HAMLET (see also: Baby, The), We watch three film versions of Hamlet. I cry even when it is Bill Murray playing Polonius. I imagine my baby as Laertes. “Do you know how it is when someone dies? Birth is like that, too, just in reverse,” I say. Just before you announce the impending awkwardness, I ask aloud, “How could I have created something, someone, whom I will someday lose?” I think, How could life mean anything more, ever, ever again?
JOY (see also: Mother, Question, and Skunks), as experienced when in a dark room I lie next to Magoo and his cousin. Every so often, just when I think they might be asleep, a high voice with a serious question: “Are there skunks in Pittsburgh?” or “Do old-fashioned cars go faster than convertibles?” Four-year old musing & inquiry; for a moment I wish that Magoo would be four years old forever, that I might spend a life in this room with two four year old boys. There are times it feels like Heaven to have this life.Her Thirty-Seventh Year, An Index by Suzanne Scanlon
I have my own obsessions with thirty-seven, and I think that is why Suzanne Scanlon’s Her Thirty-Seventh Year, An Index had been languishing in my A****n basket for six months. Sometimes it was available, sometimes it wasn’t. But a thumbnail of the cover was always there, looking at me slightly reproachfully. Then, on a Saturday night a couple of weeks ago, browsing with a beer in my hand, I finally ordered it. I shouldn’t have hestitated for a second.
I’ve mentioned before a piece by Helen Phillips, writing about Jenny Offill. Phillips quotes Offill’s advice to her to read “‘permission books’, that say you can write in a way you thought you couldn’t.” And, Her Thirty-Seventh Year is a book that I would definitely put in that category. It’s a lexicon of one woman’s life: an alphabeticised and cross-referenced dictionary encapsulating her thirty-seven years, taking in grief and love and motherhood and feminism and literature. And this structure — associative, fragmented, seemingly arbitrary — enables Scanlon to reach for an emotional register that might escape a more conventional narrative.
Helen Phillips again, writing about Offill’s teaching in her “Unhinged Narrators” class,
“What are these writers giving us if not the traditional plot we typically expect from fiction?” Jenny demands of us.
The answer varies. Humor. Philosophy. Interiority. Image. Rhythm. Urgency.
With each book we read in the class, I feel a little freer. The course gives me permission to be as strange and dark in my writing as I want to be. The things I’ve always thought one must do in a narrative fall away. My writing unhinges itself.
Scanlon offers several of these alternatives to traditional plot. There’s a playful humour in the cross-referencing of her index. “FLU SHOT (See also: Conflict, and Marriage)”, “CABBAGES (See also: Happiness; and Woolf, Virginia)”. There are also narrative cul-de-sacs — cross-references to entries that don’t exist, but make some kind of elusive, associative sense, like the empty entry, “QUERY (See also: Hysteria)” or the entry “END, THE (See also: Healing). We’re also given philosophy, interiority, juxtaposition, and compression.
But the reader of Her Thirty-Seventh Year also becomes a kind of detective. There are narrative through-lines fragmented through the entries: a marriage that seems to be floundering, an earlier relationship with B–, an affair with ‘the man who wears boots’, a recurring thread of depressive illness. The reader’s desire to piece these fragments back together gives the index an urgency and satisfaction that the form might otherwise lack.
Another through-line, is Scanlon’s complicated relationship with a teacher, a writer who is now dead. This writer is fairly easy to indentify and I spent some time while reading thinking about Googling my suspicion, thinking about how much to read this as fiction and how much to read it as biographical. It’s strange this frequent and incidious temptation to leave the text we’re reading, often to look up other texts mentioned within the one we hold in our hands, or to attempt to tap the narrative along a seam which will split the fiction from the non-fiction.
I sometimes feel chastised by (is this my imagination or do I mean mostly male?) writers who dismiss this readerly desire to know. Yes, it’s naive to read the narrator as the author, but it seems to me to be a natural tendency to read a narrator in an essayistic form with the same name or background as the author as being on some level semi-autobiographical. Although this isn’t always the case, I don’t think the reader can be wholly blamed for this bias of assumption. And so I love Scanlon’s take on the fact/fiction question:
Well, this feels more like an essay, but it’s called fiction. Honestly, I don’t care if people read PYW [Promising Young Women — Scanlon’s first novel] and this book as essay—and I don’t care if they read it as fiction. Both are constructions. Both take from life, and both invent. I like fiction and nonfiction. I like Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband, which she called a fictional memoir. That was perfect, and that’s how I thought of this book as I wrote it. A fictional memoir.
I read The Beauty of the Husband, my first journey into Anne Carson’s work, over Easter, and, as always, I love this sense of books talking to books: Her 37th Year being in conversation with books I’ve read, and books I might read. We have a baby name book which suggests style families of names — antique charm, brisk and breezy, little darlings — and Scanlon’s book suggested various collage-like siblings to me as I read it, some of which are quoted or indexed in the text: Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, David Shield’s manifesto Reality Hunger. Scanlon talks about more influences — including Claudia Rankine, Ariana Reines, Mary Robison, Susan Sontag and María Irene Fornés — in this interview with Kate Zambreno.
They also discusses how important the concept of ‘mess’ as a literary value is to Scanlon’s writing. Zambreno asks her whether the writing was a gradual accumulation or if it came out all at once:
I think it was a gradual accumulation, coming out of notebook and blog writing, and then, later, choosing selections that would link toward a larger story. The control offered by the index form was essential to me. It gave me the freedom to offer those moments of vulnerability, as you put it, without cloaking them within any forced narrative. Just: Yes, this is the mess of life! This mess. Look at it! Of course, you don’t want to look too long, and that is why I found myself reaching out to many referenced and quoted writers, because that is how my life is lived, engaging with art and artists and writers.
Zambreno and Scanlon go on to discuss ‘mess’ in relation to Elena Ferrante’s writing, which gave me one of those ‘ah-ha!’ moments, because, yes, of course, one of the attractions of her writing is the high degree of mess — the inclusion of the things that don’t make narrative sense as well as those that do, the complications of relationships, the instability, the amibiguity, the equal weight given to things that, if you were sitting down to plot a novel, you would most definitely not think crucial to the narrative. (And, talking of mess, if you didn’t read this, then you really should.)
Her Thirty-Seventh Year is a short book, but one that’s left me with much to think about and many new reading paths to explore. It might have taken me rather a long time to take the plunge, but next time I’m considering buying a book by Suzanne Scanlon I won’t hesitate for a second.