How many novels have you read about a novelist in the midst of creation (or debilitating blockage)? Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer”; Doris Lessing’s “The Golden Notebook”; Iris Murdoch’s “The Sea, The Sea”; Colm Tóibín’s “The Master”; Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair.” And those are just the first few that come immediately to mind. The subject is nutrient-rich soil for writers: what do they know better, or worry about more, than their own whirring brains?
“Writers & Lovers,” the new novel from Lily King, at first seems determined to make a sandwich out of the literary aspirations of its narrator, Casey, wedging them firmly between the two men she is simultaneously dating. That premise makes sense in the context of King’s last novel, the breakout hit “Euphoria,” which fictionalized anthropologist Margaret Mead’s riverside dalliances with husbands No. 2 and 3. (It’s also, of course, a nod to D.H. Lawrence’s “Sons and Lovers,” a clear influence in the art of literary ménage à trois.) For Casey there’s Oscar Kolton, a widowed, middlingly successful older novelist trying to lure her into his ready-built life, and then Silas, another young drifter like her, reed-like in his wavering, with a chipped tooth so enticing you’ll want to put your tongue in the jagged gap.
But the two men become footnotes in “Writers & Lovers,” whose title employs Jane Austen’s method of slyly ordering language by decreasing importance. (“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition. …”) Yes, both of the love interests are writers, but this smooth, deliberate chronicle of creation keeps the men in their place and Casey firmly rooted at the center of her own story. Instead of casting her as a woman torn between archetypes of male creativity, “Writers & Lovers” portrays her as a woman in thrall to her own generative processes, a devotee to the art of (her own) attention.
This is a novel that honors the slow progress of work — menial, emotional and literary. Between the summer and winter of 1997, Casey works long hours as a waitress at Iris, a chichi restaurant in Harvard Square; King recounts every dish she delivers, the head count of every table. No detail is too small, including the arrangement of flatware — “napkin folded into a triangle, spoon on top of fork on top of knife laid alongside the long edge, two side points folded in then everything rolled to the pointed tip.”
In her off hours Casey rides her bike across the Charles from Cambridge, Mass., to gray-stoned Boston, congratulating herself when she holds back tears for her mother, who recently and inexplicably died on a vacation to Chile. More than any man, Casey’s central relationship is with her mother, or rather her mother’s absence, as she remembers over and over again that there is really no one to call with news, good or bad. Mostly Casey sits in the moldy garage room she rents and agonizes over “Love and the Revolution,” the novel she’s been working on for years; some days she searches in vain for “one moment, one sentence, that’s any good,” while other days “I sink down too deep and come up too fast.”
“Writers & Lovers’” renders the late ’90s as maybe the last golden age of purely self-driven creativity. Casey only toils over the work of her art and the work of survival. She has no profile to build online, no brand to maintain with quippy hourly tweets. This isn’t an exploration of what it means to be a writer; it’s an exploration of what it means to write. (The two ideas have become more and more conflated over the past two decades.) And King’s prose, simple, clear and accretive, mimics in form what she’s conveying — that art is an accumulation of details and that, in the IRL present, close attention is slipping away from us with every swipe of the screen.
What’s most refreshing is that after a spate of novels and memoirs that fix a female creator in reference to a great man (Lisa Halliday’s “Asymmetry,” Adrienne Miller’s “In the Land of Men”), Casey emerges as a woman who builds her literary identity out of parts all her own. In her 20s she found solidarity in a writing group; now in her early 30s, she’s the only member still working at it. She says she’s “hemorrhaging friends” to marriage: One of them “was the first to surrender and go to law school,” another explained that she was still “using [her] imagination” as a Realtor, and the third, a Milton scholar, married a man who said “first-person female narrative novels grated on him” and decamped to Houston. Casey, in contrast, is defined only in relation to herself.
Writing well about writing may be one of the most impossible arts. It necessitates the building of a small wall between the author and the reader; we have to recognize the agony of the minute calculations that good writing requires even as it’s delivered to us in polished and invigorating prose. Exposing the hard work of writing disintegrates the fallacy of instant genius.
“Writers & Lovers,” while describing the intense effort of putting words in order, feels effortless, or at least like an unconscious natural process. King’s sentences are like layers of silt and pebbles condensed into sedimentary rock — distinct from one another but fitted into an indestructible whole. And she pulls off a considerable trick: she convinces us that the miracle of attention, that coveted capability we all imagine slipped from our grasps as the new millennium dawned, must still lie somewhere inside writers, even if their fingers are swiping as often as typing. After all, in the year 2020, she’s produced this, a classic bildungsroman for struggling artists everywhere.
Kelly’s work has been published in New York Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere.
Writers and Lovers
Grove: 320 pages; $27