In the bouquet of novel typologies—the picaresque, the Künstlerroman, the Zeitroman, the novel of ideas, magical realism, hysterical realism, “experimental” anything—the bildungsroman is the least eye-catching of the bunch. The novel of education (don’t you read German?) took a beating from modernism, with the latter teaching us that we had a lot more to learn (don’t you read Sanskrit?), and probably too much for our little heads to hold. But something is happening right now to redress that balance, and Claire Messud knows it.
Just as everyone who reads Elena Ferrante knows it. The novel of female friendship is having quite a moment, even as it’s been having quite a moment for quite a few moments. The genre’s potency is not just in what females have to teach each other, but also in what they have to teach modernism and its lingering hold. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes—or as Edith Wharton called it, “the great American novel”1—was Anita Loos’s 1925’s runaway best-seller stab, in both senses, at the Single Girl Plus Another Single Girl novel, with the dumb blonde and her snarky brunette girlfriend taking on the novel of education: our heroine leaves secretarial school, and Little Rock (Arkansas), setting her sights on a big rock, as befits a female named Lorelei. Said diamonds shall be procured by a series of men hellbent on “educating” her even as she teaches them a thing or two.
It’s a hop, skip, and a Choo from Loos to Candace Bushnell, with the genre ramifying while the academy debated how many times we could hyphenate post-post-modernism. Zadie Smith gave us Swing Time (2016), another novel of education, mixed with an art novel (don’t you read Astaire?), mixed with a mixed-race pair of girls—and now we’ve got Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl. This one is different though, because it looks like it’s the same, twinning itself, as do Messud’s two main female characters, in order to ask something of the reader that neither the novel of education nor modernism ever got around to: what if learning is a form of inattention?
So something is happening right now, if you’re paying attention. As in right now, 2017. Locating itself in an imaginary small town in Essex County on the United States’ East Coast, socioeconomically upstream from Joyce Carol Oates Country but downstream from Boston, Massachusetts, Messud’s new novel is careful to date things. It is framed as a retrospective, with the narrator, Julia Robinson, casting back to the summer of the “hit Rihanna made with Eminem, so catchy but creepy when you actually listened to the words. ‘Stand there and watch me burn …’” “Love the Way You Lie” came out in 2010, and if you’re doing the math as the story progresses you’ll notice that about seven years have elapsed until the moment of telling. If you stop there, you’re going to get art that shows you what you want to see (“I love the way you lie”). This includes the obligatory little thrill of betrayal, and you’re going to be fine, and you’re going to miss the point, but that’s fine too, which is part of the problem. Messud knows this, and that’s why this book is worth reading.
Messud’s fiction is immersive and wide-ranging. She writes with authority, and carefully publishes a novel every few years (in between which she has published three quietly spectacular novellas). She is, above all, serious; her wit tilts towards the unsettling rather than the amusing. She rightly hung a journalist out to dry when asked if the narrator of The Woman Upstairs (2013), the novel before this new one, was unlikeable. Messud’s response made plain that a male character would never have stirred the same question. After the initial smattering of applause, the predictable backlash ensued: likeability might not be that bad.
Someone, whether writer or reader, who wishes to know what life is like for other people can forget that wanting to know can be a form of rapacity.
Her seriousness is best understood as a mediation between and a chastening of modernist possibilities. The Burning Girl begins with an epigraph from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Casabianca”:
Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck
trying to recite “The boy stood on
the burning deck.” Love’s the son
stood stammering elocution
while the poor ship in flames went down.
… And love’s the burning boy.
The poem is about the difficulty of giving voice to experience, and the grip of repetition—not just that something happened and then you say that something happened, but that repetition happens on both ends of that predicament. First, what happened is not a discrete event. (Bishop’s poem recasts a 19th-century one depicting innocence and heroism amid battle: the triumvirate of middling Victorian poetry.) Second, storytelling can entail recursive hesitation: being convinced only that you’re not getting it quite right, or at all right, or even have the right. Therein lies the story: the one you stammer out, possibly for the wrong reasons, without quite knowing what the right ones would be. That’s Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier.
But if one breed of modernism is suffused with a grim sense of the attenuation of language as means of testimony, Messud’s work rests on a sense that for all the not-getting-it-right-nesses, art is not only inexorably a part of life, it can trump life. She allies with Flaubert here, or Wilde—uncomfortably. Messud’s new novel wreaks subtle havoc both with the triumph of aesthetics and with modernism’s unease at storytelling. It is likely that many won’t notice, or will notice some things and then be done with noticing. That’s why this is a crafty book. In both senses.
The Burning Girl is a novel of education—literally, in that where its young characters are in school places them in time and in society, and metaphorically, since the narrator learns that despite her ability to focus attention, she has been distracted. The story, then, is about the falling away from a sentimental education into a relative of what Richard Rorty in describing Humbert Humbert and his Lolita obsession called a monster of incuriosity.2 Obsession can deaden you to what doesn’t dovetail. This is a moral predicament—but if you’re a genius at focus, you won’t care that you don’t care.
Messud’s storyteller does care—she loves and misses her friend—and is fixated on her tale. Part of that story entails the realization that the civilizing mores of growing up which depend upon the sublimation of interpersonal passion can make you into a good citizen but a lesser friend. The irony is that the artist can forge it all into a story (“Write it!” writes Bishop in “One Art.”). Doing so consumes the teller.
The burning girl of the title is the narrator’s friend, Cassie Burnes—given that name, how could it not be? It is also, however, Cassie’s secret sharer, the narrator on deck passionately telling us how she has loved and lapsed. The story of the two girls drifting apart moves easily and credibly; it’s a fluently structured narrative. Realism—Rihanna, socioeconomic specificity, the Peabody Essex Museum, the recollection of recently outdated technologies like iPods or when new cellphones “could take pretty good pictures”—studs the book’s horizon. Messud is giving us an unreliable narrator as well, one who for all her showing-up-at-work-on-time (she’s a good student; she’s a good daughter; she’s going to college) is prone not only to memory’s saccades, but also to the constructions we build, à la Bishop, from secondhand material—the narrator comes to hear what’s going on with her friend from other people. So far, so modernist.
What pushes the narrative past (but not post-) modernism is the fact that the speaker’s occasionally florid prose (“he watched the light fading at the window, the still-icy blue dusk, her eyes writ in the sky”) reminds us that this narrator—not present for the described moment; she was told this, or something like this—has the mind of a writer. And you can’t trust those types. “I know, somehow, how a song should go, the way I know how a story should go, the way I can anticipate the plot of a TV show before it unfolds and I’m almost always right.” Her “left arm, my writing arm—I always thought, faintly guiltily, my better arm” is what forces sinister entry into, in that particular moment, a former asylum (consider this foreshadowing; the tale-teller revels in it) and with that, a crucial aspect of the sneakily gripping storyline. Modernism taught us well, and unreliability is now so much a donnée that it has become the hallmark of authenticity. We did our homework; we have graduated, with honors; and in coming to rest certain about uncertainty, the reader is released from contemplating further what we want from tale-tellers. Why exactly do you love the way I lie?
Messud’s new novel wreaks subtle havoc both with the triumph of aesthetics and with modernism’s unease at storytelling.
Lies can also be myths, and Messud’s realism is laced with them. Having been taught Greek myth in school, the two girls act out those stories for themselves in the green world of their friendship. Julia relates how Cassie is Jocasta, “I, Oedipus.” Cassie is of course also Cassandra; a kitten is named Electra; and we get a “Prius”—the car, yes, but the Latin means “what came before.” The story is accordingly concerned with how class determines fate (one of Messud’s recurrent concerns): the “secret sisters” as they imagine themselves are in fact socially distinct, and the family romance gives way. The book stirs in more genres: the naming of Cassie Burnes is so loudly an elbow in the ribs that it shouts allegory, where names bespeak roles, and the novel plays most overtly with the gothic, providing that abandoned asylum, an “Encroaching Forest,” and a potential molester. The interleaving of genres is artful, allowing the educated reader to leave satisfied with having cracked story’s code. Such gratification is where Messud’s true art begins—not because it works so well, but because it raises the question of whether it should.
Ford’s Good Soldier is the story of his story; Henry James found in art a moral center. Messud’s tale-teller emerges as hungry for unmediated access to clumsy life. That’s her art. As a narrator, “Juju” doesn’t just reconstruct events; she slips in and out of Cassie’s consciousness, conjuring what Cassie may have been thinking. She does so adroitly, since she’s good at the job of summoning what things might have been like for others. Someone, whether writer or reader, who wishes to know what life is like for other people can forget that wanting to know can be a form of rapacity. Knowing has its limits, and knowing one’s limits is an ongoing endeavor, because it entails the acknowledgement of others. Yet Cassie carries on, focused on recounting what she now, as a young woman, has learned is her story of inattention. She has found her moral failing, grasped it, and tells us about it, carried away, gorgeously, into what may or may not occur to you—if you are paying attention—as complacency.
The story proceeds smoothly toward the climax Cassie ensures you’ve been waiting for, with a denouement that works so very well it will either please the inattentive, hungry for beauty; or trouble the reader who wonders why it’s so easy to be satisfied by what we want. The ending—of the story, of wondering—is beautiful. Our narrator is a good girl and a gifted storyteller. Messud’s genius is in calling that art to question, and quietly pushing for the kind of reader who is uncomfortable with ease. The problem—moral, ethical—is writing about clumsy life all too well. The problem is aesthetic.