Brookner on My Brain
(Or why we’re all novelists)
I kept a diary those three days I read my first Anita Brookner novel, Undue Influence. Weird as it may sound, that’s how I read now. I’m a compulsive note-taker. I get all nerdy and obsessive. I underline passages, scribble notes in margins. I cram quotes in my little notebook, confess and digress on my laptop. I lose myself in the writer’s mind while remaining self-absorbed. Mostly, I live in my head. There I talk with authors and their characters. I let them mingle with other authors and books I’ve read. So I’m never alone, my mind never at rest. I keep rewinding scenes from pages that seem rehearsals for what I should say or do to wrap up some unfinished business or to spin off more versions of what-ifs. In my head, I edit such unwieldy sentences, reconstruct other people’s unwieldy lives and mine. Which is to say I’m no different perhaps from the typical Brookner brooder. Certainly no different from this novel’s narrator, Claire Pitt.
Claire, 29 years old, has this “odd habit of making up people’s lives for them.” The entire novel is her internal monologue, her nonstop mental note-taking. Her mother has just died, so she is now the sole tenant of their apartment. She works at a secondhand bookshop owned by two spinsters who are both in their eighties. She has one friend, Wiggy, with whom she occasionally goes out. But Claire doesn’t feel comfortable enough to share her deepest secrets with Wiggy. And she doesn’t expect the two of them to get any closer. “Trust and hope”—those two are recurring issues with Claire. She thinks they are “a message addressed to the disappointed, the defeated.” An air of cynical resignation hovers around her days, as if she has been infected by the unhappy marriage of her parents. Both are now dead but remain eerily alive and dominant in her mind. An only child, now an adult orphan, she faces the prospects of becoming another spinster, “one more old lady submitting to the inevitable shipwreck.”
Meanwhile, what does she do with all the time in her hands—and all those ghosts in her head? Wiggy tells her she should write a novel, but she has no interest in that: “in fact I read very little.” Neither art nor religion comforts Claire. But she loves taking long walks “with only an aberrant imagination for company.” Ah, that imagination—her rescue and her trap. For readers like me, that is what’s most appealing and repulsive about her. She confesses she is “a mental stalker.” Indeed, in the elegant, elusive rhythms of the voice that Brookner has composed for Claire, this first-person narrative pursues me and perplexes me. This “I” confiding in me: who is she? And why is she making up all these scenarios about people she barely knows? How can she be so aware of her self-deceptions (“Naturally it is likely that none of this [story] was true”) and yet so clueless to her self-contradictions?
Can Martin Gibson, a fortyish man who walks into the bookshop one day, save her from herself? Alas, Claire gets attracted to him only to be introduced to one more disappointment: Cynthia, his “invalid wife.” Slowly, Claire is invited into the life of this rich couple and (what she presumes as) their co-dependency. The plot sways into a romantic entanglement that could free Claire from her fantasies precisely by fulfilling them. But would she dare let a man break through her defenses? In one moment, with Martin in her apartment, Claire defies my expectations. She finally takes a risk, initiates action. I cheer her on—only to hear in the next chapters more of her self-encaging speculations, waverings, inconsistencies. Even before this letdown, halfway through the novel I wanted out. Out of Claire’s head. It gets claustrophobic in there; she can be exasperating. Yet I suspect this discomfort is exactly what Brookner has set me up for. As Claire’s mind gets more slippery, the more I’m tempted to tag along wherever her maze takes me. The more predictable or deluded Claire sounds, the more deliciously comic and wicked Brookner gets. So I don’t give up on the novel. I don’t give up on Claire and the diary I’m keeping about her misgivings.
Walking on the street at the end of another working week, Claire identifies with “the homegoing crowds.” She sees herself as one of “those who find themselves alone through force of circumstance.” In my diary, I groan at her, scold or beg her to please, please reconsider before another one of her imaginings misfires. Oh you are so off, my dear, can’t you see that? Oh Claire. There you go again concocting plots, justifying yourself, judging people, projecting your regrets and resentments on them. You accuse other women of being “passive” or “predatory” or “bitter.” You scorn men for their “worried self-absorption.” But aren’t you guilty of those same faults? You have this “bully vs. weak” template into which you fit (and poison) virtually all the relationships you see or imagine (husband-wife, parent-child, employer-employee). And then you wonder why you have this “odd feeling of displacement,” why you have “succumbed to . . . depression,” why your relationships are “charged with the mournful consciousness of lost alternatives.” Oh Claire, not all is lost. If you could only step outside your head more often. If you could only let your guard down for a moment. If you could only accept that life is as much a matter of choice as it is a force of circumstance.
Psychiatrists, priests, Buddhists, feminists, and postmodern critics will have a field day analyzing what’s wrong with Claire. (Well, perhaps Buddhists won’t analyze but gently remind her to empty her head of all that clutter. Meditate, my dear. Zap it all out with Zen.) But there’s one philosopher who might come to Claire’s defense. His name is Daniel Dennett. Early this year, I stumbled on one of his writings entitled “Why Everyone Is a Novelist” (The Times Literary Supplement of London, September 16, 1988). In this prescient essay, he outlines theories that are gaining favor with 21st-century neuroscientists. He proposes that the “self” is a product of an extremely elaborate and efficient “novel-writing machine,” which is the human brain or what we call the mind. We may not be aware of it, but we are constantly telling ourselves stories of who we are and what the world means to us. We are reimagining or repackaging versions to suit our own and other people’s needs. Groundbreaking brain studies, says Dennett, show that “the normal mind is not beautifully unified, but rather a problematically yoked-together bundle of partly autonomous systems.” So who am I to diagnose Claire’s storytelling urges as pathological or pathetic? Hers may be the perfect example of a beautifully un-unified mind. So does that explain her blind spots and inconsistencies? Revisiting chapter 1, I see she has made it clear from the very start: “I had come to realize that most people are entirely inconsistent.”
I don’t know if Anita Brookner had read Daniel Dennett when she published Undue Influence in 1999—or if she keeps up with breakthroughs in neuroscience and the ongoing debates on the causes of and treatments for clinical depression. But I am amazed at how her novel scans the life and strife of the mind, each chapter revealing an X-ray of the contours and loopholes of Claire’s thoughts. That Brookner is brainy is a given. (Her “fierce intelligence” is reconfirmed in a fascinating profile, “A Singular Woman,” by Mick Brown in The Telegraph, February 19, 2009.) So it’s deplorable how her novels are often relegated to some lame category such as “chick lit” or “sad-solo-old-chick lit.” This particular novel is cutting-edge psychology and a riveting postmodern tease. (Which of Claire’s stories are 100% real or reliable? Which of ours are?) Dennett questions the notion that reality is fixed. He doubts that any human is totally in control of a coherent, consistent self. In fact, each of us may well consist of “multiple selves”—hence, our conflicting desires, our second thoughts. It’s not that we’re all latent schizophrenic paranoid narcissistic liars. (See, Claire, you are not alone.) But yes, the mind plays tricks on us as it offers us myriad ways to see the truth.
Seeing beyond surfaces, I even dare say that this novel is subtly, defiantly feminist. I can cite many seemingly throwaway lines that I relish as Brooknerian barbs on gender politics, but I’ll just quote two of my favorites. On page 25, Muriel Collier, the 80-something co-owner of the bookshop where Claire works, recalls confronting an arrogant man: “Well, I am a spinster; I make no apology for that.” (Surely, Brookner, who turns 83 soon, is making no apologies either.) And on page 163, Claire comments on something that “is not really in a woman’s nature to do,” then promptly chides herself: “What I am saying is politically incorrect in the highest degree. I should be expelled from any women’s co-operative for even thinking it.” I take that as another one of Brookner’s tongue-in-cheek asides, as if she were saying: “If you think you can catch me in my own game, you’ve got another thing coming.”
Readers like me might initially find this novel too slim or slight to yield any major insights into our complicated lives today. But this 186-page mind-trip can be endlessly rewarding if we give it a little more rethinking. Do we really have anything in common with Claire who believes that “everything is connected” and yet fails or refuses to make meaningful connections with people? Do we feel sorry for her because we suspect she is self-delusional? Or does she inspire (or confuse) us even more whenever she catches herself (or us) with a flash of self-awareness? Near the end, she tells us: “I castigated my imagination for misleading me, as it sometimes did. My mind, like most people’s minds, was a mixture of instinct, information, and ignorance . . . .” Do we believe her now, this unreliable narrator exerting undue influence on our ability to trust and hope? Can we now empathize with her despite her often annoying voice, her insinuating presence? Is she off the hook? Are we?
By hooking us up with a character that gets on our nerves or under our skin, Anita Brookner is perhaps nudging us out of our comfort zones. By luring us out of our storytelling heads and into another (albeit fictional) person’s mind, she is holding up for us a mirror—as much of the self-made mirage as we are willing to see through. Like Claire, we’re all novelists in our minds. Whether through literature, politics, science, religion, history, or media, we all project our stories. Memory is naturally selective, self-image essentially a work in progress. In our diaries, on Facebook or Twitter, in our phone calls and e-mails and blogs and brains, we are all posting and consuming ever-shifting versions of reality. We do all these not because we are innately deceitful or gullible but because we are hardwired for this meaning-making business. Chalk it up to evolution, sheer curiosity, or childlike hunger for tales well told. We keep rehashing and revising because, like the most creative writers and perceptive readers, we always find something to interpret and reinterpret. As Claire says, “[People] do reveal mysterious connections. But sometimes one is merely anxious to alter the script.”
My diary on Undue Influence begins on June 24, 2011. It says: “I’m reading chapter 1 for the third time. Just can’t get enough of it.” The diary ends three days later as I reach the novel’s final page. Last notes to myself: “Go back to chapter 1. All the clues are there. Listen carefully to Claire. Listen to yourself. Listen to Brookner as she begins her book with a simple sentence. This is one of the most tantalizing first lines you have ever read—and will keep rereading: ‘It is my conviction that everyone is profoundly eccentric.’ A single line and you’re already hooked. You’re already reimagining things. Ah, but aren’t we all?”