The Life of the Mind begins in the toilet, a single-occupancy restroom at an unnamed Manhattan university: “Dorothy was taking a shit at the library when her therapist called and she let it go to voicemail.” Expletives are pretty rare in this darkly comic first novel, and Christine Smallwood’s decision to put one into her opening sentence tells us that what she’s actually concerned with is the life of the body, with the embarrassing and at times humiliating details of our physical existence. Dorothy lives in Brooklyn with her blandly sensible boyfriend, Rog—neither of them has a last name—and teaches four courses a term as an English department adjunct.
Now she reads a taped-up notice from student health services above the bin for used tampons and studiously avoids her phone. She doesn’t want to answer because she doesn’t want to explain why she canceled her appointment. Not “that the miscarriage was such a big deal or that she was broken up in grief about it; it was that she hadn’t told her therapist she was pregnant, and didn’t want to have a whole session about her tendency to withhold.” The miscarriage, not her miscarriage: the article locates us in Dorothy’s consciousness, and there we will largely remain, in a close third person, with Smallwood’s narrative voice hovering ironically above. And of course she does withhold; she even has a secret second therapist with whom to talk about her problems with the first.
Dorothy doesn’t see herself as “the plotting type” and hadn’t planned to keep her pregnancy a secret. She just wasn’t ready to talk about it, back when she first knew, but by the following week it looked to her as if “an innocent delay had become a falsehood,” and so on, week after week until it was too late. She feels a similar awkwardness with her best friend, Gaby; how to explain that a pregnancy is over when nobody except Rog knew she was pregnant to start with? Meanwhile it’s “day six” there in the toilet, and she’s still bleeding, though it’s “not the unceasing hemorrhage of the first ten hours—now it was thick, curdled knots of string, gelatinous in substance.” Dorothy’s miscarriage was induced. The fetus failed to develop, never becoming more than a mass of tissue. Finally, it wasn’t even alive, and yet instead of having herself “vacuumed…clean” at the doctor’s office, she decided to take care of things at home, using two vaginal suppositories of Misoprostol to get the contractions started: “It had seemed less official that way. She hadn’t known how degrading the dribble would be.”
That dribble will last for much of the novel, but Dorothy still has her life to get on with, insofar as she can. For her classes feel stuck, and she never does much work on the scholarly book she’s supposed to be writing on female confinement in the gothic novel: the book that’s meant to “get her the contract that would get her the job that didn’t exist.” By now the subject nauseates her; she knows how closely it resembles her own life, as though she were a minor character in the very books she writes about. She worries about the time she wastes on the Web—those hours she’ll never get back—and yet misses the days of long e-mails, as older people miss stamped letters.
Texts and tweets are no substitute, but it’s what she’s got, even if the latter brings news of her more successful friends. Or rivals, really. Like Alexandra, the favorite student of their shared dissertation adviser, Judith—she has a book contract and a tenure-track job, and Judith has called her work “significant.” Dorothy has always found it silly, something about doors in the Victorian novel, actual doors, with knobs. Still, Judith has never praised her that way, and now she also feels rejected by her second therapist, who runs a podcast on which she presents entire taped sessions but hasn’t chosen Dorothy as a subject. “It’s not that you’re not sympathetic,” she says, “but—.” Though in fact Dorothy doesn’t think she is.
Christine Smallwood got her Ph.D. from Columbia in 2014, with a dissertation on what she calls “depressive realism” in the Victorian novel, a thesis grounded in affect theory that argues that such things as dislike and ambivalence can serve as productive artistic strategies, indeed that the depressed are more likely to see the world accurately than others. I won’t go into the particulars of her claims about writers like Charlotte Brontë or Thomas Hardy, but her introductory account of what it’s like to be a “depressive” reader stands as a masterful provocation. Such a person has an acute awareness of “the schizoid-paranoid feelings that producing scholarship produces—the feelings of inadequacy and aggression, the sense of futility or pointlessness.” Thwarted, blocked, powerless, fed up—some characters in Victorian novels may be all those things, but then so too are their readers, or at least those in graduate school, though Smallwood is careful to add that she’s “not saying that the scholarly endeavor is a futile one, necessarily.” And any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
It’s not the best move to tell your peers and elders that they’ve been wasting their time, or at least that you’d be wasting yours to go on doing what they do. Not the best move—but it is a bold one, and Smallwood has taken her own advice, stepping away from the academy and making her name as a critic, in Harper’s above all. That jaundiced stance has other uses as well. Dorothy’s self-contempt gives her license of a kind that’s more common among British novelists than American ones; she is at once waifish ingenue and freely spraying skunk. This book made me laugh out loud; its pages are marked by a snorting ungenerous glee that is at times indistinguishable from despair, and if some of its language feels more epigrammatically poised than Dorothy herself might be capable of, more perfectly paced and timed, well, I never thought that Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim Dixon owned all his good lines either.
Smallwood likes long sentences and fully developed scenes; she avoids the collage-like assemblage of bits that marks such recent novels as Jenny Offill’s Weather or Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This. And she also likes risk. Dorothy’s miscarriage isn’t only a miscarriage, for all the physical precision with which it’s described; it’s also a metaphor, it’s how she sees herself, believing that her life of promise, of privilege even, has failed to develop as it should. Justice is often said to miscarry, and many writers speak of a book’s gestation. Still, there’s something deliberately and refreshingly tactless about the way Smallwood treats biology itself as a figure of speech.
The miscarriage provides the through line of this narrative—the slowly diminishing blood, the spotting that unpredictably but inevitably returns. But it’s far from the only “degrading” thing in Dorothy’s life. There was her old lover Keith, a grad school contemporary who once brought her for the weekend to a little cabin in Connecticut. As Dorothy remembers it, he then
announced that he wanted to “try something.” This something turned out to be whispering into her vagina for almost an hour while she shivered beneath a thin flannel blanket and occasionally remembered to pet his head. Poems by Frank O’Hara. He whispered poems by Frank O’Hara into her vagina.
Every now and then he raises his head to announce a new title. It’s no surprise that whatever was supposed to happen didn’t, though Smallwood also expects her readers to wonder about Keith’s choice of material. Frank O’Hara? Maybe John Donne would have worked better, or Edna St. Vincent Millay. Then the lewd thought arrives: they must have been the Lunch Poems.
“Dorothy recoil[s] with shame” when she recalls it now, but other episodes leave her with an undefinable queasiness instead; in these set pieces the novel invites us to define for her what she cannot yet articulate herself. One example must suffice. Halfway through the novel she flies to Las Vegas for a conference, but after giving her paper she tries to stay as far away from her professional life as possible. Fat chance—she’s playing the slots at Harrah’s when her dissertation adviser walks by. Judith Robinson, the only one of the book’s characters with a last name, is supposed to be a noted feminist scholar, but she’s really a species of vampire, a woman who insists on “aggressive eye contact…even while walking in tandem,” her face seeming to suck “the life out of your face in order to sustain itself.” They go to a newer, better hotel for a drink, with Judith commanding her to “impress me,” but once they’ve settled down with a poolside piña colada the older woman makes another and far more intrusive request.
Her editor has died, the man who published the books that made her name. Now she wants human contact, some supposedly honest declaration of feeling, and so she asks Dorothy to cry with her, to mourn the editor she has never met. And Dorothy feels she has no choice but to perform an emotion she doesn’t share, unable to step away from a system of obligations in which “Judith had benefits and Dorothy had debts.” She gives in; she fakes it. She thinks about Kafka, and then “took a breath and exhaled and buried her face in her hands and did her best to channel the whimpering mewls of an infant.” She wipes some spit into the corner of her eye, a deceptive bit of moisture; she even wails a little, and when she’s done Judith breaks into a laugh of genuine pleasure.
Was she fooled? It hardly matters, because one thing is certain: Judith has affirmed her authority, and in pretending that they’re friends she’s gotten to “exert power while denying it.” Then she walks away, her kimono flapping like a waving hand, and leaves one parting blessing. “You’re special, Dodo,” she says, and some readers will hear an allusion to Middlemarch, in which “Dodo” is the pet name of its heroine, Dorothea Brooke. But the way she reduces Dorothy to helplessness also brings to mind another kind of dodo.
Dorothy’s most intense relationships, her deepest friendships and antipathies, are all with other women; Rog doesn’t figure as anything more than a reassuring presence. The most important is with Gaby, the one nonacademic among them; they text regularly, relying on “repeated letters or punctuation marks…to signal enthusiasm and intimacy,” as though they were still tweens. “Aw!!!!!!!!!!!!” Gaby doesn’t challenge her intellectually, but her effervescent, monied life still seems a kind of rebuke, and she figures in the first of the novel’s two resolutions, a sequence involving a karaoke machine and another pregnancy. That too leaves Dorothy feeling bruised, unable as ever to speak the truth about herself, and yet her troubled relations with Gaby seem to me less consequential than the book’s other closing gesture.
A novel that begins in late March has moved on into May, and the semester ends with a quarrel over the library printer, a moment that makes Dorothy wonder how she could once have been so naive as “to believe there was anything glamorous about the life of the mind.” Now she has just a single set of papers left to grade, a quick job given that she only comments on the work of those students who have given her a self-addressed envelope. Those she puts aside for later, but there aren’t many of them, there never are, and so she’s soon in a groove, skimming quickly and giving an A- to every envelope-free final. Then Dorothy dumps “each one carefully, respectfully, into the trash.”
It’s a good ending—it made me wince, and laugh, and it reminded me that The Life of the Mind is a campus novel, that it belongs to a genre. Most such books find their stories in English departments because, after all, English professors usually write them; one wonderful exception is Jane Smiley’s Moo, set largely in the agriculture school of a large midwestern university. But Smallwood’s campus isn’t Randall Jarrell’s or David Lodge’s, though there are, as always, a few too many jokes that you need to have sat in a seminar room to get. It’s more fraught, and desperate, and she differs from most of her predecessors in her ability to use the genre to say something about the way we live now, or at least about the way her generation does.
Go back to that Las Vegas conference. On the plane out Dorothy tries to settle down with Franco Moretti’s The Way of the World (1987), a critical classic about the bildungsroman as a literary form. Moretti’s work is as casually brilliant as a perfectly draped sweater, studded with unsupported generalizations that often turn out to be right, and Dorothy finds it infuriating. The book seems to berate her as she reads, insisting on her own superfluous status, reminding her of how dim she is by comparison. Then she shuts it and instead watches a cop movie, twice. Still, one of Moretti’s sentences sticks in her mind: his claim that Middlemarch is the only nineteenth-century English novel “which dares to deal with the major theme of the European Bildungsroman: failure.” As it happens that’s one of the few things he’s wrong about—Great Expectations, great disappointments—but Dorothy is too much of a dodo to challenge it. Because she does feel like a flop, and that feeling only grows whenever her mother tells her that she’s not. Yet that failure isn’t—isn’t only—a personal one.
Dorothy doesn’t worry about hunger or homelessness, but she does live in a time of dwindling resources and can’t shake the depressing and all-too-accurate “sense that her decisions were bad because they could not matter; as she would never get ahead, there was no reason not to fall behind.” Only a few, a very few, of her contemporaries will find the steady academic jobs for which they’ve been trained, and her own employment is ever uncertain: she’s a gig worker, and less well paid than many. The Life of the Mind is finally about precarity. Dorothy probably isn’t the most sympathetic witness to that condition, as indeed her second therapist inadvertently suggests; her profession might seem nearly as redundant as a coal miner’s, and yet the only people likely to spare a thought for an underemployed Ph.D. are those who’ve got one themselves. But Christine Smallwood has nevertheless managed to link Dorothy’s contingent labor to the problems of American society at large. I enjoyed these pages for the exceptional wit and polish of their prose. I’m remembering them for other things as well.