ELEANOR, OR THE REJECTION OF THE PROGRESS OF LOVE
by Anna Moschovakis
Coffee House Press, 208 pages
reviewed by John Spurlock
Anna Moschovakis’ debut novel Eleanor, or the Rejection of the Progress of Love is a searching and poignant work that deftly positions itself between the unspeakable specificity of personal experience and the disturbing surplus of fungible narratives in our online world. The writing feels brave in both its formal approach and its openness to the potentially divergent conclusions it may suggest.
Simultaneously a character study and a self-reflective piece about the labor of composition and revision, the novel effectively incorporates a mise en abyme structure without letting meta-textual trappings take away from the urgency and reality of its many compelling moments. “[T]here’s a massive question mark at the heart of the novel,” the author told Bomb Magazine in a recent interview. “And at the end it’s still a question, but it’s maybe, I don’t know, set in a better font.” By never, in fact, relinquishing the question mark, the novel places itself firmly within the chaos of this violent world, confronting its irresolvable quandaries attentively so as to more deeply probe their effects on our collective consciousness.
So who is Eleanor? A disaffected academic in an ambiguous relationship; a deeply thoughtful writer struggling with a stolen laptop and anxiety about her subject; a lost grown child seeking a feeling of belonging. The reader can track roughly three phases of her life in the novel: her daily rhythm of working and loving in the city, her summertime listlessness of lonely underemployment, and her attempt at escapism in rural or foreign locales. As the protagonist becomes increasingly geographically distant and psychically detached from the purposes, places, and people that initially appeared to constitute her life, the text itself becomes increasingly blurred by commentary from the author about the composition of Eleanor as a character and the complex task of her exposition.
The writing conveys a sense of detachment regarding certain details of external reality, but a simultaneously intense and compelling interest in the inner resonances which surface within Eleanor as a result of her experiences.
The precision and faithfulness to the details of the protagonist’s thinking is so relentless that the plot movement almost slips past the reader’s awareness at times. The actions of the characters are often reduced to bracketed lists or stage directions, skimmed over quickly for efficiency’s sake: “Eleanor logged out [pacing, tarot, tea].” And yet at the same time, Moschovakis provides dense accounts of Eleanor’s meanderings through diverse, dispersed vernaculars from Brooklyn to Addis Ababa, each treated with specificity and attention to detail. The author’s constancy of the tone throughout the book guides the reader to its theme. The writing conveys a sense of detachment regarding certain details of external reality, but a simultaneously intense and compelling interest in the inner resonances which surface within Eleanor as a result of her experiences.
This change in focus suits the writer’s stated goal: to trace “the form of a feeling” rather than fill out its content specifically. The book is structured around absence, around mysterious references to the unmentionable “thing that had happened,” never stated but always referenced to explain Eleanor’s subsequent psychic patterns. The true investigation of this subject is contained in the missing paragraphs and lost data stored on Eleanor’s stolen laptop, which sends her on her quest but renders its origins opaque. These events are not meant to be resolved as plot points. Instead, for Moschavakis, they serve as models for studying the form of human feeling and experience. The missing paragraphs on the stolen laptop (presumably regarding the backstory of Eleanor’s unspoken trauma) provide “a site for a certain kind of thinking that was difficult but necessary for her to do,” and in a way the novel reads less as a narrative than as the scaffolding of a structure which could host the many kinds of thinking necessary for the act of writing to occur. This takes the form not only of layered internal monologues circling an unspoken but palpable trauma, but also bits of banal documentation, file directories, parsing trees, and lists, so many lists, which catalogue the detritus and diversion accompanying the act of revising: lists of possible titles, deleted illustrations, facts which have been established about certain characters so far, incomplete acrostic poems.
The reader need not wonder much about the novel’s influences and allegiances, for alongside the narrative, there is a constant broadcast emanating from the author herself, detailing the task of writing and revising the text itself. The author seems surer of herself than Eleanor, though her intentions are still obscure in a different way. Her conflict centers around a strange and straining correspondence with a famous critic, who provides feedback on her work while also trying to manipulate her for emotional support and attention. They have a series of fraught encounters and exchanges, mostly sustained by alcohol and desperation. The critic is annoying and pathetic, but also provides a meaningful sounding-board for the novel’s direction and meaning, though it often subverts his expectations or first impressions. In one scene, he asks the author a long series of pointed questions in order to establish the novel’s stance on a variety of issues, including deconstruction, language as trans-subjective experience, and the opposition between personal data and identity.
While any of these could serve as building blocks for an appropriate thesis statement or sales pitch, the author responds with exasperation at fielding such requests: “What if I said that I’m not writing an argument? Maybe the thing—maybe all the things—can just live in the same space for a while.” This space which provides shelter for the formal interrogation into feeling and thinking houses with equal hospitality Eleanor’s indifferent but insightful analyses of performance art and the poorly wrought but heartfelt literary analyses provided by her undergraduate students. Behind the author’s seeming cynicism lies a great compassion for language, which can be felt in her ability to apprehend and appreciate both the significance of ancient signs (like Tzaddi in the tarot deck) and the twisted world of late capitalism (like the shining slogan which appears mysteriously in the stars: We are performance that is quality life try now).
Eleanor speaks directly and powerfully to vexations inherent to its existence within an ultra-mediated and male-dominated literary culture that might expect women writing fiction to give birth to personal confessions rather than thoughtful, universal reflections.
This is a novel taking great pains to demonstrate the great pains that must be taken in order to write honestly but not explicitly. Eleanor speaks directly and powerfully to vexations inherent to its existence within an ultra-mediated and male-dominated literary culture that might expect women writing fiction to give birth to personal confessions rather than thoughtful, universal reflections. By taking in these detracting forces and critically reproducing them in her own text, Moschovakis is able to uncover a special and powerful voice within her own writing, one which can smoothly present the shortcomings of interpretations that are overly reliant upon the application of traditional categories and concepts. By generating and engaging with its own critic, the text also succeeds in humanizing the flat reception it may have received by jaded readers who merely want to glean a few novelties from a story and move on to the next. The significance of the response to the novel living within the novel itself is deepened by mysterious and subtle linkages between Eleanor with the critic: “(what we know about Eleanor: that she is a critic).” The structure of the book implores its reader to listen without necessarily needing to respond, to wonder openly about particular inclusions and omissions, to track the series of convergences and divergences between the plethora of perspectives housed under its multidimensional roof.
As may be apparent by now, such a work bequeaths a strange task upon its male critic, since one of its primary purposes is subverting the nauseating oversaturation of reviews, blogs, references, and media which invade and rearrange our collective imagination and creative processes into what are now called “hot takes.” While writing this review, I considered introducing several literary or artistic touchstones (some of which are referenced within the work itself) to aid in elucidating the relevance and impact of this novel for the contemporary canon of “autofiction.”
Ultimately, however, I prefer to let the work contain its own cultural moment, which it does so with an impressive density and rawness that feels extremely appropriate to the era of hyperexposure in which it exists. One of its unique contributions is to draw a connection between this larger cultural condition of exposedness and the specific embodied experience of women as their lives inevitably relate to the male gaze. Eleanor may serve as an effective stand-in for the disillusionment that plagues the world at large, but she is not an abstraction. She recounts very specific experiences of gendering and racialization, and attempts earnestly to guide the reader through her resulting emotional process in a comparative, cautious, and insightful manner. When we view the literary landscape through this lens, the means of production that determine success appear significantly less impactful than the power of women’s artworks which speak for themselves, and the most appropriate response may be to spread the word without mangling its meaning (I have tried to serve as a vessel for the transmission of this novel, foisting it upon anyone who will listen).
The novel’s most appealing aspect may be its beautiful tracings of the form of a feeling, letting that outline be considered on its own, independent from the event which gave it cause.
The novel’s most appealing aspect may be its beautiful tracings of the form of a feeling, letting that outline be considered on its own, independent from the event which gave it cause. In one of the novel’s most memorable scenes, Eleanor anticipates the catcalls of some construction workers she sees standing ahead of her on the sidewalk. This sweeping paragraph, instead of describing the men or the immediate anxiety the protagonist is experiencing, spirals from exploring the shame accompanying privileges gained by attracting (unwanted) male attention, denying “neither its injustice nor its use-value,” to musing on the separation that women experience as a result of “slight differences [which lead], over the years, to more consequential differences” regarding their individual relationships to male authority despite a sense of unity regarding its adverse effects. Eventually, as a wave of analysis rages silently inside her, she walks by the men. During this moment of “special loneliness,” the reader is not walking behind or alongside Eleanor, but pacing circles in a cave somewhere along her mental shoreline. We feel exposed not only to the external world she inhabits, but the world she creates within. The experiences resonate individually, but not as deeply as the structural exposition of their general form, here given priority in a way it rarely truly is. By the way, there were no catcalls from the construction workers, just one man wishing Eleanor a good afternoon, upon which she feels “relieved, then doubt[s] the basis for her relief.”
John Spurlock is a student and writer of philosophy and poetry working and living in Oakland, CA. His poetic interests include juxtaposition, polyvocality, directness, and