In ‘Abortion, a Love Story’, the long story at the centre of Nicole Flattery’s first collection, a young woman, Natasha, tells the professor on whom she’s about to force a perfunctory affair that she has a disorder. ‘I can’t explain exactly what my disorder is,’ she says, ‘but it prevents me from absorbing any knowledge into my brain.’ If such a disorder exists, it may be transmittable via text, because that’s what these stories did to me. After reading them once I couldn’t remember anything about them – the titles, the characters, structures, written in first or third person, what (if anything) happened in them, lines I liked, even what the book was called. Usually I find my least favourite aspects of a book not only memorable, but impossible to forget; these, too, I had no sense of. I read the stories again; my recall improved slightly (‘country girls in the city’, ‘driving metaphors’, ‘older or otherwise distant boyfriends’, ‘mother cameos’, ‘funny!’). But at one point I couldn’t understand a joke because it had been set up in the previous sentence, which had passed through my mind without stopping.
It isn’t just the lack of plot or setting or proper names (though there isn’t much of any of this). The book is a bit like drinking: refreshingly obliterative, realistically distorted. The disaffected young woman has replaced the disaffected young man as semaphore for social problems, but while many recent authors – among them Ottessa Moshfegh, Halle Butler and Catherine Lacey – have attempted to evoke the depths of hopelessness plumbed in the last decade or two, Flattery’s nihilism is uniquely uncynical; she actually seems to believe that nothing matters. The beautiful 24-year-old narrator in Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation devises a pharmaceutical/artistic scheme to sleep for a year and in the process turn her upsetting past into ‘a dream’: Flattery’s characters are not nearly so energetic – or well-funded – in their marginalisation. Passive and, to most of the world, vacant, they go through the motions, weirding out the ‘normal’ people around them, most frequently their boyfriends, with non sequiturs, odd questions and unexpected barbs, like a Miranda July or Sheila Heti character but meaner. The writing is only unmemorable because the existence Flattery depicts is too.
The clipped quirkiness of her prose relieves the text of the burden of narrative, which to Flattery usually means tedious contrivance or self-serving sentimentality. The narrator of ‘Hump’ – a reference to the hunchback she suddenly develops – mocks the tendency to transform life and people into stories and characters as she does the catering at her father’s funeral, trying to avoid fake interactions with people who ‘looked like someone I might sort of know’:
These strangers told anecdotes and made general health suggestions to each other. I passed out the sandwiches. The sandwiches were clingfilmed and oddly perforated, like they had been pierced again and again by cocktail sticks. I said ‘Sambo?’ to every single person in that room. It was a good word, a word I hoped would get me through the entire evening. I wasn’t strong on speaking or finding ordinary things to discuss in large groups. The place was crowded with false grief, people constantly moving positions, like in A&E, depending on the severity of their wounds. I mentioned that I held his wrist when he passed and through the use of the phrase ‘flickering pulse’ I was booted up to First Class.
Being inept at polite conversation is something Flattery’s women have in common – conveniently, in the title story, a former prostitute has ‘a personality that was best suited to short interactions’ – but some of the most concrete aspects of the book are provided by the dialogue, which, as in Lorrie Moore or Deborah Eisenberg, often contains much of the stories’ movement as it delivers funny little zaps to the main character’s perspective. In ‘Parrot’, a young woman working as a temp laughs at a co-worker – ‘every office must have someone sad to laugh at’ – and the man who will become her husband scolds her:
‘That man is depressed.’
‘How do you know that?’ she asked.
‘How do you not?’
In an essay reflecting on this collection, Flattery writes admiringly about Chantal Akerman’s 1977 film, News from Home, in which ‘nothing happens at all, there is no narrative, no journey or catharsis.’ The film consists of long shots of Manhattan and a voiceover of Akerman reading the letters her mother sent her from Belgium while she was living in New York; the viewer has to extract meaning from fragments, both because she hears only one side of the correspondence and because the sounds of the city occasionally overwhelm the voiceover. ‘There is a sense of menace, these are mean streets, but it’s a moving experience,’ Flattery writes. ‘It’s strange, when you’re constantly assaulted by disaster, when it seems natural to surrender to hopelessness, what touches you.’
Another difference between Flattery and Moshfegh is that Flattery’s women don’t – necessarily – want to forget their former lives, which are often sketched but not explained in depth. Where a line like ‘There had been some regrettable incidents in the past’ might ordinarily incite curiosity, Flattery makes it easy not to get caught up in the detail because these women don’t either: they’re too exhausted, or mad, or depressed. ‘They only had one discussion about his wife, and it barely qualified as a discussion,’ Flattery writes of the couple in ‘Parrot’. ‘She was ill and had been for a long time. Her illness would never be over.’ Whether they exist in the characters’ lives or only at the level of the text, the gaps are attributed to their ‘circumstances’ – the slightly off-kilter generalisation being one of Flattery’s favourite modes of humour. The 14-year-old girl in ‘Sweet Talk’ watches The Exorcist with an older Australian man who’s helping to renovate her family home; she says the film was ‘dark, but I thought it would be darker, more twisted. It was just priests, really – priests in unusual circumstances.’
A 14-year-old who thinks The Exorcist is not particularly dark has probably seen some things, or soon will. ‘At 16 one of us would become pregnant,’ she says of her friends. ‘Statistics dictated it would be one of us and statistics will have their dreary way.’ Although Show Them a Good Time is not as avant-garde as News from Home, there is a similar sense of details and memories being collaged rather than organised. Each story – there are eight – is narrated as though its anti-protagonist is in a transitional phase of her life, post-traumatic and drifting, the sort of phase she might make light of by describing it as a time when she watched a lot of reality TV (and when she often got very drunk). The book has an epigraph: ‘There was, finally, only so much one woman on the vast and wicked stage could do’ – Lorrie Moore. It’s a joke about a woman trying to get her husband to do more chores, but people sometimes want to forget about the ‘dark’ part of ‘dark humour’: the ‘finally’ is always there, even when the tone is arch.
In Flattery’s stories, how much time has passed is usually unclear; flashbacks and weeks-laters are presented alongside one another, without exposition or anchoring detail. Impoverished temporary settings, which she has called ‘purgatorial’, are both properly abject and oddly consoling, some of the few respites from the impersonal city, where ‘glass covered every millimetre. There were no faces, only glass.’ In ‘Show Them a Good Time’, the protagonist returns home from a stint as a sex worker in the city and gets a job at a garage as part of a bleak unemployment programme; despite containing only ‘three tin cans of indiscernible origin, one for each shelf; a feeling of forever melancholy; a postcard of a skyscraper; and a ghostly fridge floating in the middle of the floor’, the space has a ‘quiet romance’ and ‘rusty appeal’. In ‘Abortion, a Love Story’, a derelict hotel in Spain is a ‘cement shithole’ but liberatingly free of questions, promises and bullshit. In the final story, ‘Not the End Yet’, a divorced, middle-aged woman online dating through a slow apocalypse prefers to spend her life in her car instead of her house, though both are in a ‘state of disorder’. Surreal elements are unsettling in part because they’re not central to the stories. In ‘Sweet Talk’, the girl begins the story by worrying about swallowing flies in her sleep; at the end, she pulls out ‘a trail’ of them from ‘the part of my mouth I did not know’; in ‘You’re Going to Forget Me before I Forget You’, a woman in her forties with a ‘geriatric’ pregnancy begins forgetting things, first social skills, then what forks are called, and eventually her own family members. It’s going to get worse, but not yet, which may be the worst possible outcome.
Whose fault is this endless, resentful and foreboding present? ‘It’s not anybody’s fault,’ the divorcee tells a date. ‘That’s what they say on the radio.’ (Insert ‘airborne toxic masculinity’ joke here.) The suggestion is that there is a party to blame, but nothing to be done about it, an attitude that stands in the way of learning from the past and therefore of progress. In ‘Abortion, a Love Story’, Natasha insists but doesn’t elaborate much on her horrible ‘unenlightened’ rural childhood. When her miserable lover, Professor Carr, tries to teach her something – the reluctant, even ‘brutal’, viewing of ‘films of a high cultural standard’ is a recurring joke – she adopts ‘an expression of complete neutrality’ and changes the topic to the vague terror of her upbringing:
‘Of course, you’ve heard of Ionesco.’
‘You should have seen where I grew up. I was like the roadrunner in that awful cartoon, constantly evading a terrible fate.’
When the professor replies that it surely wasn’t that bad, she says he has no idea. Later she conjures her hometown by saying: ‘just picture death and you’re nearly there.’
Like most of the women in this collection, Natasha is biding her time. Her life is a ‘series of empty diary dates’ that she spends ‘waiting for youth to pass’; waiting for college, a ‘corrupt’ gated community where ‘time moved strangely’, to pass; and waiting for death, i.e., the day she must enter the dreaded unemployment building, which ‘hung like a threat over the final year student body’ and is rumoured to be ‘a lot like hell’. She can’t remember what she’s studying, because of the disorder, and her ‘absences and tragic results’ are what bring her to the professor, a middle-aged man ‘imprisoned’ by his books, who feels ‘his deep knowledge of his subjects was hindering him in a world becoming superficial’.
Despite the explicit pointlessness of their relationship, Natasha and Professor Carr do share a profound discomfort with the present, and are perhaps using each other to try to lessen it. Occasionally Natasha becomes teasingly wistful about historical continuity and her place in it; at the beginning of the story, the affair is apparently her only connection to the world, making her feel ‘like she was involved in a transaction that was professional and centuries old. It was a history lesson.’ She has never been to a party and hates fun. Meanwhile, the professor is ‘prone to excessive weeping’ because he, too, feels trapped. On the one hand, he doesn’t want to get older, crying under the sheets ‘like an inconsolable ghost’ while watching a movie in which ‘time was the enemy and ageing was a singular tragedy.’ On the other, ‘Natasha made him feel like a young man and he hadn’t liked being a young man’:
He wept whenever she mentioned anything contemporary. He wept when she told him she hadn’t accumulated any significant life regrets … One night he confronted her with her blank academic diary. She watched him waving it in front of her, like evidence of an indiscretion.
‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘Why do you have so few time commitments?’
The professor is classically lecherous and suspicious, but that’s beside the point; what Natasha feels for him is pity. That man is depressed. The difference between them is that she understands the world and hates it; he hates it, too, but despite the books and films he doesn’t understand it at all. Big-city wisdom has it that how you choose to fill your time is who you are, so someone who does nothing is nothing, and someone who does relationships is a girlfriend. Flattery writes against both assumptions, inciting a rare bit of (conditional) optimism. There are alienating romances in nearly every story, but despite containing at least three, ‘Abortion, a Love Story’ manages to render them superfluous, representative of one kind of circumstance in the grand scheme of crushing circumstances.
Professor Carr becomes the link between Natasha and Lucy, a younger student who lives in a full and raucous present but remembers little about her past. Her only memory of her parents is of ‘them eating plain sandwiches off their laps, and she wasn’t even sure that was a real memory or some idea of poverty planted by the college’. Both women have left their boyfriends after having abortions and subsequent, bitter epiphanies as a result of the ways the boyfriends handled those abortions. Natasha’s, ‘a strange person pretending to be a normal person’ who will go on to ‘develop financial ideas’, is dismissive before half-heartedly feigning concern because he knows that’s what’s expected of him; he cheats on her when she returns home. Lucy’s, an ‘amateur ventriloquist, majoring in business’, betrays her by performing a gruesome puppet show based on her experience. Both show the women ‘what the world was capable of’: fakery, superficiality, selfishness. The first time they encounter each other is just after Lucy has seen the puppet show. Natasha is angrily throwing pebbles at the college’s glass computer house, which, full of mysteriously or purposelessly purposeful people, symbolises ‘the college regime’. Lucy is inside, emailing the professor to ask him to put a large sum of money in her account: she supports herself by sending naked photographs to men online and the professor is one of her most enthusiastic clients.
Unlike Natasha’s, Lucy’s mind has ‘little compartments and her education slid in easily,’ but her success at the elite college is entirely a performance, one that has required the abandonment of her past and is increasingly frustrating to her. The puppet show is her breaking point: afterwards, she spends a rejuvenatingly degenerative week on holiday in Spain at a horrible hotel where she gets wasted every night and writes a frenzied play starring two women called Abortion, a Love Story. ‘It would be about suffering; it would be about survival. It would be proof that she was alive.’
The play is terrible, which we know because Natasha reads it. The women become friends after Lucy, ‘monstrously drunk’ and scantily clad, crashes one of Natasha and the professor’s dinner dates. She orders a huge amount of food and three bottles of ‘a bubbly drink that was close to champagne’ and they bond over their hatred of the college. It turns out that Lucy has been reading Natasha’s emails – many of which, in a nod to Akerman, are from her father – and has been ‘hopelessly sucked into’ them; she reveals this at the dinner table in the hope of scaring the professor away. She then passes out on her plate and Professor Carr finally disappears, fading to black along with the restaurant, so that ‘only the two girls remained in the booth’ as if it’s the end of the first act of a play.
Being eerily similar, the pair become inseparable, as though ‘they had become one fast and vicious animal’. To highlight their intimacy, Flattery occasionally emphasises that we don’t have access to all their conversations. Instead, there is a twenty-page description of Abortion, a Love Story, which the pair turn into a comedy and convince the snobby student theatre to let them put on for one night only. (Natasha uses the trick that failed on the professor, weaponising the idea of poverty: ‘I know you want me to go away … But let me tell you about where I grew up.’) The play is fragmented, critical, autobiographical, vengeful and absurd; it ends with them laughing as Lucy says: ‘I’m not sure. I’m not sure. I don’t know if I get it.’ There were about ten people in the audience, and according to Natasha that was way too many.
It’s unfortunate that such a rich, weird story contains a cloying – if anarchic – message about the transformative value of making art for art’s sake, but thankfully there is still little hope here. While rewriting the play, Natasha and Lucy propose smashing a giant chandelier representing the college, but of course they could never afford to buy one. ‘We don’t need a chandelier,’ Natasha reasons, ‘we’re making a new reality.’ Still, it would have been ‘satisfying’. ‘That smash,’ Lucy says. ‘Glass everywhere.’ Urban, intellectual life is all exteriority, puppetry, glass, self-promotion; the best you can do is throw pebbles at it. ‘I said that I had to leave to discover things about myself,’ the narrator of ‘Show Them a Good Time’ says of her decision to move to the city. ‘I withheld the fact that there wasn’t much to discover. Just ordinary surface and, beneath that, more desperate surface … While I had been pottering around, waiting for the right moment to introduce myself to the world, [my friends back home] had been attempting sombre business – trying to drink in moderation, paying motorway tolls.’ But any new reality you create is fleeting, temporary, incomprehensible and uninteresting to the vast majority of people. Under such circumstances, there’s really only one question to ask: sambo?