May reading 2021: Offill, Machado, Murata, Slimani, Kristof, Spark

Seven books, mostly quite short. I re-read Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill for what was at least the third time. I think I picked it up as I’d been reminded of it by Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This, which I wrote about last month, and is written in a somewhat similar format. While the fragmentary form in Lockwood’s novel is clearly intended to represent consciousness fractured through Twitter and social media, Offill’s book is less online, and more about consciousness fractured through modern life in general. Offill is more constrained, more zen. The narrator’s brain has filtered the world. Lockwood’s narrator can’t filter the world, and insists on adding to it, interpreting it.

Lockwood’s book, as I said in my post, is unnerving, even enervating to read. Offill’s is restful, even when it turns dark. 

Nevertheless, it’s odd that the book seems to lose its way after the halfway mark. It can’t do the melodrama it has promised, through its story of marital breakdown, but it performs a wonderfully neat pirouette to avoid the collision. This happens in the superb chapter 32, in which the narrator confronts her errant, adulterous husband and his ‘other woman’, but undermines her own description with a viciously precise creative writing commentary: “Needed? Can this be shown through gesture?”

The scene that follows reminded me of the equivalent one in Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. But, where that is brilliantly visceral, this one just crumbles. That said, I suppose the temporary ‘failure’ of the novel is justified by its premise. The narrator is somebody who needs to be in control. That’s what’s behind her compulsive marshalling of facts, which she parcels out in those fragmentary paragraphs. When she loses control, the narrative dissolves into a swamp of entropy and only gradually, and it’s not entirely clear how, works its way back out. She reads a self-help book about surviving adultery, which she sneers at, but which – maybe – helps.

For sure, this book is not a self-help book about fixing a collapsing relationship. For all the nuggets of wisdom it purportedly contains, it’s never clear how they do it, the two of them, the couple and their daughter, beyond moving to the country, the “geographic cure”, which seems a surprisingly old-fashioned resolution to such an untraditionally presented story. 

It reminds me of one of my all-time favourite books: Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson. Similar in the fragmentary form, similar in the obsessive relay of facts, and knowledge, and wisdom. (Rilke! The Voyager recording!) All of which is weaponised, and then irradiated. Literature as series of fortune cookies. Knowledge is reducible, and manageable, and transferable, and this is at once a good and a bad thing. (It reminds me, too, of Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, which I never did/still haven’t finished.)

All three books, or four, counting Lockwood, though perhaps that one less, are about the uselessness of knowledge in the face of the world. Forgert Rilke, forget wisdom. If you want to save your marriage, simply move to the country, get a puppy, chop firewood. Which is lovely, but… really?

In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado is an eye-opening account of an abusive relationship that turns expectations of the sub-genre on their head. The formal invention is impressive and effective, but some things do get lost. The book is a persuasive account of a subjective experience – of being gaslit and abused – and what I missed as a reader was the objective dimension. The ‘woman in the dream house’ – the abuser – remains something of an enigma. What was she like? What was her problem? Of course, this lack, this absence, may well be partly due to the ethical and legal aspect of memoir writing. The ‘woman’ presumably must remain vague in some aspects so she remains unidentifiable, and can’t sue. (I covered some of this in my review of Deborah Levy’s Real Estate.) For all its inventiveness, the book delineates the limits of what memoir can do.

I enjoyed Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, which I read after listening to Merve Emre and Elif Batuman discussing it on the Public Books podcast. I didn’t agree with everything they said, but I was intrigued in particular about their description of the book as ‘an adultery novel’, i.e. a story build on a simple narrative model of thesis – anthesis – synthesis. I was preparing a workshop on plot and structure in novel-writing (for London Writer’s Café, hopefully more to come in the Autumn!) and thought it would be interesting to see how the novel managed this.

It’s true that for all its narrative lack of propulsion, it does conform on one level to archetypal plot structures. Here it’s ‘Voyage and Return’. Keiko, the ‘abnormal’ (read: probably on the autistic spectrum) protagonist, ends up back where she began, but with a stronger sense of self-knowledge. She now knows that the convenience store is her home, and she is ready to embrace it.

But is the book a celebration of unconventional lifestyles and neurodiversity, or a satire on the shallowness of modern life? I’m not sure, as I don’t think it can really be both, and I find the ambiguity disturbing. I got the sense that Batuman and Emre were not just approving the fact that Keiko could find her niche, her role in life and ‘own’ it, when everyone else looked down on her for it, but were glorying in the very modern, very urban, very superficial existence she had found, on all our behalfs.

Lullaby by Leïla Slimani is a chilling, rather distanced, very French psychological thriller. French how? French in the way it doesn’t really ratchet up the tension, or does so obliquely, through backstory and secondary character narratives. The Gone Girl comparison on the back is silly, not least for the fact that there’s no room here for Gone Girl’s central, seismic twist. The book’s sole shock is there in the first line. It’s there on the cover. “The baby is dead. It took only a few seconds.” 

The book is partly about a radical rewind, to show the life of a successful young Parisian couple who are able to balance two careers with two darling children by getting a nanny, and partly about building up – oh so slowly – to that horror. But during the build-up the horror kind of dissipates into mystery. We learn much about Louise, the nanny’s upbringing, and we start to see her case through the eyes of the police detective investigating the murders. But the whole ending of the novel is vague in my head now (compared to the end of Convenience Store Woman, which is crystal clear). There is no closure, only a complete unravelling. 

I’d had The Notebook by Agota Kristof on my shelves for years but it took a barrage of recommendations before the weekend to get me to actually pick it up. (This was following a short radio piece I did on Radio 4’s Open Book in which I discussed twins in some recent books, and asked for recommendations.) 

It’s a quick, blistering reading experience. For anyone who doesn’t know, it’s an abstracted version of the experience of the Second World War and Communist rule in Hungary, where Kristof grew up, before she escaped to Switzerland, where she wrote the book, in French.·

The writing style is idiosyncratic, a debased fairy tale plainsong, and comes in short, formal chapters. The narrators are a pair of young, blithely amoral boy-twins, and their response to the people around them contrasts to the grubby, twisted and downright evil acts they witness. There is predatory viciousness, and the generalised national crime of Hungary’s deportation of the Jews, but also highly stylised sexual deviancy (bestiality, child sex and paedolphilia, sado-masochism), and this is one part I wasn’t sure entirely worked. But then it’s hard to unpick the book’s various shocks, and shock here is essential.

Not to Disturb by Muriel Spark was a palette-cleanser after a week of fragmentary reading for work. A minor Spark by any account, it comes across like a treatment for a Joe Orton play: servants vs masters in a Swiss chateau, sex, Freud, madness. Very silly. Like most palette cleansers I know can now no longer taste it on my tongue. Which means I can read it again when I want. Spark is eminently rereadable.

Finally, Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell. This is a fantastic collection of stories that becomes better the more you read of it. And how I read it, and how one should read it, is what it got me thinking about. But I’m going to put that in a different post.

Books this time around were all my own purchased copies, except Intimacies, which was sent me by the author.



  1. Pingback: How should one read a short story collection? On ‘Intimacies’ by Lucy Caldwell | Tiny Camels / Jonathan Gibbs
  2. JacquiWine

    Interesting to see that you describe Spark as eminently re-readable. I recently returned to Memento Mori, having chosen it for my book group to read, and while I remembered key elements of the novel (the phone calls, the grannies in the hospital ward, Godfrey’s obsession with being in control of his faculties), there were other aspects that struck me anew. It felt like a more ‘complete’ book this time, with more of the threads / connections coming together in the end. Have you read The Comforters by Spark? It’s the only one I haven’t been able to finish so far. (Possibly a timing thing on my part, it’s hard to tell!)

    • Jonathan Gibbs

      I have read The Comforters, but I didn’t particularly enjoy it. Spark is so idiosyncratic as a writer, there seems something uncanny/magical about her books and how they operate on the reader – perhaps linked to the mystique around how she wrote her books, writing without planning or much revision (so she would have us believe!). I’d be very persuaded by the idea that you can come back and find something there new. She always blows me away with the writing, sometimes the books as a whole don’t live up to her skill as a prose stylist. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie might be the only one I’d fight for as a work of unalloyed genius, that I don’t think I ever wouldn’t get, and would press on anyone with confidence.

  3. Pingback: Instead of June reading 2021: the fragmentary vs the one-paragraph text – Riviere, Hazzard, Offill, Lockwood, Ellmann, Markson, Énard etc etc | Tiny Camels / Jonathan Gibbs

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