Colic, bedbugs, head lice … and all the other ordinary annoyances of life. The unnamed narrator of this novel by Jenny Offill tries to make sense of her life and make a plan by watching others, by remembering stories she’s heard, by doing yoga. She recounts her efforts, often in short bursts of text:
There is still such crookedness in my heart. I had thought loving two people so much would straighten it.
What the Yoga People say: None of this is banal, if only you would attend to it.
All right then, this thing clogging the sink. I reach my hand into the murky water, fiddle with the drain. When I pull it back out, my hand is scummed with grease.
The novel has a plot, but there’s nothing there most readers haven’t encountered before. The telling is what makes this novel particularly effective. Offill offers an impression of a story, rather than an actual plot. We get enough standard narration to know the gist of what’s happening, but the book is focused on the narrator’s inner landscape. She knows what’s going on, so there’s no need to narrate the action in detail unless some detail particularly resonates with the narrator.
One thing the book does really well is to get at the relentlessness of both the routine of daily life and the thoughts we often have about it. There’s a tension in the work of getting through each day and the desire to plan and even dream about the future. It’s something I think a lot of people must experience as they settle into adulthood and move toward middle age. How do we accept what won’t happen and focus on what is without giving up on happiness? The narrator’s daughter is still able to focus on her dreams and make the dreams sufficient. She has a doctor’s kit, and so she is a doctor. But the narrator is just a ghost writer whose job it is to make a man’s dreams of outer space look like they’re real. She can no longer write her own dreams for herself.
Rohan wrote today about stories that take the best advantage of their particular medium, and I think this is a great example of what that can look like. Much of what makes this book special couldn’t be translated to film or a stage. For example, Offill plays around with point of view, always writing from the perspective of the wife, but switching between first and third person, sometimes addressing her husband as “you,” and sometimes referring to him as “my husband.” These shifts offer clues to the narrator’s state. The shifts are noticeable, and what Offill is doing with them subtle enough that I didn’t really take it in until the last chapter.
The swiftness of the storytelling—I read it in one sitting—also contributes to its impact. The narrator doesn’t spend heaps of time on any one feeling or dilemma. Even as she struggles with one crisis or another, her way of thinking about the crisis drifts. The narration felt like being inside a mind–and particularly inside a modern mind, easily distracted, always juggling multiple challenges big and small, rarely settling down on any one thing. This approach made the narrator’s feelings more immediate than a novel written in a straightforward style would have. Because the narrator doesn’t stop to analyze her thoughts, I don’t either. I just feel along with her.
This is the fourth book that I’ve read that’s going to be in this year’s Tournament of Books, and it’s my favorite so far. As much as I liked The Paying Guests and Station Eleven, neither book really seemed to stretch the boundaries of storytelling. They’re both fine books, entertaining and accomplished, the kinds of books I love to read and want more of. (The Untamed State is more overtly flawed.) But this was on a different level. Offill manages to be innovative in the way she tells her story while also capturing aspects of modern life that sound banal when written about in a straightforward way. Somehow, this style of storytelling makes those ordinary emotions seem as raw and painful and terrifying as they can be in real life.