This book doesn’t want me to spoil it for you. It says so on the back. It says: “All we can say is: please, no spoilers.” It recently occurred to me that the whole thing about spoilers is that they pretty much constitute a gag on critical discussion of narrative in public. This happened at an academic conference panel on ‘sitting with uncomfortable ideas’ in which a popular Netflix series was raised as a point of intersection between two complex ideas and was met with literal screams of “No Spoilers! Please!” and the discussion instantly and by consensus ceased entirely. As someone who’d seen the series in question and was mourning the lost opportunity to triangulate a rather disjointed conversation, I turned to my friend and said, “can you imagine that happening in a discussion of English Literature?”
When browsing haphazardly online not long after I found a piece by Anne Carson on Albertine and read myself slap, bang, into a big fat spoiler for the fifth volume of Remembrance of Things Past. I’ll admit, I reeled a bit, I figured that was what I got for tempting fate, sure — OK. So I got over it. I’ve been slowly savouring Proust for several years now. It occurred to me that if I stopped eking it out I could read it again all the sooner. I wonder at the total hours involved and then think about how many times I’ve re-watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer. When I find, a couple of weeks later, the no spoilers plea on the back of my review copy of Lee Klein’s The Shimmering Go-Between, I figure that the theory really does need testing. To privilege surprise and suspense in spectatorship in this way is, for me, to reject the value of the possibility of critical distance, to render sacred the immersive entertainment value of story and perhaps most significantly to devalue the potential of re-reading. In other words: if all ‘they’ can say is: don’t review this book, I’m up for it.
Inevitably, I have so much to say about it, even if I’m only supposed to give away as much as the back cover itself does. To its credit, though off-puttingly chirpy in a manner that can only be achieved by internet memes put self-consciously to use as marketing, the jacket text is an object lesson in giving the prospective reader or reviewer a framework that can be worked with without needing to go into narrative ‘spoiling’ detail. The precaution against spoilers does conceptually complement the novel’s claims for itself as being concerned with disbelief, as its press release disingenuously claims: “An OMG exploration of WTF . . . If Willful Suspension of Disbelief were a race in the literary Olympics, this moving and luminous debut would set the record.” OMG and WTF are of course both expressions of disbelief but the choice to use netspeak acronyms rather than full phrases is almost cynical in its attempt to be down with the kids. Similarly, the whole idea of spoilers (a phenomenon born of the need to organise spectacle and text in new ways as a result of new technologies of viewing and consumption) appeals to a public assumed to be more inclined to watch serial television rather than pick up a novel and, additionally, as far as ‘forewarned is forearmed,’ approaching this novel knowing what happens might tip the reader beyond disbelief into outright suspicion.
Avoidance of spoilers aside, it is difficult to review autofiction. It’s taken over a year for the angry blog post the last guy I reviewed badly wrote to sink beneath the first page of a google search for my name. Perhaps more accurately I might say that it is difficult to review fiction in which an aspect of autobiography is acknowledged, or perhaps indeed since I hope that this is the case to some extent with all fiction I might, even more accurately, just say, straight up, that it is difficult to review fiction in times such as ours. In times, that is, in which the nature of selves as subject and object in relation to text is so very precarious and troubled, when written words have become simultaneously so much less individually meaningful and so much more powerful in their proliferation and potential. It is difficult precisely because I don’t wish to fall into the trap of attacking a fellow writer and, one must assume, reader — of creating a text that, like so many troll formulations responds to theirs in a way that treats them only as abstractions and belies their existence as contingencies. Though this book in many ways enraged me, my intention is to respond usefully and without hate for persons fictional or otherwise (indeed, in this day and age is there any person entirely non-fictional?).
If fiction is such unstable, volatile stuff, how to begin to speak of it, ever? There are a lot of people involved in any given reading of any given book. Writer, reader, and book itself, each, in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari’s “quite a crowd,” already many, already multiple all the way down. The author and the characters that they have created, in all their fractal relations, the reader and the characters as she reads them and all the associations she makes as she goes, other characters in other books. The Dolores that many know better as Nabakov’s Lolita, the Dolores she was when I read her and the Dolores she was when Lee Klein read her. The Dolores that Klein has written, his Dolores as I read her here, with Nabokov’s Lo a constant shadow somewhere just at the periphery of my thoughts — young girls in constant bloom.
Such interrelations are the inspiration for the narrative structure of The Shimmering Go Between. The meta-relationships between lives and dreams and memories literalised as narrative. When people die they go to live in worlds inside the stomachs of people who knew them and they can choose whoever’s inside is preferable to them. The worlds are created out of the living person’s memories and understanding of the deceased. In the words of the jacket, the book is “a peculiar concoction of inside-out eel roll and Russian doll topped with a George Saunders/Charlie Kaufman crème fraiche.” This is almost literally true, though the effect is that the already many-ness of fiction is reduced to an exercise in never-ending mixed metaphors. Klein’s title is a reference to Nabokov and a longer version of the quote opens the book, “Between the wolf in the tall grass and the wolf in the tall story there is a shimmering go-between.” Left out is Nabokov’s explication of that image: “That go-between, that prism, is the art of literature.” This is a book, then, that is named, metaphorically, for no less than literature itself. This book defines the terms on which it is to be discussed and in so doing, refuses the possibility of allowing the reader a diversity of entry points. One must start at the beginning and end at the end, refusing all possibility of going back and approaching the text with prior knowledge.
By its (its meaning whomever the we with which the back of the book describes its selves is) own admission, The Shimmering Go Between is a “good natured tale about love, longing, and loss.” This I will allow is an accurate description in that its intentions seem conventionally “good” and it seems to enjoy itself and to intend itself to be enjoyed. If good intentions can, that is, be ascertained by a playfulness of text and a happy families ending. Certainly this story, like many of its kind, contains love, longing, and loss, but these tags are too broad to be very useful. I begin to reach for the spoilers. The Shimmering Go Between is lively, to the extent that self-awareness is its subject matter, very self aware, reflexive — yes — and makes much use of metanarrative. But Brechtian it ain’t. Though it literally contains selves, matryoshka-like within selves, worlds within worlds, and stories within stories, the one story not in the frame is mine, the reader’s.
I am unable to avoid the linear causality of the text, this begets that, that begets another, this represents that, that represents another. It’s a chain of metaphors hung on each other in a Möbius strip that is neatly constructed but inherently empty because the referents lead nowhere except back to each other. This works in Alice in Wonderland because that text has such a rich and playful relation to language but also, importantly, precisely because Alice is categorically not Lewis Carroll. The relation of Klein’s protagonist to Klein is, I’m afraid, in this case, a major problem. That the book is about literature makes it impossible not to see the protagonist as an image of the author, his generativity as a metaphor for Klein’s writing and eventually his understanding of fatherhood. I am forced here into the position of a reading that will only ever really work the first time. Perhaps I’m only saying that because I don’t want to read it again, but the ban on spoilers itself suggests that to read it again will be a diminished experience.
Not being permitted to suspend disbelief, to question what I’m reading, or to draw my own connections between the elements of this story because they are drawn for me and there’s no sense to be made any other way, no going back through or around. The psychedelic effect of all these daisy chained mixed metaphors taking themselves literally, weirdly reinforces the linearity of the tale. The thing with metaphor is that it’s always a placeholder, a costume something else is dressed up in. It’s not that there’s even a big twist — perhaps the whole no spoilers thing is a bluff, you keep reading in expectation of the twist and yet the end is straight as hell. Roland Barthes once wrote in defence of the deflowered text, of re-reading, and I am reminded, powerfully, of that here. No spoilers, right, but deflowering is a big issue in this story. Gender creeps in.
This is a “(not-so-autobiographical) novel,” in which, as with much fiction, whether avowedly auto- or not, whichever character with whom the narrative at any given moment rests is the author, the subject, and all other characters are metaphors for something the author is conceptually appropriating. (It doesn’t have to be this way, there are authors who extend to all of their characters the possibility of realisation; they do this by abandoning the idea of the singular heroic, masculine, universalising protagonist.) The idea of fertility (as in you have a lot of ideas and you want to put them outside of yourself, obviously — not as in a child growing inside of you) is introduced at the start of the novel in the form of a description of Dolores, a girl aged 12–13ish who gets pregnant three months in a row and has to have three abortions and go on the pill. This is dealt with in, like, two pages and is entirely instrumentalised by the fact of it being a key plot point that this kid is hyper-fertile, female interiorities serving as metaphors for male ones.
What made her pregnant three times in three months without ever having been near a potential father? you ask. Why? How? Well this is “an exploration of WTF? OMG!” Somehow the possible reasons for these occurrences preclude the possibility of examining disbelief — or something. So they are never explained. You know, it’s like the Virgin Mary. She’s carrying God’s child, she’s a muse, and that’s such a miracle that she must sacrifice all agency and interiority. Soon a male protagonist will appear who will need that interiority more, as there isn’t enough to go round (the self can’t be many — all personhood must be metaphorically subordinated to the singular subject writing itself). Klein’s Dolores is made to represent some aspect of the greater interiority of the author.
I thought the book would be about her, was glad to open the book to a twelve-year-old girl, looked forward to reading a post-young adult novel with a twelve-year-old protagonist named after Lolita. My disappointment on realizing, as the narrative fast forwards into Dolores’ late thirties, through a lifetime of her self-imposed celibacy (and study, which comes to nothing except a safe job where she finally meets the protagonist), the inner life she so far lacked was never going to manifest for this character. Her first lover comes and goes in college, having served as the reveal for the weirdness Dolores’ hyper-fertility manifests as now that she is safely on the pill. When men sleep with her they wake up in the morning with little tiny naked women in their beards (unless they shave, I don’t know why, it isn’t ever explained, it might be because when she was twelve she considered eating a light bulb and then fell off her bike and bloodied both her knees). Obviously the little women are both naked and beautiful.
As a life long Alcott fan I was excited about the prospect of where this pun might go but alas, I waited in vain. That guy eventually freaks out that his association with her might damage his future political career and leaves her to more years of self-denial and solitude. It’s inside Dolores’ second lover, Wilson, whom she meets after a decade of office work, that the second and third layers of story are both borne and born. It is he who realises the mysteries of love and life and longing. It is he who both the matryoshka and the Ouroboros of the cover refer to. It is he who eventually finds resolution and meaning in his marriage to Dolores, in fathering their child and in monetising the little women created every time they fuck. For no other reason than that this is how she is written, Dolores is OK with this.
The big spoiler is, after all, that Dolores is just a place for Wilson’s genius to gestate itself away until it’s ready to emerge from the womb of narrative into some kind of “semi-perverted post-young-adult” thirty-something clarity, aka fatherhood. Ouroboros, the snake eating itself, is the hermetic symbol of cyclical recreation. Fatherhood is when the crazy absurdist randomness of the world reveals itself to you as Everything Making Sense and you get to write sense down to explain it to another Thing You’ve Made. Fatherhood is a state in which you get an attic wunderkammer in which to delight yourself and your adoring online fans with the spoils of your genius (tiny naked women sprung from your beard like Athena from the head of Zeus), an attic in the house in Philadelphia where you live with your real-life wife and daughter who will become the way in which you describe yourself on the cover of your book. This sense you access as a father is so sacred in its profundity that it must not be sullied by spoilers, must be approached in total credulity and any experience of it must be an utterly private affair.
In my rage I imagine a world where writing and reading by and for young girls defines literary culture and the mixed metaphor concoctions of thirty-something fathers are consigned to a shelf in the library separate from “proper fiction,” and labelled Post-Young Adult Literature.
Hestia Peppe is an artist, writer and sometime governess; a line tamer, a fire starter and a keeper of connections. She lives in London.
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