Dorothy, the protagonist of Christine Smallwood’s debut novel, is, like her creator, a critic by training. Unlike Smallwood, however, who left academia for journalism (she is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine and a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine), Dorothy is hanging in there. As an adjunct professor in her thirties in the English faculty of a New York university whose “tuition was twice her annual earnings”, Dorothy joylessly teaches courses such as “Writing Apocalypse”, meanwhile failing to write the book that “would get her the contract that would get her the job that didn’t exist”.
The modern university, then, is one butt of the joke of the title – less a haven for exalted learning than a brutally competitive “limbo of contingency”, somewhere to become mired in petty rivalries, craven posturing and grotesque power imbalances between tenured boomers and precarious newcomers. “The problem wasn’t the fall of the old system, it was that the new system had not arisen.” In the interregnum adumbrated in The Life of the Mind, morbid symptoms appear – or morbid details anyway. This is the other joke of the title: “the life of the mind”, or Dorothy’s mind at least, is chiefly taken up with the vicissitudes of the body, the particulars of which most fiction spares us, but which Smallwood meticulously documents in fascinated, impudently graphic, sometimes squeamish detail.
The first sentence sets the satiric, candid tone: “Dorothy was taking a shit in the library…”. In the next few pages alone, we learn that petting a tumorous dog is “like stroking a sock filled with gravel” and a friend’s cyst explosion releases “streams of white confetti” which “decorate” the vicinity “with foamy spray”. The rest of the novel is punctuated by descriptions of more quotidian forms of bodily disintegration – nose-picking, dirt lodged under fingernails, moulted hair clogging drains. Most significant (and not quotidian) are the updates about Dorothy’s prolonged menstrual bleeding following the miscarriage of an accidental pregnancy six days before the novel begins, an event – “less than a trauma and more than an inconvenience” – Dorothy isn’t sure how to feel about. Too self-aware to be overtly defensive, Dorothy nonetheless conceals it from her best friend and her therapists – she has two – and takes a kind of verbal interest in it (“What did you call it when a life stopped developing, but didn’t end?”) that seems like a strategy of dissociation.
The physiological counterpart to her grimly stalled career, Dorothy’s prolonged bleeding is a conceit, a surrogate for suspense – attenuated to waiting for the flow of blood to cease – in a novel preoccupied with extension without development, not just in Dorothy’s life but among her generation. The Life of the Mind captures what Raymond Williams termed a “structure of feeling”: in this case a loss of conviction in the future, a sense that the world is petering out without offering closure, exhaustion “toggl[ing] with emergency”, persisting in a kind of Beckettian aftermath: “Ends came and came and they did not end.”
There is strikingly little sex for such a physically explicit novel, and no sexual desire – or desire of any kind: Dorothy “lived in the epilogue of wants”. Without libido or suspense, one is propelled in The Life of the Mind by the sentences: virtually every one rivets, and many of them dazzle. It’s conventional to describe a narrator following a character’s cogitations in a “close third person”, but here it’s as though Dorothy’s critical training surfaces in Smallwood’s prose, whose observations of contemporary life harbour almost an excess of insight and wit. The novel is a repository for the desultory perceptions of an under-employed critic applying her intelligence to lower things – the life of the body, but also the digital devices through which so much of the life of our minds now courses.
“The problem of the 21st century is a problem of waste!” Dorothy thinks. Early on, a pristine bathroom is described as containing “not a speck of dirt” on “any part of the toilet. Not the lid or the lip or the rim or the trunk.” It occurred to me that Dorothy’s exorbitant eloquence here, her palpable relish for words, is, symptomatically, spending itself on a receptacle of waste. The sentences in The Life of the Mind amply sustain the novel, which was acclaimed when it was published in the US earlier this year, but I sometimes feared their exhaustion – a novel can afford a little more slack. One only hopes Smallwood has a store of such richly observed aperçus to fund more of them.
[See also: Jonathan Franzen’s bland late style]
This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained