Virginia Woolf pursued with interest the fiction produced by Dorothy Richardson, a rival annotator or recorder of female consciousness. Pilgrimage, Richardson’s series of semi-autobiographical novels, is built on what Woolf has described as “the psychological sentence of female gender”. The reader “is invited to embed himself in the consciousness of Miriam Henderson”, writes Woolf, “to record one after another, and on top of each other, words, cries, shouts, violin notes, fragments of lectures, to follow these impressions. as they twinkle in Miriam’s mind… Miriam’s consciousness mirrors a dentist’s room to perfection.

In The life of the mind, Dorothy’s conscience offers a perfect reflection of her psychiatrist’s bedroom: “For three consecutive years they met every Tuesday (except a holiday and the 31 days of August) in the stuffy fifteenth-floor studio of Central Park West, with its view of the treetops and standard decor: African masks, oriental rugs, Afghan plaids, South American flutes. These circumstantial details are enough to convince us that the environment is indeed real. But, as Smallwood asks elsewhere, “what is behind the surface target?” Why is this spirit used to record such details?

For Woolf, something more than conscientious realism was required in the novel: there had to be a larger subject beneath its surfaces. But for Smallwood, it is not clear that there is is something bigger. Disaster looms but comes to nothing. Dorothy’s miscarriage is ‘less than a trauma and more than an inconvenience’; “It doesn’t seem traumatic to me,” announces her friend Gaby about her abortion. Review of Jenny Offill’s Weather, Smallwood wrote that he tapped into “something essential about a contemporary mood, a kind of pre-traumatic stress caused by the threat of what we know and do nothing”. The same could be said of his own book.

Before becoming a fiction writer, Smallwood was on the way to becoming an academic. His doctoral dissertation (Columbia, 2014) was titled “Depressive Realism: Readings in the Victorian Novel” and examined the value of the downcast, hurt, indifferent or ambivalent response, as repeated and experienced by readers of texts. of the 19th century. It’s fair to say that The life of the mind is a translation of his thesis, or his thesis put into practice. It also reflects his disillusionment with university life.

Smallwood makes pointed mention of “academia and what it’s done to fun,” how it takes “the simplest, most innocent desires — to tell stories and stories about stories — and has them. made ugly”. Dorothy gives a lecture paper on cookies in the shape of Christminster, the city of Dark Jude. Elsewhere, she reads about Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism” – a condition in which “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own fulfillment” – and concludes that it describes her “entire life”. But part of her greatest pleasure comes when she thinks about literature: she perhaps values ​​her own intelligence more than her encounters with real people. There’s humor in the contrast between Dorothy’s revelations about writers and the anxious, unfulfilling conversations she has with her friends and acquaintances. On ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, for example: ‘It wasn’t just the limitations of the wit and the story that kept her from really liking the poem. It wasn’t because she wasn’t a sailor. It was because nobody wants to listen to the former sailor.

“My ‘depressive realism’,” writes Smallwood in his dissertation, “is a study of resistance to improvement and the resulting feelings of being blocked or held in place. Instead of “depressive realism,” read “Dorothy,” which is nothing but a study in “resistance to improvement.” She is excited when she suddenly realizes that ‘the resistance been aesthetic experience.’ Unable to live in the moment, she hesitates on what to do next. Her miscarriage represents the state of being arrested that Smallwood wants to explore: “What do you call it when a life has stopped growing, but hasn’t ended?” She referred in another context to education as a process of “going out of a world and into a no man’s land, a sort of limbo”. That’s certainly what happened to Dorothy. She hates teaching, which can’t help, and the book ends with her giving each of her students the same grade.

As an experiment in the representation of consciousness, The life of the mind is crisp and assured. Smallwood is one of many contemporary writers who deliberately merge the lines between essay and fiction. by Sheila Heti Maternity, billed as a “novel”, is a long, choppy argument – structured around a series of questions answered by tossing coins – about whether or not to get pregnant. Offfill’s Weather, again described as a novel, seems to lack most of the conventions of the genre. It, too, is largely made up of questions and answers, concerns about engagement and decision-making.

Woolf originally planned Years be composed of essays and fiction. Rather than essays illustrating, explaining or supporting fiction, it would be an entirely new genre where the statuses would be equal, the forms interdependent. Woolf’s descendants do their best to make this genre fruitful. Smallwood’s journalism shares many characteristics of its own fiction, so much so that it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two: an article like “Astrology in the Age of Uncertainty”, published in the New Yorker, shows the same attention to local and interior detail, modern therapy concerns, social media and “circumstances beyond our control” as The life of the mind.

This book cannot be called a work of imagination: as its title indicates, despite the scabrous details of Dorothy’s evacuations, its concerns are above all intellectual. Description of Smallwood by Mary McCarthy The groupanother novel that traces the lives of intelligent women and the gap between what they hoped for themselves and reality, could have an impact on his own work: “It measures the distance between the dreams of a self younger and the betrayals of adulthood, with her new dreams – some vibrant, some pale. Dorothy of Smallwood is in her thirties, but the teenage years last much longer than before. , she has an impoverished professional future. She knows she should write a sample chapter for a college book deal that will get her a permanent job, or the chance to have one. On the other hand, why bother? The job is unlikely to exist. The book is not the one she wants to write. At some point, Dorothy realizes that “the problem of the 21st century is a waste problem!” Smallwood’s anxious moderns include garbage, but the fact that The life of the mind consists in part of material that has been hijacked, from earlier fiction as well as her thesis, is perhaps a sign that the detritus could represent something more than expected – a reversal of the young woman’s disappointment.

At the end of The trip out, Woolf’s first novel, an old man says that “it is not cowardly to want to live”. Personally, I would like to continue for a hundred years… Think of all that has to happen! Smallwood’s novel ends in a gruesome flowering as Dorothy throws her students’ essays on genocide, extinction, the death of God, and the death of the novel into the trash. But it’s not so much an act of annihilation as an ecstatic sign of what’s to come: a lot is going to happen, and Smallwood is going to watch and write.

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