Nora Caplan-Bricker (executive editor): Earlier this summer, I picked the novel First Love, by Gwendoline Riley, out of my mail pile nearly at random. I had never heard of Riley—an English writer in her early forties who has been steadily accruing literary acclaim since she published her first book 20 years ago—or of the novel, her fifth, which came out in the UK in 2017, and will be released in the US next month by New York Review Books, alongside the newer My Phantoms. If I’d had expectations, First Love would have upended them. It’s an unusual novel, full of the negative space that exists between people—its 166 pages contain many stretches of dialogue in which most things go unsaid—and of the competing interpretations that swim in that void.
First Love is a Cinderella story of sorts, though an unflinchingly unromantic one: When it opens, its protagonist, Neve, has recently married Edwyn, an older man she moved in with 18 months ago, trading her solitary life “on the dole, in the North”—as he throws at her during one of their many horrendous fights—for coupledom in a roomy flat in a quiet part of London. No one seems more surprised by this than Neve herself, except possibly Edwyn: They are, she says, “two people who’d always expected, planned, to live their lives alone.” Marriage sometimes seems to have made them no less so. Neve believes that it’s Edwyn’s “dream world, his symbol world, that we were dragged into” during arguments, his cruelty addressed less to her than to what she is made to signify, “outfitted in colours, slogans, that I could not see.” As Neve reflects on her own history—her childish and domineering father; her passive and self-pitying mother—the reader wonders whether she, too, is rehearsing old patterns, giving some truth to Edwyn’s furious claim that he is fundamentally unseen. On the outside, it’s all new terrain, but internally each of them wanders the same old pocked and dangerous territory. But perhaps, by accommodating herself to Edwyn, Neve is in fact overcoming her habits: Maybe, she thinks, it was actually her old life of “snap-twist getaways” that echoed her mother’s itinerant loneliness, her father’s carelessness with people and money. In Riley’s subtle novel, the question of which interpretation holds more truth is irresolvable. Still, the close world of Neve’s marriage is leavened by hope that people can change at least slightly—can be transformed by the practice of giving and receiving care and affection, even if only some of the time.
The narrator of Riley’s most recent novel, My Phantoms, which was published in the UK last year, also struggles to throw off a suffocating emotional inheritance. There are other commonalities between the two books: While Neve is a writer, My Phantoms’s Bridget is an academic; both grew up bouncing between a self-absorbed mother and a petty-tyrannical father, and the scenes of their childhoods are sometimes interchangeable. But whereas First Love is the story of an uneasy marriage, My Phantoms studies a strained mother-daughter relationship. And while the structure of First Love is more conventional, gaining dimension from varied settings—Neve goes to meet friends for coffee, to a writer’s residency, to a therapist’s office—My Phantoms keeps its frame claustrophobically, almost experimentally narrow. The reader exclusively sees Bridget with her parents, or thinking about her parents, or—very occasionally—discussing her parents with other people. The rest of her life is sketched only cursorily: She lives with her psychoanalyst boyfriend and their cat. We understand the distance Bridget has traveled from her mother largely through her disdain for the older woman’s disavowal of agency. At one point, she accuses her mother of getting stuck in a “note of disappointed expectation.” “I think you feel like a bargain has been broken,” she says. “You understand that a deal was never struck, don’t you?” But a cold, sometimes cruel superiority peeks out from behind Bridget’s composed acuity, suggesting that she, too, holds tightly to her disappointments. The novel dramatizes what many of us can’t help but know: However consciously we reschool ourselves in adulthood, we retain fluency in our family of origin’s emotional idiom, a language we never unlearn.
When recommending a novel, there’s an urge to say something superlative. But First Love and My Phantoms, despite the pleasures of their unusually precise psychological portraiture, feel in many ways of a piece with a familiar strain in contemporary fiction—it’s not hard to think of other first-person novels of self-determination narrated by 30-something writers or 40-something academics. (Though Riley’s characters, contra the flatness of affect often associated with the subgenre, are bright with vitality even when they’re insufferable; Bridget’s mother, for example, has a flinty charisma—what her daughter calls her “announcing-ness”—that wins her admirers even as it shields her emotional incapacity.) It’s a genre of novel that I find myself less drawn to lately—a tendency I’ve been more conscious of since reading Jewish Currents Contributing Writer Raffi Magarik’s wonderful piece in our Summer issue, which discusses the Polish novelist Olga Tokarczuk’s attempt to turn away, as she has put it, from “the kind of tale that narrowly orbits the self of a teller who . . . just writes about herself and through herself,” toward a 19th-century-style narrator who “sees more and has a wider view.” In a recent roundtable on fiction in The Drift, the novelist Alexandra Kleeman wrote about feeling an even more extreme “hunger for the world” when reading: “I’d like to see a novel with no people in it, no anthropomorphic anythings, no characters at all.”
But even in the grips of this particular literary appetite, there was something especially appealing about My Phantoms, which defamiliarizes the first-person form by doubling down on its narrowness. The title itself speaks to this quality: Bridget refers in the novel to her parents’ “spectral associates”—the appreciative audiences that always factor into her father’s far-fetched stories, and the persecuting choruses that drive her mother’s hyperbolic complaints, neither of which seem to exist as advertised. What are the parents Bridget presents to the reader but her own spectral associates—not people, but dramatis personae? She, too, is traversing an inner landscape, which implies through its very airlessness the existence of an exterior that she is forever trying to reach.
Arielle Angel (editor-in-chief): In the past year, we’ve gone from having no JC staff babies to having five, with several more on the way. Suddenly, on our morning Zoom meetings, there are babies gurgling and crying out of frame, sucking down bottles or giggling at the screen. Curiously, the only people “having” babies on staff right now are men—to a person, every single man on the payroll has either just become a father, is about to become one, or is growing their brood. As a woman of childbearing age, this presents a circumstance my therapist might call “provocative,” an opportunity—whether I like it or not—to reflect on my own choices and desires. I struggle to explain exactly when and how I knew I did not want to be a mother; there is at least some evidence that this knowledge was present even in childhood. And yet as long as I’m technically capable of producing a child—and I still have a few years yet—it seems there is never absolute comfort in this decision. Even as I know I will not do it—even as I affirm and love my life without it—there is the tiniest place in my psyche that keeps waiting for something to change, for something or someone to “save” me from my decision. I almost said “sad” decision, though I myself don’t think of it as sad, and certainly don’t think I need saving. But such are the ambivalences of being a non-mother, even now.
If all this sounds familiar, perhaps you have already read Sheila Heti’s Motherhood—which I approached over a period of months with a similar ambivalence, “accidentally” leaving the book on a plane and then variously avoiding and embracing it, like a charismatic but emotionally taxing friend. It is difficult to say whether I liked the book, a diaristic autofiction of a woman wrestling with the question of whether or not to have a child in her waning childbearing years. Sometimes it seemed so direct, like she was just transcribing my thoughts. In quantifying and verifying her lifelong aversion to motherhood, she writes: “if no one had told me anything about the world, I would have invented boyfriends. I would have invented sex, friendships, art. I would not have invented child-rearing.” Of the difficulty of resolving against motherhood: “She doesn’t want a baby—but her body doesn’t believe her. On some level, no one believes her. On some level, she doesn’t even believe herself.” Of the social pressure to have a child: “To have a child is like being a city with a mountain in the middle. Everyone sees the mountain. Everyone in the city is proud of the mountain . . . A mountain, like a child, displays something real about the value of that town. In a life where there is no child, no one knows anything about your life’s meaning.” There are many of us walking around feeling this way. So why is this the first time I’ve ever read it on the page? We’re deep into a trend of writing about being a mother—and indeed, those stories are important and undertold! But it appears that those women who wrote and didn’t have children perhaps thought it better not to draw too much attention to that fact, lest it present a challenge to their authority on the big ideas and experiences of life.
Like me, Heti is the granddaughter of Auschwitz survivors and the daughter of a mother who worked long hours, did not relish motherhood, and shirked some of its basic expectations. This only adds to my uncanny experience of reading this book, burrowing into my own fairly specific life experience in another’s text. Heti interrogates the relationship of not wanting children to both her grandmother’s pain and her mother’s clarity about the meaning of her life not coming primarily from the act of mothering. Accordingly, the last third of the book takes a somewhat psychoanalytic turn. Dreams play a more substantial role; epiphanies like therapeutic breakthroughs—immediately assimilable by force of their truth and simplicity—appear on nearly every page.
Did I learn something about myself? I don’t know. It seems these were things I knew. But I did feel represented in perhaps a different way than I’ve ever experienced with literature, in a way that bordered on a sense of intrusion. And Heti is such a worthy ambassador for us, the women who will not be mothers, and who are certain, and who struggle nonetheless.
As an aside, when Motherhood came out in 2018, we published a great review by contributing writer Helen Betya Rubinstein, narrowly taking up the question of the ways Heti decenters the Holocaust in her book. It’s one of those reviews I think about a lot, despite not having read the book until now.
Mari Cohen (assistant editor): In Bliss Montage, the new short story collection by Ling Ma—the author of Severance, the 2018 global pandemic apocalypse novel that began to look unnervingly prescient in 2020—a series of first-person protagonists face the strange, the sci-fi, the surreal. One lives in a house alongside 100 ex-boyfriends; another takes a trendy club drug that causes invisibility. But Ma’s prose remains understated, clear, and affecting as these characters—usually Chinese American women—grapple with relationships, abuse, racism, and diaspora. The stories are haunting, and usually unexpected. In “Peking Duck,” Ma gets meta, interrogating common critiques of immigrant fiction (the protagonist’s short story is “a tired Asian American subject, these stories about immigrant hardships and, like, intergenerational woes,” a fellow writing workshop participant complains) and the question of who, really, is authorized to tell someone else’s story. In my favorite story, “Returning,” a novelist having marital problems with her husband goes with him to his fictional native country, where he secretly plans to take part in a traditional healing ceremony that involves being buried alive overnight. Meanwhile, the novelist has written a book about a couple that plans to be cryogenically frozen together for 100 years so that they can wake up again when their assets have matured enough to make them rich. (It’s a premise that itself wouldn’t be out of place as a standalone Bliss Montage story.) I was so entranced that I had to be reminded to get off my New Jersey Transit train from Newark airport at the end of the line.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): Now that the full season of Nathan Fielder’s brilliant HBO series The Rehearsal can be binge-watched, I feel it to be my duty to recommend it. It is, to say the least, an odd show, and sometimes a painful one to watch. But it is also a profoundly moving, thought-provoking, exasperating, and exhilarating television masterpiece. It is a show that will leave no one indifferent, some considering it, as did The New Yorker’s reliably wrong-headed Richard Brody, “cruel.” Others will view it as a profound intellectual and emotional experience. I am very much in the latter camp.
Fielder’s previous show, Nathan For You, originally on Comedy Central and now streaming on Hulu, was a bizarre version of a business advice show. In it, Felder cooked up Rube Goldberg schemes to save failing businesses, like having people with communicable warts work as massage therapists so that customers at a spa would pay higher rates for wart-free massages. It also ended with perhaps the most moving single episode of any TV series, “Finding Frances,” in which Nathan assists an elderly Bill Gates impersonator in tracking down and winning back the lost love of his youth. The underlying theme of Nathan For You was the star’s loneliness and inability to connect with others.
The Rehearsal takes Fielder’s drive to help others in an unexpected direction. What if, in life, before doing anything drastic, we could rehearse beforehand all the possible scenarios and outcomes of a given crisis? The theory, mentioned in the first episode, is that life would be better off if we knew how our actions would turn out.
But what we learn is that no preparatory work can get us ready for the twists life will throw at us. The bulk of the season was spent rehearsing for parenthood, with child actors filling in while a bible-thumping, conspiracy minded nut readies herself for motherhood, and with Nathan filling the role of father.
Nothing goes well between the ersatz parents, which is the first curveball reality throws. Nathan will always be awkward and uncomfortable around others. He attempts to escape his fundamentally submissive nature when, at his parents’ suggestion, he tries to add Judaism to the born-again household. The difficulties inherent in this situation immediately manifest themselves, and Nathan ends up losing his non-wife.
But the participants in Nathan’s experiments are real people with real human feelings, which Fielder seems not to have taken into account in devising the rehearsals. There are at least three truly cruel moments in the series, all the more cruel because despite the pretext of play-acting, they affect real people in a real way.
It is impossible to squeeze all the complexities of The Rehearsal into a brief recommendation. Every week, after each episode, my son Pascal and I had lengthy discussions of the ramifications of each episode, of what it said about parenting, Jewishness, relationships, reality itself, and our inability to truly know others. It’s a very rare show that offers all of this in 30-minute gulps.