A Lot of Pain and A Lot of Humor: Ottessa Moshfegh on Dinah Brooke’s Lord Jim at Home

2 months ago 64

When Lord Jim at Home was recommended to me, it came with no introduction. I’m glad. I wouldn’t have wanted the effect of the novel to be mitigated in any way, so I’m reluctant to introduce it now. But I will share with you my experiences: I read very slowly at the beginning, studying Dinah Brooke’s uncanny descriptions and syntax, squinting hard to see around the curves and outcroppings of the story, stepping back in astonishment to watch a sentence unfurl like some wild plant, surreal in its beauty and dangerous in its intelligence. Like this child’s bedtime:

The curtains are drawn, the door shut, and like a rubber duck held down at the bottom of the bath and suddenly released he shoots up to float bouncing gently, turning and twisting dizzily between the floor and the ceiling. Swooning in space with the darkness velvet under his hands his body takes on strange shapes, huge, liquid, swelling head and knees, hands like a giant’s, fingers grasping from corner to corner of the room, then suddenly shrinking, wizened, like the inside of his mouth when he has managed to put a thumb painted with bitter aloes into it.

It took me about three weeks to make it through the first seventy-five pages. I kept having to put the book down and get up and look around. “Where am I?” On a train. In a hotel room. On the sofa. In my room. That hadn’t happened to me since I was five, when I’d get hypnotized by the television. But now there was also the unsettling question, “Am I still the same person?” Not really. As I got to the middle of the book, I had the sensation that I had aged about twenty years. Then the sensation reversed, and as I neared the end, I got younger again. I grew new nerves, as if it had altered my anatomy and sense of time.

There is a lot of pain in Lord Jim at Home. And a lot of humor.

When Lord Jim at Home appeared, in 1973, Brooke was thirty-seven, living in London, married to an actor, and raising twins. In a later autobiographical essay, she would list the main events of her life in the early seventies: “Became ardent feminist, then ardent encounter groupie. Turned house into commune. Husband left.”* A time of inner discovery, I suppose. An encounter group (for the uninitiated) is a form of psychodrama therapy in which individuals concentrate on and express their innermost feelings. The idea is that you encounter yourself more honestly by confronting others honestly. I wonder whether Brooke spoke of Lord Jim at Home in those groups. Did people understand anything she said? Or maybe she studied the others, took notes on their limitations and delusions, and fed them to her book like mice to a snake. Perhaps she also fed her book the traumas of people living in her commune. There is a lot of pain in Lord Jim at Home. And a lot of humor. And a lot of another thing that I can’t properly name. And almost no analysis, not really. It is too cool a book for that—cool in temperament as well as in attitude.

To describe the plot here would be to ruin a surprise, so I will only say that the novel is largely a portrait of one Giles Trenchard, born in Cornwall between the wars, a son of the British middle classes, and that apparently it is based on a true story (something I didn’t know when I read it). Giles suffers a horrible and privileged upbringing, goes away to school, joins the Navy, comes home, and attempts to begin a life as a grown man. The novel ends when he is twenty-something and has done something very unexpected, but not altogether shocking— except to the people around him, who ask how someone so “healthy and clean-limbed,” with such an “honest, reliable, open English face” can have acted the way he did. The situation and language echo the Joseph Conrad novel Lord Jim, about a young English sailor who disgraces himself at sea, then spends his life in the South Pacific, trying to escape his cloud of shame. In Brooke’s novel, as the title suggests, escape is not an option. (“Patusan,” the island paradise that Lord Jim makes his own, has become the name of a Navy destroyer.) And the moment of public disgrace isn’t a catalyst, it’s the outcome of a life.

Although we meet Giles as a newborn baby, we never grow to love him. This is not an emotional novel, although it is concerned with the vulnerability of a child’s mind. It is a strong, impermeable book. The narrator’s mind sticks to the facts of subjective experience. If it weren’t such a pleasure to read, I’d say that Lord Jim at Home—read by a novelist, like me—was an instrument of torture. It’s that good.

It takes enormous control to write well about a baby, for one thing, and from a baby’s point of view. A reader naturally feels threatened by that perspective. Ego barges into the mind and says, “What about me? I was a baby, too.” At least that has been my experience. In the same way that we might not want to hear the details of another person’s dreams, we don’t want to hear about their experience being a baby. Nobody should get credit for having a certain kind of dream. And nobody should get credit for being a certain kind of baby. Babies don’t create themselves. They don’t make any decisions about how to be. They don’t know how. And yet we project onto our baby-selves the wisdom of a Buddhist sage. Case in point. My first memory is of being in the crib at my babysitter’s house, waiting for my mother to pick me up. It was night and the room was dark. I was too young to know how to count, but I took some careful note of the many headlights which passed diagonally from the road through the windows and skipped across the perpendicular planes of the walls, like rubber balls, again and again. One of these lights, I knew, would announce my mother, but I had to wait—I felt—an eternity. To me, this recollection is still rife with heartache and is my reference point for the birth of my consciousness, i.e., my existential suffering.

I’m grateful it’s back in print. I think the world may be readier than it was.

This is the first time I have written about it, because until now I was too lazy to describe it. Brooke, however, writes from the point of view of infant Giles with a patient, tireless, and freakish genius. There were times where I felt she had made a chiropractic adjustment in my brain, revising what I understood to be the logic of an infant, and not in the way I expected:

Pain and humiliation. Not so much the soiled nappies pressed over his mouth and nose, as the brisk, impersonal unpinning and flipping from back to front, and wiping. Is she wiping shit off the Prince’s bottom or off the table? Impossible to tell from her expression or her voice. Does that sensation belong to me? wonders the Prince. Does that expression belong to me?

Again, “Where am I? Who am I?” If you can’t answer these questions, you may be suffering from a concussion.

This isn’t the only freakish thing about the book. For example, I would argue that Giles, the main character, is not really a character in any usual sense. He lacks the lowest level of agency and self-definition, although to describe him as passive would be incorrect. More like a human being who has been mostly lobotomized. And yet I feel I understand him, and know him. He is familiar. Simultaneously, I have no anxiety about his well-being. But I do cringe as I read of the cruel abuses by his nurse and parents. I don’t really care what tragedies he suffers during the war, but I like to imagine them. I have no skin in the game at all, in the end, when his fate is up for review. Am I a monster? Or has the book taught me to opt out of the usual mind games that a novel plays with a reader? Worry usually provides suspense. But you have to care in order to have worries. I didn’t care, and I didn’t worry, but I was suspended, consistently and dramatically, in the mirage of the novel, a world that baffled me and yet made perfect sense.

Another disorientation: the perspective attaches onto characters whose tangential narratives are immaterial, the point of view skipping around souls, as though picking people out in a crowd and following them for a minute, and then skipping again. It is jarring to a wonderful effect, mimicking the movement of the protagonist’s depersonalized adventures.

The first publisher of Lord Jim at Home presented it as a novel about the upper middle class in England, as if it were an anthropological study or a work of classic Naturalism, which it most certainly is not. Glancing at the initial criticisms of the novel, I see some advantages to living in this modern age. Even in a favorable review in the Times Literary Supplement, back in 1974, it was clear that the critic Stuart McGregor, a man of good taste, maybe, completely misunderstood the book. In describing the last stretch of the novel, after Giles comes home from war to a mother who greets him politely and then goes back to her game of bridge, he writes, “His postwar story, with its long succession of failures mounting to a sad but long-foreseen climax, is a monstrous parody of the way nice, well-brought-up people think and behave.”

I don’t think so. I think it is an accurate portrayal of how fucked-up people behave, artfully conveyed in a way that nice people are too polite to admit they understand. I’m grateful it’s back in print. I think the world may be readier than it was.


Lord Jim at Home by Dinah Brooke is available from McNally Editions.

Ottessa Moshfegh

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