Apocalypse When

The Life of the Mind by christine smallwood. new york: hogarth. 240 pages. $27.

The cover of The Life of the Mind

THE LIFE OF THE MIND, Christine Smallwood’s debut novel, begins with an ending. We meet Dorothy, a contingent faculty member in the English department where she used to be a doctoral student, as she negotiates the miscarriage of an accidental pregnancy. The pregnancy, at once unexpected and welcome, is a blighted ovum, “just tissue” according to her ob-gyn. The metaphor is clear: Dorothy’s academic career and the pregnancy are both projects of development and growth that never had a chance to thrive.

Dorothy is introduced after the first wash of her miscarriage, as she is waiting anxiously to make sure the bleeding has stopped. Her boyfriend, Rog, the would-be father, occupies only a sliver of the narrative. Far more important to her are connections with women: her two therapists, her mother, her friend Gaby, her former adviser Judith Robinson, and her quasi-rivals Elyse and Alexandra, two junior-faculty members at faraway schools. But the central relationship in the novel is between Dorothy and herself. Smallwood’s narration, its closeness verging on disgust, gives us access to indignities—major and minor, of body and mind—in gross, realistic detail.

The source of these indignities is the soul-crushing work that contingent and adjunct workers do to keep the machine of higher education shuddering along. Hovering in the background of the novel is the labor crisis of the modern academy, in which graduate programs, sources of newly minted, credentialed labor, “help” their students by giving them temporary employment. Dorothy’s dissertation—apparently on nineteenth-century British fiction—has been filed, and she is fully credentialed, but she lives in a state of seemingly permanent precarity. Near the end of the novel, Dorothy is trying, and failing, to print a document in the library’s print lab. When a librarian mistakes her for a student, she responds, “I’m a professor,” but without much conviction: “The claim, or having to make it, felt ridiculous. Of course the librarian didn’t believe her. She didn’t believe herself.” Dorothy’s clothes are “shabby and studentish,” her hair is unwashed; she feels like a fraud. “Dorothy looked into the future and saw herself, forty, forty-five years old, a contingent member of the faculty, waiting on the printers, absorbing the admonishment of the croney librarian, and thought how naïve she had once been to believe there was anything glamorous about the life of the mind.”

The novel doesn’t make Dorothy easy to pity: we are sympathetic to the misery of her position, but her myopia feels willed. She can’t connect with other workers, finding them ugly or unpleasant (“croney”), in part because she does not see what she does as work, despite its grinding sameness. For Dorothy, precarious employment is a personal, and not a structural, problem: she believes she has failed to secure a stable job because she wasn’t her adviser Judith’s “favorite.” Dorothy resents not being anointed by Judith and can’t see beyond her own self-pity to the real problem: a system that depends on favoritism to reproduce itself and shuts out people who look, by virtue of their race or class, different from those who have come before. This solipsism, the book intimates, has made her particularly vulnerable to Judith’s aggressive demands. During a conference in Las Vegas, Judith pulls Dorothy into an intense tête-à-tête. “Cry with me,” she says, asking Dorothy to commiserate with her over her longtime editor’s sudden death. Dorothy’s reaction is tinged with distaste for Judith’s age and, in some ways, for her womanliness:

Her eyes were pink and swollen and glinting like the coins at the bottom of the Venetian fountains. Her lipstick had faded and her lips looked dry and naked. Of course Judith was aware that her lipstick had faded. But she wasn’t going to reapply it. It was an act of will to refuse to reapply lipstick in front of another person. That kind of will was another form of domination.

On cue, Dorothy succeeds in squeezing out a few dry tears, prompting Judith to good-humored laughter. The sharp strangeness of this moment comes from the difficulty of reading Dorothy as an uncomplicated heroine; Judith may be a monster, but her power has made her generous as well as exploitative. Dorothy, with less power and stability, has less to offer in return.

Marit Geraldine Bostad, Birth, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 33 1/2 x 22 1/2".
Marit Geraldine Bostad, Birth, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 33 1/2 x 22 1/2". Courtesy the artist and Daniel Raphael Gallery

The novel is preoccupied with endings of all sorts, especially those that don’t quite live up to their name. In its final moments, we see Dorothy marking student essays from her class on the apocalypse, a course whose vague thematic collection appears to be a way of selling a grab bag of texts to a student population used to being marketing targets: “She felt a thrill spread like hot milk throughout her body as all the endings that had ever been piled up before her, and she graded them all the same, all nearly perfect, before dumping each one carefully, respectfully, into the trash.” Dorothy used to believe that working as a professor had a glamour to it. But the work she finds herself doing—the life she finds herself living—is deeply unglamorous. The only thrill contingent teaching offers—the “hot milk” conjuring the absent milk of a mother, calling us back to Dorothy’s failed pregnancy—comes from getting through the work with the least amount of trouble, the A-minus marks she gives to each paper both salving her conscience and protecting her from irritated students. Grading is busywork, as incapable of offering revelation to Dorothy as the students’ papers (on “whatever you want . . . so long as it has something to do with the end”) are to them. The apocalypse, the book suggests, might not come with horsemen or fanfare; it might be invisible, banal.

What absorbs Dorothy, more than her students or her work, is her body’s vicissitudes. From the opening pages, we are immersed in her physical life: “Dorothy was taking a shit at the library when her therapist called and she let it go to voicemail.” We see her wiping away the shit, licking vaginal blood from her fingers, and inserting “a finger into her left nostril, turning it, screwdriver-style, to release a single flake of snot.” These things all end up feeling like the same kind of thing, like evidence of Dorothy’s presence, solid and sensory, in the world she inhabits. Everyday bodily experiences are hard to distinguish from life-shifting ones: a flake of snot has the same narrative texture as a cord of fetal tissue. This is how embodiment works, even if we don’t always want to see it this way.

Dorothy’s miscarriage seems, as do miscarriages in nineteenth-century novels, like a sign that her relationship is missing the kind of deep foundation that would make it firm and worthy of being built on further. Rog is a stable and financially comfortable partner, but her relationship with him feels flimsy and, at times, platonic. When the pair go to see a Hilma af Klint exhibition after the miscarriage, Rog irritates Dorothy by offering a pat assessment of the paintings: “How feminist,” he said of one, an anachronism that made Dorothy extremely angry. “‘We need to live in our own time’ was all she could get out.” Her anger suggests a baseline of irritation with Rog that the possibility of their parenthood can’t quite cover over. Sex isn’t much on Dorothy’s mind after the miscarriage, but it’s not clear it’s ever been at the core of her relationship with Rog, even in the best of times. At the end of the novel, after her friend Gaby reveals she is once again pregnant, Dorothy lies about her miscarriage, claiming instead that it was an abortion from a “one-night stand.” We see Dorothy working to maintain this lie, but we’re not exactly sure why. Of course, an abortion looks like a choice; a miscarriage is something that happens to you.

While The Life of the Mind’s debt to comic campus novels is evident, its humor is darker, less goofy. By the end of Lucky Jim, we know that Jim’s cynical detachment saves him from the pedantry of the world he inhabits. But for Dorothy, that rescue never comes. We want the life of the mind to be a solace because we want some relief from the indignities of daily life. But Dorothy can’t dislodge herself from the depression that unequal, undercompensated, unimaginative work produces. She resents her more financially stable friend Gaby, a new mother. She resents her mother for gathering up a neighborhood teen as a “mentee,” a pseudo-daughter. She keeps her miscarriage from both her therapists. Her experiences are vividly narrated but she seems detached from them. Though the paper she gives in Las Vegas, on the Christminster cakes in Jude the Obscure, is well-received, Dorothy herself feels certain that “the ideas didn’t hold together”: “Her paper went on and on about ingesting the city of Christminster, and when Dorothy delivered the paper, she did it like that, with an emphasis on the word ‘in-ges-tion,’ as if pronouncing the word slowly and emphasizing its syllables was the equivalent of having something to say about it.” Here, we get the mind trying and failing to communicate a sense of significance, not to others, but to itself.

How can one live the life of the mind? To do that, perhaps, one must live in a world that protects some kinds of work as true vocations—a world where people believe that working in some environments lifts one out of one’s body and its detritus, towards an ethereal zone of pure thought. But what Smallwood’s novel reminds us is that the body is the only thing tethering us to the world. Academic precarity hinges on a belief that the life of the mind is worth deprivation, and that it is worthy work even in horrible, unequal circumstances. But the life of the mind is secondary to the life of the body. No thinking happens without this kind of embodiment, without this kind of life. The life of the body comes first.

Claire Jarvis is working on a book about twentieth-century women’s fiction.