In 1811 Johann Heinrich Ferdinand von Autenrieth, a specialist in forensic medicine, investigated a spate of deaths in the kingdom of Württemberg. He suspected botulism and blamed the housewives of the region, more worried about burst sausage skins than food poisoning, for not cooking their Blutwurst properly. Lucy Ives tells the story at the start of her latest novel, Life Is Everywhere. The book is concerned with 21st-century New Yorkers rather than 19th-century Germans, but she uses the anecdote as a way of introducing one of her characters, a professor of comparative literature at NYU, who has regular Botox injections (Botox is a portmanteau of botulinum toxin; botulus is Latin for ‘sausage’). The story seems fitting because Life Is Everywhere is a kind of sausage itself, mashing together different texts to explore the ways fiction gets made.
It’s a while before we encounter Ives’s protagonist, a PhD candidate called Erin Adamo. The beginning of the book dwells on Faith Ewer (the Botoxee) and her stoner colleague Isobel Childe, who have taken over a class at short notice after a student wearing only tights and a dress shirt has been discovered in the office of another faculty member, Roger Herbsweet. The fact that the student has been held captive in some kind of sex game surprises nobody, given Herbsweet’s ‘habit of taking up with his advisees, joining himself intensely to them, wrapping himself cephalopod-style around their intellects, sucking’.
It takes Ives forty pages to get to Erin, and one of the first things we learn about her is that she has her own experience of Herbsweet’s debauchery. (He gives her the impression that ‘he might even approve her prospectus this semester if she lost another five pounds.’) But she soon disappears for another few hundred pages, because Ives’s book contains four other books inside it: a novella and a novel, both by Erin; a monograph by the disgraced Herbsweet; and Passe-partout, an obscure 19th-century novella by the subject of Herbsweet’s monograph, Démocrite Charlus LeGouffre. There is also an academic paper by a former student of Herbsweet’s which includes a revelation about LeGouffre that turns everything on its head. All these texts are reproduced in full, but first we witness Erin embarrass herself in class and endure humiliation at her parents’ apartment. She returns home to find herself shut out of her own apartment, because she has recently changed the locks after evicting her cheating husband: ‘She had picked up his phone. There it was. Simple as that.’ The fallout from the discovery, however, is anything but simple. Erin’s thoughts restlessly circle the idea that her life has been a lie:
Her husband’s name was Ben and he had gone away. She was beginning to learn all that she had not permitted herself to see. This was psychedelic, this period. It was an inversion, vivid, full of spontaneous visions.
Erin learned that underneath what we name, in the sentences we live alongside and within, there is something else. We can feel it when we speak, when we attempt to describe what happens and the people we know, but we will not talk about it. What is underneath is another version of what happens and another version of the people. We know these events and these people, too, but they are not a part of what we believe or say. We don’t believe it, and we don’t believe we live it. We don’t say it. All the same, we live it anyhow.
Erin had gone into the underneath. This was who she was now. It felt muddy in her lungs, weird air.
Erin passes her low self-esteem onto the narrators of her grim, funny books. In the novella, Maison Close, Amethyst plays foil and adoring public to her brilliant friend Hamlet, the daughter of a theatre critic. The narrator of the novel, Hypergraphia, is a bit-part player in her marriage to Cody, an unsuccessful and adulterous artist. She has a dream in which she lives ‘in the corners of others’ apartments’. When we first encounter Erin, through Faith’s eyes, she is described as a ‘wretch’. Her selfish, distant, disdainful parents invite her to a comically awful dinner then drive her out, her father shouting: ‘Where is your husband?’ If there are limits to her mother’s emotional violence it’s only because she views Erin as ‘an animal who belonged to her’. Little wonder, then, that Erin thinks of herself as ‘a chair or shoe or rock. The reason Erin simply was was that Erin’s self had no real value, as Erin understood it … Erin’s self sat there, mediocre and actual. It could be seen, but no one looked at it.’ Later she scolds herself because she doesn’t ‘project girl power. Psychic trash clung to her. Erin was not good. Erin was often afraid.’
Locked out of her apartment, she drifts downtown and finds herself at the university library, a building that exerts a strange hold over her. It’s at this point that Life Is Everywhere properly seems to begin. Ives reveals what’s in Erin’s bag: her novella and novel, plus Herbsweet’s monograph on LeGouffre. Also the spilled page of a manuscript by Faith, which Erin found on the floor of the seminar room earlier that day, and an electricity bill. These texts, including the bill, occupy the next 250 pages of the book and are introduced with an epigraph from Ursula Le Guin’s essay ‘The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’ (1986): ‘I now propose the bottle as hero.’ Le Guin mentions that Virginia Woolf, in her notes for Three Guineas, defined the word ‘heroism’ as ‘botulism’. The eccentric design of Ives’s novel begins to make sense.
Le Guin takes her cue from Woman’s Creation (1975), a book by the anthropologist Elizabeth Fisher, which argues that early humans survived mostly by foraging and gathering rather than hunting. From this Le Guin develops her ‘carrier bag theory of evolution’, putting forward the idea that the first cultural device was probably a container rather than a weapon. She rejects the notion that the ‘proper shape’ of a narrative ought to correspond to ‘that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! hitting its mark (which drops dead)’. She parodies phallic ‘hunting-the-mammoth’ storytelling: ‘I thrust my spear deep into the titanic hairy flank … grunting with ecstasy … We’ve heard it, we’ve all heard all about all the sticks and spears and swords.’ Le Guin, by contrast, describes her own work as ‘full of beginnings without ends, of initiations, of losses, of transformations and translations, and far more tricks than conflicts, far fewer triumphs than snares and delusions’. In place of the gleaming weapon, nailing plot points that build to a killer climax, she favours the more changeable and capacious form of the sack.
Life Is Everywhere meanders by design, but for all its digressions and repetitious rehearsals of Erin’s grief, it is a closed system in which everything, eventually, seems to signify. It’s here – in the layered meanings and interconnections, in the intricate dance between the book’s framing narrative and the fictions Erin creates – that the fun of the novel lies. But the shape of the book also reflects Erin’s susceptibility to mania. She survives on gummy sweets and slices of processed cheese. Chatting in her mother’s kitchen, she casually picks up a clove of raw garlic and pops it in her mouth, only to spit it out and put it back on the countertop. She punches holes in walls. She slaps herself. She has even stabbed herself, ‘pouring vodka into the wound as she had seen, she later supposed, in films about frontier gunplay’. In the grimmest reaches of the book, the phrase ‘life is everywhere’ is less a celebratory term than one of exasperation, or even despair, signalling not profusion but inescapability.
During the long night in the library, across which the rest of Life Is Everywhere takes place, Erin becomes convinced that Herbsweet’s thesis and its subject, Passe-partout, might provide the answer she is looking for, even if the question remains obscure. These texts also offer us some respite from Erin’s unhappiness. Using Herbsweet’s monograph, Ives interlaces the story of LeGouffre’s life with those of his contemporaries, including Whitman, Poe and Manet. Paul Éluard is said to have claimed LeGouffre’s obscure novella of 1857 as Surréalisme avant la lettre.
While we read about LeGouffre knowing that he is a fiction (though convincing enough that I had to google him to make sure), he turns out also to be invented in the world of the narrative. His name, as Herbsweet notes in his monograph, means ‘gulf, chasm, maw, abyss, pit, ravine, hole, mouth or trap’. LeGouffre was a character dreamed up by a scholar, Laël Edelbrot-Mélaton. That his existence is a con devised by a woman and fallen for by men is something Le Guin (whose name LeGouffre’s echoes), and Woolf before her, would surely have appreciated. Are we being told that to seek truth in books is dangerous? Perhaps. But Ives also seems to be saying that books are things we pour meaning into as much as they dispense it. ‘A novel is a medicine bundle,’ Le Guin writes, ‘holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.’
Those relationships grow more complicated as Life Is Everywhere progresses. In Hypergraphia’s description of a collapsing relationship, the assumption is that what the narrator and her husband go through is largely analogous to Erin’s experience with Ben (not least because both men are alcoholic womanisers). But when a page of that novel is devoted to an exhaustive list of the objects on Cody’s desk – the ingredients for an art piece, or possibly a piece in its own right – the (not so) veiled target appears to be Erin’s father, who, we have been told, ‘abhorred lists’. Ben only really seems implicated when the final object is described: a paper bag labelled PRIVATE which contains pornographic DVDs. This seems to allude to a scene from Ben’s youth, recounted earlier in the book, in which his family discover that they have all been masturbating to the same hidden porn film.
This is the way our understanding of Erin’s character grows: by laddering up and down through the book’s metafictional layers. Her depiction of Cody blends her husband, her father and her own repressed sexual feelings. (PRIVATE!) Erin’s fiction, then, appears to be a space where she rehearses and works through the ample, and largely dreadful, subject matter provided by her life. But Ives further complicates things when she reveals that Hypergraphia’s story of a failed marriage was written before Erin discovered Ben’s infidelity: ‘She had composed events in advance, had recorded what were in fact scenarios of the future, what she might someday live.’
In an afterword, Ives writes that her novel ‘attempts to think through what a world might feel like if cause and effect sometimes traded places, if figure and ground were indeed interchangeable’. It’s interesting enough to read, but an author’s note explaining their own metafictional novel could be said to be taking self-reflexivity too far. Just as there is a part of Erin that knows – and apparently knew before she was even conscious of it – that she deserves better than Ben, Life Is Everywhere occasionally betrays a brittle uncertainty about the capabilities of its audience. Are we up to the job of navigating its intricacies? Ives makes a humblebrag excuse for the book in the afterword, pleading that it ‘is only weakly a novel, much as it is weakly tragic, vaguely comic, barely true, only ever so slightly false. It is always beginning to be something other than its “proper” self: a confession, a dream, an email, an unpublished manuscript, an academic study, a series of historical footnotes, a literary hoax, a utility bill.’ But when she points out that novels have always been unruly vessels, and that novel ‘= new’, you can feel the temperature drop as the freewheeling experimentation of fiction is abandoned for pedantic, and sometimes patronising, education.
Le Guin argues that a messier, less conclusive approach to storytelling is more human (‘That is why I like novels: instead of heroes they have people in them’), but while Ben (sour and controlling) and Cody (‘a drunk with a remarkable sense of humour’) are undoubtedly human in their imperfections, what’s lacking is a sense of why Erin and her narrator should ever have wanted to marry them. In Hypergraphia the narrator says it’s unclear why somebody (even somebody as terrible as her mother) would be married to anyone ‘so confused and awful’ as her father, so the larger point seems to be that marriage is disastrous. This drives a wedge between the reader, happy to see the back of these useless, repellent men, and Erin and her narrator, who are sad to see them go. Ives is aware of this: there’s a letter in Erin’s bag from a literary agent responding to Maison Close and Hypergraphia. ‘As observant and unique and refreshingly strange as these narratives are,’ the agent writes, ‘they are still difficult for the reader to connect to on an emotional level, in part because the protagonists’ troubling lack of agency is never fully explained. In the end I found myself wanting more resolution, and, frankly, needing to understand the logic – what’s ultimately at stake here – just a little bit better.’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.