The Listening Cure

The Weak Spot BY Lucie Elven. New York: Soft Skull Press. 176 pages. $13.
Lucie Elven. Photo: Sophie Davidson

In her fiction, Lucie Elven delves into the uses and abuses of language—the way it can obscure or uphold power dynamics, and act as medicine, a shield, or a trap. Elven’s new novel, The Weak Spot, is a fable and a tale of workplace power dynamics. The book’s nameless narrator accepts a pharmacy apprenticeship in a mountain town, where the pharmacy’s owner, Mr. Malone, trains her to think of her work as a type of therapy. She hears her customers’ fears and complaints, teasing out their secrets while Mr. Malone eavesdrops. This comes naturally to the narrator, who nurtures a faith in the ability of conversation to heal wounds and right wrongs. As that faith crumbles, and as Mr. Malone begins to look increasingly sinister, the narrator starts to examine the unhealed wounds in her own life—including the memory of a long-ago hiking trip with her mother, near the town in which she works.

On a winter evening, Elven spoke to Bookforum from London. We discussed the theater of the workplace, why destabilizing the reader is sometimes like visiting the Vatican, and whether interrupting deserves a rebrand.

Your narrator works as a pharmacist in a small, unnamed town. What was it about the role that you saw as useful for witnessing the book’s events?

I had a friend who had moved to an Antarctic island where there weren’t that many people, and the pharmacist wielded incredible power: he was, like, an inveterate gossip. He apparently knew very personal things about people and he used it to his advantage. And this unnamed town, in my imagination, resembles towns in the region of France that my family is from. In those places, the pharmacy is a place of contrast with its surroundings. It’s a very rural part of France, where it can be very gossipy and there’s a lot of family history. The pharmacy is an impersonal space, which feels safe and cool and calm. There is something interesting about the formality of being a pharmacist versus how much you know about people.

This book deals with issues of power and surveillance—very relevant to our world, of course. At the same time, the book’s setting is reminiscent of what you’ve just said about the pharmacy: it’s a sort of non-place that’s cut off and impersonal. What advantages does that placelessness grant to you as a novelist?

Well, I didn’t see it as placeless. Though it’s not a very realistic pharmacy, and I didn’t name the town, I did name nearby hamlets and villages, which do exist. “Cut-Throat” is a translation of a literal village. Still, I know what you mean. There’s something simple about the setting, which I think allowed me to think of it like a stage set, as having an almost Aristotelian unity of place. I was interested in exploring very small-scale things, and in keeping the scale realistic. That allowed me to think about subtle things that were happening within: if something disturbing happened, it wasn’t necessarily a catastrophe. Also, the claustrophobia of a small space is very scary to me—I’m a massive claustrophobe—and I think that allows tension to mount.

Readers and reviewers have compared the book to Kafka’s stories and to The Magic Mountain. But I was also reminded of Halle Butler’s novels, which are mundane stories of gig economy misery. Do you see this book as fitting into the workplace-novel tradition?

Definitely. The theatrical element of work is fascinating to me: playing a role, work clothes. I feel like it is an arena in which boundaries ought to be quite fixed and clear, but often they’re not. The amount you allow it to encroach on your personal life is up for grabs. We live in a world where work is such an overwhelming structure, and my narrator doesn’t do much else but work, so her whole imagination goes into her work.

What you said just now, about the performance and emotional labor of work, is language that people often use to talk about social media. The internet exists in this book, but it’s not a big presence. Still, secrets, the performance of trauma, the idea of personal stories as currency are all themes here. I found myself wondering whether The Weak Spot was informed by social media.

I’m very offline, but I find the performance of the self on social media interesting. I often go on Twitter just to witness that. So, the novel wasn’t informed by social media directly, but I do think that social media is another realm in which there’s this blurring of life and labor. I worked as an editor and as a tutor when I was writing the book. In both of those jobs, you have to retain a kind of formality in order to get something out of people. As an editor, I don’t think it's necessarily a good idea to talk about yourself all the time. That’s not what writers want, they kind of want to talk about themselves all the time. As a teacher, as well, I could feel this demand for me to give more of myself. In that sort of situation, you question—am I being stingy? Am I insisting on an individualistic framework where work is very transactional? But at the same time, when so much of your self is going into your work, then there’s a suspicion, for me at least, about how much you’re giving away of your inner life. That old fashioned idea!

Your narrator will often tell somebody something personal, and then feel as if she’s given too much away . . .

She struggles with taking control of narrative in general, and with the fear of disappearing if she is unable to control it. As soon as she gets close to having confidence in her own ability to tell a story, and not just to fantasize about other people’s stories, or listen to other people’s stories, her confidence is brought down by something.

That brings me to the title, which is first mentioned when the schoolteacher character says that her throat has always been her “weak spot.” The throat is the place where language and the physical body meet, or maybe the place where they diverge. How do you see the title fitting into the novel’s concerns about narrative and vulnerability?

It does come up first then, and I agree that it’s expressing a fear of speaking and the consequences of speech. But the phrase “the weak spot” also comes back later as something the narrator says about herself. When she’s left in charge at the pharmacy, she starts to tell people, “I have a weak spot,” and listing different flaws or Achilles’ heels she has. It’s a way of not engaging with her feelings. It’s something my mother says. She’ll say, “Oh, you have a weak spot,” when you’re ill or feeling terrible in some way. Then you can just write off your sadness or your illness as a fundamental thing about your body—which means that you don't have to engage with it anymore. The narrator is constantly trying to use language in order to shut off her emotions. She’ll distract herself with stories about other people. She also thinks that she can help people by phrasing their condition with the right words. This is a fantasy that I actually think is really normal. Maybe writers feel that way—that, if you just put something well, then something good will come of it. It’s a kind of writerly savior complex.

And she is radically rational. She seems almost alien at times. The associations she makes can feel so unexpected that I found myself laughing out loud—like, when describing Elsa, her pharmacy coworker, she says, “She was sharp, quick, theatrical. She talked of ten-year plans. She couldn’t sleep. Her house was spotless.” What do you see as the force behind the narrator’s detachment?

The narrator is a listener, or has always been a listener, and is now thrust into the position of having to narrate. She doesn’t know herself, and so comes at describing her life in all these oblique ways. Part of that is when you move to a different place, you have to explain yourself, and where do you start? I also think that detachment comes from the fact that she’s revisiting a place associated with her mother, who has died. She’s revisiting the past and trying to work something out there. There is this theme of trying to save people in the town, wrapped up in her feelings about her mother being ill.

I was struck by the passage where the narrator says, “It seemed that I must be walking around in a long pause, an ellipsis, ignorant of a world event. . . . Like rumors, the customers continued to circulate.” It’s as if metaphor starts to fold in on itself. Language and physical reality affect each other and become hard to pull apart. What’s the relationship between language and the physical world in The Weak Spot?

The narrator wants to transform, or cure, or save, through language. On the other hand, there’s the obvious impossibility of that. There are real power dynamics in the world, which you can’t really affect with language. When I was writing, at one point, I switched to a third-person narration. Which was interesting, because I realized that I was missing all kinds of important physical descriptions. But then I was like, “No, I have to change it back.” Because I was interested in exploring, on a sentence level, disorientation and denial and how language can be used to ignore reality. To collude with power, to throw your weight around. I wanted to destabilize the reader. And I could only do that in the first person, with someone who is constantly shifting, trying to find ways of articulating a situation that she doesn’t fully understand. I liked the way that feeling of disorientation tested the sentences. A big part of what I’m interested in when I write short stories is the way in which the frame can shift from one sentence to the next. Kind of like when I visited Rome and I was standing in the middle of St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. And people kept coming towards me. Everyone was kind of swirling around me. I was thinking, “Why is everyone coming towards me?” And then I realized I was standing in the best place for the best picture you could possibly take of the Basilica. I’m interested in that idea of a person being proximate to the workings of power, but not immediately knowing who is the hero and who is the villain, or not understanding where to focus our attention.

This narrator’s framework shifts a lot, maybe because she’s overly concerned about doing harm with her narrative. But the villain, Mr. Malone, has a similar pattern of telling someone a secret, then retracting and telling a different story. In his case, it’s much more sinister, because he seems to do it in order to demonstrate power rather than out of fear of doing harm. People throw around the word “gaslighting” a lot, but Mr. Malone is really a full-on gaslighter.

I’m glad you said that. I was concerned—because the story has ambiguous elements to it, and because it’s a lot about distraction and the inability to focus on things that are uncertain—that readers would respond to that in ways that people often respond to ambiguity: dismissed as unclear, overly mysterious. But at the same time, we are living in a very uncertain moment, and I think everyone’s quite used to insecurity and ambiguity at this point.

I think that people often talk about abuse of power—for example in cases of sexual assault—as if it’s some sort of invasion of a person. As if a person is like property. We don’t talk about the effect that gaslighting or emotional abuse can have on a person’s sense of self, on their ability to feel control or agency. Given that the story, despite being set in a pharmacy, is so much about narrative and language, I thought it was an opportunity to talk about how there’s more complexity to an abuse of power than just this almost capitalist-seeming framework. It can be a monopolization of narrative. It’s not necessarily a political point that I wanted to make. It’s just something that I wanted to explore out of having observed it in many places.

Malone not only gaslights people on a personal level, but also seems to see it as a viable political strategy when running for mayor of the town. What was your thinking behind his political rise?

I was interested in how language can be used to sell a narrative of salvation in politics. And because I just like watching how people talk about it—it’s a different mode than normal life. The question about whether language can save is really tested when you put it on the political level. People who accumulate stories are often, I think, quite political.

At one point, the narrator says, “Helen was an articulate listener, carefully continuing our half-formed sentences, giving them body. Talking to her, you felt like a skeletal tree was being sketched faintly around your thoughts, a framework of branches that put them in a broader perspective.” Were there preconceptions about politeness you were trying to interrogate here?

I do think that sometimes people start sentences, and then they stop themselves. And you wonder whether it’s because they’re about to say something dangerous . . .

One of the joyful aspects of the book is the solidarity that forms between these women, which creates a setting in which the narrator is able to continue her thoughts rather than writing them off as reckless or unhelpful. I wanted to explore how much is relational, in terms of what we think. I think the idea that the individual has thoughts, and that those thoughts are their own, is kind of wrong. (Although I do come from a family in which everyone interrupts each other all the time.) I often only think things when someone’s talking, which is probably why I’m always interrupting. Most the time, I go around feeling like my head is gloriously blank. So, yeah, I think we think in relation to others, and this is a big part of the role of the listener. So maybe interruption is a necessary part of interaction, if that’s what you believe, which I do.

I want to end by discussing a moment towards the end of the novel where conversation takes a backseat. The narrator is in her friend Elsa’s garden. After all of these scenes of self-referential linguistic abstraction, she returns to her body. She says, “I was suddenly floodlit with sensation—the extent of my body, the folds of skin, the pebbles under me, my raised hairs.”

Right now, we’re all cut off from physical and social reality. Do you have an equivalent of this garden—a place or something you do that helps put you back in touch with the real world?

I think that the garden represents Elsa’s desires: it’s the thing that she most wanted, and she got it. You have to contrast that with the narrator’s inability to articulate what she wants. The garden is a place where her sensations come back to her. She even starts to crave a cigarette, after all this time of not even mentioning that she smokes.

I recently started dancing, which I used to do when I was younger. And I found it fascinating because it has made me connect with the present moment. You have to remember the movements, all together at once. It’s intense to be that much in the moment. I find I have to take breaks, because it is so challenging emotionally, having been so cut off and so much in my head. It’s not the exhaustion or anything like that, it’s the tiredness of being in the present. And I go for long walks around East London at night. It’s really the only nice thing about the current time—there’s a freedom that comes with there being less business. You can walk in the middle of the road. All the normal patterns have been disrupted, and that’s a blessing.

Eleanor Stern is a writer based in New Orleans.