The Life of the Mind
by Christina Smallwood

The Life of the Mind is the most literate (and therefore satisfying) first novel that I’ve read in a long time. Unlike the run of contemporary fiction by sophisticated women, it is not journalistic. For all the reported climate-catastrophe news (most of it presented ironically) and reports of modern manners, Life is a moralist’s appraisal of academia set atop the turbulent foundation (pardon the oxymoron) of a woman’s reproductive complications. Dorothy, whose last name is not given (thus concealing her ethnicity; we’re told only that she wore a cross around her neck as a girl) has conceived, through no fault of her own, a monster, a misshapen fetus that he doctor wants her to abort as soon as possible. The stretch of the novel takes us to the end of Dorothy’s cleansing (not Smallwood’s word), the evacuation of the final resinous bits of fetus.

When Dorothy is not sitting on a toilet dealing with the excreta of her womb, a preoccupation of the novel that seems to flout its title, she drifts on a voyage to Wonderland, in which Dorothy observes and questions and doubts herself somewhat, rather like Alice. (She is also Dorothy, and the Oz connection is nailed by an encounter with a UK undergraduate in Las Vegas.) Despite almost constitutional misgivings about herself,  Dorothy is usually the only sane woman in the room.

I wish that Smallwood had not made a point of the shambolic aspect of Dorothy’s personal  life. In Dorothy’s mind, her sloppiness is of a piece with her lack of academic advancement, but she has the causation wrong, and Smallwood doesn’t correct her. The fact is that the academic world in which Dorothy hopes to flourish makes no sense — something that is underlined repeatedly, as for example by the success of a fellow graduate student, Alexandra, whose “significant” insight seems to be little more than an enumeration of doors as obvious metaphors in Victorian fiction. Presenting Dorothy as an aren’t-we-all schlump is misleading. She’s actually a beacon, if a beacon under a bushel.

Dorothy is an adjunct professor at a fine university in New York. She teaches writing courses, one of which is titled “Writing Apocalypse,” and her students behave more or less like pre-school toddlers.  The only demand made upon them is that of attendance. The rigors of education are nowhere in sight, nor is the desire for it. Instead of acquiring more knowledge and greater understanding, students devote their classroom time to expressing what little they have of either.

Dorothy has a non-academic friend named Gaby. Gaby is a princess, far more affluent by birth than Dorothy herself. Gaby’s superiority is an accessory that she cannot remove; perhaps fortunately she does not feel obliged to live up to it at all times. But she bristles when it is questioned, as if often is, unintentionally, by Dorothy. We are treated to many well-seasoned texts between the friends, but here they are in  actual conversation:

Gaby had started talking about her birthday, which had recently passed. They had been sitting on the sect4ional in Gaby’s apartment, facing each other, socked toes nearly touching. Gaby was trying to explain the relief of aging out of people’s misperceptions of her. She had crossed the Rubicon, she said.

“Like Caesar,” Dorothy had joked.

Gaby’s eyes were runny, two undercooked eggs. She did not like thee reference. “No,” she said, pulling away her feet and tucking them underneath her. “I’m not an emperor.”

“I know, said Dorothy . “I just meant that Caesar also —”

“I don’t think I’m Julius fucking Caesar,” Gaby said.

“I’m sorry,” Dorothy said. (40)

Poor Dorothy: she doesn’t know how to respond to Gaby’s inflammable ignorance. It goes without saying that Gaby has taken no action that can be compared to Caesar’s defiance of the Senate; indeed, she has done nothing at all but get older.

This is very much a novel about women. There are one- and one-half roles for men, both status-equals and nice, though the half-man, Keith, is objectionably kinky. The whole man is Dorothy’s partner, Rog, seen as supportive overall. If Dorothy has a father, I missed him. In this novel, men are not the ones causing the screw-ups.

Two older women, who ought to be guides or mentors, prove to be too preoccupied with themselves to bother with someone as lackluster as Dorothy. The first is a former thesis adviser, Judith, a comically fatuous academic who favors another candidate, Alexandra. Alexander has hit upon the tremendous significance of doors in Victorian fiction — Judith pronounces her work “significant.” (There can be no higher accolade.) The second is a therapist, the therapist whom Dorothy consults because she’s doubtful of her regular therapist. This second therapist is, on the face of it, pretty dodgy; she keeps an office with a real-estate agent. The room has no window, “Where the window should be was an abstract painting, all whit e lines and splotches of color…Dororfthy resented that the therapist’s painting activated her critical insecurities, not to mention her envy” — Dorothy has never been able to afford more than a couple of nice posters.

The therapist has been producing a podcast of her sessions. When Dorothy realizes that her sessions with the therapist will not be part of the show, a “dopey grind spread helplessly acrowss her face, the clownish tell of embarrassment and rejection. She sat stupidly and silently stumped. The therapist tries to soften the blow.

“For the record, Dorothy, I find you sympathetic … But listeners…”

Dorothy wasn’t insulted. She was grateful.

“I get it,” Dorothy said, aware that the therapist always let her have the last word. “I don’t think I’m sympathetic, either.” (57-59)

The novel ends with Dorothy immersed in an positive orgy of grading papers; an orgy because it is certainly as mindless as any of them.

Now was not the time for comments. It was a time for quick and dirty evaluation. Give them grades, move along. Render judgments. Send fires and floods and rainbows.

Next in the pile was a treatment of Freud’s “Analysis Terminable and Interminable.” It was good: A-. The next one was about the Puritans. It really deserved a B+, but Dorothy was in a groove. A-. The one underneath that was about Shiva. Enthusiastic A-! … Then came papers on genocide, coral reefs, the extinction of the dinosaurs, and the Roman Empire. There were three papers on the plague, two on the death of God, and one on the death of the novel. She felt a thrill spread like hot milk throughout her body as all the endings that had ever been piled up before he4r, and she graded them all the same, all nearly perfect, before dumping each one carefully, respectfully, into the trash. (228-9)

The title phrase occurs once, toward the end of the novel.

The librarian took a step back, as if Dorothy were some subway lunatic. Her shrug said, It’s your life. She removed a handful of paper — Dorothy had, typically, overdone it — and shut the printer tray door. She pushed a button to test. Efficiently, the printer rolled out a sheet of hieroglyphics and bars of varying dimensions.

“There,” she said, like she had just wiped up some milk spilt from Dorothy’s bottle. Dorothy looked into the future and saw herself, forty, forty-five years old, a contingent member of the faculty, waiting on the printers, absorbing the admonishment of the croney librarian, and thought how naïve she had once been to believe there was anything glamorous about the life of the mind. (212)

This confirms any suspicions the reader might have had that in Smallwood’s mild satire, the life of the mind is a presumed in academics, much as cowboys lead lives on horseback. Perhaps this is what market-driven society has driven us to: only within academia are people compensated for leading lives of the mind, while by the same token that compensation corrupts the mind’s ability to think.

In the wider world, the life of the mind is interrupted, regularly and sometimes permanently, by media that are faster and more visual than print.

Sending a thoughtful email that she had drafted over several days and edited would, she knew, be a form of aggression; it would be foisting unpaid labor, a homework assignment, on a friend. She herself liked homework, but it was unreasonable to hope for such an email: There  was  too much television to catch up on, and if you wanted to know what someone was doing, you could usually find out on social media. Still, Dorothy had not stopped checking, or expecting, or wishing that a good message might be out there, waiting in the ether just for her.  (17)

The Life of the Mind does not attempt to make the case that social media and the screens on which they deliver their newsoids are doing nobody any good. There is no need to make a case. The familiarity of Dorothy’s problems in a world choking on its own vanity says it all.

Critical Comment
An Introduction

The entries that will appear on this Web log are not book reviews.

Since its beginnings in the early Nineteenth Century,  modern (or mass-produced) literary journalism has had a firm grip on the word “review.” The first really successful literary journal, which ran from 1802 to 1929, was the Edinburgh Review. Its background was the liberal thinking spawned by the Scottish Enlightenment — politics, in other words; still the most suitable subject for journalism. (Hazlitt, Walter Scott, and Macaulay were just three of its notable contributors.) Journalism generally answered the question, “What’s new?”Literary journalism, accordingly, sought to account for the latest books likely to be of interest to its readers. The accent was on novelty, not background.

Eventually, the word “review” was shared by publications with their contents. The New York Times Book Review first appeared in 1896; Americans who read a fair amount usually call it, simply, “the Book Review,” which nicely collapses the word’s two connotations.

With some exceptions, usually produced by the authors of actual books, book reviews are formulaic essays, more sophisticated than but not fundamentally different from middle-school book reports, outlining the plot (without necessarily revealing the ending) and evaluating the principal characters. The reviewer will also size the book up in various comparisons, with the author’s other work (if any) as well as with books on the same or similar subjects. Because of fashions in journalism, today’s reviews will try to engage the reader by introducing some personal experiences, not necessarily directly relevant to the book under review, of the reviewer. The result, publishers pray, will boost sales without providing too naked a crib sheet for those who “don’t have the time” to read books but who want to appear to be on top of the latest things. Book reviews really are a kind of news, and that’s how they’re read.

For a few years, in a blog that I used to keep, I reviewed the contents of each Sunday’s Book Review, and I learned a few things. A “good review” is a well-written essay, and not to be confused with a review that judges a book “favorably.” And the thing that both good favorable and good unfavorable reviews do is to steer readers either toward books that they’re likely to like or away from books that they’re not. The worst kind of “bad” review is the tantrum in which a reviewer complains that the book under review is not a completely different book, most likely one that the author had no intention of writing. The best “good” reviews, in contrast, explain, in paraphrase, what it is that the author set out to do. This is the reviewer that every writer hopes to get but rarely does.

Such excellent commentaries are not really compatible with the principles of journalism, or at least with the book-report formula. They don’t focus on the comprehensive overview of a book. Instead, they venture daring, if not impertinent, impressions of what it’s like to look at the world through the author’s eyes. Or they may simply take up a detail that has caught the attention of a reader interested enough to write about it. Background is a very important part of the comment’s persuasive authority. Novelty as such is of little or no interest; what takes its place is a sense of the intriguing difference. This is what makes the comment “critical.”

Since, as a rule, I won’t be writing about books that I don’t like, I can hope that the entries here will all be good and favorable. I won’t call them reviews, however, because a good many of the books won’t be new. They’ll be books that I’ve re-read, possibly for the umpteenth time, or classics that I’ve finally gotten around to reading for the first time. Instead, I’ll hope that they pass for critical comment, not journalism.