The Cambridge dictionary defines work as an activity, such as a job, that a person uses physical energy to do, usually for money. Physics defines work as moving a force over a given distance which rings true for all us worker bees who daily move forces over vast distances in a sisyphean effort to make a living. Jerome K Jerome stated: “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” Honoré de Balzac wrote that all happiness depends on courage and work.The Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno said that “work is the only practical consolation for having been born’’.
Douglas Coupland has declared the nine to five as barbaric and thinks that one day we will look back at nine-to-five employment in a similar way to how we now view child labour in the 19th century. He has always been one of the sharpest critics of the modern workplace and his literary works such as Generation X, JPod and Microserfs all revolve around smart and creative young people struggling with the demands of the corporate world.
The world of work is tainted by being perceived as being dull and dreary and to depict it using prose can prove a project too stultifying for a novelist to dedicate a few years to its depiction. Considering the ubiquity of the work experience in our lives, novels that focus on the working life do not crowd the shelves of bookshops. When a novelist can explore heightened worlds innervated with psychological tension the mundane terrain of the water cooler and a poor performance appraisal can seem a turgid option.When there’s war, heartbreak, murder, fictitious future worlds, class struggle, familial discord and clever plots aplenty why would any fiction writer preoccupy himself with the nine to five?
In The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway, the narrator of the story, heads east to learn the bond business but, instead of office politics, the novel pulsates with high drama and extravagant parties. The odd sentence appears in the novel to confirm that Nick has a job: “Up in the city, I tried for a while to list the quotations on an interminable amount of stock, then I fell asleep in my swivel chair.”
Yuval Noah Harari the author of Sapiens recently predicted that most jobs that exist today might disappear within decades. He writes that as artificial intelligence outperforms humans in more and more tasks, it will replace humans in more and more jobs. If a world of post-work awaits us future generations can learn about the nine to five through works of fiction which will stand as a testament to the world of work. Reading most contemporary fiction one might assume that real life was something that went on outside of working hours. The following novels put work firmly where, in the majority of people’s lives it belongs – in the middle.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace
All jobs entail tedium and toil but the depiction of the work environment in a regional tax-processing centre on the outskirts of Peoria, Illinois, takes brain-crushing boredom to a new level of pain. One of the characters’ remarks that “enduring tedium over real time in a confined space is what real courage is”. There is a stunning passage about men on a work break, standing around talking about nothing in particular, but it nails the condition of bleak office-life with definitive accuracy.Wallace focuses on an assortment of misfits, eccentrics and outsiders who come to work at the I.R.S. and work as accountants, pushing paper and numbers in a generic office fitted with fluorescent lights, modular shelving and the ceaseless “whisper of sourceless ventilation”.
Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler
Ever since Anthony Bourdain published Kitchen Confidential in 2000 there has been a vogue for books that take us behind the scenes into the intoxicating world of restaurant work. Stephanie Danler’s debut novel is a poetic coming-of-age story about a young woman, Tess’s, experience working as a waitress in a Union Square Cafe, negotiating both New York and a new world of tastes and desires. Her descriptions of the aftermath of the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle are rendered with poetic dazzle.Unwelcome daybreak with its ensuing horror is “a dagger of morning prowled outside the open windows”, and “sunrise came like an undisclosed verdict”. Danler’s description of the panic of the unannounced health department inspection will resonate will all workers who have lived through similar situations. The narrator distills from her experience of her working life some philosophical truths including that “ a certain connoisseurship of taste,a mark of how you deal with the world, is the ability to relish the bitter, to crave it even, the way you do the sweet”.
Personal Days by Ed Parks
When Ed Parks was let go after New Times Media took over The Village Voicehe wrote this novel channelling the pre-layoff atmosphere of dread and anxiety into witty prose. Personal Days unfolds in three parts: Can’t Undo, Replace All and Revert to Saved, all familiar from Microsoft Word. He employs the language of computer software to narrate the happenings in the archipelagos of cubicle clusters while lambasting the lingo of corporate speak. Parks has said that this is “a layoff narrative” for our times.
Microserfs by Douglas Coupland
Daniel Underwood the narrator of this novel is a 26-year-old aspiring code writer, an affable insomniac who tells the story through his online journal Daniel@microsoft.com. Daniel and his fellow “microserfs” lead lives of frantic tedium tethered to their computer screens for 15 hour days, living on junk food and obsessing about Bill Gates. The novel makes a prescient point that “machines really are our subconscious” in this entertaining depiction of life as a computer techie in the early days of the technological revolution.
London and the South-East by David Szalay
Thoreau’s observation that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation finds embodiment in the character of Paul Rainey, the anti-hero of this sharply written satire on the modern workplace. He is an ad salesman with a company engaged in the increasingly profitless business of selling advertising space in trade magazines whose only subscribers are the advertisers themselves. The novel’s evocations of the day-to-day textures of the workplace, the routines, rivalries, allegiances, resentment and camaraderie, the lunch hours in the pub, the Monday morning postmortems of weekends. Paul’s dissatisfaction with his life lived in a sapping fog of alcohol and automation is brilliantly conveyed by Szalay: “Lying in his tepid bed, wheezing shallowly, eyes shut, ticker fluttering, his head a tightening knot of pain, he is once more sentient of his self, and his situation.” This novel is compulsively readable; Szalay’s prose and darkly comic tone make this a classic of the genre.
50 Jobs Worse Than Yours by Justin Racz Satirist
Justin Racz has spanned the globe to find 50 jobs that can only instil gratitude in any worker complaining about the difficulty of his job.This mini-book with 50 jobs and 50 photos showcases occupations from silly to gross, tedious to terrifying and may serve to dispel all work woes and take the blue out of Mondays, at least until it rolls around again.
No Time For Work by George Ryan
In the humorous tradition of Myles na gGopaleen, Ryan’s comic novel’s narrator is a newly qualified teacher who along with his friend Cecil Chuckleworth do all in their power to avoid work.They manage to outwit headmasters, school inspectors, parish priests and publicans with their escapades in an effort to live the dream, getting paid for sipping porter. The misadventures and comic capers will raise a smile with any reader who has navigated the Irish education system; Ryan writes that “long ago I discovered that teaching is an easy way of earning a living provided that one does not make the mistake of actually teaching.”
Sleep, or the lack of it, is another modern malaise. The purpose, function and drive to sleep has eluded science for millennia; to unravel its mysteries and deliver its age-old secrets has become the holy grail of modern neuroscience and research. Michael Rosbach, one of three American biologists awarded a Nobel Prize for their discovery of the master genes controlling the body’s circadian rhythms, has declared that all of western society is chronically sleep-deprived.
Though feted as a malady of the technology era, insomnia has always been the unwanted bed fellow of modern man. Some of the most famous actors, artists and political leaders have been unable to court the Sandman, and tales of their insomnia are legendary .Vladimir Nobokov, a famous insomniac, called sleepers “ the most moronic fraternity in the world” and felt that the wrench of parting with consciousness almost unbearable. He wanted always to be an eye awake, a seer in a sleeping world, a solitary watcher among the unconscious.
Vincent Van Gogh was said to have been a sufferer and used to douse his mattress and pillow in camphor, a close relative of turpentine, which scholars believe may have caused the brain damage which contributed to his suicide. Groucho Marx’s extreme insomnia led to him reportedly calling strangers on the phone in the small hours to insult them and wrote: “What do you get when you cross an insomniac, an agnostic, and a dyslexic?” According to Marx the correct answer is someone who stays up all night wondering if there is a Dog.
The modern-day equivalent is the insomniacal tribe of online social media users, who often commune and direct message in the small hours, propelled by the excitement that they are not alone. As an often-reluctant member of this wide-awake club, I have taken comfort in Leonard Cohen’s line that the last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the waking world.
Medieval humans slept in two phases, a deep first sleep from sunset until 2am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, then a lighter second sleep until dawn
Roger Ekirch, author of At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, writes about the pattern where medieval humans slept in two phases, a deep first sleep from sunset until 2am, followed by a few hours of wakefulness, then a lighter second sleep until dawn. The wakeful hours were spent in prayer, visits to neighbours or engaged in nocturnal shenanigans. He argues that the modern “precious eight hours’ sleep” is a product of the industrial age and the advent of artificial light and that medieval sleepers got closer to nature’s intention than we do. As well as negotiating the tribulations of middle age it appears that my sleeping pattern is medieval, a nightly throw-back to the bi-modal sleep pattern of my ancestors.
Tallulah Bankhead, the early 20th-century filmstar and libertine, hit on a solution to her lifelong insomnia by hiring gay caddies to hold her hand until she nodded off
Tallulah Bankhead, the famous early 20th-century filmstar and libertine, hit on the solution to her lifelong insomnia by hiring gay caddies to sit with her and hold her hand until she nodded off. A less expensive and modern alternative is to try to nod off to the gravelly tones of Drew Akerman, aka Dearest Scooter, the 42-year-old creator and host of the popular Sleep With Me podcast. This is downloaded about 1.3million times each month, which gives some measure of the need for stories that succeed in boring the listener to sleep. Scooter sometimes calls his show “the podcast the sheep listen to when they get tired of counting themselves”. In Greek myth, Hermes used his inimitable wit to tell stories so long-winded and labyrinthine that they lulled the many-eyed monster Argus to sleep.
Aubade confronts what is at the heart of both poetry and insomnia: a preternatural dread of the Big Sleep of death, of which each night’s sleep is trope and harbinger
Anna Akhmatova wrote that insomnia is when both sides of the pillow feel hot. The great poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a sonnet about sleeplessness called I wake and feel the fell of dark, when he lived in Ireland in the 1880s. In its depiction of a dark night of the soul, it is unparalleled in English literature. Another poet who distils the essence of the sleepless night is Philip Larkin. He often stayed up all night with his martinis and jazz LPs, and in the poem Aubade confronts what is at the heart of both poetry and insomnia: a preternatural dread of the Big Sleep of death, of which each night’s sleep is trope and harbinger. “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. In time the curtain-edges will grow light. Till then I see what’s always there: Unresting death, a whole day nearer now…”
Aristotle regarded sleep as a between world, “being as it were a borderland between living and not-living”, sleep being nearer to death than waking, or as Macduff calls it in Macbeth, “death’s counterfeit.”
As a seasoned insomniac, I have spent many years in search for a panacea from the gods, a miracle that would restore me to dream like the Waltons, fast asleep after lights out, cocooned in soporific dreamland far from the madding world. I have tried tinctures, tonics, flower remedies, herbs, homeopathy and acupuncture. I have downloaded apps, subscribed to YouTube channels, chanted and exhaled, twisted and turned and made Faustian pacts for nocturnal oblivion. I have spent vast sums on goose-down pillows and frette linen sheets as Spotify filled the bedroom with soundtracks of rainforests and jungles. The screeching cockatoos and monsoon rains’ aural ministrations have often scared me senseless and led to lights on in wonderland and paranoid checking under the bed for any stray jungle creature.
I have trawled the internet for moon juice and night dusts made by hippies in California, whose contents promised to deliver a nightcap that would lull me to sleep and let me slip slide away into a deep, sound slumber. A cornucopia of soporifics, including cherry juice, magnesium, B6, calcium and chamomile have left me still staring at the ceiling. As a great believer in bibliotherapy, I recently set myself a challenge to read my way through some of the recent publications concerned with the search for an enlightening sleep.
Wide Awake: What I Learned About Sleep from Doctors, Drug Companies, Dream Experts, and a Reindeer Herder in the Arctic Circle, By Patricia Morrisroe
This memoir is a must-read for fellow insomniacs. As a fourth generation sufferer of the plight, Morrisroe approaches the topic with the zeal of a researcher – always armed with her fabulous wit, which percolates the book and gives great light to the dark subject. Her insomnia is personified for her as John Malkovich in the tole of Valmont, the sadistic French aristocrat of Dangerous Liaisons. She realises that sleep, in its various dysfunctions, can be one of the most dangerous liasons of all, increasing your risk of heart disease, obesity and cancer.
Morrisroe’s book is a personal narrative of her search for that which eludes her, the perfect night’s sleep. On this journey to unmask her torturer, she meets drug researchers and dispensers, mystics and cowboys, psychotherapists and savants, and unravels the notions about sleep that are often founded on fantasy, mythology and marketing. She illuminates the murky world of smart drugs like Provigil, whose maker Cephalon paid a huge fine for allegedly marketing the drug as a wake promoter instead of its FDA approved use for excessive sleepiness associated with narcolepsy.
She also interviews an anthropologist, who says that in many traditional, non-Western cultures people sleep on light mats, in groups, around a fire and drift in and out of slumber instead of our “lie down and die” model. Sometimes they get up and dance for a while, which is very reminiscent of student life, but perhaps not compatible with a life based on a nine to five. Her description of a restful apartment’s ruination by the arrival of noisy upstairs neighbours, whose children proceeded to stampede nightly at 3am across her ceiling will strike a chord with many of us who’ve endured similar nocturnal nuisance.
Until she found her dream home she lived in a variety of New York apartments; one had such a flimsy common wall that she could hear her neighbour, an elderly Irishman, praying nightly for the Pope and President Reagan. The acoustics allowed her to hear his tonail-clipping, “the nails clattering over the hardwood floor like reindeer hooves.”
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams , By Matthew Walker
Matthew Walker is a renowned neuroscientist and sleep expert who explores 20 years of sleep research in an attempt to solve the mystery of why sleep matters. This book is divided into four parts: the first two are concerned with the mechanics and benefits of sleep, the last two with how and why we dream as well as a new vision for sleep in the 21st century. As a bedside read, it can be dipped into according to one’s curiosity about sleep and the style is accessible, with the author able to demystify complex neurological phenomena.
The first chapter sets the tone, with Walker announcing the sobering fact that “routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer” as well as contributing to your risk of Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, stroke and heart failure. Walker explains that sleep remains one of the last of the great biological mysteries. Our sleep patterns are cued by light and its absence, with photoreceptors at the back of the eyes picking up light and sending electrical signals to the suprachiasmatic nucleus in your brain. This is the master timekeeper, which regulates and synchronises body temperature and blood pressure, making sure that they all operate on the same cycle, known as circadian rhythm.
In an ideal world, without the blue light of digital devices discombobulating the clockwork, when darkness falls our pineal gland produces melatonin which induces sleep. During daylight hours, melatonin production is reduced to encourage wakefulness. Walker is particularly informative about our genetic propensity to be either an owl or a lark and society’s bias towards larks in work-scheduling. This causes owls to burn candles at both ends to fit into the work model, which exacts a huge toll on health and happiness. Despite some of the findings making this night owl a little uneasy, it’s a triumph in its field, where findings have huge implications for health and work life in modern society.
Acquainted with the Night: Insomnia Poems, By Lisa Russ Spaar (Editor)
Rudyard Kipling wrote that words are the most powerful drug used by mankind. This is a beautiful anthology, with poetic greats like Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop, Rimbaud and Sappho, Shakespeare and Shelley representing the best of the Western canon, alongside poets from Russia, China, Japan, Vietnam, Romania and other far-flung corners of the world to show the universality of sleeplessness and what it means to be acquainted with the night.
A restless night of tossing and turning can become, in the hands of Hopkins or Sappho, a visionary and artistic experience that can lead to epiphany or confrontation with existential crisis. The anthology is divided into three parts; Solititude, Vigil and Anguish and Longing and Epiphany and Vision. Insomniac by Sylvia Plath is a triumph of all of these odes to insomnia where Plath summons a nightscape of terror inspired by her own bouts of excruciating sleeplessness. Plath describes the insomniac’s pillow as being a desert – arid and bereft from the oasis of sleep. The insomniac is immune to the sleeping tablets “those sugary planets whose influence won for him/ a life baptized in no-life for a while” and their “poppy-sleepy colors do him no good”
The night is only a sort of carbon paper,
Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
Letting in the light, peephole after peephole –
A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.
Under the eyes of the stars and the moon’s rictus
He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness
Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.
Pushkin’s poem loses none of its powerful evocation of a sleepless night in its translation from the Russian in its depiction of the sleepless author listening to the external ticking of the clock as well as the internal whispers of a reproachful conscience.
Lines Written at Night During Insomnia by Alexander Pushkin (Translated by DM Thomas)
I can’t sleep; no light burns;
All round, darkness, irksome sleep.
Only the monotonous
Ticking of the clock,
The old wives chatter of fate,
Trembling of the sleeping night,
Mouse-like scurrying of life…
Why do you disturb me?
What do you mean tedious whispers?
Is it the day I have wasted
Reproaching me or murmuring?
What do you want from me?
Are you calling me or prophesying?
I want to understand you,
I seek a meaning in you.
The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time , By Arianna Huffington
The media mogul Arianna Huffington’s book is a call not to lean in but to lie down and sleep as an aid to productivity and life enhancement. Arianna practices what she preaches and sleeps on a bed dressed with her organic cotton sheet range from her Huffington collection and her pillows stuffed with soporific hops and barley. She relegates her phone and electronic devices to the foyer outside the bedroom and engages in a half-hour nightly transition to sleep that includes gratitude journaling, bathing in Epsom salts by candlelight, rituals which help her to greet sleep with respect. Huffington believes that the miracle of sleep allows us to see the world with a reinvigorated spirit, to step out of time and come back to our lives restored. This is a must-read for all aspiring entrepreneurs as this newly anointed sleep evangelist believes that a sleep revolution will allow us to problem solve and dream a new future.
Sleep in Early Modern England, By Sasha Handley
Handley’s book is an illuminating cultural history of sleep, drawing on a rich host of archival sources, referencing Samuel Pepys and the Romantics in an effort to enrich our knowledge of sleep and its roles in earlier societies. The physician and clergyman Thomas Cogan in his The Haven of Health written in the late 1500s presaged this year’s Nobel thesis when he stated “the benefit of sleepe, or the necessity rather needeth no proofe, for that without it no living creature may long endure, according to that saying of the Poet Ovid.”
Ann Lamott wrote that “you own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Below I’ve picked three memoirs that I’ve enjoyed over the past month and will follow with my pick of fiction and non-fiction over the next week.
Between Them: Remembering My Parents by Richard Ford ( Bloomsbury)
For any Ford fan this is a must read as the Pulitzer Prize winner writes with affection and some humour about his parents Parker Ford and Edna Akin. The memoir was originally written as two essays written decades apart and in their fusion creates one of the most extraordinary depictions of loss in literature. Ford writes first about his father, Parker, a traveling salesman who died in Ford’s arms in 1960 when Ford was 16. He wrote the piece about Edna, his feisty, independent mother shortly after her death in 1981. In the author’s note at the beginning of the memoir Ford acknowledges that writing the two memoirs thirty years apart he has permitted some inconsistencies persist between the two timelines and has allowed himself the lenience to retell certain events.This is a subtle and beautiful testament to devotion and a writer repaying parental love with his exacting prose and ability to animate his parent’s lives. In the afterword to the memoir Ford writes that ” the fact that lives and deaths often go unnoticed has specifically inspired this small book about my parents and set its task” and that ” the chore for the memoir writer is to compose a shape and an economy that gives faithful, reliable, if sometimes drastic, coherence to the many unequal things any life contains.”I had the privilege to hear Richard Ford read from this memoir at Listowel Writer’s Week last month, his voice suffused with emotion and deep south charm inducing a trance like state in the audience where we confronted some of life’s beautiful but painful truths.
Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler published by Canongate.
South African novelist Sheila Kohler has been haunted by the death of her sister, Maxine, who died a violent death on a spring night at the hands of her abusive husband. This memoir is the author’s attempt to unravel the truth of what happened and sift through the sands of memory to recapture the privilege of their childhood in 1950’s South Africa, a society where colonial gentility co-existed with violence and privilege. This searing illumination of sisterhood starts in 1979 when Kohler hears the news that her brother-in-law, a protege of heart surgeon Christian Barnard, drove off a deserted road and into a lamp-post causing the death of his wife Maxine. When Kohler sees her sister’s face in the morgue she feels guilty about not saving her from a husband they knew to be unspeakably cruel. She soul searches through this memoir and confronts the dark questions that her sister’s death bring to the surface including her own passivity which may have been exacerbated by the misogyny of 1950’s South Africa. This memoir is written in the present tense which reminds us that Kohler’s sister is forever with us and in her stark and delicate prose she captures the sensuous South African childhood of “swimming in the big pool, picking armfuls of bright flowers, gathering oranges and lemons” as well as the heart of darkness that destroyed this paradise.
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy
This memoir by New Yorker writer Ariel Levy confronts the notion of having it all. She was riding high in 2012, successful at her chosen career, legally married to a woman and pregnant with her first child. ” Thanksgiving in Mongolia” is the heart -breaking essay that Levy wrote about the miscarriage that happened in a hotel room in Mongolia where she had flown to do a report on the country’s mining boom.Her memoir picks up where the essay leaves off and explores the aftermath of the miscarriage where her marriage fell apart and Levy felt that the Universe had delivered her a karmic blow for dreaming that she could live a life of her choosing. Of her generation, Ms. Levy writes: ” Sometimes our parents were dazzled by the sense of possibility they’s bestowed on us. Other times, they were aghast to recognise their own entitlement, staring back at them magnified in the mirror of their offspring.” This memoir confronts taboos and life-shattering events in self-lacerating detail and ends with a Austenesque happy ending though in typical Levy style she has declared that this is not an ending as she is not dead.
In 1928 Virginia Woolf was asked to give a lecture at Girton College, Cambridge on the topic of women and fiction. Her first line was “But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction- what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?”
This important feminist polemic explain the difficulties of a woman equally as gifted as Tolstoy and Shakespeare in writing great works of literature. Woolf explains that poverty and domestic shackles have always limited women’s capacity to contribute to the canon and that “women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time. Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.”
Modern woman has the financial freedom not alone to write fiction, but can dictate her own reality and occupy and enjoy not only a room of her own, but an entire house of her own. She also has the power to both write and live by a narrative of her choice. She is the woman celebrated as the heroine of Destiny’s Child’s song Independent Woman. The house I live in / I’ve bought it / The car I’m driving / I’ve bought it / I depend on me.
The question of how a woman moves through the world alone is explored with bold candour by Kate Bolick in Spinster, described as a triumph by Malcolm Gladwell. This polemic for our time is a marvelous meditation on what it means to be female at the dawn of the 21st century. The cover of the book shows the author sitting on a sumptuous gold velvet sofa sipping tea from a porcelain cup. She is glamorous and smiling, the photographic antithesis of the archetypical spinster. Bolick wrote the book as she approached forty and was ruminating on whether she could spend her life alone and still be happy. Bolick states that the dual contingencies of “whom to marry, and when will it happen” impact on every woman’s life regardless of where she was raised or of her religious background, and continue to “govern her until they’re answered, even if the answers are nobody and never.”
She believes that the single woman has always been stigmatized and reviled. Social psychologist Bella DePaulo coined the word “singlism” to describe this bias and discrimination against people who are single. Bolick notes that the single woman stereotype is continually evolving and perceptions of her have fluctuated wildly over the decades. From the cat-loving spinster of the popular imagination, she can be perceived to be selfless like Florence Nightingale, a charming eccentric à la Mary Poppins or Holly Golightly or as a powerful icon as Joan Of Arc.
The author structures the book around the lives of five female authors, weaving their experiences and struggles with her own narrative path. These writers become her “awakeners”, female spirit guides didn’t conform to societal demands and proclaimed the joys of freedom from domestication. These women were all true pioneers, women who secured the freedom and range to develop lives independent of home and family. Her awakeners are the Irish writer Maeve Brennan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edith Wharton, Neith Boyce and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Bolick’s book was inspired by her “spinster wish,” which is her shorthand for the extravagant pleasure of simply being by herself, it is a sensuous vision of solitary self-care and self indulgence.
The terrain of the modern single woman is explored with psychological depth in Other Hood by Melanie Notkin, A Life Of One’s Own by Ilana Simons and Rocking The Life Unexpected by Jody Day. These new books are blue prints for living a single life with confidence, they put a new spin on spinster and rebuff the taints of singlism. In the words of Sylvia Plath they encourage single women to take a deep breath and listen to the old brag of the heart “I am, I am, I am”.
Writers such as Philip Roth and more recently Will Self have predicted the death of the novel and have written its obituary notice with Roth declaring that he “was finished with fiction” and that in a few decades the novel will be as irrelevant as Latin poetry. In a recent Guardian piece Self writes that “the omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time.”
There is a trend over the last few years for a new type of fiction, a genre that molds memoir with biography to form a literature that feels fresh and hyperreal, a type of reality fiction for the modern reader. Sheila Heti, Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are the disciples of this new strain of writing which channels the stream of consciousness of the post-moderns with a fiction of the everyday in depicting quotidian reality. The subjects described can often be banal but with these writer’s talent and skill the writing outshines its often plot and artifice driven competitors. David Shields presaged this new trend when in his 2010 “manifesto” called Reality Hunger he advocates a return to the “real” in literature and he rails against conventional plot-driven fiction in favour of the lyric essay and the memoir.
Karl Ove Knausgaard’s opus Min Kamp or My Struggle, which has been one of the publishing sensations of the last few years, is a perfect example of the fusion of memoir with essayistic discourse. Frustrated by the confines of the novel to write about his father’s death from alcoholism he decided to write a real account which was unconcerned with literary niceties such as structure and plot and he invented his own language “the banality of the everyday. ”Part of what makes My Struggle so thrilling and hypnotizing is the evocation of the everyday such as diaper-changing, washing the dishes or going for a hair cut in a flat, almost conversational tone. This poetry of the prosaic is exemplified in Karl’s writing and no subject is deemed too secret to divulge. This truthful selling of his soul is very liberating for the reader, almost as if the baring of his secrets to us frees us from the shame of some of our own.
Rachel Cusk’s new novel Outline is narrated by an English writer who has flown to Athens to teach a writing workshop and writes of her encounters on the plane, in the classroom and observations made during evening meals with other writers. It is essentially plotless and imbued with greatness through Cusk’s ability to conjure up these vignettes with her characteristic stylish prose. She said in a recent Guardian interview that “autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts” and that description and character are “dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”
Zadie Smith wrote that she awaited the next instalment of Karl’s volume with all the longings and cravings of a crack addict. The modern reader clearly has a hunger for depictions of reality unsullied by the filters of fiction. The lure of such work is evidently potent and perhaps truth will become more popular that fiction.
Sylvia Plath ( October 27,1932- February 11, 1963
This Boston born bad girl studied at Smith College and won the opportunity to spend the Summer of 1953 as one of the guest editor’s of Mademoiselle magazine. Out of these experiences Plath wrote the modern masterpiece The Bell Jar, where her voice is channelled through the character of the main protagonist Esther Greenwood. This wry, morbid voice explores sexism in American society, modern pop culture, her mental struggles and the psychiatric profession. As a Fulbright scholar in Cambridge this emerging poet met the handsome Ted Hughes at a book launch. The intensity of their meeting makes Sylvia a queen of the Bad Girls, during their initial discourse Sylvia bit him on the cheek so hard, her teeth drew blood. This marked an almost savage and elemental aspect to their relationship, gothic in its inception and tragic in its demise. As a couple they worked and wrote, travelled to America, taught , returned to England. She had two children after a series of miscarriages and Ted had affairs. He left her for Assia Weevil after a tempestuous five years and she committed suicide by putting her head in a gas oven. What remains of this girl is her legend and of course her canon of work, her poetry collection Ariel continues to be analyzed and admired decades later.Listen her:
And Ryan Adams beautiful song about her
Read this biography by the brilliant Lilian Pizzichini to get a measure of this Bad Girl with literary talent and artistic integrity. Rhys had a dreamy childhood in the lush island heat of Dominica, the daughter of a white Creole mother and a Welsh father. A colourful life included a brief stint as a chorus girl in London, a career as an artist’s model and a vagabond and bohemian existence in Paris.
Rhys had three failed marriages, was often alcoholic and destitude, economically on the edge and abandoned by caddish men. Yet it was all these hardships that made her such a great writer, Rhys distilled her experiences into the beautiful prose of books such as After Leaving Mister Mr Mackenzie(1930) and Good Morning, Midnight (1939) and the unforgettable Wide Saragasso Sea, the story of Bertha Mason, the first wife of Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre.
It is a great consolation that Rhys lived to see her work attain critical acclaim and was made a CBE in 1978. The monde recognised this fragile voice of the demi-monde and bohemia, a life full of flawed humanity and fragile dreams.
No one encapsulates the allure of the Bad Girl quite like Lana Del Rey with her haunting lyrics, eyes liquid with longing and lyrics syrupy with nostalgia as she sings her breakthrough hit Video Games. Well Lana since you asked I’ll have to confess that I more than like the bad girls, I love them. My favourite are the literary ladies who kicked up a storm, lived life on their own terms and have been inspirational for generations of others. On today’s post I’ll cover four such luminaries.
Edna St Vincent Millay(1892-1950)
She was the poet who wrote First Fig which in its few short lines encapsulates her life, where she certainly burnt the candle at both ends. She wrote all sorts of transgressive poetry and plays as well as being a very skilled sonnet writer, winning the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her fourth book, The Ballad of the Harp Weaver. She practiced what she preached and went on to have a life time of bisexual love affairs and was also an outspoken pacifist who sometimes attracted ire. Nancy Milford’s biography entitled Savage Beauty is a great read for anyone who wants to know about the extraordinary life of this poet of the Jazz age.
Dorothy Parker famously said that every morning she brushed her teeth and sharpened her tongue. As a novelist,screenwriter, poet and critic , Parker was notorious as the hard-drinking bad girl with a talent for stinging repartee and for her endlessly quotable one liners. Her poems and stories capture the spirit of the decadent Jazz age in New York, often exposing the darkness as well as the dazzle. The philosopher Irwin Edman said of Parker that her talent was the ability to “combine a heartbreak with a wisecrack.” Although married three times, in fact twice to the same man Alan Campbell, Parker’s romantic entanglements were copious and troubled and all this emotional drama surfaces in her stories. Her vulnerability behind the acerbic manner makes her the ultimate bad girl with a heart. Every book shelf should have a copy of Parker’s collected works, the Portable Dorothy Parker.
Anais Nin (1903-1977)
The author of the erotic short story collection Delta of Venus lived a life that I’ve always found scintillating and fascinating. In an open marriage in 1930’s Paris to an American banker, Nin refused to live a life limited by societal dictates. Forays into the bohemian cafes of Paris led her to Henry Miller with whom she had a very passionate affair. A love triangle developed between Henry, his wife June and Anais, which is the subject of a 1990 film Henry and June, which explores this tangled love story. Her life story is one hell of a read, bigamy, duplicity, affairs and a searing search for self-knowledge make the pages steam with bad girl chutzpah. Noel Riley Fitch’s book is a great read for anyone curious about this most singular literary woman.
Zelda Fitzgerald( July 24th 1900-March 10th, 1948)
Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, born in Montgomery, Alabama was an American novelist and wife of one of my favourite authors F.Scott Fitzgerald. She was a true icon of the 20’s and the original flapper girl who bobbed her hair, drank to excess and was a huge influence on her husband’s work. Her life has enough dramatic material to fill many books and with the re-release of the Great Gatsby last year, there has been a resurgence of interest in Zelda’s life. She was an extremely gifted woman who became torn by the clash between her husband’s career and her own talent, willingly consumed in a marriage marred by alcoholism, mental-health issues and jealousy. When still riding the crest of the Jazz age her exploits included dancing on table tops, diving naked into fountains and riding on the roofs of New York cabs. For me she will always be modern literature’s most famous muse, an iconic woman who was the original bad girl.
This summer I’ve noticed a batch of novels hitting the book shelves featuring modern day Bad Girls. Lena Dunham’s Girls shows the New York twenty- something dating scene with a gritty and unflinching reality, far removed from the manolos and cocktails of Carrie Bradshaw’s Sex and the City. This trend in TV drama is also evident in some of the new books by female authors behaving badly.
Zoe Pilger’s debut Eat My Heart Out is an anti-romance featuring a 23 year old protagonist who has dropped out of university and is
holed up in a fetid Clapham houseshare. Read it and lock up your daughters!
Emma- Jane Unsworth’s second novel Animals is a story shaken and stirred by a litany of disastrous nights out and even more dodgy sexual encounters.
Bryony Gordon’s The Wrong Knickers is her memoir of a decade of decadence as a young journalist in London. As an account of Bad Girl antics it’s amusing and well worth a Summer read.
On holidays in France last month I noticed a flurry of activity in the lobby of our hotel in Juan Les Pins. Red carpet was being rolled out the door and young women clad in designer clobber clicked around the foyer in vertiginous heels having animated discussions in their iPhones and clutching clipboards. I immediately sniffed a party of the private variety and the antithesis of the events I attended in Rathmines in the mid eighties where groups of students sat on bedsit floors puffing ciggies and watching their harp stash.
I’ve perfected the art of walking by door people with an air of possession. Book in hand I strode past the PR beauties muttering to myself a little and ignoring the chorus of madams emanating from the entrance. Once out on the beautiful courtyard over looking the beach I was offered a glass of champagne by a friendly waiter. All attendees were extremely chic and all the beautiful people mingled, air-kissed, laughed and posed for photographs with the confidence of movie stars.
I was beginning to stand out a little, cutting a lone figure centre stage with just a Tim Winton book and a glass of bubbly. I noticed a very dapper man sitting near by talking to a woman. He was clearly american and a little intimidating, but I had to ask someone where Tim Winton was.
” Excuse me, but would you know where Tim Winton is? I’d like him to sign my book?” I asked.
“Tim Winton isn’t here. He didn’t win the prize. Whit Stilmann did.” he replied.
“I’ve never heard of Whit Stilmann.” I said.
“I’m Whit Stilmann.” replied the famous American director.
I began to stutter and splutter and attempt to dig myself out of the crater sized faux pas, much mentioning that I love books and films followed and that I’d adored The Last Days of Disco, never realised that it had been released as a book.
Whit took it all with a sanguine and languid sense of humour and later talked about Gatsby and his love of Paris. I introduced him during the course of the evening to my friend Pauline. It was a combination of the rosé, the champagne, the sheer thrill of meeting a famous director but words failed me as my brain scrambled for his first name.
Whit is not part of the normal vernacular in Ireland and I struggled to remember this first name. My brain strayed into the literary memory and I found myself introducing Whit Stilmann as Walt Whitman. It could have been worse, Walt Disney and Ben Stiller were waiting on the tip of my tongue.Don’t blame it on sunshine, don’t blame it on moonlight, blame it on the rose.