Women Upstairs: On Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl

“My mother assures me that it happens to everyone, sooner or later,” says Julia, the narrator of Claire Messud’s new novel The Burning Girl; “…everyone loses a best friend at some point.”

Julia is quiet, cautious, and sensitive; her soon-to-be-lost best friend is Cassie, a fragile-looking, “troubled” girl, much more daring and eventually more popular. As Dwight Garner observed in The New York Times, “This pairing is a familiar one”–so many other novels about female friendships, from my favorite YA novel Someone Like You to recent literary phenom My Brilliant Friend, seem to feature the same general contrast. And it seems to be the universal inclination of writers (many of whom are quiet and sensitive) to narrate from the point of view of the less daring, the less dynamic friend—the friend with less story to tell. The narrator then spends so much time looking at her friend, watching her, resisting her stories rather than driving forward her own, that the novel’s center of gravity rests between narrator and friend, rather than centering on the narrator.

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Q: A Cult Novel about the Protestant Reformation

Over in Italy this summer I picked up a book totally at random called Q. It’s a fat historical novel about the Protestant Reformation, written by four anonymous authors under the name Luther Blissett. Its protagonist is an Anabaptist theology student who becomes involved in various movements during the Reformation. The antagonist, a papal informer, is simply named Q.

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Shelter in Place – Alexander Maksik

Joseph March, the hero of Alexander Maksik’s novel Shelter In Place, has two problems: tar, and a bird. The tar is the black, creeping heaviness of his depression, which comes along with periods of mania; the bird is the painful part, the part that pierces his chest. He has bipolar disorder (or rather has something unnamed that, with its cycles from up to down, resembles it), and he’s constantly haunted by his own, inexplicable, internal rhythms of pain and joy. Alexander Maksik has lit upon a perfect metaphor for severe depression.

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A Little Life Isn’t the Great Gay Novel. It’s a Fetishistic Portrait of the Perfect Victim.

 

The cover of my edition of A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 Booker- and National Book Award-nominated novel, is a close-up, black-and-white photograph of a man crying. It may be the most perfectly thematic cover ever designed, because this novel, falsely advertised as a novel about four college friends, is actually a close-up, nuance-averse portrait of one man’s relentless suffering.

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The Lola Quartet: Emily St. John Mandel

In Emily St. John Mandel’s 2012 literary “thriller” (misnomer though this may be for a novel that is more suspenseful than actively thrilling) a moderately successful reporter finds his life upended when his sister sees a photo of a young girl who looks exactly like him. Haunted by the possibility that he has a daughter he never knew about, Gavin slides into a life of fraud, unemployment, and finally violence. The seeming stability of his life was just an illusion; in fact, it is a net, on which he rested for years but through which he can easily slip.

In this novel, the world of crime and poverty is distinct from, yet terrifyingly close to, the everyday world of law-abiding, middle-class citizens. The stories of Gavin, the other members of the jazz quartet that sustained him in high school, and the girl who disappeared while carrying the mysterious child, weave a tighter and tighter web that draws every character under the surface of the everyday. Mandel shows skillfully how the rest of society maintains itself only through a conspiracy of denial, in which people willfully refuse to see the addictions, abuse, and trauma that hide behind the closed doors of their neighbors’ homes.

The novel, whose prose doesn’t have quite the mature elegance of Mandel’s most recent work, the spare and gripping Station Eleven, doesn’t make its characters round enough to render fully convincing the mysterious self-destructive impulse that propels so many of them. But it is a sensitive, gripping portrayal of how fragile a construction American “normalcy” really is.