Eleanor, or, the Rejection of the Progress of Love
( Coffee House Press, 2018)
The first thing that must be said about Eleanor, or, the Rejection of the Progress of Love, the debut novel from the poet, translator, and Ugly Ducking editor Anna Moschovakis, is that it is great fun. There is nothing so distinct as a screwball protagonist, a comic plot, or innumerable one-liners that we can attribute this enjoyment to—rather, it is simply found evenly distributed everywhere throughout the tone and shape and feel of Moschovakis’s work: the words she chooses to place together, the movement of her sentences, the ironic pleasures that come from her interpolation of two narratives set in different, but related planes of reality.
Moschovakis’s mastery of this tone is appropriate, because Eleanoris your classic novelist-writing-a-novel novel, very much in the mode of Ben Lerner and Chris Kraus, oftentimes self-reflexive, self-commentating, and self-conscious, but never precious or purposeless. We begin when Eleanor’s laptop is stolen from a busy cafe, and we soon learn that the computer contained a very necessary file: there has been a tragedy in her life—”thing-prime” as it is enigmatically referred to throughout the novel—and she was processing it in a document of some twentypages on the computer.
We have barely had time to connect with Eleanor’s plight before we learn that she’s an invention—the protagonist of a novel being worked on by an unnamed woman who begins a sort of relationship with Aidan, a well-known and prestigious critic who offers to comment on her manuscript. When we pick it up, Aidan, a “son of privilege and trauma,” is on the verge of being flown to Denmark in honor of an acclaimed film he has made about Beckett. Brilliant and charming, he is also alcoholic and melancholic, and he seems to be pushing the relationship toward ambiguous and possibly romantic territory. The novelist fights to prevent herself from becoming too attached.
These three leads all suffer from varieties of malaise, and this is a book about the way we deal with what Moschovakis refers to as “becoming blurred at my edges” —that is, having a hard time determining where our emotions are coming from. I take it as given that this blurring is widespread today—it’s probably at least as old as the mass media and telecommunications, and it’s likely amplified in an era of prodigious information and connectivity. Moschovakis recognizes that this malady is partly technological—she references the never-ending stream of terrible headlines as part of Eleanor’s confusion—but it also derives from how we construct our lives and latch on to memories: Moschovakis pointedly never reveals “thing-prime,” perhaps in part because the naming of our traumas has grown to be just as formulaic and problematic as any other part of postmodern life. As real as trauma may be, it is also a mask that must be broken down before we begin to uncover the a more complete picture of our emotions. As Moschovakis puts it, Eleanor’s grief “was never fully expressed because never singularly caused.”
A book about the inner lives of our contemporaries must be conversant with how it feels to live right now, and at this Eleanorexcels. Not in the weak sense of name-dropping popular websites, fashionable trends, and political slogans, rather in the much stronger sense of understanding how we use those things to construct our identities and live our lives. Eleanor’sis a world of motorcycle road-trip liveblogging and volunteer farms where one finds composting toilets bearing “fig- and patchouli-scented candles.” Eleanor procrastinates by reading on her phone a bulleted list answering “what is the essence of really good sex?,” an absent-minded way of alleviating a minor, concrete anxiety in order to avoid processing larger, intangible ones. This all feels very true, and subtle, as much as Moschovakis writing of Eleanor “maxing out her free page views on the corporate [news] sites,” while also “maxing out her tolerance of the user-generated content on the far-left and far-right blogs she felt compelled to read in tandem”. Acutely aware that nowadays we either pay for our news in dollars or outrage, Moschovakis is likewise observant of the fact that reading all this news is an attempt by Eleanor’s to fill empty space in her life, a failing attempt that doesn’t even “grant her a more complete picture of the world.”
What exactly does grant us a complete picture of the world? How can we cope with the fact that our understanding of our world and ourselves will never be complete? Eleanorreferences the Twin Earth thought experiment, an argument for semantic externalism, or, as its creator Hilary Putnam famously put it, the fact that “‘meanings’ just ain’t in the head.” It’s an attempt to prove that the meaning of our words only becomes complete with reference to the world beyond our skull, or, to put it in the language of Eleanor, “one witnesses one’s invention by life.”
In light of Putnam’s conclusion, Eleanor’s quest to recover “the site of her lost paragraphs” becomes itself a quest to connect with the world that will enable those paragraphs to acquire a fuller meaning, the “more content” that Eleanor will add to the document “once that content is both knowable and known.” The world has stolen her computer, and the adventures incurred in the quest to get it back stand like an order to cease believing that she can absent herself from reality. She is living the words of Danish poet Inger Christensen that Aidan casually flings to the novelist in an email: “I always thought reality/was something you became / when you grew up.”
Eleanor’s twinned plots continuously move forward, frequently reinventing themselves and turning in unanticipated directions, all the time connecting with more and more of the world in which we live. There’s no clear endpoint to this process—Eleanormight have grown into one of those encyclopedic novels that summon a thousand pages in a failing attempt to fully connect with some aspect of existence—but instead of solidifying into a brick, Moschovakis’s novel pursues the alternative option: a closing accent and a gesture toward everything that can’t be said. “It’s in the nature of us all to want to be unconnected,” says a woman in Alfred Leslie and Frank O’Hara’s The Last Clean Shirt, which the novelist is viewing at novel’s end, “To want to be unconnected / and you should pull us all together / like Humpty Dumpty / or something.” By the time she hears these words, the novelist has provisionally overcome this drive toward disconnection, though for how long who knows—among other things, Eleanortells us that reality pushes us to disconnect, even as so much in our lives tells us to do otherwise. In narrating the twisting, intersecting plots by which Eleanor, the novelist, and Aidan move from disconnection to connection, and probably back to disconnection again, Moschovakis has created a novel of great strength and flex. Much as it bends and twists and gyres, it does not break, in fact only accumulates more tensile strength from the motion, just as, one hopes, we all can do.