This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.
In September 2022 Bret Easton Ellis, who in the 1980s had been, alongside Jay McInerney and Donna Tartt, one of the leading lights of an informal group of writers known as the literary Brat Pack, published The Shards, his first novel in thirteen years. Decades removed from his precocious fame, “perhaps the trauma that is hitting Bret hardest,” wrote Christine Smallwood in the Review’s April 6 issue, “has to do with one that everyone must eventually face: getting old.”
A critic and journalist from Brooklyn, Smallwood published her first novel, The Life of the Mind, in 2021, putting her in the informal company of millennial critic-novelists like Patricia Lockwood, Andrew Martin, and Namwali Serpell. She has written for outlets including Bookforum, The New York Times Magazine, and Harper’s on subjects ranging from Helen Frankenthaler to Lydia Millet, and, most recently, reviewed a new production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House for NYR Online.
This week, I e-mailed Smallwood to discuss performing, trauma plots, and close reading.
Daniel Drake: In your reviews of the Hudson Theatre production of A Doll’s House and of Bret Easton Ellis’s The Shards, you note how the protagonists come to realize that they have been “playacting” or playing a “role” in their lives. There are of course many differences between Ibsen and Ellis—you observe that in The Shards, this kind of remove from reality might be, in part, a trauma response, while for Ibsen it seems to operate as a commentary on the strictures of patriarchy—but what do Ibsen’s “theatricality” and Ellis’s cinematic writing share? Do they both indicate something about their author’s social position? Or, perhaps, what do they tell us about their respective forms?
Christine Smallwood: The fact that I raised a similar topic in two pieces almost definitely says more about me than it does about my ostensible subjects—another reviewer would have approached these same works and discovered very different terms or questions. That said, Ellis is interested in actors and acting, and his recent novels feature characters who understand themselves to be playing a role. In both Lunar Park and The Shards, the character Bret splits; he’s Bret/the writer (Lunar Park) or the writer/the “tangible participant” (Shards). Playing a role in Ellis’s work is a symptom, but like all symptoms, it’s also a solution. The character or construct of Bret is the product of a split, between Ellis the real-life celebrity author and his fictional alter ego.
For Ellis, all this is bound up in dissociation, along with paranoia, fear, guilt, and anxiety. That’s not the vibe in A Doll’s House. But again, the symptom is the solution; it’s how Nora comes to realize her predicament. In my review I quote Toril Moi’s insight that “Ibsen’s modernism is based on the sense that we need theater—I mean the actual art form—to reveal to us the games of concealment and theatricalization in which we inevitably engage in everyday life.” The idea isn’t, Oh, if only we could be rid of all this theater! It’s that theater is how we can work through the role-playing, exposing what is both limiting and pleasurable about it.
The Shards was published just a few months before Parul Sehgal’s New Yorker essay “The Case Against the Trauma Plot,” which argued that the trauma backstory, as exemplified by A Little Life, has become something of a cliché of TV, movies, and novels. As I take you to be arguing, in part, The Shards inverts the trauma plot, telling just the story of the trauma and not what comes after it. How do you think about storytelling’s relationship to trauma, or, for that matter, to violence?
It’s notable that trauma and backstory have converged so much that many books, and readers, now conceive of backstory only in terms of trauma. And, as a corollary, some readers read only for backstory. (This is one way that television, a form completely enamored of backstory, has infiltrated literature.)
It’s illuminating to read fiction that sidesteps backstory entirely. I recently taught Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Foundling” in a class on literary style. The antagonist of that story, Nicolo, is rotten to the core. He enters the plot as an orphan suffering from the plague; he recovers physically, but by the end it’s evident that he’s brought a kind of spiritual sickness into his new home. At the climax of the story, his adoptive father murders him and—this is one of my favorite moments in Kleist—refuses absolution at his execution; he wants to go to Hell to continue murdering Nicolo there.
“The Foundling” is sensational in every sense of the word. It’s like a series of grotesque friezes. But the point isn’t to ask why Nicolo is the way he is, or why anything is at all. Kleist is a reporter; one thing follows from the next like a chain of exploding dominoes. Some of my students had a hard time knowing how to read a story that predates our contemporary character conventions. One wanted to manufacture motivation where none existed, insisting that actually, Kleist found Nicolo sympathetic; others complained that, without backstory, they didn’t understand the point of reading the story at all. In one way or another, many of them wanted to understand Nicolo, to see things from his point of view. Nothing could be further from Kleist’s interest.
But to get back to Ellis: when I wrote that he is “trolling” the trauma plot, I meant that Bret presents himself as the victim but is revealed in the end to be the perpetrator. He feels traumatized, but he’s responsible for the violence at the end of the book. His “trauma” is reframed not as an event that happened to him, but as a defense against recognizing his own culpability. I can’t say more without ruining it for other people—maybe I already have—but it’s a good twist. I didn’t see it coming.
As a novelist and critic, do you find that you approach either occupation with the other in mind? Do you read novels the way Ellis confesses to having read Thomas Tryon’s The Other—by “trying to understand it ‘on a technical level’”?
I started writing fiction while I was in the third year of getting my Ph.D. in English; my fiction doesn’t exist outside of literary criticism. But what is literary criticism? As far as I’m concerned, it’s just close reading. Close reading is my passion in life. It’s an ethical project to attempt the impossible task of allowing a text to speak on its own terms, from its own time, while never losing sight of the fact that whatever you find in it is colored by who you are and what you bring to it.
As to the question of trying to understand things on a technical level, yes, definitely, I do—but that’s not separable from reading for meaning. Literary works signify through their style, how they are put together, and so understanding how a given novel works is necessary to understanding what it means.
You observe, apropos Ellis’s obsession with American Gigolo, that “many of us were permanently marked by the culture we consumed at fifteen.” What culture from your adolescence do you find yourself returning to?
I was raised in an evangelical family, and the culture that marked me most profoundly as a teenager was Christianity. (That, and Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming.) Someone said to me recently that I should write more about Christianity, but I think I’m always writing about it.
What books have you been reading recently?
I have a six-year-old and an almost-three-year-old, so I mostly read children’s books. But as far as grown-up stuff goes, I’ve been doing a lot of rereading for the classes I’m teaching: Middlemarch, Annie Ernaux’s A Woman’s Story, Jamaica Kincaid’s Lucy, Deborah Levy’s Things I Don’t Want to Know. On the subway recently I read Rachel Ingalls’s In the Act, and I’m slowly—far too slowly; these are short books!—reading Olga Ravn’s The Employees and Rosemary Tonks’s The Bloater.