Christine Smallwood’s cerebral novel “The Lifetime of the Thoughts”

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On the Shelf

The Lifetime of the Thoughts

By Christine Smallwood
Hogarth: 240 pages, $27

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“The Lifetime of the Thoughts” follows the attitude of a girl experiencing a medicated abortion, the results of a miscarried being pregnant. This framework will possible decide whether or not or not you’re keen to come back up in opposition to its narrator’s consciousness. It isn’t that you should have had an abortion or a miscarriage or a being pregnant or perhaps a vagina to be thinking about studying Christine Smallwood’s first novel; it’s whether or not you’ve the stamina to spend 230 pages inside a deeply analytical mind struggling to make sense of a physique that’s itself struggling to course of what is going on to it.

Even earlier than the miscarriage, Dorothy’s been having a tough time, although she is way too circumspect, and her malaise too imprecise, to explain it that manner. She is an adjunct English professor in New York Metropolis dog-paddling to status-signal her price in academia; she has two therapists, the primary of whom is unaware of the second; apart from her boyfriend Rog, the would-have-been father, she has instructed no one — not her greatest buddy, not her therapists — about her being pregnant or its finish.

Time on this slim but yawning ebook is slippery, catalogued by bloody expulsions in public loos over a few month. As telegraphed by the title, plot is subordinated to the true motion throughout the synapses of Dorothy’s mind, which toggles amongst conclusions apocalyptic and mundane, literary parallels and the operate her physique is at present performing. These should not insignificant issues, nor are they insincere — Dorothy is an attention-grabbing thinker and Smallwood can write a sentence. But at occasions they border on tenuous or tedious, as when she compares a homeless man on the practice to Coleridge’s historical mariner, after which the albatross round her neck, earlier than doubling again to say that the thought was merely poetry unloosed from a ebook; or when she finds the expertise of her ultrasound missing compared to her favourite scene (transcribed in full) in Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain.” Sometimes, Dorothy’s allusions, spanning Kafka and Du Maurier and Claire Berlant, resemble the clumsy spackling of a doctoral dissertation.

Extra attention-grabbing than her self-aware shows of information are Dorothy’s blunt-edge observations. “Her womb wouldn’t let go,” she thinks, after having to double her dose of the contraction-inducing treatment Cytotec. “She was too shallow to have an inside this deep,” she considers as an ultrasound wand exposes her insides. “Someday this is able to be Venice,” she muses whereas consuming piña coladas along with her mentor on the Venetian in Las Vegas. These pared-back moments enable for breath, house, the slightest inflection of humor — and, most necessary, a uncommon glimpse of the narrator free from the anxiousness of literary affect.

"The Life of the Mind," by Christine Smallwood

What’s much less attention-grabbing is the novel’s insistence on gawking on the flesh, which at occasions reads as if it had been coming from exterior of Dorothy, by the lens of a drone hovering above. There’s loads of description of the aborted matter itself — “curdled,” “gelatinous,” “resiny” — plus particulars about stained panty liners and tampon saturation, with the apparent intention of destroying taboos across the feminine reproductive system and the mundane horrors it presents day after month after yr.

There’s a indifferent curiosity to these descriptions. However others appear thirstier for consideration — together with the primary line: “Dorothy was taking a s— on the library when her therapist known as and she or he let it go to voicemail.” Elsewhere, she remembers the “streams of white confetti” bursting from a cyst in her roommate’s elbow; realizes a protracted hair is hooked up to not her head however to her neck; defiantly wipes “again to entrance”; describes a hookup with a girl during which the contents of a interval cup are spattered throughout a school rest room. Such moments have the potential to shed new gentle on the truth of our bodies, however in Smallwood’s novel they appear to crop up as graphic ballast in opposition to Dorothy’s cerebral flights. With out sufficient context, they really feel extra like provocation than revelation.

Within the writer’s notice, Smallwood is in comparison with Sheila Heti, Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill, and these comparisons aren’t incorrect. Woven all through “The Lifetime of the Thoughts” is Heti’s eager commentary of her social circle, glimmers of Cusk’s medium-like once-removed storytelling, and an inclination towards the fragmentary, of which Offill has turn out to be the literary institution’s patron saint. Inevitably, Smallwood will probably be positioned in the identical bucket as different feminine authors negotiating the hyperlinks between the mind and physique (or the dearth thereof), and maybe someday, years sooner or later, one other debut novel will probably be held up in opposition to her personal explorations of the roiling textures of the thoughts. For her half, Smallwood is gifted, and her work is unafraid of wading into the thicker, extra actually visceral elements of feminine expertise. I look ahead to her subsequent experiment in dissecting the sticky oddity of liminal existence.

The ultimate scene of Smallwood’s novel is probably the ebook’s most profitable. All through “The Lifetime of the Thoughts,” Dorothy is trying to find an ending. She teaches a category known as “Writing Apocalypse.” She is bound she’s “dwelling on the finish of one thing, or too many somethings to say.” She insists on accompanying her greatest buddy whereas she embarks on her personal at-home abortion, presumably craving witness to another person’s expertise of an ending. And by the ultimate traces, although time nonetheless stretches earlier than her, Dorothy’s need for finality is externalized in such a refined, quiet manner as to appear almost satisfying.

Pariseau is a author and editor in New Orleans.

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