Not the way she planned it

The Weekend Australian - Review - - BOOKS - Anna Hey­ward

NEW Yorker reg­u­lar Bruce Eric Ka­plan has a sad-funny cartoon in which a lit­tle girl asks a lit­tle boy, as they walk down the street af­ter a chil­dren’s party, “How did I be­come some­one who has a scream­ing fit about a stupid gift bag filled with lit­tle plas­tic things?”

The sad part is the im­pli­ca­tion that as we grow up our per­son­al­i­ties and our lives are things that hap­pen to us, rather than things we map out and en­act; we just mark mile­stones and ac­cept cir­cum­stances.

The funny part, which is ac­tu­ally also a sad part, is the ab­sur­dity and silli­ness in which our lives can end up, un­planned, unchecked and of­ten un­re­alised, but just as real and sig­nif­i­cant as the other parts, the things we do on pur­pose, the good and brave parts of our lives. Get­ting from child­hood to adult­hood means chang­ing in ways that are out of our con­trol. In our pri­vate selves, we have all our de­sires and ideas about what kind of people we should re­ally be.

Amer­i­can au­thor Jenny Of­fill has writ­ten a won­der­ful book about the pri­vate self, the se­cret self, and the strug­gle to make the out­ward per­son match up with all the am­bi­tion, in­tel­li­gence and good­will in­side when you’re at war with the cir­cum­stances of your life.

A woman, a nov­el­ist who has pub­lished one book and is now work­ing as a writ­ing teacher and a ghost­writer to a ‘‘rich man’’, is mar­ried to her ‘‘fa­mously kind’’ hus­band and has one daugh­ter. She nar­rates a story told in frag­mented scraps that al­ter­nate be­tween the life of the mar­ried cou­ple and in­tru­sions such as sci­en­tific facts, anec­dotes, po­ems and proverbs.

‘‘The wife’’ hadn’t planned on a do­mes­tic life. She planned on be­ing an ‘‘art monster’’, on ded­i­cat­ing her life to the work of writ­ing books. ‘‘Some women make it look so easy, the way they cast am­bi­tion off like an ex­pen­sive coat that no longer fits’’, but she has more trou­ble. This is what the wife wants to write on the fam­ily’s Christ­mas cards in­stead of the usual greet­ings: Dear Fam­ily and Friends, It is the year of the bugs. It is the year of the Pig. It is the year of los­ing money. It is the year of get­ting sick. It is the year of no book. It is the year of no mu­sic. It is the year of turn­ing 5 and 39 and 37. It is the year of Wrong Liv­ing. That is how we will re­mem­ber it if it ever passes.

When asked if he likes his new job scor­ing sound­tracks for com­mer­cials, the hus­band replies ‘‘not bad’’ with a shrug ‘‘only vaguely soul-crush­ing’’.’ A young man, ‘‘pure of heart’’ comes over for din­ner. He is ‘‘alert to any sign of com­pro­mise or dead-end­ing’’. When he leaves, some­one says ‘‘You are not al­lowed to com­pare your imag­ined ac­com­plish­ments to our ac­tual ones.’’

Mar­ried life be­comes as des­per­ate and fatu­ous as an Antarc­tic ex­pe­di­tion, con­veyed through quotes from ex­plor­ers’ diaries. The wife Depart­ment of Spec­u­la­tion By Jenny Of­fill Granta, 192pp, $24.99 (HB) strug­gles with life af­ter hav­ing the child. She seems un­able to write the sec­ond book that ev­ery­one ex­pects of her, and then the hus­band has an af­fair with a much younger woman.

In a heart­break­ing scene in which a nor­mal woman turns into a cliche of what she ac­tu­ally is, the nar­ra­tor con­fronts her hus­band’s mis­tress in the street, scream­ing and jeal­ous. The sad­ness is in the aware­ness of the car­i­ca­ture she has be­come: She would not have let one of her stu­dents write the scene this way … She’d cut the im­plau­si­ble hand­shake and point out how stilted the di­a­logue is. (You have caused my fam­ily great pain. I don’t want to be an ab­strac­tion to you any­more.) … How she feels some­thing she’s never felt be­fore surge through her body, how she stands on a cor­ner in Mid­town one af­ter­noon, kick­ing a news­pa­per ma­chine, scream­ing, “You f. ked a child! She’s a f. king child! Tell her to come out here!” This is very emo­tion­ally charged, she’d write next to the mo­ment when the hus­band calls the girl and softly tries to con­vince her. Softly say­ing, just come, please, so ten­der her voice, so sorry to cause the girl pain, and all be­cause of the scene his crazy wife is mak­ing, his wife yelling in the back­ground. Yelling and yelling … People avert their eyes as they pass.

Here are all the ways in which, de­spite ev­ery­thing we have and do, we be­come ridicu­lous: the wife has lunch with a friend who ‘‘or­ders things I’ve never heard of, sends back a piece of mid­dling fish. I tell her var­i­ous schemes to redeem my life.’’

It would be easy, read­ing Depart­ment of Spec­u­la­tion, to feel that no mat­ter what we do, we’re pow­er­less to the ridicules, that we’re trapped by our chil­dren, spouses, jobs and choices we made with the best in­ten­tions. But that would mean for­get­ting what you’re read­ing.

The book, scary and well-writ­ten, is an af­fir­ma­tion, a tri­umph: it’s the sec­ond novel. It’s com­pact and co­her­ent and gives dig­nity to the ridicule and ab­sur­dity, in the el­e­gant way that writ­ing ren­ders the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Its achieve­ment is to make sense of the way that life ends up, not as it was planned but as it must be lived all the same. In that, it’s like beau­ti­ful recita­tion from The Ti­betan Book of the Dead — death be­ing the co­her­ent force that makes an or­gan­ised story of ev­ery life: ‘‘O nobly born … in your jour­ney through the form­less void, re­mem­ber the unity of all liv­ing things.’’

Amer­i­can au­thor Jenny Of­fill’s sec­ond novel makes sense of the way that life ends up

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