brutalism of the mind

lahiri, cusk, & contemporary novels consciousness

Photo by Pavel Nekoranec on Unsplash

Hello friends—             

First, un petit update. I did a little interview about my story “Otto” over at the Southeast Review. So if you want a behind the scenes look at how that story came to be, go check it out!

also, un petit little news: I’m writing introductions for two Edith Wharton books. A new edition of The Writing of Fiction (!!!) and The Custom of the Country. More tk.

The novel takes place in an unnamed town in an unnamed country during an unnamed year. Characters have no names and no faces. They exist only in relation to the narrator, who refers to them as “my friend” or “my friend with the two kids” or “the writer in the room next to me” or “my friend’s husband.” It’s the same for the university where the narrator works and a fellowship they later win and the eventual destination to which they will travel for that fellowship. There are very few, if any, proper nouns at all. The material of the novel is mediated, relational, and the structures that make up the narrator’s life emerge into existence only for the brief period of time they are illuminated by the narrator’s perception. In her book The Writing of Fiction, Edith Wharton describes this phenomenon:

There is another sign which sets apart the born novelist from the authors of self-confessions in novel-form; that is, the absence of the objective faculty in the latter. The subjective writer lacks the power of getting far enough away from his story to view it as a whole and relate it to its setting; his minor characters remain the mere satellites of the principal personage (himself), and disappear when not lit up by their central luminary.

“Self-confessions in novel form” describes an entire cohort of contemporary novels dominated by what I jokingly (and not so jokingly) refer to as character vapor. Such novels are frequently written with brilliance and psychological acuity, but they contain no lasting structures or anything of real permanence. The novels run right through you, their primary virtue being an evocation of the fleeting, atomized nature of contemporary consciousness. The speedy phenomenology is precisely the point. Such novels may be essayistic or more narrative in nature, fragmentary or cohesive. They tend to focus on the mundane nature of life or the grinding reality of the domestic or academic or corporate space. They are governed by a disaffected, alienated coolness that reveals much of contemporary life to be either too strange to bear or so artificial as to make the whole exercise of existence seem pointless.

There is an attempt to capture the raw, nervy heat of conscious awareness. The blasting apart of all that narrative artifice to extricate the energetic collisions that describe and comprise life today and life forever. But for all the randomness and Brownian motion that characterizes the purported aesthetic principles of the novel of consciousness, it has kind of cohered into something akin to the Brutalism of the 1`960s with its striking visual austerity and insistence upon materiality and shunning of anything that might impede the honest expression of that materiality. A desire to unite function and material and its espousal of socialist utopian ideas. And, I mean, the increasingly visually and aesthetically coherent expression of those ideas. Such novels descend from Camus, from Woolf, from Sartre, or in more extreme forms, from Artaud and de Sade, from Ionesco and Ibsen, from, Bernhard and Sebald. Think Jenny Offill, Sally Rooney, Ben Lerner, Rachel Cusk, Teju Cole.Think the narrative nonfiction of Jia Tolentino and Emily Witt, and the fleet of icy chroniclers of the digital contemporary who write from their flotilla of Substacks and perches in various cultural magazines.

Add to that list, surprisingly, Jhumpa Lahiri.

Over the weekend, I read Lahiri’s new novel Whereabouts, which arrived with much hushed awe. Everywhere I saw the book raised in conversation, people said, “It’s amazing. She wrote it in Italian first. And then had it translated” or “She translated it herself from Italian, which she wrote it in first. Amazing.” It didn’t quite rise to the level of a meme, but it had the perfect, clear ring of an immaculate publicity operation. The conversation about the impressiveness of the writing of the book threatened (and still threatens, to be honest, the book is new in English) to overwhelm the book itself in a way reminiscent of other recent novels. It’s as if the whole function of contemporary publishing is to overwhelm us with pre-chewed discussion about the book so that the actual experience of reading it is secondary to the buying and the owning and the Instagramming of said book. But that is capitalism and not art—I did Instagram the book though.

Whereabouts follows an unnamed narrator through a period of quiet desperation. The novel’s events are mundane, domestic. Though to call them events would be kind of misleading because Whereabouts isn’t really composed in a causal string. It’s more a constellation of moments and reflections held in exquisite tension. We see her eat lunch in her usual trattoria, go on walks with a friend with whom she might have had an affair had either been just slightly more reckless, take a friend’s daughter out for a meal, reflect on the nature of loneliness, entertain a friend and her shitty husband, and visit her aging mother. Characters and places recur, and soon patterns emerge.

It feels not un-diaristic, which of course is a paradox because by calling it a novel, we acknowledge that the lack of constructedness is absolutely constructed. The seeming shapeless wandering takes on a structural importance. Indeed, the structural conceit of the book—the short, essayistic chapters that seem to lack obvious temporal relation at first—is also a thematic element, which, because the narrator is a writer, becomes a narrative element as well. That is, the book is composed in fragments, and in the fragments, the narrator ponders the episodic, meaningless nature of life. She reflects on routine and habit, which then are mirrored in the structure. It’s a perfect aesthetic unity.

But that makes the novel sound very theoretical and technical. For all of its icy distance and curious structure, Whereabouts is full of stunning writing about the experience of embodiment. On the subject spring, the narrator laments: “In spring I suffer. The season doesn’t invigorate me, I find it depleting.” Noting the ghostly strangeness of one’s own mortality: “For the past few days there’s been a strange sensation under the skin at my throat, something along the lines of an irregular palpitation. I only feel it when I’m sitting at home, reading on my couch. That is, when I’m most relaxed, when I’m expecting to feel at peace. It lasts for a few seconds, then passes.” There’s a moment when, staying at a borrowed country house, she finds a dead mouse, and the writing is simply electric: “Last night I’d rubbed olive oil over chicken thighs without getting the least bit upset. That raw, lifeless meat hadn’t disturbed me. The blood that stained the baking pan here and there was a perfectly normal thing.”

Still, the novel is strongest and clearest on the pleasures and costs of being alone, “Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect.” She pursues this perfection in many different ways—looking at art, preparing meals, traveling, working diligently at her craft. She makes coffee or sits in the sun, watching other people go about their lives, often made messy and complicated by the presence of lovers and children. It’s only reluctantly that the narrator permits interruptions of her solitude. She invites a friend and her family over for tea one afternoon, and later discovers that her friend’s child has drawn on her white sofa. The friend’s husband is irritating and dominates the conversation, and the narrator wishes he weren’t there. Later, with the daughter of a different friend, she reflects on her own dutiful girlhood and craves this girl’s independent spirit while also reflecting on the nature of family life and its painful complications—divorces, settlements, remarriages, unruly conditions.

Every time the narrator leaves the company of another person, the text almost sighs in relief as if escaping a thunderous crowd or a cramped bus. But the narrator’s pleasure in solitude, the relief of retreat she feels upon reestablishing it, is not unalloyed. There are moments when, seeing families in the piazza, or watching a father and daughter have an unsuccessful lunch at the trattoria, that hum with a desire to join, to be with, a longing to dissolve whatever membrane separates the narrator from the churn of the rest of the world. Moments when the narrator notes, “This is the private morphology of a family, of two people who fall in love and have children: an enterprise as mundane as it is utterly specific. And all at once I see how they form an ingenious organism, an impenetrable collective.”

Sometimes, no matter how content the solitude, you can’t help but note how alone you are. It doesn’t mean you want to change your life or that being alone is a less desirable state. That the life lived on one’s own terms is not a fulfilled and wonderful life. But there are moments, real as anything else, when you feel very keenly how you are alone among so many people who have found each other. The pang of the alternative choice, the missed opportunity, the hypothetical unit you might have formed if only, if only.

But, the narrator prizes the “small pleasures” of being alone and exercising agency over her life, its time and space, and whatever dissatisfaction in the state of things she locates in her mother’s influence. If only her mother could see and approve of her choice to be alone, the narrator could experience unalloyed pleasure in her aloneness. But because her mother cannot, the pleasure remains tainted somehow, by doubt, by worry, by the messy complication that is existing in a world where we rely upon others.

If I tell my mother that I’m grateful to be on my own, to be in charge of my space and my time—this in spite of the silence, in spite of the lights I never switch off when I leave the house, along with the radio I always keep playing—she’d look at me, unconvinced. She’d say solitude was a lack and nothing more.

I found the tone really remarkable, the kind of shrugging Oh, mom resignation of it. That feeling of being able to perfectly understand why a dynamic is the way it is while simultaneously being able to do nothing to change it. As a vibe, it sums up the contemporary novel of passive subjectivity really well. C’est la vie, etc. We have this idea of relationships as somehow being progressive, but in fact, relationships are often as confusing at the end as they are at the beginning. We know people less the longer we know them. And just because we know them doesn’t mean we can make them see us the way we wish to be seen. Sometimes there’s no point in trying.

This theme further manifests in Whereabouts with the married friend who we meet time and again. The first time we encounter him, we are told that the narrator might have had an affair with him:

Now and then on the streets of my neighborhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with. He always looks happy to see me. He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children. Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction. He talks excitedly about his projects, he gesticulates, and at times as we’re walking our synchronized bodies, already quite close, discreetly overlap.

Later, we meet him in the grocery store, and we are minded of the possibility of something: “There’s no food in my refrigerator, so I head to the supermarket, where I bump into my married friend for whom I represent…what, exactly? A road not taken, a hypothetical affair?”

And then, on a winter trip, it seems to pass yet again after a moment of querying between the two of them, “As soon as I step into that secluded niche I dream of inhabiting it, of withdrawing there, away from everything. He’s standing beside me, we admire it together, and before heading out he turns to look at me. “Stunning,” he says. The word burns inside me but I can’t tell if he’s talking about me or the place we’re in. He’s enigmatic that way, and in any case, in spite of today’s jaunt, in theory romantic, I don’t feel many sparks between us.”

The narrator is ambivalent on the matter of romantic attachment between them. They might be having an affair. They might not be. Who cares. Who knows. It’s the same passivity and ambivalence that runs through and orders the book. And unwillingness to name or to know what is in front of you. There’s something obscuring the truth of all our relations to other people. Or maybe something is ourselves. A fear of getting too far out of ahead of ourselves, risking rejection, or whatever.

I kept thinking about Mavis Gallant’s sublime short story “When We Were Nearly Young,” which follows an unnamed narrator through her time in Madrid after the rise of Franco. She falls in with some Spanish people who live in the same building, and they build a life together. A life predicated on waiting:

These rounds took up most of the day, and had become important, for, after a time, the fact of waiting became more valid than the thing I was waiting for. I knew that I would feel let down when the waiting was over” and later, after she’s been accused of pretentions she, the narrator remarks, “My existence had been poised on waiting, and I had always said I was waiting for something tangible. But they had thought I was waiting in their sense of the word—waiting for summer and then for winter, for Monday and then for Tuesday, waiting, waiting for time to drop into the pool.

The narrator of Whereabouts is also waiting, or rather, she’s spent so much of her life in transition, in motion, that she’s effectively arrested herself. Toward the end of the novel, she remarks:

I could be riding a train or traveling by a car or flying in a plane, among the clouds that drift and spread on all sides like a mass of jellyfish in the air. I’ve never stayed still, I’ve always been moving, that’s all I’ve ever been doing. Always waiting either to get somewhere or to come back. Or to escape. I keep packing and unpacking the small suitcase at my feet.

In a sense, she lives in transit, never quite arriving at the destination that would allow her to unpack her suitcase for good. Even her office at the university is temporary as she is forever coming and going. Delivered at the end of the novel, this realization of a life in flux being a series of packed and packed suitcases, trips planned and taken, arrives with the dizzying totality of epiphany. It comes after we know that her father died on the eve a trip they were to take together to see a show. Of that moment, the narrator says:

The night before leaving, my father didn’t feel well. He came down with a high fever. It looked like he had the flu but he couldn’t lift his head from the pillow. He was admitted to the hospital for a few days. Bacteria had entered his bloodstream, and in the end, instead of going to see a play with him, I sat at his wake. The long train trip and the hotel and the actors onstage were replaced by the pageant of mourning.

It’s an incident that has haunted her life. This first and primal loss. A moment of such sublime transmutation and irony as this in the early life of a writer. It brought to mind what Mavis Gallant said in the introduction to her selected stories:

Probably, it means a jolt that unbolts the door between perception and imagination and leaves it ajar for life, or that fuses memory and language and waking dreams. Some writers may just simply come into the world with overlapping vision of things seen and things as they might be seen. All have a gift for holding their breath while going on breathing: It is the basic requirement. If shock and change account for the rest of it, millions of men and women, hit hard and steadily, would do nothing but write; in fact, most of them don't. No childhood is immunized against disturbance. A tremor occurs underfoot when a trusted adult says one thing and means another. It brings on the universal and unanswerable wail "It's not fair!"—to which the shabby rejoinder that life isn't does nothing to restore order.

Whereabouts dramatizes the life that follows the door left ajar. Summing up across the span of forty-some short chapters the quiet dilemmas that accrue to the great, unbearable totality of a life filled with foreclosed possibilities. What happens when one is acutely aware of those passed opportunities, those moments which never materialized but which stayed there buried, unlaunched beneath the skin of time. It’s a novel of anxious, weary intensity that chooses its way carefully, tenderly, until it arrives with thundering clarity at the fact that sometimes that first loss was really the whole point.

As I was reading Whereabouts, I thought of course of Mavis Gallant’s anxious narrators who drift through life by marking the seismic shifts that go unnoticed by everyone else. I thought also of Rachel Cusk’s new novel Second Place, which is not dissimilar from Whereabouts in its preoccupation with the dissatisfaction that can animate contemporary life. But unlike the narrator of Whereabouts, Cusk’s narrator shares her life with others, both socially and at home. She lives on a marsh with her partner Tony. There’s this incredibly moving description of the narrator’s conception of their relationship:

When people marry young, Jeffers, everything grows out of the shared root of their youth an dit becomes impossible to tell which part is you and which is the other person. So if you attempt to sever yourselves from one another it becomes a severance all the way from the roots to the furthest ends of the branches, a gory mess of a process that seems to leave you half of what you were before. But when you make a marriage later it is more like the meeting of two distinctly formed things, a kind of bumping into one another, the way whole land masses bumped into one another and fused over geological time, leaving great dramatic seams of mountain ranges as the evidence of their fusing.It is less an organic process and more of a spatial event, an external manifestation.

Second Place is absolutely filled with such seams. All the geologic puckering from the collision of lives as she watches her daughter fall out of love in one way and into love in another. As she watches the famous male painter and his young female companion Brett sizzle and then later come apart. The novel is attuned to the deep rhythms that run unseen through seemingly stable relationships, those secret forces that are always present, shifting and aligning and throwing us apart and together. The novel is quiet, melancholy, but shot through with a keen, electric menace. The wind howls. The marsh vibrates at times with seemingly malevolent energy. There is something stalking the great beyond out there, or at least, that’s the narrator feels: hunted, haunted, on edge.

The novel takes the form of a long letter to a friend, Jeffers, who never makes an appearance in the novel, at least not physically. Second Place is a written account of the time the narrator invited a famous male artist to stay in a cottage on her farm. The artist eventually arrives, and chaos ensues. The famous male artist represents an almost supernatural force that sweeps through the narrator’s life. Indeed, her first encounter with his work is described as a kind of conversion experience:

The religiousness of L’s landscapes! If human existence can be a religion, that is. When he paints a landscape, he is remembering looking at it. That’s the best I can do to describe the landscapes, or describe how I saw them and the way they made me feel.

Like much of Cusk’s work, the dominant theme has to do with the female condition, which the narrator (whose ideas and attitude bear a striking resemblance to prevailing attitude and ideas in Cusk’s essay collection Coventry) seems to regard as an essentially fallen state:

Not to have been born a woman in a woman’s body was a piece of luck in the first place: he couldn’t see his own freedom because he couldn’t conceive of how elementally it might have been denied him. To beg was a freedom in itself—it implied at least an equality with the state of need. My own experiences of loss, I said, had merely served to show me the pitilessness of nature. The wounded don’t survive in nature: a woman could never throw herself on fate and expect to come out of it intact. She has to connive at her own survival, and how can she be subject to revelation after that?

And then on the subject of her daughter’s femininity:

At heart I feared I had failed to do something vital with respect to Justine’s womanhood, or worse, had inadvertently done to her the same thing that had been done to me. I had grown up disgusted by my physical self, and regarding my femininity:  as a device like the corset—to keep the repellent facts from view: it was impossible for me to accept what was ugly in myself as to accept any other kind of ugliness.

Second Place bears Cusk’s trademark pressure-cooker psychology. The at first-glance casual way with which she articulates the brutal commonness of living under the constraints of imposed feminine ideals. The narrator chafes under such impositions, wondering all the while why she just can’t get comfortable in her own life. In an early part of the book, she describes to her friend Jeffers a moment in which she was pursued by the devil on a train. The devil representing in someway a fundamental discomfort, an unease with and inability to follow the social scripts set out for her. It’s the kind of ontological dilemma that pursues many of Cusk’s narrators, and in the case of Second Place, that pursuit drives the narrator to a point of near psychological unmaking. There’s a point late in the novel where she absolutely snaps in a way that made me scream in discomfort, but also laugh. I cannot express enough how funny this book is, how silly. And yet even in the midst of laughing, the devil remains there, winking over the heads of all the occupants of our lives. Watching and waiting a moment of perfect vulnerability in which he might make his move.

Second Place, however, the devil who appears in the opening pages spreads like a stain across the narrator’s life, and one can’t but imagine that he stands for too many things and nothing at all. The novel is too Freudian for neat one-to-ones, but one thing he seems to stand for is the role of women in society and culture. The narrator and by extension the novel is more than a little pessimistic about the role of women in society and culture, and about their prospects and what they can hope to accomplish in their art. The narrator feels, with a restlessness not unlike the narrator in Whereabouts, the foreclosure of life’s possibilities. Except in the case of Second Place, the foreclosures aren’t personal so much as they are artistic and societal. This comes to a head in the middle of the novel when it becomes clear that she would like the famous male painter to paint her, but he says, with the casual, oblivious cruelty of a man that he can’t paint her because he cannot see her. It’s a stunning moment because, honestly, it’s fucking rude. She’s gone through a great deal of trouble to make him comfortable and to look after him. He’s been superior and entitled and annoying and off-putting, she’s put up with it all. And here he is saying, thoughtlessly, rudely, without even a scrim of pretense, that he does not see her. Could not be me!

It’s stunning also because the reader has become aware of the degree to which the narrator identifies herself with the famous male painter. She wants to see through his eyes. And wants to see herself through them not because she is vain or wants to be desired by him but because she trusts his sight and wants to feel real, whole. She doesn’t trust herself because she knows how changeful, how uneasy, how dissatisfied she is. She can’t trust her own sight of herself which is, throughout the novel, both quite clear and also blurry.

It’s another paradox, the extent to which you can be totally, brutally honest with yourself about what you look like and what it is you’re doing and why, and yet, you can still persist in foggy uncertainty about the depths of your own soul. Second Place is a mysterious, strange novel with gothic undertones. But it’s also quite funny. There’s this horrifying moment in the novel where a clueless young man reads his entire manuscript in process to a captive audience who realize far too late what they’re in for. The dialogue is electric, at once casual and arch. There are many conversations about art and the subjectivity of experience, the nature of consciousness and existence. It’s quite Freudian, but in a really delightful way. I recognized bits and pieces of my own bad thinking and shallow behavior. But also, I enjoyed the way the novel shapeshifts and becomes a bit of a ghost story.

I’m still not sure what to make of Cusk’s attitude re: women and artists and women who are artists. I feel somehow that people just kind of glance over it and describe it as a “critique of gender and male privilege.” I mean, yes, it is a critique of male privilege, but, like, also, the novel seems to being saying that to be born a woman is a curse, a spiritual social affliction that forever forecloses one’s attempts to make art, etc. And, like, I understand that, intellectually, how one could feel that way. But then, I guess, I always wait for the part where it’s going to wrap around be like, “But of course, that is living life on male terms and one’s life cannot be lived according to someone else’s aesthetic frame.” Except in this novel, there is no wrap-around. There is no rejection of the male frame. Rather, the novel and many of Cusk’s essays themselves seem to capitulate to the male authority.

And, like, okay, yeah, the reality of a patriarchal society and all that. The horrors of masculine authority. I struggle with the part of the novel’s Weltanschauung that seems to uncritically long to become one with the patriarchy as it means a kind of freedom otherwise unattainable. I mean, it’s true that those who live under the surveillance of an overculture often feel, at various points in their life, a desire to merge into that overculture. In Frantz Fanon’s "Black Skins, White Masks,” he critiques the colonial sociology of the day that posited that colonization was made possible by a cultural inferiority complex common among the colonized. In essence, that the colonized subject made their own colonization possible by way of some kind of spiritual deformity. Fanon responds, by way of a little help from Aimé Césaire:

In other words, I start suffering from not being a white man insofar as the white man discrimi­nates against me; turns me into a colonized subject; robs me of any value or originality; tells me I am a parasite in the world, that I should toe the line of the white world as quickly as possible, and “that we are brute beasts; that we are a walking manure, a hideous forerunner of tender cane and silky cotton, that I have no place in the world.” So I will try quite simply to make myself white; in other words, I will force the white man to acknowledge my humanity. But, Monsieur Mannoni will tell us, you can’t, because deep down inside you there is a dependency complex.

A desire to merge into that which otherwise oppresses and forecloses one’s options in life. Such an impulse exists in reality. And animates much of contemporary life. Think only of Ben Carson, Herman Cain, Diamond and Silk, Terry Crews, Omarossa, and the legion of TikTok biracials and suburban blacks declaiming how nobody is really talking about “proximity to whiteness" and black authenticity. Think only of the white women who voted for Trump or the white working class who time and again choose the illusion of their proximity to the great white hope over literally not dooming us all to world-ending plague. Part of my discomfort is that it is so true. It describes precisely the attitude of so much of life under whiteness and patriarchy and capitalism. The ways we seek to emulate the caste of power. But I suppose where I’m always left feeling unsure is in the absence of the wraparound, the point at which the critique becomes clear, or perhaps, didactic. The “haha, just kidding, isn’t that a wacky idea?” The aesthetic or argumentative caveat, the point at which the exploration of the discomforting idea is revealed to be entirely rhetorical and I can relax, breathe easy that it has all just been an exercise.

But, hey, art owes no one a neat resolution. And one could also argue that part of the novel’s aesthetic project is to dwell within that kind of ideology and to leave it up to the reader to interpret what it means. That it isn’t the job of the novel to neatly and formulaically do all of the philosophical processing for us. And that’s fair! I agree! And I know enough to stay out of grown women’s business!

Though in the end, it leaves me unclear. Uncertain. Anxious. Which, honestly, seems also related to the aesthetic project of Second Place and Whereabouts and the whole cohort of subjective novels of consciousness. That we writhe with the agony of experience and perceive the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, etc.

The contemporary novel of consciousness insists upon and makes much of the incoherence of experience. The béton brut of it all. It plays with the artificiality of narrative and the extent to which all of our meaning making apparatus are simply arbitrary frames that we put on and take off like trying on sunglasses at a mall boutique. Nothing lasts. Nothing is permanent. There’s a part of me that finds this idea kind of cynical and pessimistic, but so many of these novels are written with genuine electric verve that one sees that they are playing with much of the same fizzy optimism that gave us Camus’s absurdism.

Meaning is locally sourced, phenomenological. As a thesis, I find it kind of alluring. But where this aesthetic project falls apart for me is that in its pursuit of the psychedelic incoherence of experience in the face of deterministic social forces—capitalism, class, race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, etc—one feels unmoored. The very concept of character undergoes a phase change, sublimating into the gas of consciousness which is untethered from the very forces it seeks to comment upon. The incoherence turns to static, and it’s like, okay, where are we now? What does any of this mean?

I start to long for scenes and description and a body and temporal relations to things. I start to long for the authorial presence to make some sense of the morass of narrative. I start to crave the old familiar structures of meaning-making. I start to wish I could pick up a book and not feel like I’m eating at one of those deconstructed restaurants where they charge you fifty dollars for some leaves on a plate with some paste.

Maybe that’s why I enjoyed both Whereabouts and Second Place. They captured the dizzying sweep of a mind moving through life, but also carefully enshrined that mind in a context, particular and grounded in something tangible. It wasn’t just miasma of thought spritzed between two asterisks.

These two novels inhabit at once the electric circus of consciousness and the shivering mortal plane of the body, and it feels somehow that this is the future of the novel. But of course it’s not because this is just what a novel is and has been and will always be. Somehow made of the dual character of the self and the body, and the self that is the body and the body is also itself.