by Jon Rachmani
"Duchess of Nothing"
By Heather McGowan
216 pp. Bloomsbury.
In her aptly-titled new book, Duchess of Nothing, Heather McGowan proves that, dazzling ironists such as Flaubert aside, banality can withstand literary treatment without undergoing much change. What ensues is a dreadfully boring book, a book about nothing that never attempts to create the sort of aesthetic atmosphere in which this vacuous subject matter might be rendered at least beautiful, if still devoid of meaning.
The story is a stream-of-consciousness narration that follows a young expatriate as she wanders through
We are throughout meant to suspect her sanity. But to what end? There is no drama, no shocking depth of character, just a running series of often cutesy verbal gags over which we are seemingly meant to swoon with a combination of recognition with the madwoman and awe for the writer, such as this very typical example, where she expresses her dislike for a scenic view: "This view of our city is not a massive slut like the Forum or the Sistine Chapel, those are sluts of epic proportion," or where she admonishes the boy for not knowing that the obscure slang term for "cat" that she once used is "moggy": "There are certain principles we accept as self-evident. That a child shall know his moggy is one." At a certain point, the reader stops distinguishing between the narrator and the writer, because, in effect, they are both addicted to the raw sound of language, regardless of content. It is useful to contrast the novel with other rants, to see what is lacking. In Ford's The Good Soldier we get a decadent rambling rant, too, and while that book has been condemned along similar lines, it at least holds our interest with the intricacy with which it examines the nature of deception, the lie, and expands to be a strong condemnation of a fatally ailing class of fools, not to mention that it's a narratologically bravura performance. McGowan on the other hand seems to trust that her unlikeable one will become very appealing once we see what wit she has, what sheer lunatic verve, but for this reviewer, the opposite was the case.
However, there are moments when the narrative seems driving toward a breathless wash of meaning, a place where as the speaker's rant continues, the reader gulps and keeps reading, only with a new level of suspicion at the stability of things. Unfortunately, banality is tagging briskly along, gulp-free, to annihilate such moments as soon as they are underway. After she teaches him the word "rancid" in a dull café where they are having breakfast, "What a rancid café this is! the boy cries. Rancid as fish on Sunday, I mutter, and what with the coffee and our sudden superiority we both become somewhat hysterical. Oh, we laugh and laugh . . ." It is here that the reader's gulp signifies a horror that this narrator is merely inducing a series of shallow responses in the boy as she plows on through her solipsism, that her connection with reality is even more tenuous than we'd thought. But then we regret the gulp in the face of the fact that her solipsism is not particularly interesting, and that she is pursuing it with a medium-high intensity is actually neither special nor exemplary of some catholic trait worth explicating. The moments when human feeling seeps through into her consciousness are drab and hackneyed. She wakes alone in bed and remembers with longing how her lover smelled. Then she worries over why he left her, without coming to any interesting theories, and we find ourselves waiting for her to get back to being cute.
Reviews have been mixed, but generally appreciative. The Brooklyn Rail bizarrely found the book encouraging because its writer is white: "Literary fiction by young women is dominated by Zadies and Jhumpas . . . In a twist of our times, the writing of Heather McGowan, a white Ivy Leaguer, might be more innovative and iconoclastic . . ." ("Prose Culture" by Hirsh Sawhney); while The San Francisco Chronicle informs us that here we have another Mrs. Dalloway ("Rome with a child and a chattering mind" by Scott Esposito, Sunday, April 9, 2006). If I may respond: Virginia Woolf, entirely apart from her genius, had the artistic seriousness to not just "try out" a stream-of-conciousness novel, but to construct it with all the rigor and fortitude such a radical form demands, to not just ignore conventions but to create a new system that can be accessed by any hard-working reader. McGowan, though, prefers references to Moby Dick in her narrator's voice, a novel as adventurous and expansive as hers is misled and trivial. Her character laments having never gotten a chance to read it. The writer may well suffer from a similar condition. Literary references abound, seemingly just for the fun of it, though some are pointed jabs at other writers, such as the early moment when she and the boy lie in bed staring at the ceiling and she thinks, "A crack in the paint is making its way daily across the ceiling. I have always liked ceilings and found peace there. The more cracked the better." This appears to be sneaky allusion to Gaddis's The Recognitions, where the tormented young organ composer Stanley, faithful to eternal values in a indolent, unstable, careless age obsessively measures the crack in the ceiling above his bed, horrified by its implications. Throughout McGowan's book, the narrator praises herself for her faithlessness to the world, in love with the idea that mutability leaves her so blithely unfazed, even as she herself crumbles. Doubt not, though, this is about as much fun as can be wrung from these pages.
Why the general critical accolades? I think the one appealing quality this book has is the insistence of its clipped, dry, seemingly very intelligent tone. Ms. McGowan has a fluidity with words that does not meet any disasters along the way. Unfortunately praise for this quality is much like praising a priest who makes genuflection appear like a hip dance move. If such excess were coupled with great import we could not only excuse it but come to have a bashful affection for it. However this is demonstrably not the case.
To praise this book is possible, though somewhat embarrassing. It is her lover's back that the narrator professes love for. His musculature makes her swoon, we are meant to suppose, while also realizing the irony that this oft-praise part of male anatomy is what one sees as the male departs, perhaps for good.
Every literate age records its peculiar diseases, and these are worth our consideration in part because they represent the prevailing anxieties of a time as surely as do its masterpieces, only in their case by the parts of human experience they seek to exclude rather than confront. McGowan reveals in her flight from relevance the prevailing fear amongst young urbanites that perhaps life does have meaning, moral weight, indivisible responsibilities that cannot be shirked off on "activists", that perhaps they're missing out on a feast, the sort of feast that when abandoned does not grow cold, although those who flee it most surely do. If this novel is meant to be a condemning portrait of such nihilism, it certainly runs the risk of being mistaken for the article itself by offering no retort, no irony, no new insights, just the static jabber itself.