The abecedarium has a long literary history, and some of its best-known examples, such as Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary or Gustave Flaubert’s Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues, play with the form’s implied authority for purposes of satire. Recently Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby used the template to convey hellish fragments of an environmental dystopia. Suzanne Scanlon, author of Promising Young Women (2012), turns to a woman’s experience in contemporary America and offers a probing and artful inventory in Her 37th Year, An Index (Noemi Press, 161 pages).
It’s a thought-provoking book, and all the more interesting because this index not only exploits the energy of brief, punchy entries and their cumulative effect (here, the dissection of an artistic sensibility, mainly regarding sexual politics). Scanlon also tells a story. There’s a plot here, or a number of plots, circling the narrator’s 37th year, from which emerges the story of her life.
Her 37th Year speaks of love and aging and mental breakdown; parenting and teaching and a lifetime of reading; New York City and the hunger for faith. Scanlon jettisons the conventions of scene-setting, time transitions and other dutiful atmospherics (the tedious “weather report” techniques that encumber much realistic storytelling) and achieves something sharper-edged and less predictable. You could even make a case that this mode is more “realistic” than conventional realism because it feels more lived. Here’s a representative entry:
“DISCOURSE (see also: Desire, Love, (M)essay, Revolution and You), I don’t want to write a mommy narrative or a menopause narrative. As Eileen Myles said, I want to… [be] punk about aging. I won’t fit into what is allowed. I want to be messy, to be here. Where I am, which is a mess, feels honest. A friend says, “You’re a hot mess.” I won’t create that archetype. I want to deny the arch. I don’t want to become a power woman, masculinized, my hair done. What they’ve created: nymphet cougar mother-in-law dame. No, I want to be punk about aging, punk about gooey mothering, punk about turning thirty-eight, thirty-nine, forty.”
Never mind the bollocks, to be sure, but clearly there’s more going on here than reflexive nay-saying or the visceral pleasure of rebellion. This narrator is still seeking connections and trying to make sense with respect to other writers and her local frame of reference. Many entries in this book are in fact a kind of conversation, addressed to “you” and inviting questions, in effect undermining the authority of the lexicon but in a way which is significantly different from precedents of satire. Rewind, repeat: “I want to deny the arch.”
“PREEXISTING FORMS (see also: Bidart, Frank), as in, ‘We fill pre-existing forms and when we fill them change them and are changed.’ It will occur to you: you are the one now, the wise one, the one to tell the young girl, with an arm fully extended, ‘I am worried about you.'”
Although many cross-references in Her 37th Year help the reader construct a story arc (about the narrator’s job or her relationship with “the man in boots” or with her child, Magoo), some entries are allusions to knowledge beyond the text. For instance, the citation above directs the reader to Frank Bidart, but a quick look in the “B” section offers no such entry. It is up to the reader to do the job, to participate in the construction of this world. This active engagement is an important part of Scanlon’s method.
Other citations or allusions include Woolf, Sontag, Beckett, Butler, Lacan, Weil, Plath, Ionesco, Cioran, Nin, Larkin and Ginsberg—to mention a few. In other hands, such persistent name-dropping could be irritating but Scanlon generally avoids this pitfall because her narrator does not preen. The tone is unpretentious and unafraid to include the awkward and personal.
“LONGING (see also: Questions), I hate longing but I must not really because I am so good at it. You may feel connected to a former loneliness, an old friend.”
This is not the note of someone satisfied with a pose. And this affirmation of desire, which is often antithetical to “being cool,” is the source of much of the novel’s appeal and what keeps the reader turning the pages. Honesty has built-in dramatic tension. At heart, Her 37th Year depicts a person trying to live an examined life.
A few entries are rather elliptical (for this reader, at least) but Scanlon is never cloying and her gift for condensation, for pith, is impressive. The entry to POPO MARTIN refers to mental patients as “chemically-induced stoics”; in FIREWORKS, we read, “If this is happiness, I’ll take it, a girl thinks, me.” Part of the entry for DISTURBED, THE, reads like a précis of the author’s sensibility:
“What we mourn is the idea of our teacher, the one presented in the speech to the graduates. The one who knew what it meant to be a good person, even if he was not able to be that person. For most of us, this is as good as it gets. Aspiration. Recognition. Searching, striving for that impossible thing. To fail regularly.”
Her 37th Year succeeds, by dint of its unflinching sense of precarity, its polyvalent musings and its intense prose. The unleashed energy of its formal rigor is idiosyncratic in the best sense. There is more here—an attentiveness to experience, to being consciously alive in this world—than one finds in most fat realistic novels. It is also a salutary reminder of how much a good book is not simply about something; it is something, staking out its own territory.
–Charles Holdefer, author of Back in the Game, 2012