Desperately seeking stasis

Tara Ison is the author, most recently, of "The List."

EXPECTING a reader to ride shotgun on the journey of a character’s existential crisis is a lot for a writer to ask. Potholes loom: Ah, the paralyzing anomie of postmodern life, the self-absorption of the downward spiral, the privileged self-indulgence of middle-class despair! Woe to the reader -- and writer -- who risks that invitation: Do we really need to hear that story again? Do we really want to go there?

Joanna Kavenna’s first novel, “Inglorious” (following her widely acclaimed nonfiction debut, “The Ice Museum”), is a trip worth taking. Rosa Lane, a 35-year-old reasonably stable and successful London journalist, suddenly finds herself “in a labyrinth, lacking a ball of twine,” abruptly “aware of an invisible stopwatch tolling her down.... Sitting at her desk that day, sweating into her shirt, she thought, If they told me I would never do anything more than this, would I want to live or die on the spot?

Instead, she quits her job on the spot -- you might think this the healthy and proactive (if impractical) choice, but wait -- and staggers out into a morass of emotional conflicts and circumstances she has sensed churning but until now has resolutely ignored. Rosa’s mother died six months ago, and she has yet to adjust to the loss; Liam, her longtime boyfriend, exits their perfunctory relationship and takes up with Grace, Rosa’s best friend; Rosa’s father has a starting-a-new-life relationship of his own; Rosa’s once manageable financial debt is ballooning to blimp proportions. A possible new boyfriend is 10 years younger than she, and his cavalier optimism serves as rebuke to her own waste of time and potential. London is hellish in its hyper-stimulation, its relentless insistence on tangible success. Rosa wanders from flat to flat, friend to friend, borrowing clothing and food, wearing out welcomes, juggling funds, increasingly humiliated and exhausted.

But, as with any honest depiction of emotional unraveling, it isn’t the circumstances that matter most. Rosa is gifted with options and talents, after all -- she isn’t anywhere near as logistically desperate as she might be. It’s the caught-in-the-maze panic, the mental self-flagellation, the psychological hamster wheel. (Or the chemical imbalance: One glitch here is the absence of the idea of seeking professional psychological help. Odd that no one in her world advises her to see a shrink.) Should she really be spending all her time seeking a place to crash, the tide-over loan of a few quid,the security of a living-wage job? Or is the truer quest -- the should-should-should drumbeat she feels morally obliged to march to -- the escape from such quotidian banalities in favor of a search for Life’s Meaning?


What to do? Who can tell her? She attempts a metaphysical retreat: A bus ride to a job interview becomes a rumination on how to take comfort in Socrates, “who said that it was foolish to fear death, because there was no knowing if death was a better state than life,” while “[i]n the here and now, death -- the deaths of others -- robbed you of love.” And why obsess over Liam and Grace instead of “trying to understand the sun”? She becomes a compulsive “To Do” list-maker, a running motif of oppressive and evolving directories that combine high-mindedness with the most humdrum of errands: “Buy some tuna and spaghetti.... Read ‘The Golden Bough,’ the Nag Hammadi Gospels, the Upanishads, the Koran, the Bible, the Tao.... Read Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Bacon, Locke.... Hoover the living room. Clean the toilet.” She is bombarded by signs: Graffiti, billboards, trash on the street all proffer scattered words of wisdom or advice or warning; such “clues,” Rosa believes, are a potentially illuminating language she must puzzle out.

It’s the intellectual wit and Kavenna’s Woolfian eye for the universe-in-a-single-detail that save the novel from the hair-tearing emotional excess and sentimentality so many nervous-breakdown stories suffer from. “A dishcloth had dropped on the linoleum, and no one had stooped to collect it,” Rosa observes of her former life with Liam. “There were these small signs of ferment and then a few remnants of order, everything incommensurate.” All things portend peril, every moment is fraught: “She ran the tap, and watched the water whirl into the drain. She touched the plastic of the shower curtain and saw light sliding down it. The universe was riddled with impossible elements, she thought, absurd symmetries.”

Unfortunately, the novel’s ending relies a bit too heavily on a handy plot device to trigger an epiphany, briefly threatening to tip the complex balance of Rosa’s struggles toward a more conventional, scorned-woman/failed-romance climax -- but Kavenna darts away from it just in time. If the actual conclusion feels “unsatisfying” -- well, thank goodness for that. “And then she thought how damn ironic that was, that you should seek obscurity and positively embrace ignorance. That you should fashion your philosophy from the acceptance of unknowability” -- that’s about as much “resolution” as we get.

Good for Kavenna. The obvious tidiness of, say, a leap from London Bridge, a new Prince Charming, a fabulous job offer would give the lie to her respectful and nuanced rendering. Because it is the journey itself, not the destination, that makes this lovely and wrenching novel worth the ride.