Scratching at the Wall: A Review of ‘Her 37th Year: An Index’ by Suzanne Scanlon
originally published in 3:AM Magazine
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Halfway through the “D” chapter of Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index, the narrator – a nameless female writer living in New York – says in defiance of a friend: “I want to deny the arch.” The friend had called her a “hot mess”, and though the narrator agreed with the assessment, she was disturbed by its underlying power to instantaneously sum up her life. “I want to be punk about aging,” the narrator says. “Punk about gooey mothering, punk about turning thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty.”
Aversion to narrative is central to the conceit of Scanlon’s book, which eschews narrative altogether, its text instead organised into an alphabetical list of words and phrases and proper nouns. Each entry is paired with an associated account, a kind of psychological ‘record’ or definition that floats freely across time and space, drawing on the narrator’s memories, dreams, conversations, letters, quotations, and various cultural ephemera (including literature, film, TV, news, online obituaries, Southwest Airline ads, Facebook and Tumblr posts) — from chapter “E”:
END, THE (see also: Healing), “You are not finished,” she assures you. It would be easier to be finished, you often think. You have thought.
HUSBAND, who will call. “I miss you,” you will say. “I love you,” you will say. “I want to move back to New York,” you will say. He will either not hear you or he will ignore you. “I have to get some work done,” he will say. “We can talk tomorrow,” he will say. “Goodnight. Love you.” “Goodnight.”
Amid the torrent of language, there are fleeting glimpses of mini-narratives and quasi-characters, such as the narrator’s marriage to a nameless “husband”, the raising of her child (named “Magoo”), affairs with “B—” and “the man in boots”, and her childhood friendship with a “tall, beautiful, old money East Coast” girl named Marigold. But even these stories are broken down into atoms, their narrative arcs barely decipherable, the timing and intersection of events left vague and open to interpretation.
As the reader sifts through entry after entry, the index gradually reveals itself as an extended and complicated self-meditation. The narrator is approaching that dreaded age where “suddenly every book is about turning ”. She feels the contours of well-worn archetypes forming around her in an almost suffocating way. Ruminating on memories of past milestones, like the day of her college graduation, she recalls suffering from a visceral “fear of endings”. Her urge to resist narrative is partly a deflection of her inherent mortality, a lesson she is learning to accept, as quoted in the entry for “DISAPPOINTMENT” (from George Orwell’s 1984): “The end is contained within the beginning.”
Her resistance also portrays a kind of narrative vertigo, the feeling that she is unable to assign a “beginning” or “end” to many of her life experiences. Quoting poet Claudia Rankine, she says, “It occurs to [her] that forty could be half my life or it could be all my life.” The narrator can’t decide whether her marriage is not working because she is depressed, or if she is depressed because her marriage is not working. She wonders about “the difference between destruction and construction”. Her jumbled mind envies how Marigold “[knows] how to be in the world in a way [she does] not,” the way Marigold resembles “an entire composition”, while the narrator feels like a “[collection of] fragments.”
Scanlon’s decision to use an index-style form is both a way to assuage the prospect of death, and more closely mimic her narrator’s messy conceptions of the world and herself. The project is similar in spirit to Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which also centres around a nameless female writer approaching middle-age, her vast palette of thoughts and stories and remembered cultural references organised into a numbered, episodic structure. Both narrators are confused and anxious and obsessed with teasing out the relationship between life and art.
“WHERE ARE WE IN TIME AND SPACE?” Offill’s narrator angrily scribbles on the story drafts of her writing students.
“DO NOT CONFLATE NARRATOR W/ AUTHOR,” Scanlon’s narrator writes on a student essay.
These books are rigid in form but almost infinitely expansive in substance. The narrational “consciousness” can (and does) take us wherever she pleases, as long as it adds a useful dimension to the subjects or themes under consideration: life and death, art and love, desire and rejection. Complicating this approach even further are the playful ways that each narrator portrays the physical world, as if communicating through a kaleidoscope of perspectives. Halfway through Dept. of Speculation, the narration mysteriously switches from “I” and “we,” to “the wife.” The various entries in Her 37th Year alternate between third-, second- and first-person. This messy, multi-faceted narration acknowledges the fact that our internal dialogues often address many different audiences, real and imagined, from our loved ones and acquaintances, to our former and possible selves.
The artistic ethos underlying such formally experimental texts closely mirrors that of David Shields’ genre-bending manifesto Reality Hunger (2010), in which he argues for new collage-style forms of literature that explore big themes and topics using any and every available method, regardless of formal attribution or canonical classifications (he has described genre as “a minimum security prison”). Shields’ mandate to his literary peers is to create “art with a visible string to the world”, texts that help the reader better understand “how … the writer solve[d] being alive”.
One laudable example that Shields often cites is Gregory Burnham’s ‘Subtotals’ (fromHarper’s Magazine, July 1989). This short piece takes the form of a back-of-the-napkin calculation, the narrator tallying up his life’s many experiences, such as number of broken bones (0), houses rented (12), times unfaithful to wife (2), stairs walked up and down (745,821, 743,609), etc. Similar to Scanlon’s index-style structure, part of the beauty embedded into Burnham’s piece is the juxtaposition of a logical form filled with human subjectivity. His narrator reveals himself through the miscellaneous subjects deemed personally important enough to categorise, from “states visited (38)” to “number of gray hairs (4)”.
The collage of ideas that make up Her 37th Year build toward an argument that more important than narrative is the pure sense of being somewhere – anywhere – in communion with another human soul. The index entry for “COMMUNICATION” quotes playwright Tony Kushner: “The individual is a myth. The lowest reducible unit of humanity is two.” The narrator recalls reading somewhere that “it takes two to be ill: patient and doctor”, and she fondly remembers an adolescent crush on her psychiatrist, their weekly sessions an attempt to “bridge the gap, the horror of separateness”. These sentiments seem to be directly channeling Shields’ desire for more artistic “visible string[s] to the world”.
The book does have one roughly decipherable, overarching narrative: the narrator’s gradual ascent towards a heightened emotional maturity, a lesson that bookends the text. Her mindset evolves from a declaration of personal defiance in the opening paragraph (“this is not about you”) to an enlightened plea for communion in the final sentence (“I really need you with me in this story”). Based on the opening paragraph, the “you” could be referring to her husband, “the man in boots”, or another nameless, long-lost lover from one of her past lives. Or could it be a direct reference to the reader, the person on the other side of the manuscript, that she has learned is necessary to bring her story to life?
In one of the book’s early scenes, the narrator describes a play about a prisoner who scratches on the wall of his cell. This image is invoked as a metaphor for life and art, a poignant summary of what we do during our brief moments here on Earth: “one scratch[es] on the wall”. If it is impossible for any single person to reckon directly with the universe, the best we can do is attempt to confide in the people around us, those who represent our fellow cosmic travellers.