The Groups


The cover of Participation

“WE WONDER at our shifting capacities, keep / adding and striking skills / from the bottoms of our résumés / under constant revision / like the inscriptions on tombs,” Anna Moschovakis writes in her 2011 poetry collection You and Three Others Are Approaching a Lake. E, the sometimes-narrator of Moschovakis’s new novel Participation, would likely feel at home in this “we”: she has three jobs, or, as she later corrects herself, “tall piles of tasks—paid, unpaid, underpaid—at every moment.” In one of capitalism’s many depraved ironies, these multiple tasks don’t multiply her income. Instead, the most stable of her jobs—at a café-bar in the village where E lives—subsidizes the cost of her commute to and part-time rent in a city to the south, where the rest of her work is located. There, she apprentices for a mediator who has lately disappeared and event-plans on a temporary basis for an unnamed capitalist whose nipple piercings she fantasizes about pulling on until he cries. “I had a growing desire,” she confesses, “to seduce the capitalist, to extract every ounce of pleasure he contained, then throw him out.” 

We learn a lot about E in Participation’s spare 191 pages, many of which are marked by white space—not just about her work and desires, but also about her fears, limitations, past relationships, reading habits, and thoughts on psychedelic drugs. Outside of this central consciousness, though, the novel is mostly schematic. Characters, scenarios, and settings are lightly sketched, corresponding to types if they correspond to anything at all. The process of winnowing Moschovakis began with her first foray into fiction, 2018’s Eleanor, or The Rejection of the Progress of Love, is taken even further here, suggesting the author has gotten closer to answering the question of, as she once put it, “what’s just the right amount of particularity to get across the emotional effects of something sharp, painful, and consequential?” 

In Eleanor, the consequential event is a private trauma. In Participation, the consequential event is collective, though its effects are unevenly felt: a tropical storm named Ezekiel rips through the center of the narrative, catching meteorologists off guard and causing serious damage to the city and its environs to the north, where bridges collapse, homes are destroyed, and mail delivery is momentarily halted. More prosaically, Ezekiel also prompts the spontaneous synthesis of the two reading groups to which E belongs—Love (held online; subject matter self-explanatory) and Anti-Love (held at E’s café-bar; “billed variously as resistance, revolt, revolution”)—whose members come together to commiserate, combine syllabi, and provide mutual aid, or at least contribute to a liveblog tracking those who’ve been stranded and disappeared by the storm. “What happened was both a lot and not very much,” the nameless, not-quite-omniscient voice who displaces E as narrator tells us of this meeting. “This was a room of people who had committed to being in this room.” 

But I’m getting ahead of myself—to borrow a trick from the novel itself, which is studded with direct, often apologetic, address to the reader: “You wanted a story and I’m sorry, it’s difficult, things are not proceeding along linear lines.” In addition to writing poetry and fiction, Moschovakis works as a translator from French (her translation of David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black won the 2021 International Booker Prize), and she has a professed indifference to the concept of genre. Unsurprisingly, then, Participation makes use of a host of literary devices not typically associated with fiction: lists, citation, erasure, enjambment, to name a few. Characters suddenly and permanently drop out of view, only for their disappearance to be regretfully noted by the narrator. Such meta techniques are of course not new—E herself mentions the “small poems” that “interrupt” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s A Dialogue on Love, “as if not to let us get too comfortable (in the flow of the prose)”—but Moschovakis uses them nimbly to model her novel’s true subject, which, despite the way this review begins, is not really work or capitalism or desire. Rather, Participation probes what it is to think about work and capitalism and desire—and love, and anger, and freedom, and care. In other words, “to interpret the world while also living in it.” 

Cornelia Parker, An Idea, 2015, polymer photogravure etching on paper, 28 3/8 × 22 7/8". © Cornelia Parker, Courtesy Cornelia Parker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London.
Cornelia Parker, An Idea, 2015, polymer photogravure etching on paper, 28 3/8 × 22 7/8". © Cornelia Parker, Courtesy Cornelia Parker and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London.

This kind of writing entails a certain amount of risk. “What is the pose of thinking? An embarrassment, for one,” E muses at one point. And it’s true that many of the questions the novel orbits feel embarrassing, for their vulnerability (“Is it possible to love someone who doesn’t share your wounds, someone whose wounds are so different from your own?”), or their intellectualism (“How can eros and philia and agape gather together in a world that is characterized by fantasy but also, necessarily, shared?”), or their apparent distance from the exigencies of political organizing—though the binary between the theoretical and the material, the individual and the collective, is one Moschovakis attempts to trouble. “If politics is relational, then who’s relating? Psychologies,” E tells her lover, S. “Am I too simple, to be getting stuck there? Because I do.” 

At the same time, the novel is alive to the pitfalls of theory, its potential to delay rather than spur action. “We are on hiatus for the summer—actually, we have finished the collection of essays on our syllabus, and we’ve been so careful about power sharing that everyone is reluctant to weigh in on what to read next,” E relays in a humorous aside about the status of Anti-Love. In another moment that verges on parody, a member of E’s newly combined collective concludes her introduction thusly: “Um, I’m a Libra and I’m allergic to shellfish?” Elsewhere, Moschovakis also gestures to the way that the necessary work of healing can give way to narcissism and myopia when the “personal repair café”—as a possibly hallucinated camp providing services to residents affected by the tropical storm is called—becomes a “self-repair cage” without its attendees noticing. Even the book’s title seems to hint slyly at such foibles, conjuring the image of a participation trophy, that symbol of the embarrassing wish to be acknowledged, perhaps especially so, when our efforts are insufficient. 

Rather than disavow thinking’s less productive fruits, however, Participation em-braces embarrassment as an ethic: after all, E points out, given the “humility and self-consciousness” it requires, “isn’t embarrassment . . . the most powerful focusing device?” You might say the same of a novel, especially this novel, which makes demands on the reader more exacting than those of your average work of contemporary fiction—demands for our attention and time. It’s in this sense, much more so than the word’s more cynical connotations, that Participation’s title is realized. Of course, the act of reading is always one of cooperative meaning-making between author and audience, but Moschovakis invites more direct forms of collaboration. One heavily redacted chapter, whose deletions are transformed by underlines into blanks, looks like a grim version of Mad Libs. And throughout, there are multiple, telling references to the power of marginalia to, “under certain conditions, . . . rewrite the text.” Participation reads like an effort to create those very conditions. “I could list the ambient and direct forces acting on each of us in this story, these stories,” E teases, “or I could let you list them yourself, in the margins of this or of one of the books in your own stack.” 

Early in the novel, E elucidates her affinity for the work of mediation by way of an anecdote about a mathematician she once met at a party. The woman told her that her field was intuitionism (as it happens, a subject Moschovakis’s parents both studied), but E failed to really grasp what this meant until she looked up the term later: “Intuitionism is based on the idea that mathematics is a creation of the mind. The truth of a mathematical statement can only be conceived via a mental construction that proves it to be true, and the communication between mathematicians only serves as a means to create the same mental process in different minds.” To create the same mental process in different minds: this, E notes, is also the goal of the mediation process. It’s the goal of collective intellectual efforts like Love and Anti-Love, too. And it is, in the end, the audacious gambit of Participation itself—audacious because, as E admits, the task of replacing “two divergent, conflicting realities” with “a single description about which, no matter how much regret and pain it contains, both parties can agree” is an onerous one, prone to failure and frustration. The antidote to these feelings, the novel suggests, is negative capability, which it’s in our best interests as a species to hone: “What if the desire to be challenged could be taught, could be learned?” With Participation, Moschovakis seems to have done her part: this is, ultimately, the kind of book that’s more pleasurable to think about than actually read. But then, isn’t that the point? 

Jess Bergman is an editor at The Baffler