Heather McGowan, Duchess of Nothing (Bloomsbury March 2006)
Literary fiction by young women is dominated by Zadies and Jhumpas, voices lauded as fresh because of their chic hybridity. In a twist of our times, the writing of Heather McGowan, a white Ivy Leaguer, might be more innovative and iconoclastic than many contemporary writers who allegedly transgress literary convention. For this Brooklyn-based playwright and novelist, it does not take a multicultural cast of characters, graphic sex or a context overwrought by contemporary fixtures to tell a tale that is relevant and original.
Set in a clichéd English boarding school, her first novel Schooling explored the inner life of an adolescent transfer student whose mother recently died. Formerly from Maine, Catrine is lonely and alienated in her new environment. As she wobbles her way into the worlds of intellectualism, artistic creativity and adulthood, she develops a close bond with a chemistry teacher Mr. Gilbert. Their friendship gives rise to an ambiguous intimacy that is at times endearing but more often disquieting.
Schooling’s interconnected, experimental vignettes attempt to reinvigorate its banal setting and offer fresh perspectives on adolescent psychology. In sections defined by terse, meticulous prose, the book provides new lenses for commonplace trauma and emotional experience, evoking empathy but avoiding mawkishness. At one point Catrine is nostalgic for her old life and attempting to reconcile her mother’s death. “Finding that bird’s nest with Mother’s hair wound in the twigs,” McGowan writes. “No chance of finding something like that in any new house.
Likewise, her terse imagery evokes thoughtful moods and situations. Staring at a cigarette in a pond that reflects an overcast day, she writes: “The wet cigarette marking a putty sky. Ocher grass burned with winter.” McGowan infuses her own version of the laconic but enchanting poetics of William Carlos Williams or Gary Snyder into the 21st century novel.
But while poetic language and simulated stream of consciousness offers new takes on individuals and the situations they inhabit, the book’s dissonant, pseudo-Guinsbergian rants fail it. “Give me rituals to stave off the sameness butter rubbed behind an ear leaf in my underwear secrets that are mine and mine only.” Likewise, McGowan’s intriguing Becket-like dialogues are eclipsed by theatrical interludes in which Hamlet and Ophelia converse with the novel’s characters.
Such jarring experimentation overtakes the novel, and plot development is rendered a mere digression from McGowan’s playful pastiches. This courageous first book is defined by a cacophonous collage of voices and therefore lacks an essential cohesiveness necessary to engage readers.
This problem is remedied in her second novel, The Duchess of Nothing. In fact, McGowan’s biggest achievement in her latest creation is her comprehensive penetration of her narrator’s mind and espousal of her voice. To that end, she forsakes plot and secondary character development.
Like its predecessor, The Duchess of Nothing tells a story of an English-speaking protagonist in a pseudo-foreign context, this time Rome instead of England. An obsessive, contradictory and maniacal woman, the book’s narrator is charged with the care and education of a uniquely level-headed eight year old boy. The child, simply referred to as “the boy” or “the brother”, is the sibling of her current lover Edmund. Student and teacher traipse through Rome engaging in their dubious but humorous educational antics.
During their absurd “classes” the narrator goes down on all fours to illustrate Pavlov’s psychological theories and contemplates teaching a lesson “in the art of subtext”. The boy is a mere receptacle for her half-baked intellectualism and nonsensical aphorisms. The subject of his tutelage is most often his self-pitying teacher’s autobiographical snippets, which desultorily unfold throughout the book.
Besides receiving a school history prize at age 14, the narrator’s other major lifetime achievement was to work as a bank “clerk of exception”. In this capacity, the narrator met her husband, a Bavarian man who “saved her from a life if drudgery”. But marriage is “a regular tomb”, she explains to the boy. “You see, I say, Even after only a few months at my husband’s compound I found that everything looked the same, sounded the same, in fact was all flatly the same. Nothing was ravished with change and mutation, the sky was merely the sky.”
Fleeing her depression and her husband, she meets Edmund and falls in love with “his back”. And that brings us to present day Rome, where she is caring for his younger half brother. “Where I was once my own person now I am simply the slut who boils your milk…” the petulant narrator tells the boy. Despite chiding her role as the boy’s caregiver, the narrator—like all parents—is clearly dependent on the boy for companionship and a sense of purpose.
Duchess of Nothing, while not lending itself easily to interpretation, invites a metaphorical reading of its main character. “…Without allegory,” McGowan writes, “your stories are simply a means of passing time. And nothing bores me more than passing time.” Caught in a cycle of mental instability and aimlessness, the narrator is cruel, self-centered and devoid of ethics. She typifies a generation of young Americans that has access to wealth, knowledge, and critical thinking skills but is overburdened by these privileges—individuals unmotivated to take responsibility for themselves or the worlds they inhabit.
McGowan is equally concerned with critiquing the institutions that foster such feckless individuality. In both of her books, she launches a tirade against traditional fountains of education—families, schools—that inhibit a “freethinking mind”. “When I was a girl,” the Duchess says, “I attended a prison of chalkboards. I roamed those halls filled with death, I watched old people robbing the brains of children. Did I learn anything at school?”
But her critique is no simplistic sermon. McGowan’s literature also paints a bleak portrait of voices of protest and alternative ways of thinking. While the Duchess of Nothing’s narrator condemns formal education, her home school is psychologically torturous. She repeatedly squashes the boy’s enthusiastic imagination; she forbids him to read as he is vulnerable to the “toxic opinions” of “outside influences’ like books. In McGowan’s pages, conscientious dissenters —whether denouncing education, parenthood or class inequities—are riddled by hypocrisy.
The author herself seems to rebel against the contemporary literary establishment’s formula for fiction. Her latest work is deliberatively devoid of cinematic plot twists, tales of sex and drugs and intertwined story lines. However, as a result, Duchess of Nothing, though rebellious and thoughtful, fails to engage at times.
Her writing also bespeaks a cynicism towards the elevation of writers based on their cultural context and marginalization from the mainstream. “I suspect that the girl who works next to me at the bank was born with a name no more exotic than Fran,” says Duchess of Nothing’s narrator, “but Samina is the tag she wore on her chest and it is Samina I will call her here.”
Counterbalancing the publishing world’s fetish for multicultural young women, McGowan’s books are set in mundane locations—British boarding school, tired Rome—and her characters are only as marginalized as white, English-speaking expatriates in Europe can be. Although plag ued by a noticeable socio-cultural insularity, her labored prose cuts through fatty layers of individual existence to shed new light on middle class society and psychology in seemingly hackneyed spaces.