Loss Illusions

Lazy City By Rachel Connolly. New York: Liveright. 288 pages. $17.

The cover of Lazy City

LAZY CITY, RACHEL CONNOLLY’S EXACTING and wise debut novel, is a chronicle of echoes. Connolly tells the tale of two absences: Kate’s, a graduate student who dies before the book begins; and Erin’s, the novel’s protagonist. Erin had been Kate’s best friend, and Kate’s death so rattles her that it also makes her absent from herself. Lazy City takes place in the limbo that follows loss. It doesn’t treat the sharp pain of rupture—sharpness is among the reliefs Connolly withholds—but the lassitude that engulfs a mind after tragedy is over and before normal life resumes. Erin met Kate in graduate school in London, where they were flatmates at university. After Kate’s death Erin goes on leave and returns to her childhood home. This home is the Belfast of a millennial generation bound together by inherited communal trauma and ennui. 

Erin’s days are mostly filled with figures from her childhood who, like Erin herself after losing Kate, seem oddly uninterested in ordinary success. “This is not a 5 a.m. run kind of place. Or even a 7 a.m. run kind of place. We’re lazy,” she explains to Matt, an American outsider. She spends most of her free time with Declan, an artist who works as a barman and who has been a close friend for years. At the bar where Declan works, Erin runs into an ex she never managed to get over, and she spends much of the novel overanalyzing his texts and agonizing over his inexplicable behavior. She has painful run-ins with her monstrous mother, and readers learn over the course of the book just how emotionally abusive that mother was during Erin’s childhood. The only outsider in Erin’s world is Matt, the American with perfect teeth and a predilection for annoying her. Perhaps as a means of escaping the parochialism in which she has ensconced herself, Erin commences an ill-advised situationship with him. Born and raised in Belfast, Connolly vividly conjures the texture of the city and the rhythms of its millennial culture, and slowly allows the reader to understand how alienated Erin is from both.

“Winter seeps into the day through the edges” is the first phrase of Lazy City, and the rest of the work proceeds at this drowsy pace. Erin’s mind is somehow foggy—a condition of which readers are made aware as much by what Connolly omits as by what she communicates. The chilliness of the Belfast fall crawling steadily into winter rhymes with the gray chill of Erin’s own mind. Her life has folded into a loop of repeated rituals. During the day she works as a live-in nanny caring for two adolescent brothers, the sons of a wealthy woman named Anne Marie, whom she worries may any moment decide she does not need Erin’s help after all. Declan provides Erin with the only thing approaching companionship. They regularly review the “huge catalogue of shared jokes and reference points, accumulated over years of friendship.” Night after night she bundles up and trudges through the cold to meet Declan at the same bar to see, drink, and get high with the same people: “Fog blurs the light from the street lamps and cars. I wrap my scarf around the bottom of my face to keep the cold out.” Each morning she retraces the same jog, worries about the most recent or the upcoming confrontation with her mother, and wonders sleepily how long she has till Anne Marie turns her out. The routine is occasionally punctured by a nagging awareness that life must move on:

I look for other jobs, things in call centres and shops, but without focus or urgency. I gesture half-heartedly to myself at making, or changing, longer-term plans. . . . This feeling of trying to plan around so many variables, and the ways I might possibly feel, is like plotting a course along a shifting surface. 

The challenge Connolly set herself was communicating distended despair without indulging in melodrama or becoming boring. If Erin had been self-pitying, or so broken that she was incapable of being interesting, Connolly could not have pulled it off. But the inside of Erin’s mind is a very interesting place to be, and Connolly conjures its interior with a gentle, dependable intelligence. Even while revisiting the same childhood haunts with the same types she’s been going out with since middle school, Erin notices and analyzes people with penetrating insight. Sipping wine with her employee one night, Anne Marie makes a gentle jibe about her own mother and then laughs “the sort of laugh which is intended to make a statement seem softer, less pointed, but often has the opposite effect.” The reader trusts these insights, and they thicken the narrative. The same way that a virtuosic artist can conjure the shape of a human face in one stroke, every one of Erin’s half thoughts is masterfully rendered. Connolly’s hand never shakes.

We realize that some tragedy has transpired by feeling its frigid contours, bumping up against the weight under which Erin is straining to stand. Kate is not mentioned by name until the sixth chapter of Lazy City:

I thought about calling someone and then I didn’t know who that would be, and then I kept thinking about how I didn’t have anyone to call. And maybe I did and I only felt that I didn’t. Kate would have called her parents, maybe. If it was the other way round.

We don’t learn any of the details concerning Kate’s death, including its cause, until the final tenth of the novel, by which point we have at last accepted that whatever dealt the death blow is not an essential part of Erin’s story. When we are finally told how Kate died, the only aspect of that communication that is shocking is the casualness with which its details are relayed. We are not concerned with Kate’s absence but with Erin’s. 

The novel is about two catastrophes, or rather about the afterlife of two catastrophes. Erin is from Belfast, and the shadow of “the Troubles,” the ethno-nationalist struggle between largely Catholic nationalists and Protestant loyalists that bloodied Northern Ireland for most of the second half of the twentieth century, hangs over the city but is rarely addressed directly. Between lines of coke and rounds of beer, Erin and her friends gossip about ex-boyfriends (“Who was that he was with?”), make plans for “afters,” and decide who’s expected to score next. “Coping mechanisms,” a locution at which Erin and her community would roll their eyes, shape Belfast culture, and among them is the law that the Troubles are never treated at length. When the law is broken, humor is immediately enlisted to shuffle the subject back in its box where it belongs. This culture of instituted silence dictates Erin’s relationship to all grief. She lacks a vernacular for articulating even to herself what she has lost and how those amputations have altered her. In another place and time, religion might have offered a framework for healing, but in Lazy City “Catholic” is a shibboleth, an overwhelmingly political expression of identity, and the weight of its communal significance eclipses any kind of spiritual association. Erin has no ritual for mourning Kate. Her community has bequeathed only a mute rigidity that demands the pain not be let out of the shadows and into the open. 

Graffiti in the Queen’s Quarter, Belfast, Ireland, 2013. William Murphy/Flickr.
Graffiti in the Queen’s Quarter, Belfast, Ireland, 2013. William Murphy/Flickr.

For both the reader and the protagonist, it is impossible not to compare Erin’s specific tragedy with her communal one. Which is worse: the sudden, bloodless death of a friend, or the terrorism that caused thousands of casualties as well as the disfigurement of incalculable lives? The reader knows that the proper answer is the latter one: thousands of corpses weigh more than one. At one point Erin’s mother, whose brother was killed in a bombing during the conflict, betrays her impatience for her daughter’s grief: “She doesn’t look at me. She snorts. I don’t know if she means it to sound like a snort. You aren’t the first person to have had something bad happen to them. Now her brother. A brother in a bombing is always the trump card.”

Erin is not entirely immune to her mother’s implicit accusation: grieving for a private loss is a variety of betrayal, her mother seems to say. It detracts from communal pain. Erin is tormented by guilt over her personal grief. Connolly hints that there is something promiscuous or indulgent about grieving for a personal loss rather than a communal one. “I don’t know if [my uncle’s death is] objectively worse than Kate. How would you measure?” Erin says to herself. Lazy City proposes that the gravity of a catastrophe in an individual’s life is not measured in blood but in the degree to which it disturbs a life and renders the surrounding world inhospitable and strange.

When catastrophe strikes, it forces us to recognize the contingency of life, the fact that it does not operate the way we told ourselves it must. In Erin’s case, this recognition is complicated by her history; Connolly communicates that in order to survive a childhood shaped by the aftermath of the Troubles, Erin convinced herself that horror was localized, that it only happened here. If she could make it out of Belfast and away from the streets and faces stained with a brutish truth, she could be free. If she could find a world in which the residue of horror hadn’t left its mark on all expressions of intimacy, safety and fulfillment would await her. Gradually readers become aware that Kate had been a symbol of this escape. Her death was doubly wounding: Erin lost her friend, and she lost the possibility of a life free from horror. Kate’s death shattered Erin’s fragile, urgent illusion. Early in the novel Erin recalls making the decision to abort her graduate studies and return home. She felt she had no choice. The size of her loss “seemed to swell, like something being blown up inside me”:

Now, the things you would never have imagined could happen, will, and whatever way you thought things would go, is not the way things are any more. How do you ever get over that? How do you go back to the life you were living? What meaning can any of it have?

The shattering of this illusion, and Erin’s attempt to come to grips with that loss, is the ultimate subject of Lazy City. When one’s whole life has been a pursuit of safety and stability, what can life look like once one realizes that such safety is unattainable, that there is never a guarantee of stability? If London was not far enough away from Belfast to flee horror, maybe nowhere was. Kate’s death made Erin come to terms with the intractable brutality, the meaninglessness, of ordinary life. This realization was unbearable. A person can chart her progress toward recovery in the time it takes to reconstruct a bearable relationship with reality. Living resumes after that work is over. Lazy City takes place in the ellipses between Erin’s previous life and the one she hasn’t found yet. 

Pain can cultivate an allergy to politesse. It sometimes saps a person of the energy to feign membership in the communities of the healed, and to instead take refuge in the etiquettes that govern the communities of survivors. Erin, who left Belfast but then returned, colors Lazy City with a firm aversion to canned talk about grief. Belfast etiquette demands this of her: at work one day, while walking the boys for whom she serves as nanny up to their rooms, Erin thinks to herself, “Nobody here calls psychiatrists psychiatrists or psychologists psychologists or counsellors counsellors. Just like nobody says mental health or addiction or trauma. People say a doctor, or he always drank, or that someone is on the spectrum.” This is one of two instances in which the word “trauma” appears in the book. Like the people she grew up with, Erin does not permit herself to invoke familiar categories or schema in order to make sense of human behavior. She never uses locutions like “healing” or “self-help.” She is not a “victim” (the word “victim” appears once in the book, and it refers to victims of food poisoning). 

Refusing to participate in the culture of self-help, and of therapy-speak in particular, is a method of ignoring rather than treating the aftereffects of catastrophe. But that language can be a tool for escapism, too. Readers are denied the comfort of fleeing Erin’s heavy monologue and finding refuge in the vernacular we invoke to explain trauma and the traumatized to ourselves. This vernacular is useful, of course, but it comes with a price. Connolly’s refusal to use this language shields her from reducing Erin and her ilk to clinical typologies. Erin bristles at being cast as another victim in the cultural imagination. She demands recognition—from herself and from us. Several times she stares at herself in the mirror and smiles. This ritual is the soul of the novel: Erin is looking for herself. She is rigorously seeking the version of herself that isn’t a simulacrum of the girls she sees at the bar or reads about in magazines. She’ll find what she’s looking for by reckoning with the cataclysm that forced her from her former self.

Lazy City treats this period in Erin’s life with respect but without righteousness. Connolly’s strength is her capacity to be serious and light simultaneously. This strength is on full display in the moments Erin spends in front of mirrors talking to her own reflection. Through these sessions in particular, Connolly communicates that recovery from grief occurs during quotidian rituals. We stare at ourselves in the mirror, fixing our smudged eyeliner and wondering, for example, if we are “totally pathetic.” Erin must wake up each morning, put on her makeup, and smile at herself, all while knowing that crippling loss is a part of life, that it is inescapable. In this gentle way, Connolly instructs that trauma’s deepest scar is the banality of its afterlife. Lazy City is a testament to that insight. It is not a story for our time. It is a story for all time. 

Celeste Marcus is the managing editor of Liberties: A Journal of Culture and Politics.