Anna Moschovakis’ “Eleanor, or The Rejection of the Progress of Love” is one of those novels, in turn fascinating and irritating, that is as interested in its own inner workings as in telling a story. The building blocks of modern realistic fiction are all here: protagonist, secondary characters, relationships, place, thought, emotion, action and reaction. But they don’t go anywhere; whenever a narrative seems poised to move, its flow is thwarted, questioned.
The didactic title alludes to the mix of concrete and abstract. Chapters about a year in the life of Eleanor, a 39-year-old university lecturer and single woman, alternate with a first-person critical narration by her novelist/creator, who discusses her creative process and revisions with a renowned male critic. Both women are increasingly annoyed with the unearned smug confidence of men.
The linguistic structure is equally self-interrogating; the book is prose poem and essay as well as novel. The smooth continuity readers expect in storytelling is often interrupted by the crudest, most basic stylistic devices: synopses (of books and movies), stage directions, questionnaires, lists, repetitions of words and phrases.
Among the latter are “Time passed” and “the thing that had happened before (thing-prime).” The first is a grandiose cliché that gestures at story movement without doing anything. The second suggests an event in Eleanor’s life that is never named. Here is what happens. After Eleanor’s laptop is stolen, she hears from a man who has it, offers to restore her data, then doesn’t. He goes to Albany; she hops on a bus there but doesn’t find him. Eleanor’s love affair peters out, she visits a commune in the country, talks to her friends, visits a museum, reads, thinks about terrible events in the news, travels to Addis Ababa and studies the life of the French poet Rimbaud, who declared, in a youthful definition of a chameleonic life, “I is an other.”
These are the bits and pieces of a life that accrete without arriving anywhere definitive. Eleanor and Author are fierce interrogators of the situations they find themselves in. There’s an implicit feminist critique of male thought (and fiction?). Where men have all the answers, women interrupt with buts and whys.
Eleanor and Author are also magnanimous in their acceptance of mundanity. This is a novel about noticing and ruminating rather than assessing and concluding. The daily weather, interchanges with passing acquaintances, views out the window, are accorded the same attentive courtesy as love and pain. Life isn’t seen as a grand arc but as one thing after another, second by second. The book offers each moment, each sentence equably and leaves us to decide what is important and how.
Brigitte Frase is a winner of the Nona Balakian Citation for excellence in reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in Minneapolis.
Eleanor, or the Rejection of the Progress of Love
By: Anna Moschovakis.
Publisher: Coffee House Press, 211 pages, $16.95.