Finished “Look at Me” by Anita Brookner yesterday, and rolling it over in my mind. If I had to describe this book to someone, how would I do it? If I just said a few sentences about the story — it’s about a young woman living a prematurely staid solo life, who seizes an opportunity to join the entourage of a glamorous couple, even as she’s wary of giving up the freedom of the solitude in order to have a brimming social life. That really doesn’t convey much, because, a novel isn’t so much about what as about how.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time, but “Look at Me” struck me as an especially good example because my experience of the main character kept shifting as I read. It’s the story, told in first-person, of a young Londoner named Frances; she works at a medical picture library, seems to be socially isolated, and lives in her childhood apartment where her mother has recently died and their old housekeeper still resides. The flat is in a building full of elderly people. Frances describes herself as an observer; she sees herself as polite and correct and other people as more or less out of control; most of them are unattractive, and those who are, like Nick and Alix, are almost supernaturally superior. Drawn into their orbit, Frances undergoes popularity and its sudden withdrawal. The wound she suffers swings her back to her earlier impulse to live in a solitary way.
I kept asking myself how I felt about Frances; was I taking her at her word, was I willing to be in general sympathy with her, was she deluded, or trying to delude the reader, and was I over-or-under estimating how much? In a way, was I reading this book as Brookner intended it to be read? Frances went in and out of focus as I went along. She also reminded me keenly of myself. The theme of loneliness and solitude, and how they push-pull against each other, two sides of the same state, something to suffer and then quickly to covet, depending on how one feels on any given day, is something I’ve endured (and welcomed, and hated, and loved and felt powerless against) all my life.
Some years back I stopped reading blurbs on fiction almost entirely. The standard question when someone recommends a book is often “What’s is about?” I’ve been guilty of this non-question all my life; when I was younger I often used the answer to make a snap judgment about whether I was interested in the book. On my frequent visits to the public library, it was almost entirely the blurb (after the image on the cover, and the title) that made me decide to borrow the book; I seldom opened it at random to sample the actual writing. Then, after reading some books that, based on their jacket copy, I would have rejected, I found my feelings about this changing. I finally started to see that the ‘aboutness’ of a novel is often irrelevant. It’s the ‘whoness’ and the ‘howness’, it’s the flow of the prose, it’s the ineffable, individual attraction or not to how a writer lays out her stall. More and more I wanted to go into a novel with no preconceptions, other than having heard that it was worthwhile. I wanted to meet the opening paragraphs, the writing and characterization, in an open state. I’m really glad I’ve made this swerve. Now I’ll read the blurb when I’m finished, to see how this marketing squib compares with my own reading experience.
Good blurb writing is an art — one or two paragraphs to hint at characters and their dilemmas, pique curiosity so a look turns into a purchase. I imagine the kind of mind — which seems not to be my kind of mind — that can digest a novel, pick out its key theme and intrigue, and set it out with the tight impact of an unrhymed sonnet.
*Rewatched all of BoJack Horseman on Netflix ahead of watching the new season, and was delighted again by the subplot in which, called out of his self-imposed exile to produce a TV show about anything he wants, JD Salinger pitches “Hollywoo Celebs and Stars! What Do They Know?! Do The Know Things?! Lets Find Out!”