[Dorothy; 2023]

I anticipated The Long Form for months, and when I finally had a copy I read it slowly, across three turbulent months. When I began it in early November, I had the feeling that it was very much the wrong time and place for a book that I expected to be about tender domesticity and new motherhood. I was undergoing an interstate move, a chaotic time during which it was functionally impossible to sustain attention for reading, except in short fits. I finished it on the last night of January, in my best friend’s warm, lamplit living room in Los Angeles. Outside, a rain was approaching that overtook the first day of February, a rain that was part of a series of rains in a wet winter.

At that point, I realized I’d had an unusually appropriate experience of the book, and I had accidentally lived an experiment in reading and attention of which, I imagine, Kate Briggs would approve. It was a book I’d lived with for three months and had carried through a succession of rooms and periods of rest, rupture, and recursion. The Long Form is about how a person lives with a long novel: in between the domestic motions of her day, Helen is reading and considering the form of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones and the origins of the English novel form generally—a distracted preoccupation, an interiority in relationship with the material demands of her day with her baby, Rose. The shape of Helen’s day feels open because there’s a novelty to her experience. Rose is very young, and Helen is a very new mother, newly living apart from her best friend, Rebba. Newly alone with an infant in a new home.

The Long Form is a novel in the sense that it has paragraphs and chapters, but one of its anxieties is exactly that kind of structure: how a chapter hangs together, how it gathers with what comes before and after, and how it itself becomes a phase of life. This novel is concerned with continuity and interruption—in form and in attention—and with legibility, especially what in our experience we make legible to the people we love, and what we don’t. Chapters have “endings which may close the phase but do not (must not) end the work,” bringing the questions of continuity and interruption to bear on Helen’s day. The way The Long Form frames it, one’s awareness of a phase of life as a phase is the first indication that the phase is coming to a close. Life coheres around its little closures and minor beginnings and endings. Early in the novel, Helen watches Rose watch a geometric mobile, and the chance interactions of the shapes radiate into the tone of the day. The reality, or the realism, of reducing the day to its chapters (or of disparate elements as they move toward and away from each other, as in the mobile) heightens the mutability of tones and feelings and of the experience of time as a series of intensities with quiet interstitial spaces. These shifts and intensities are the moments that anchor the chapters.

Briggs’s work as a translator and the questions she poses in her essayistic book on translation, This Little Art, also thread through Helen’s reading of Fielding. In This Little Art, Briggs appeals to the reader on behalf of the project of imagination and the synecdochic experiment of representing experience linguistically. Words are abstractions signifying realities, and the novel is a partial representation of the fullness of a character’s lived experience. This is also a question of legibility and what the spaces around disclosure hold or conceal. In This Little Art, the translator asks for reading on faith in “the same way as the fiction-writer asks us to credit the lake just visible from the station; to see rather than query the grey waters, how the firs on its shores are dense and then thin.” Briggs asks for this same sort of vision: for the reader to feel the physical reality of the terrain of the fictional character’s living room and the dampness of her sweater as the baby nurses while detouring with her into her cerebral interludes and accepting her denial of the structural principles of the novel and of social life at large. To translate the sentences into a real intimacy: “Reader, my neck is your neck. The ambition: to see if it might be possible to do this, achieve this (the project of narration), without either one of us getting hurt.”

French semiotician Roland Barthes is also conceptually present in The Long Form. Briggs is the translator of Barthes’s study of the novel form, The Preparation of the Novel, as well as How to Live Together, which investigates the (inter)relationship of love and rhythm. In How to Live Together, Barthes frames cohabitating love as “love proposed as involving a rhythm. As an involvement of rhythm. Or a rhythmed involvement.” The rhythm of “falling in anticipates falling out,” but this state of discontinuity is nonetheless continuous because of chronological time—falling in and out happens with forward momentum. But even if time appears to direct this relational movement, verbal expression is by nature fragmentary and partial. In recounting experience, all we can do is pick out intensities (or scenarios) and articulate them out of time. Barthes calls these moments “unruly projectors” representing “just a glimmer of the narrative of desire.” In a similar logical move, Helen considers how Fielding himself was wary of slipping into the “domestic privacy” of his own characters and what little we can know, texturally, about how others experience things. Even those we’ve written and ostensibly invented, and especially those we live with intimately in the real world. Of course there are intimate details left out by the narrative—no matter how comprehensive it is, summary cannot happen in real time.

It’s a quiet novel with little dialogue except what is internal, remembered, or imagined in moments of solitude. Of course, Helen and Rose can’t communicate with language yet, but they represent reciprocal forces. Helen and Fielding occupy another relationship of exchange, as well as Helen and the reader. These relationships are mutable, and the ways in which these individuals are or are not mutually legible are rhythmic. Briggs inserts the question of the alternate and various roles of friendship, cohabitation, and degrees of intimacy and reciprocal support as they determine life’s base rhythm. The way the novel frames it, life is and means losing and re-establishing equilibrium with one’s surroundings, over and over. Motherhood, as well as the new domestic reality of living elsewhere from Rebba, causes Helen to unlearn time and relearn it in a totally new way.

The confluence of narrative, form, and content in The Long Form made me notice how different spaces influenced my own reading attention. One Saturday, I moved from reading at a wooden table in a sunny coffeeshop, where I took notes by hand, to a park bench by the lake with the swan boats, where I didn’t take notes at all. Of course this movement changed the quality of my reading. In the novel:

Helen negotiated the movement of the prose at her own pace, sometimes lifting her head, thinking a way off from it, sometimes adjusting the position of her legs, and resettling her attention on the page.

Why not like this, she thought: let the afternoon unfold.

Then a practical thought came in.

The physical urgency of domestic care, material concerns, and the demands of the body are in tandem or at odds with the cerebral work. Helen had made it to her afternoon by the time I made it to mine, both of us in our respective parks, where I stayed until I got hungry and Helen stayed until it began to rain.

I was a house guest through most of this winter, sharing meals with my best friend and sometimes with her boyfriend, both artists. One night after dinner, I handed the book to him, and he commented on its shape: a wide book with comfortable margins. It is a tactile book, a book that announces itself as an object, beautifully designed as all Dorothy books are. It is hard not to experience it as an intentional object holding ideas about embodiment and ruminative, conceptual histories of the novel form—in deliberate conversation with the physicality of the body reading, hands holding a book.

The novel discloses the practical realities of Helen’s new motherhood and her support network slowly, including the fact that she is a single mother and the community of women participating in Rose’s life. These women become visible gradually. For a long time, the narrative only catalogues and witnesses Helen and Rose in their morning movements, before the arrival of Fielding by courier delivery, before midday and afternoon impose new parameters and demands on their mutual movement. It’s clear in the world of the novel that Helen’s housing is precarious and dependent on help from elsewhere, and the role of class inserts itself in the everyday domestic alongside the questions of care and also of frustration, aloneness, and who to call in a moment of crisis. Because the narrative shows Helen navigating the morning alone, her relief when Rebba arrives is palpable. What a relief to be loved by someone who takes good care.

Late in the narrative, Helen reflects on how, before Rose was born, Rebba arranged the mobile—the mobile that fascinates Rose and combines, recombines, and shifts the tone of Helen and Rose’s morning. Rebba has changed the space in a way that holds things together: “And it was true, Rebba was good (generally much better than Helen) at practical things, at aesthetic things, and so likely also kinetic things.”

This is how it feels to be a writer among visual artists—at least one with a solitary interiority and without particularly good fine motor skills or the ability to express herself without language. I recognized my best friend in Rebba, the way she rescues crisis situations with tactile comfort and material care, and how the textural reality of her domestic space provided a secure backdrop for the physical and emotional regrouping that I underwent after somewhat abruptly leaving my own home. This is also one of the comforts possible in the experience of the novel form: how adopting and sustaining the texture of someone else’s—the friend’s, author’s, or character’s—world for a little while reorganizes familiar shapes and makes new patterns of thinking and feeling possible.

I have written these paragraphs at a comfortable and solid wooden table in my new home, a little blue house in an open landscape. My best friend, now a three-hour drive away, found the table on Craigslist and sent me the link, still looking out for my material experience of myself thinking. These thoughts on The Long Form, a book as much about friendship as motherhood, are the first things I wrote here, and I have considered how to be patient with the ways in which I am fragmented and distracted and how to recognize and trust the ways in which I am capable. The Long Form’s imaginative interludes into studies of genre also create pathways for determining what to take from history and expectation—how we think a reading experience might go, what shape a novel might take, or how a narrative might resolve. I read these parts of Briggs’s genre study as reassurance to treasure and surpass what I bring from expired phases of life and organize into new rooms. To see what, from where I’ve been, I can use to nurture unprecedented loves.

Anna Zumbahlen is a poet living in Joshua Tree, California. Find recent work at www.annazum.com.

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