Oh the Banality

little scratch: A Novel BY Rebecca Watson. New York: Doubleday. 224 pages. $24.
Cover of little scratch: A Novel

“PRET,” “SECOND PRET,” and then, a little later, “another PRET.” The protagonist of Rebecca Watson’s Little Scratch makes these half-conscious mental notes of the homogenous sandwich shop as she hustles through London to get to work on time on a Friday morning. Moments later, she looks up, absorbing the beauty of the “widescreen sky,” before almost immediately being “struck by / how irritating it is / that it is here, / here, with all these men in suits, all these watch shops, that I am / seeing beauty.” The oppressive banality of London’s glassy, late-capitalist grind is ever-present in the novel, spiked with an atmosphere of threat.

Little Scratch spends a full, unbroken day in the mind and body of an unnamed young woman who works as an administrative assistant at a London newspaper, an aspiring writer whose own creative output has dried up. Her inner monologue is the spine of the narrative, running down a column of the left of the page, in which she navigates the minutiae of her day—riding the tube while hungover, choosing whether to have cauliflower or prawn chowder for lunch, watching the clock, and carrying out mind-breakingly boring administrative tasks. The most obviously unusual aspect of Little Scratch is Watson’s treatment of additional text on the page, which often splits into multiple columns and spatial arrangements that border on Concrete poetry, using the shape of the text to accentuate movement, action, or the specific rhythms of thought or speech (certain formal literary devices of the British writer B. S. Johnson come to mind). Mostly, this technique conveys the simultaneity of thought with other forms of lived experience—the idea, for instance, that one is thinking at the same time that one is speaking, noticing, eating, peeing, fucking, or checking one’s phone.

Rather than suggesting a split between mind and body, Watson’s textual innovations suggest a relentless embodiment of the narrator’s thoughts, braiding the texts of body and mind together in time. There were moments in the book when my own capacity to hold two or three sentences simultaneously in mind was stretched too far, causing me to break off and read one column then another. But mostly I read without pause, absorbing announcements on the underground, colleagues offering cups of tea, the interruptions of text messages and emails, alongside the through line of the narrator’s voice. Though the novel is not concerned specifically with the internet, those forms of digital text that appear in bold, including passive aggressive Tripadvisor restaurant reviews (“We knew they were busy so decided to give them the benefit of their doubt”), tweets, and WhatsApp messages, do contribute to a familiar contemporary sense of sustaining multiple levels of engagement with a necessarily cracked attention span, the same one that we must employ to simul-read Watson’s novel.

biting cheek

head tight, just above eyebrows, hard                                                                           stepping

unwanted!, wouldn’t mind lopping off half my head                                                     off

might be free then                                                                                                           pavement

                                                                                                                       across     road

If this kind of corporeality becomes steadily claustrophobic—on the book’s first pages she is contemplating the good fortune of a speedy “hangover poo,” while she is “freeing emptying . . . hearing, plop!”—it is also intimate. Reading this book, I was wrenched into a past body of my own, during the years that I spent in London working office jobs. I found myself watching the clock (“17:50”) in the top right-hand corner of my computer screen along with the narrator, feeling her hangover, remembering the tense presences in office toilet stalls of “clenchers,” as she describes them, quietly shifting their feet, waiting until you leave the bathrooms to let go. I’d forgotten them. This is a really solid portrait of London, I thought to myself halfway through the book. That’s only partly true.

There’s a rich tradition of depicting the mediocrity and passive aggression in British (and particularly English) white-collar jobs, drawn out in television comedies such as Peep Show, The Office, and I’m Alan Partridge. Staplers, filing cabinets, bags of crisps, awkward chitchat (“nice shoes! aw thank you! they’re from Tesco”), the barely swallowed rage of middle-management. Watson’s protagonist includes this kind of observational comedy in her internal monologue at times, as well as some of the self-deprecating or self-LOLing of the committed overthinker, well-suited to accompany the mannered restraint of a London office.

Yet, in this book the mechanism that keeps all the Biros, expense files, and confirmation emails in such sharp focus is not satire but a trauma response. From the novel’s early pages, we understand that the narrator is suppressing the memory of a rape at her workplace, an event that looms intermittently and indistinctly in her consciousness before it is forcefully shoved back down and replaced with unthreatening, drab tasks.

computer in front           hands poised above the keyboard     and

entering password         loading                 quick                        sifting


As though that memory is finding its way back to the surface, she suffers an overwhelming desire to scratch the skin on her legs (another thing to be fought down). Certain everyday interactions—being catcalled from a slow-moving car or sharing an elevator with a man—set off a mild but persistent internal alert system. These presences and threats are repetitiously flagged in her mind—“man in corner / man in corner / man in corner”—until they have ended.

In his study of post-traumatic stress, The Body Keeps the Score (2014), Dutch psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk writes that “traumatized individuals become hypervigilant to threat at the expense of spontaneously engaging in their day-to-day lives.” The constant work of maintaining alertness and managing memories is what keeps the narrator of Little Scratch locked in an extreme form of the present tense, from which neither she, nor the reader, can escape. It finally occurred to me close to the end of the novel that the narrator barely leaves the immediacy of her circumstances long enough to think about anything outside of them. This dulled experience is the result:

thinking for the sake of thinking

filling my mind         LETTER           by

l e e t t t t e r r r r r

The pain of the novel is thrown most sharply into relief by the narrator’s loving relationship with her boyfriend, who she meets at a (bad) poetry reading before a chippie dinner and pints at a pub. The immediacy they share is described in lusty, greasy detail: salt, satiation, and the warm anticipation of sex, a different kind of muffling and blocking. It’s in the face of this tenderizing presence, however, that terrorizing thoughts about the rape, and about finally voicing them, become loudest in her head. Cycling home, “pedalling pedalling pedalling,” she rehearses finally saying the words. Will that event of speaking be a bomb that will never stop exploding? Will the relationship end? One of the narrator’s most devastating trains of thought employs a kind of corporate office-speak to imagine how that conversation would go. She’s “done the / pedalling / pedalling / analytics, done the guesswork, so let’s wrap / pedalling / pedalling / this up, now, done.” By the time the bike ride is over, it’s too exhausting a proposition, and she swallows down the words (for today, at least).

Though in extract this might seem tedious, this effortful drive towards distraction builds up to an anxious hum of tension that we infer must finally break. Beneath it, we begin to perceive a structural absence in the novel, a kind of block on the narrator’s imagination, mirrored in the acres of blank space on many of the pages. An episode where a well-meaning colleague asks her what she has read recently inspires pages filled with white space as (“mind gone”) she tries to recollect a single relevant title to mention, finding herself with “not a clear head but a blank head, making me question my capacity to think at all.” Considering the structure of this book as one organized by negative space brought to mind Susan Choi’s novel Trust Exercise (2019), another recent novel that followed the aftermath of sexual abuse. Choi’s book suggests the abyssal quality of traumatic memories, leaving unnerving gaps and conflicting accounts as a kind of void around which the book is arranged.

Watson’s novel is also structured around a lack which insistently makes itself felt: the absence of imagination and free thought that allows a person to leave their immediate circumstances. As an exercise in presentness, the book has captured the tedium of bullshit jobs, as well as the amplified forms of nowness that come with being hungover or drunk or tending to the body’s functions. With curious accuracy, Little Scratch offers a portrait of a kind of office worker in a terrible state of awareness about the tasks of the day, living in a London of a thousand Prets. How to leave this place? In those spaces filled with blankness, we can perceive the presence of a writer who is not writing.

Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer and chief curator of Swiss Institute, New York.