ELEANOR, OR, The Rejection of the Progress of Love works on so many levels: Anna Moschovakis’s artful use of precise language seamlessly connects her plots and characters with a bountiful range of references and within a structure that almost defies itself, all while being emotionally layered and intellectually textured. No surprise here that Moschovakis is a poet.
Eleanor and the writer who is writing about Eleanor are the intertwining twin protagonists in the book. As described by the author, the protagonist(s) is “trying to figure out how to be in the world, as a fully-fledged adult woman.” This means that very classic and relevant questions inhabit Eleanor and her writer: paradox and meaning, connection and disconnection, process and loss, trauma and stress, collective and individual grief, authority, race, gender, capitalism, technology, and of course, progress or the illusion of it as well as love and its confusions. Moschovakis does this in a way that will stay in one’s head for days, then trickle down to trigger thoughts, emotions, and ideas in various parts of one’s body. I like this about this book.
There are two sentences that frame this novel, and in a unique way, summarize and contextualize it: “We are performance that is quality life try now.” This is a sentence that will make more sense in the context of the book. For now, resist the urge to “correct” it or force it into meaning. This very “challenging” sentence is paired with the novel’s launch pad of “[s]he thought again of the thing that had happened — that she had made happen, or at least not prevented from happening.” The sentences frame the “performance” of the text, because indeed, this novel is a performance piece, and there are multiple ways to immerse in and engage this book.
A guidepost in the writing of the novel was the idea that it was a “novel about a woman writing a novel about a woman who reads and writes,” and in the unfolding of this story, Moschovakis takes every possible opportunity to locate us in points of high philosophy, common news, or both at the same time. It is metafictional to the nth degree, and these complex references are like treasures that she has laid along the path of the story.
The references make this novel more than a story about a woman turning 40, a woman dealing with the disappointments of a data-saturated world, a woman traveling and searching for meaning, a woman who loses her laptop. In the author’s statement “Beyond Reason,” Moschovakis worried that “the price of completion was having unwittingly made something more ‘novel-y’ than the novels I most love.” She has no need to worry.
One of her references is choreographer Pina Bausch, specifically a dance scene from the Wim Wenders film Pina. In commenting on the dance, Moschovakis writes:
When a person doesn’t catch another person but it’s a planned not-catching, it’s a choreographed not-catching, and the not-caught person get bruised as a result, how are we supposed to feel?
“I’m confused about roles and the edges of roles. My question is not about the pleasure of the coffee or the disappointment of the cockroach [she is talking to the Wally character from the film My Dinner With André]. My question” — and here her whisper became nearly inaudible — “is about the bruise—”
This book is cerebral in tone, yet emotional in effect. Moschovakis’s creation, a Jenga-ian tower of stacked data is precariously perched in a game where everything is meant to collapse. Yet throughout this novel, Moschovakis knows exactly which piece to pull out so that the tower never topples.
In referencing a documentary about a New York artist who became a cannibal for a day while living with a Peruvian tribe, she writes:
The thing about consequences […] is that they are a fiction. And fiction is real. And reality is consequential, but only when you let it be. Consequences, she thought, now speaking her thoughts to the room, “are like mud. You get stuck in them, and either you drown and die, or a dry spell comes to return the mud to dust, and you dig your way out.”
The thing that had happened — the first thing, thing-prime — had this kind of consequence, the mud kind. Eleanor began to feel something new take place inside her, the presence of something beneath her skin, at the core of her extension into space […] something fibrous, organic like sugarcane, or possibly of some high-tech material that had the quality of moisture and the quality of disintegration in equal measure. […] She felt the pulling apart — felt it as a novel but recognizable sensation …
As a poet, Moschovakis’s attention to the details of language and meaning is cavernous. She distinguishes between “one move before collapse” and “one move before the expectation of collapse,” engaging readers by offering both. Beyond language, Moschovakis is in charge of the sentence. She writes: “[A] melancholy […] that blurred Eleanor at her edges, just where the structure of her feeling met the margin of her thought.” I will take this sentence to my next life.
She also writes: “Her paralysis around the paragraphs was physical too: when she thought about them, her arteries turned to ice. She formed ideas about Danny; the ideas spread like a thaw.”
The point of view is ever changing between the two “I” characters — Eleanor, the character in the book and “twin Eleanor,” who is writing the book. Meanwhile, remembering that Moschovakis is voracious in using all forms of literary trope, I do not want to discount this novel’s plot. For instance, the plot line about the well-known critic who wants to give feedback on the novel-in-progress reveals issues of male privilege. Meanwhile, the story line of Danny K. M. is about a stranger who sends Eleanor an email offering to send her data from her stolen laptop before disappearing again, without sending any recovered data. This story line speaks to the disconnection, and multiple disappointments, of online connection.
Beyond being filled with a collage of multiple plot points, this novel is also a “party” of all the writers, philosophers, artists, dancers, filmmakers, and more. “Party” is a key word because despite, and probably because of, the range and depth of all the references used, Moschovakis laces this book with mega-meta-fun. It is with a sense of playful character development that she references the likes of writer Stendhal, poet Frank O’Hara, filmmaker Todd Haynes, novelist Jane Bowles, artist Marina Abramović, philosopher Hilary Putnam, paintings by Degas, actors like Gena Rowlands, film characters Thelma and Louise, the movie Dirty Dancing, and the music of the Go-Go’s. An intriguing gathering.
In the end, I have two suggestions:
If you read this book, read it three times, each time buying a new copy for the sake of the author. Shelve them together on your bookshelf and don’t answer any inquiries as to why you have three copies except to say that it was something that had happened, something that you could not control.
This book is rich, complex, and overflowingly human. There is an abundance of intellectual fodder, so make sure not to sweep away the feelings that are evoked. Remember, this is a “novel of thinking and feeling” that needs to be experienced, not just read. Anna Moschovakis has done something remarkable.
Sakada is a poet and writer living in Los Angeles. She has a journalism degree from the University of Michigan and an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles. She is the author of Into a Long Curl, a book-length poem about caregiving, loss, and grief.