Dorothy is a badly paid, unenthusiastic adjunct professor of English at an unnamed New York City university. Trained to criticise and evaluate, she pays meticulous attention to herself and her surroundings – to no particular end. The Life of the Mind, Christine Smallwood’s first novel, begins with Dorothy having a miscarriage, and charts her mental and physical state over the next six weeks. She has a boyfriend, Rog, who has no discernible influence on events or on her. The plot largely consists of a series of encounters and conversations between Dorothy and her more successful friends and colleagues: pampered, chatty, good-looking Gaby; preening, manipulative Judith, Dorothy’s former PhD supervisor; and Elyse and Alexandra, both of whom have the kind of university job that Dorothy tells herself she can’t hope for. She doesn’t hope for much else either.
Instead, she watches and listens to herself and reports back unforgivingly on the ‘shabby and studentish’ impression she thinks she makes on other people. The action moves from classrooms to therapists’ rooms to an academic conference, from apartments to hotels, from trains and cars to aeroplanes. But it doesn’t really matter where we are because Smallwood is most interested in showing us what’s going on in Dorothy’s head.
‘If only there was some way to have the intimacy of telling,’ Dorothy thinks at one point, ‘without losing control over the story. That was the worst, when all your little pieces got scattered around.’ Her tendency to fret over many possible courses of action, while failing to decide on any of them, makes her funny in a Woody Allen kind of way and something of a non-starter. She has thoughts like this: ‘The ancient notion that art holds up a mirror to reality was complicated in the 18th century by the idea that the mirror of art ought to reflect only certain parts of reality, those that people should imitate.’ And then, in direct contravention of such a view about what art should refrain from expressing, we get:
When she wiped, something stringy was on the paper and she felt it snap back a little, so she put a finger inside and pulled. A short elastic band of gunk came out, looped around the first knuckle. She rubbed her fingers together and deposited it in the toilet, where it settled on the surface of the water like kelp. The blood on the panty liner was jewel-red and gelatinous and a little thinner and underneath it was brown like dead leaves. She rubbed a finger on the red part and put the finger on her tongue.
Smallwood has a preoccupation with excrement, blood, toxins, tissues and secretions: the novel begins with the words ‘Dorothy was taking a shit,’ which risks pressing the demotic a bit too hard. This tendency might seem to mark out the novel as boldly modern when in fact it belongs to a long line of books by women about what and how women think. Virginia Woolf pursued with interest the fiction produced by Dorothy Richardson, a rival annotator or recorder of female consciousness. Pilgrimage, Richardson’s semi-autobiographical novel series, is built out of what Woolf described as ‘the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. The reader ‘is invited to embed himself in Miriam Henderson’s consciousness’, Woolf wrote, ‘to register one after another, and one on top of another, words, cries, shouts, notes of a violin, fragments of lectures, to follow these impressions as they flicker through Miriam’s mind … The consciousness of Miriam takes the reflection of a dentist’s room to perfection.’
In The Life of the Mind, Dorothy’s consciousness offers a perfect reflection of her psychiatrist’s room: ‘For three years running they had been meeting every Tuesday (save a New Year’s holiday and the 31 days of August) in the stuffy fifteenth-floor studio on Central Park West, with its treetop view and standard-issue decor: African masks, Oriental rugs, Afghan throws, South American flutes.’ These circumstantial details are enough to convince us that the environment is real. But, as Smallwood asks elsewhere, ‘what is behind the surface target?’ Why is this mind employed in recording such details?
For Woolf, something more than dutiful realism was called for in the novel: there must be a larger subject beneath its surfaces. But for Smallwood it’s not clear that there is anything larger. Disaster looms but comes to nothing. Dorothy’s miscarriage is ‘less than a trauma and more than an inconvenience’; ‘This doesn’t feel traumatic,’ her friend Gaby announces of her abortion. Reviewing Jenny Offill’s Weather, Smallwood wrote that it tapped into ‘something essential about a contemporary mood, a kind of pre-traumatic stress caused by the threat of what we know and don’t do anything about’. The same could be said of her own book.
Before becoming a writer of fiction, Smallwood was on her way to being an academic. Her PhD thesis (Columbia, 2014) was titled ‘Depressive Realism: Readings in the Victorian Novel’ and considered the value of the downbeat, hurt, indifferent or ambivalent response, as it is rehearsed in and experienced by readers of 19th-century texts. It’s fair to say that The Life of the Mind is a translation of her thesis, or her thesis put into practice. It also reflects her disillusionment with academic life.
Smallwood makes pointed mention of ‘academia and what it did to pleasure’, the way it takes ‘the most simple and innocent desires – to tell stories, and stories about stories – and made them ugly’. Dorothy gives a conference paper on cookies made in the shape of Christminster, the city of Jude the Obscure. Elsewhere, she reads about Lauren Berlant’s ‘cruel optimism’ – a condition in which ‘something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing’ – and concludes that this describes her ‘entire life’. But some of her greatest pleasure comes when thinking about literature: she enjoys her own cleverness more, perhaps, than her encounters with real people. There’s humour in the contrast between Dorothy’s epiphanies about writers and the anxious and unsatisfying conversations she has with her friends and acquaintances. On ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, for instance: ‘It was not just the limitations of mind and history that had prevented her from truly loving the poem. It wasn’t because she wasn’t a sailor. It was because no one wants to listen to the Ancient Mariner.’
‘My “Depressive Realism”,’ Smallwood writes in her thesis, ‘is a study of the resistance to improvement, and that resistance’s attendant feelings of stuckness or staying-in-place.’ For ‘depressive realism’ read ‘Dorothy’, who is nothing if not a study in ‘the resistance to improvement’. She is excited when she suddenly realises that ‘resistance was the aesthetic experience.’ Unable to live in the moment, she hesitates about what to do next. Her miscarriage represents the state of arrested being that Smallwood wants to explore: ‘What did you call it when a life stopped developing, but didn’t end?’ She has referred in another context to education as a process of ‘moving out of one world and into a no man’s land, some kind of limbo’. This is certainly what has happened to Dorothy. She hates teaching, which can’t help, and the book ends with her giving every one of her students the same grade.
As an experiment in the representation of consciousness, The Life of the Mind is crisp and assured. Smallwood is one of a number of contemporary female writers who deliberately merge the boundaries between the essay and fiction. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, billed as a ‘novel’, is one long, choppy argument – structured around a series of questions to which the answers are provided by flipping coins – about whether or not to get pregnant. Offill’s Weather, again described as a novel, seems to lack most of the conventions of the genre. It, too, is largely composed of questions and answers, worries about commitment and decision-making.
Woolf originally intended The Years to be made up of essays and fiction. Rather than the essays illustrating, explaining, or lending support to the fiction, this was to be a wholly new genre in which their status would be equal, the forms interdependent. Woolf’s descendants are doing their best to bring this genre to fruition. Smallwood’s journalism shares many of the hallmarks of her own fiction, so much so that it can be hard to tell the difference between the two: a piece such as ‘Astrology in the Age of Uncertainty’, published in the New Yorker, exhibits the same attention to local, interior detail, to modern preoccupations with therapy, social media and ‘circumstances outside our control’ as The Life of the Mind.
You couldn’t call this book a work of the imagination: as its title suggests, despite the scabrous details about Dorothy’s evacuations its concerns are primarily intellectual. Smallwood’s description of Mary McCarthy’s The Group, another novel that charts the lives of brainy women and the shortfall between what they hoped for themselves and the reality, might have a bearing on her own work: ‘It measures the distance between the dreams of a younger self and the betrayals of adulthood, with its new dreams – some vibrant, some pallid.’ Smallwood’s Dorothy is in her thirties, but adolescence lasts a lot longer than it used to. As an adjunct instructor, she has an impoverished professional future. She knows she ought to be writing a sample chapter for an academic book contract that will get her a permanent job, or the chance of one. On the other hand, why bother? The job is unlikely to exist. The book isn’t one she wants to write. At one point Dorothy realises that ‘the problem of the 21st century is a problem of waste!’ Smallwood’s many anxious modern preoccupations include rubbish, but the fact that The Life of the Mind consists partly of material that has been repurposed, from earlier fiction as well as from her thesis, is perhaps a sign that detritus might amount to something more than expected – a reversal of the young woman’s disappointment.
At the end of The Voyage Out, Woolf’s first novel, an old man says that ‘it’s not cowardly to wish to live. Personally, I’d like to go on for a hundred years … Think of all the things that are bound to happen!’ Smallwood’s novel closes with a macabre flourish as Dorothy throws her students’ essays on genocide, extinction, the death of God and the death of the novel in the bin. But it’s not an act of annihilation so much as an ecstatic sign of what’s to come: lots of things are bound to happen, and Smallwood will be watching, and writing.