Review – Smallwood, “The Life of the Mind”

Christine Smallwood, “The Life of the Mind” (2021) (read aloud by Allyson Ryan) – Here’s what I can say for this book: I do not think Christine Smallwood is actively lying to us. This is a marked distinction from her cohort of literary fiction writers. I’m not sure if I’d say that Jonathan Franzen, Lauren Oyler, Patricia Lockwood, Bret Easton Ellis, Sheila Heti, Tao Lin, the rest of the grubby crew and, hovering above them all, the ghost of David Foster Wallace, necessarily lie more habitually than literary fiction writers of old. Their lies are more boring than any other cohort that comes to mind, I’d stake that claim. Their capacity to tell the truth, even by accident, to comprehend anything outside the very small worlds that they have collaborated in constructing, is probably less than that of any other generation of prominent writers, probably since the Enlightenment period, if not before. And this despite (because of?? the hacks would ask with an arched eyebrow, because they’re stupid) their unprecedented access to the world, it’s people, it’s learning, through travel, information/communication technology, etc. 

So… Smallwood is ahead of the game, here. Whether or not the experience of her narrator, who like Smallwood herself is an English PhD in contemporary New York, trying to make a living as an adjunct professor, reflects Smallwood’s own material circumstances isn’t really the point. Whether she knows adjunct hell personally or not, Smallwood can get the experience across honestly. Constant, niggling insecurity and doubt, watching friends move on with their life while you’re still scraping a living, the knowledge that luck and independently acquired wealth are the main tickets to success, even more than schmoozing or playing the game or whatever, the knowledge that you’re barely a deckhand on a sinking ship, a garnish that our system allows to exist — or not — mostly because there has always been humanities instructors… yeah. She’s not lying about that. This is not a dishonest book. That’s something, all things considered.

But it’s not a good book, either. Some of you may be familiar with my Hook test: does a contemporary work “exploring” identity and authenticity say anything that mediocre nineties jam band Blues Traveler did not say – in under three minutes! – in their hit 1994 ditty “Hook”? Well, “The Life of the Mind” I think does pass the Hook test- it gets across that the titular type of life is, at this point, not a life fit for a cur dog. Blues Traveler, being in the nineties, was reasonably sanguine about the material circumstances in which people compelled to sell their authenticity would live, but Smallwood doesn’t have that going for her. And authenticity is fairly low down on her list of problems, compared to career stagnation, depression, impending climate catastrophe, etc. So she passes the Hook test. Hooray!

She doesn’t pass the “why isn’t this an essay?” test, or the “why is this a book at all?” test. It’s boring. The closest thing to interest we get are the variety of ways Smallwood finds to describe her heroine’s gynecological problems after a miscarriage that she keeps a secret from everyone. She can’t produce life in much the same way she can’t produce thought, can’t get students to meaningfully engage with literature, can’t have real relationships! Get it?! Again- not offensively stupid, like a lot of what you get in contemporary literature, not a contemptible, transparent lie, but… I get that boredom is part of reality- believe me, I lived low-level academic life, I get that. I get that it deserves to be depicted in literature. I think there’s been some decent examples, even. Charles Portis gets boring across in a way that is not boring itself, for example. Prison literature often does, too. Among other things, Smallwood does not write in interesting English prose. She doesn’t write as catastrophically badly as a Sheila Heti, but in a way that just makes the experience duller than if she did. 

Let’s put this in the context of two things I’ve heard about literature. One is a common lament from people who bemoan its current state (does anyone really think we’re in a good place right now, in terms of literature? I have a friend who tells me they disagree, when I bemoan it in a group chat we’re in, but who has never once elaborated and doesn’t seem likely to). It’s an equation between boredom, dishonesty, and privilege. Our literature is boring, cheaply derivative, dishonest, and irrelevant because it’s written by people with immense amounts of privilege. Even the writers who come from marginalized backgrounds still, usually, have the privilege of wealth, or education, or connections, or failing that just plain good luck- they have the privilege of getting published, getting paid to do this stuff at all. The idea here is usually that if contemporary writers were a little more “real” – if they weren’t gilded brats gazing determinedly into their own navels, and if they didn’t write about same – then literature today would not be as bad at it is. 

But the thing is- this isn’t dishonest, or entirely irrelevant. It’s just boring and doesn’t say anything especially original about its subject, and doesn’t do anything else interesting, like have a good plot or subplot, or do anything unusual or notable with language, either. In some ways, that’s even appropriate to its topic- humanities academia generally doesn’t reward or encourage originality or anything that might fascinate, either, on its low levels, though it dangles the idea you might get to do something like that, eventually, if you burn a few decades and get tenure (the most boring Black strategy in Magic: the Gathering ever conceived?). That doesn’t make it any better to read. It turns out that being real, and considering the lived reality of people who have to work for a living, is not some royal road to quality literature! 

Here’s the other thing said, specifically said by my dad, a number of years ago, when he read “Blood Meridian.” He didn’t like it – Dad is a pacifist who avoids movies where the dog might die, so the bloodiness of McCarthy’s masterpiece wasn’t for him, and he was never a Faulkner guy and whatever else he was doing McCarthy was doing Faulkner there – but he was intrigued by it. He said something like, by borrowing from such sepulchers of our language as Faulkner, Shakespeare, and especially the King James Bible, McCarthy was trying to say that even this, this violence and depravity, deserves a cathedral of words. I’m not sure that’s what McCarthy was going for- I’m not sure McCarthy is sure, my theory has always been he lucked into “Blood Meridian” and never accomplished anything remotely like it before or since. But I’ve often thought about this concept. 

It’s a bit too much to say that Smallwood constructed a word-cathedral for adjunct life. You could say that makes sense- even if we think every experience deserves some sort of word-construction, adjunct life is low church, it deserves a chapel, at best, and even if you don’t like that ecclesiastical metaphor, adjunct life is surely smaller than the conquest of the American West. So- is this an appropriate word-chapel for the life of an adjunct in the early twenty-first century? Maybe! Maybe it is. Does that mean I have to like it? Or honor it? Like Dad gave some honor to Charlie “Cormac” McCarthy of Providence, Rhode Island for his giant gnostic punctuation-lite cowboy epic? 

The hell if I know. Maybe I should! Maybe I’m just too close. Maybe those of you who did not make the curious life decision to subject your one and only youth to the rule of graduate-level education in the humanities will find “The Life of the Mind” to be new news. But I don’t think that’s it. At a certain point, and maybe I’m old-fashioned or small-minded or a bad reader or whatever, but I think something has to sustain the reader’s interest. People across the critical spectrum try to isolate that “something” – there’s been a “plot versus vibes” debate in some areas of critical social media that, even at my remote distance, makes me want to get a lobotomy – but I don’t think it’s a simple variable. And whatever it is, I don’t think it’s here. Sorry for my vagueness. Sometimes, the closest you can come to describing a vague, poorly-illuminated object is to describe what it isn’t, it’s negative, the hole it leaves in the picture, and that’s all I got for you today. Your mileage may vary. **’

Review – Smallwood, “The Life of the Mind”

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