MARCH 21, 2016
“IF I were a character in a novel” says Elsie, the protagonist of Hannah Tennant-Moore’s debut novel, Wreck and Order, “I would be the quintessential twenty-first-century narrator: characterized by the aimless bustle of the sharp mind, revealed through thoughts about my inner torment rather than events that explain the torment.” Elsie’s postmodern brand of literary self-consciousness doesn’t stop there:
There was a blog post about this on some literary site one time. I read it in my pajamas after Brian left for work, drinking coffee, eating instant oatmeal. My mental activity both sustains and paralyzes me! Exactly! […] The obvious paradox was that there was nothing I could do with the realization. I was not some dynamic character out of, say, Dickens or George Eliot or, um …
Add in sex and Sri Lanka, and you’ll find the central subjects of this novel, with its intense focus on the linked — but often conflicting — lives of the prosaic, slacker body and the literary, self-searching mind. Elsie’s voice is keenly self-aware and naïve, mundane and literary, and grave and ironical all at once, or in rapid alternation. Given Elsie’s sharp moments of self-psychology, it’s true that we aren’t in Dickens territory anymore, but the lady may protest a bit much when it comes to Eliot: Elsie functions as a 21st-century Dorothea Brooke — a young woman in search of self-knowledge and spiritual sustenance, at risk of “unattained goodness” and “a life of mistakes.”
For one thing, from the beginning, Elsie is, like Dorothea, the heroine of a kind of bildungsroman, though Wreck and Order follows the familiar template of what we might call the “slacker bildungsroman” so popular in recent years, a variant of the genre in which the animating question is whether any bildung, or development, will actually occur. As in the novels of a bushel of literary Benjamins — to match the plague of literary Jonathans — Benjamin Kunkel’s Indecision (2005), Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), or Benjamin Lytal’s A Map of Tulsa (2013), the protagonist of Tennant-Moore’s novel is a highly self-scrutinizing, literate, and intelligent first-person narrator. Yet, as in all of these novels, paralysis flows from having too many choices, along with a search for what Elsie calls a “[f]reedom from the pause, the self-conscious gap between thought and action,” and a constantly thwarted desire to find larger purpose. Characters hunt for what Lerner calls “profound experience” in all the likely places, and accordingly, they have sex, they do drugs, they go to third-world countries (or Tulsa), and they make lots of clever references to books and to New York. Ultimately, however, they think in place, and they deliberate, regret, remember, and obsess about decisions and then probably don’t decide. In the 19th century, the parvenus of Balzac and Dickens fixated on how to obtain money and success; now, the drama is more likely whether or not would-be heroes can use relentless introspection to break through ennui and low-grade depression.
Tennant-Moore’s heroine shares in these now familiar preoccupations, and the first half of Wreck and Order finds Elsie seeking her “freedom from the pause” through sex — lots of it — first with a classically terrible California boyfriend, and then with a boring, emotionally aloof nice guy in New York. Flashbacks to childhood also occur throughout this section, as do glances back at a year spent in Paris, the hub for an earlier, 19th-century generation of striving youths. Indeed, Tennant-Moore can’t resist a witty nod to Balzac, placing Elsie in a maid’s garret in a boardinghouse attic. Then, in the second and more engrossing half of the book, the search relocates to Sri Lanka, where Elsie befriends a young woman named Suriya, whose relationship to “choicelessness,” not to mention the body, is very different from her own. Tennant-Moore draws a deft and well-nuanced portrait of this burgeoning cross-cultural friendship, and she includes some interesting side-glances toward the ongoing conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese.
But in Sri Lanka, as in the West, the real drama is meant to inhere in what Elsie thinks, the real suspense in whether how and what she thinks will change. In an initiatory trip to the island early in the book, Elsie studies briefly with a Buddhist guru, whose advice is to “[e]xamine every thought, desire, sensation until you fully understand its source. Expect nothing from the world. Then you will naturally wake up to your true state.” In Wreck and Order, Buddhist practice and postmodern self-scrutiny turn out to be oddly close cousins. Elsie reveals not only all of her desires and neuroses but also her analyses of these mental currents, her inquiry into how they might appear to an outside observer. As a narrator, Elsie constantly tries to anticipate the reader’s reactions to her reactions, and in anticipating them to try to defuse, to mitigate, to reverse. Early in the novel, she decries the events at Abu Ghraib and then observes, just pages later, that when she was a human rights canvasser, she’d learned that she was supposed to “slip in the human rights stuff later, once you’d hooked them. The same way that, if you were writing a novel, you wouldn’t want to start off with a diatribe against torture.” This spectacle of consciousness — or really self-consciousness — can be alienating or engrossing, depending on one’s vantage.
Elsie’s frank account of her sexual encounters, desires, and frustrations, in particular, seems designed to force readers to confront both alienation and engrossment. She is a young woman who likes, needs, and wants sex and often says so, describing her encounters and her thoughts about them in graphic terms. As early as the second page, she recalls “underpants shifting over my buttocks, my asshole tingling and contracting as if I were lying facedown in the sun after swimming in icy water.” This memory is only the tip of the icy water’s proverbial iceberg. Through many pages of rough sex and other corporeal happenings, this is a no-holds-barred account of a young female body and what it feels, what it likes to feel, and what it doesn’t. It is refreshing to be in the company of a woman who is comfortable with her own sexuality, and who begins by stating, “I love my body. I like my face too […] My appearance is one thing I don’t worry about.” Tennant-Moore’s writing of sex — whether messy, awkward, sad, or intensely satisfying — can be admirably intimate and realistic, even if sometimes the constant emphasis on the intensity of Elsie’s feelings produces some flat language. Indeed, at many junctures, reading Elsie’s confessions is like listening to a friend who has made some questionable choices but reflects with intelligence and emotional integrity upon them.
Tennant-Moore seems to be on a welcome and worthy mission to offer a corrective to the proliferating accounts of young male bodies that mark the novels of “all the sad young literary men,” pace Keith Gessen. However, she misses an important opportunity to start a bigger conversation about the ways they indulge in navel-gazing on young male sexuality. Instead, she seems to try to keep up with these boys — or to best them — by attempting to give shock value to Elsie’s sexual exploits and frankness. As a result, she undermines her own efforts, which read instead as belated, given how prolific think-pieces on Girls and “hook up culture” have been. Elsie’s winking, in-text acknowledgment of this larger media conversation limns a central problem with how young women’s sexuality is often treated:
Women who write about the failure of feminism for glossy magazines would use my experience as proof of the depravity of hookup culture […] Women who write about the triumphs of feminism for glossy magazines would use my experience as proof that free love depends upon reverence for the vagina.
But the novel does not present a portable solution. Elsie may go on to distance herself from these same magazine writers: “I suppose it would be a relief to have such ethical clarity. All I have are clear memories of strong feelings. Lust, rage, lust, rage.” Yet if this line describes an appealing third way of relating to young women’s sexuality — an emphasis on experience and non-judgment — Tennant-Moore doesn’t open up such a path to her reader, who instead is dared to sigh or to cheer at the audacity of it all.
Too often, an attempt to be provocative intrudes just when Elsie’s voice is at its most convincing, and Tennant-Moore’s descriptions can become heavy-handed or even offensive. At one point, Elsie reflects on the anguish of having a man orgasm when she hasn’t, and she suggests that “the loneliness that rushes in as a yawn escapes his limp face is the worst pain I have ever known in my life, a full body longing that has sometimes felt so unbearable I would rather have been raped, to at least have the clarity of being the victim of exploitation.” Such a remark is offensive to women who have survived sexual assault, or, for that matter, any other form of profound female pain. Perhaps I am not allowing enough for Elsie’s singularity here, or perhaps I’m being too humorless about this particular hyperbole, but given the hyperbole, I wish (spoiler alert) that Tennant-Moore didn’t feel the need to punish Elsie with an emotionally and physically painful sexual experience late in the novel, as if violently forcing her to reflect on the possible naïveté of some of her earlier proclivities — as if to say, “I’m with you reader: this’ll teach her what ‘exploitation’ really is.”
In the portion of the novel set in Sri Lanka, the writing is consistently more transportative, and as Elsie makes her way through a variety of local scenes, Tennant-Moore’s beautiful renderings of landscape and incisive moments of cultural commentary provide a very distinctive sense of place. She openly acknowledges the potential “Eat, Pray, Love colonialism” of this part of the book — Elsie beats the reader to the punch in admitting that one version of the narrative could try to show how “the angelic, impoverished Sri Lankan and the privileged, self-destructive American join forces and set their small worlds to rights. A heartwarming tale.” But Tennant-Moore is admirably determined that this not be the narrative, so while elsewhere, Elsie’s intense self-awareness is sometimes overplayed, here it is more welcome. At one point, Elsie watches a local custom and moves from pleasure — “How delightful it is to be inside this scene to which I will never belong, which asks nothing of me except to observe a way of living that has nothing to do with what I’ve learned about living so far” — to something more troubling:
Until I become aware of my delight, and another, stronger part of my brain steals the simple enjoyment from me, characterizing the scene as an exotic spectacle worthy of noting, to be used later as a way to prove something about myself — that I’m interesting, brave, unusual. I am a parasite of my own experience.
This scene is a strong moment of insight, capturing the experience that many young, over-educated, well-intentioned, liberal first-world travelers have surely had when first facing the “exotic” and the “other.” Similarly, Elsie’s relationship with Suriya is a complex site both of immersive experience and pleasure, and of feelings made murkier by cultural difference and relentless analysis. In the accompanying passages, Elsie is at her most genuinely intelligent, rueful, and endearing.
Ultimately, Tennant-Moore may evoke her ideal reader, as she has Elsie reflect on the impact of her translation project, a French novel about a 40-year-old bachelor’s “unrequited love for cats”:
The narrative’s attentiveness to the vagaries of his obsession is tedious, but I found the tediousness moving. The narrator has nothing to cleave to but his feelings for small creatures who flit in and out of his life. […] It is not the cats but his feelings for them that are the narrator’s only companions.
Substitute men and friendship for cats, and we are not so far from a summary of Elsie’s own narrative. The most sympathetic readers may find all of Elsie’s thoughts and feelings as affecting as she finds her bachelor’s. For others, Elsie’s attentiveness may be either tedious or moving at any given moment, in any of her smart or overwrought aperçus. Taken as a whole, the novel too is sometimes wonderfully, sometimes frustratingly, torn between these two poles.