Format: 240 pp., hardcover; Size: 5.5 x 8.25”; Price: $27; Publisher: Hogarth; Number of therapists the protagonist sees simultaneously: 2; Amount protagonist spends at a Vegas slot machine: $50; Age at which the protagonist says she “more or less toped listening to music”: 30; Representative Passage: Was she tired? How should a person feel? Maybe everyone felt like this—twisted and sore, blunted. Maybe this was the standard. She had no sense of what was reasonable, or what she could reasonably expect, of what, therefore, could fail to measure up.
Central Question: We’re at the mercy of fickle bodies, broken institutions, and climate change—can intellectual pursuits offer any respite?
Dorothy, the protagonist of Christine Smallwood’s debut novel The Life of the Mind, is an adjunct professor at an elite university. This is to say that she’s got a front row seat to inexorable decay. Across academia, labor conditions have deteriorated, budgets have been slashed, and the job market has collapsed: forget tenure-track jobs—there are no jobs, period. Like so many of her postgrad peers, she’s spent the last several years hammering away at a dissertation, knowing its completion won’t result in employment. Still she trudges on, feeling like a “janitor in the temple who continued to sweep because she had nowhere else to be but who had lost her belief in the essential sanctity of the enterprise.”
When we first meet Dorothy, the good scholar she is, she’s at the library, though she’s not combing the stacks. She’s in bathroom, as Smallwood puts it, “taking a shit.” She’s also bleeding, the result of a protracted miscarriage that’s now entered its sixth day. She treats the experience less as a loss than an inconvenience. She examines the sanguine discharge—“thick, curdled knots of string, gelatinous in substance”—and worries it might go on like this forever, that “whenever she wiped, the tissue would come back bloody and brown.”
She’s in limbo on two fronts, languishing in what she calls “adjunct hell” and awaiting the miscarriage’s conclusion. Through Dorothy we feel the chasm between the noble pursuits of the mind and the primal hardwiring of the body. During my own academic career, I was least interested abstract thought when I was most aware of my biology and my beholdenness to it—when some cramping or swelling or leaking made me feel first and foremost like a body. A product of her training, Dorothy wants to make some sense of her own cramping and swelling and leaking, though she knows it’s futile. She is “eager to assign signification to what on another level she knew was brute and meaningless physiology.” Still she applies her critical faculties indiscriminately: in various bathrooms, she analyzes her vaginal secretions with the same attention she pays to Victorian literature. Her prolonged miscarriage and her dying ambitions each evidence deeper indignities: the indignity of tending to a body (Dorothy finds her continuous “dribble” of blood to be “degrading”) and of devoting oneself to scholarship (“How naïve she had once been,” she thinks, struggling with a library printer, “to believe there was anything glamorous about the life of the mind”).
Against this backdrop of bodily and vocational turmoil—not to mention impending climate apocalypse, which is also often on her mind—Dorothy continues on like we all do: she goes to work and goes to the doctor, she sees her friends and sees her therapist. She rides the subway and makes dinner and takes shits. She does her silly little tasks. But all the while Dorothy’s mind is at constant work, and she scrutinizes with startling precision the thoughts that accompany her listless existence. Fortunately, this constant reflexivity never feels myopic, thanks to the veracity of Dorothy’s insights and the sophistication of Smallwood’s prose.
Now, cards on the table: I never stood a chance against The Life of the Mind. I am its target reader: a young white woman, fresh from academia and living in New York, who bought the book because Jia Tolentino said she liked it. Naturally I loved it, even as it disabused me of the notion that I’d ever had an original thought or experience in my life. Like Dorothy, I have also: eaten spaghetti in bed while watching Bojack Horseman; long harbored a fear of fetuses; derived an embarrassing amount of serotonin from email notifications; and had a fairly handsome man recite Frank O’Hara at me. But deriving value from the novel doesn’t require this sort of over-identification. Dorothy feels powerless and precarious in the way a lot of people do right now. She’s burned out, sick of vacillating from “exhaustion to emergency and back again.” Her outlook and aspirations have been warped by scarcity. “She vaguely recalled a time when wanting to do the job she had trained for did not feel like too much to want,” Smallwood writes. “Now want itself was a thing of the past.” For most, desire lends life shape, meaning, and direction; does the loss of desire strip life of these things? Any Buddhist would disagree—desire is the root of all suffering, as the Noble Truth goes. Ultimately Dorothy feels ambivalent about no longer wanting anything. She feels ambivalent about most things.
This is in part because she is witnessing the tenets once central to her profession and, in some ways, her life—meritocracy, productive discourse, prestige—become obsolete. “The idols had been false but they had served a function, and now they were all smashed and no one knew what they were working for,” she says of academia’s collapse. “The problem wasn’t the fall of the old system, it was that the new system had not arisen.” It’s a sentiment that applies to the countless strained, broken American institutions (healthcare, policing, capitalism) that have yet to metamorphosize. Dorothy’s concerns aren’t just about academia; they’re about the unsustainability of everything we depend on.
Dorothy is torn as to whether the present historical moment is genuinely exceptional in its badness. She feels she’s “living at the end of something, or too many somethings to say.” Sure, many of today’s grievances are old as time, but she’s nevertheless alarmed at how many aspects of precedented life look to be in their death throes. Her very boring boyfriend dismisses this notion as self-important, calls it an “eschatological fantasy” that one was living not in the “long dull middle (muddle) of history but at its culmination, its apex, its Most Exciting Finale.” Dorothy agrees that things are bad now, things have been bad before, and things will be bad again. History doesn’t hurtle toward anything; it just limps along. Yet, while she knows that beginnings and endings are always supplanting each other, she can’t help but notice how many endings of things are starting to outpace beginnings.
I sense I’ve made this book out to be a bummer. Yet the two days I spent reading The Life of the Mind, I felt impossibly good, fizzy like a freshly shaken soda can, energized by what felt like a brush with near-perfection. I was surprised by my own reaction, that my spirits weren’t dampened by this all-too-relevant tale of millennial malaise and extinguished dreams. But such is the power of crisp, clever, confident prose. God, can Smallwood write—every phrase, every observation, feels both fresh and obvious. The jokes work. The moments land. The language shimmers. And Dorothy is the perfect vessel for Smallwood’s words: caustic but still endearing, resigned but still curious. She isn’t the easiest to like, but that’s how you know she’s telling the truth.