Name: Eleanor. Age: “still not halfway to death.” Marital status: single, though recently granted a drawer of her own in her not-boyfriend’s apartment. Race: white, with the requisite sense of culpability in an age of “school shootings, murderous cops and their defenders, and remote-controlled bombings of unarmed civilians.”
When we meet the title character in Anna Moschovakis’s Eleanor, or, the Rejection of the Progress of Love, she has blood on her hands—both literally, her thumb bleeding from an unspecified injury, and figuratively, dwelling on an unspecified “thing that had happened—that she had made happen, or at least not prevented from happening.” She is stuck, and so is her creator: not Moschovakis, but an unnamed narrator whose struggle to revise her manuscript unfolds in alternating sections with Eleanor’s story. If this sounds unwieldy, in practice it isn’t, even as the narrator worries that her book has become “like a sequence of nested clauses, an interminable sentence requiring too many readings to locate the verb.”
For help untangling the threads, she turns to a not-quite-new acquaintance: Aidan, a critic and filmmaker whose place in the cultural canon is already being laid out, and whose course she once took as an undergrad—not that he seems to remember. His celebrated film is titled Audience, and his need for the narrator to serve as a combination student, handler and confessor is overpowering. Almost instantly, he thrusts dark personal secrets into her hands and reveals himself as one of those men who delivers every opinion with “an apparent authority and completion that I knew from experience I could muster only after substantial thought, the painful suppression of doubt, and hours of rehearsal before a mirror.”
But despite his self-absorption, Aidan is interested in her novel. And despite herself, the narrator is interested in him. Not romantically: she’s “mostly off men,” though Aidan’s correspondence is a welcome distraction from a breakup so fresh she’s still tripping over her ex-girlfriend’s stilettos. But love isn’t the only story worth telling. In this book, nonce friendships can be as life-changing as committed relationships, and sex isn’t necessarily a more potent form of eros than conversation.
While the narrator fields Aidan’s volley of emails and margin notes, Eleanor embarks on a fraught email correspondence of her own. After her laptop is stolen, she receives a message from a young African immigrant claiming that he’s found it and would like to help return her data. When he stops responding online, she decides to pursue him into the real world, seeking some cloudy mixture of confrontation and connection.
It’s this pursuit that ultimately pries Eleanor loose from her holding pattern and launches her on a shaggy-dog pilgrimage from Brooklyn to an Albany youth hostel, an upstate eco-commune, and ultimately Ethiopia. Along the way, she pinballs off a slew of characters who are no less vivid for having only walk-on roles.
Moschovakis is a poet, and Eleanor is unmistakably a poet’s novel, alert to the textures of experience but relaxed in the pursuit of plot. It is elliptical in the manner of David Markson or Renata Adler, yet eager to point out its experiments and omissions. We don’t learn what sort of event Eleanor regrets having caused, but we do get the narrator pondering “whether the benefits of withholding the particulars of the thing that had happened were worth any frustration such withholding might cause in a reader.” She also worries about the book’s “many unoriginal traits: its episodic structure, its banal storyline reflecting the alienation of the individual in late capitalism, and more.” All this could come off as precious; instead, it lands as a kind of generosity.
The other risk with such meta-commentary is that it might bog down the narrative. But in fact it’s the narrator’s story that starts to produce the stronger pull. Her unstable bond with the critic launches a compelling exploration of the kinds of witness we seek in others and the insidious ways gender and power complicate friendship. While Eleanor traces the footsteps of Arthur Rimbaud in Ethiopia, the narrator travels with Aidan to a ceremony in his hometown, where she finds it “hard not to take on the role of assistant, though I assuaged some of my anxiety about this tendency by calling it care.”
How might any of us get unstuck—from endless rumination, from gendered relations gone stale? One viable strategy, Eleanor suggests, is to escape, not carelessly away from the past but carefully toward each other and deeper into the world. Its heroines’ paths progress as unpredictably and digressively as Moschovakis’s magpie pen, picking up cultural artifacts ranging from Marina Abramovic to My Dinner with Andre along the way. It’s a pleasure to journey alongside all three of them as they drift and drift, and finally take flight.
Eleanor, or, the Rejection of the Progress of Love
by Anna Moschovakis
Coffee House Press
Paperback, 9781937658793, 224 pp.