- Noemi Press
Spring's brought a spate of diary-like books to the fore—from Sarah Manguso's Ongoingness to Heidi Julavits' The Folded Clock to Maggie Nelson's AMAZING Argonauts, out this month, seriously go buy a copy so we can talk about it—but one of my favorites so far has to be Suzanne Scanlon's Her 37th Year: An Index, out now from Las Cruces, New Mexico's Noemi Press.
There are echoes of Mrs. Dalloway in Her 37th Year, which compresses a woman's entire life into brief moments alphabetized, categorized, and cross-indexed by topic (e.g., "Gaze, The; Ghosts; Ginsberg, Allen"). A rough narrative of the speaker's life emerges, but it isn't linear—it's qualitative. It's written in a voice concerned with the everyday, with art and literature, with the minutiae of work (in this case teaching and writing), and a family life that may be crumbling, and is certainly shot through with moments of affection and understanding. Her 37th Year is a book that embraces complication—THANK GOD—so this is never presented as an oppositional dynamic.
It's a generous book, too, in that it proudly embodies what Jonathan Lethem calls the ecstasy of influence, wearing its many freewheeling influences across art and literature with attribution, but without over-heavy reverence. Instead, from Maggie Nelson's thoughts on emptiness to EM Cioran's ideas of writing, to a Woolf-adjacent undercurrent of remitting madness and the daily rituals of a woman of a certain age, Her 37th Year remixes all of these within a fragmented, buried narrative, and the result is a book that reads as something much greater than the sum of its influences. It's a completely whole, and completely necessary look into identity and experience. Here's one of my favorite references, where Scanlon refers to Hiroshima Mon Amour, with the added resonance that Marguerite Duras is one of her narrator's literary touchstones:
"To the man in the boots you say, 'I was so young once!' It's your favorite line from Hiroshima Mon Amour—when the French actress says so to her Japanese lover, to the universe. Privately you wonder if your writing has been just this, a histrionic assertion: I was young once!"
Reviewers of Her 37th Year will probably express surprise at the form it takes, at its ability to build something so substantial out of such seemingly small pieces. But that's actually the beauty of it. Unlike a bulky novel, Scanlon's fragments accumulate, creating the emotional resonance similar to what you might find in a novel without the dull parts, and with an added associative quality more common in poetry. It's an approach that's been pioneered by writers like the ones I mentioned, whose work that will likely be compared to Scanlon's.
Containing an entire life in a book isn't a new idea: Joyce and Woolf both attempted it, as have countless others. But perhaps they were making it too hard for themselves. Because in this book, a life is contained fully, satisfyingly, in under 200 pages, or perhaps it isn't contained—perhaps that's an impossible task—and yet in her spareness, Scanlon has created the negative space to suggest something truly expansive. As an accumulation of days becomes a life, Scanlon's fragments multiply to form what cannot be said with narrative alone. She makes the impossible look easy.