On the shelf
“Life is everywhere”
By Lucy Ives
Graywolf: 400 pages, $18
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“What’s in your bag?” It’s a standard question asked in women’s magazines and on YouTube. The answers aim to give readers an intimate glimpse into the world of a chic person: what lip gloss they use, what novel they read. In her brilliant, ludicrous third novel, Life Is Everywhere, Lucy Ives uses this conceit to unique effect. Let’s imagine that the bag in question belonged to an obsessed, newly dumped graduate student, “nearly insane with doubts,” swamped with potted wonder and frustrated literary ambition.
The alleged protagonist is Erin Adamo, a college student who is locked out of her New York City apartment one night in the fall of 2014. But the curtain on Erin’s life doesn’t rise immediately. Instead, the novel begins with the fascinating story of the discovery of botulinum toxin, which began in the ninth century and followed an unlikely path (via its commercial form, Botox) into the faces of millions of women, including a member of the English Department Erin is a student.
This confusing but exciting opening move is cinematic, like a view from space panning rapidly down into a single pore of a human face. It prepares the reader for the wild ride, the grand sweep, the superimposition of chronologies, the multiple references and repetitions that make this novel feel at times like a lively but difficult-to-follow art film.
After the botox storyline and a thorough, often hilarious account of Erin’s adultery and the current drama engulfing her department (featuring an elderly professor and a young student, natch), the reader goes into Erin’s pocket. what’s in her bag Two of her own novel manuscripts; a 1978 monograph, complete with footnotes, written by the controversial professor on a certain Démocrite Charlus LeGouffre (a fictional French novelist, but the monograph is so compelling that one immediately googles it to check it out); a single page of academic writing by the Botox professor; and a bill from Con Edison addressed to Erin’s former husband.
They are all here in full and comprise about 250 pages of the book. It’s a move the reader might dismiss, but it’s convincingly executed. It helps that Erin’s manuscripts are at least partially autofiction. They embrace events the reader is already aware of and give the novel a sense of constant rotation and recapitulation.
These documents represent multiple attempts, elaborations, and iterations of the same material, and reading them feels tender, if at times voyeuristic. For example, we know that Cody, the illegitimate husband character in one of Erin’s manuscripts, is very similar to Erin’s husband. We access her grief in a different register, one that perhaps should feel more distant, but is actually more immediate and sadder.
In its spirited play on real and imaginary literary history, Life Is Everywhere recalls Shola von Reinhold’s extraordinary 2020 novel LOTE. Ives’ story-in-a-story also recalls 1001 Nights, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire” and Laurence Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”. Is one of Erin’s characters named Hamlet because of the game in the game the “hamlet”? Is LeGouffre an echo of Baudelaire’s poem “Le Gouffre” (gouffre means abyss in French) in “Les Fleurs du Mal”? (This LeGouffre attends Baudelaire’s funeral in the fictional monograph!) Or have we just fallen into our own abyss?
Ives also presents a number of possible readings of her own work. One of Erin’s manuscripts is peppered with reading exercises, an alcoholism self-assessment, and a dream journal titled “Hypergraphia” (a behavioral condition marked by a writing compulsion). We know that Erin’s maternal grandmother may have suffered from it, but the frequent mention of the disorder works as its own. Just as the reader begins to suspect that Ives is innately incapable of trimming pages or paragraphs, she raises the specter of an actual condition that could befall her main character, possibly even the author herself.
Erin’s narrator also has an obsession with German conceptual artist Hanne Darboven, who has created large-scale installations of tables with handwritten lines and numbers. These acts of serialization offer Erin’s narrator solace and perhaps, like the numerous manuscripts herein, a key to the book the reader holds in her hands.
Life Is Everywhere has much to offer, but at its core it is an academic novel that joins a long, neurotic tradition of toilsome, isolated intellectual work and petty competition among scholars. The depiction of department dynamics is so perfect that it really disturbs anyone with personal experience. A professor in a “garish, floor-length paisley skirt” can be seen “glowing in the corner under a stack of laid raw-silk scarves.” A fellow student, “brittle and pale and proud,” makes Erin feel bad about ever announcing her attendance at a conference or roundtable on “the figure of the clerk in whatever.”
“Erin didn’t want to be Alana Harris – and she certainly didn’t want to be how her,” Ives writes of this student. And yet she wanted to possess the kind of “potent deception” that made Alana Harris so prolific. (“Grad School!!,” this reader wrote in the margin.) Despite its many forays into philosophy and even mysticism, these grindingly real, almost pathetic passages ground the novel.
Sometimes, however, the asides feel overdone. Erin enters the university library, and four pages follow about the life of the anti-Semitic architect who designed it in the 1970s, students who committed suicide there, the installation of plaques to prevent similar future tragedies, and the nature and Way the panels “symbolized the movement of data as zeros and ones.” That’s a lot. Ives is capable of virtuoso control – there are at least 10 different spellings in this book, and all are so masterfully executed it’s almost frightening. At the same time, this is a work of art that feels like an explosion unchecked.
But this off-kilter campus novel is, to use a campus word, generative. It’s “good to think about” on a variety of topics: the chauvinism of a kind of literary criticism, the indelible damage caused by families of origin, why we can never regain the happiness we felt in old relationships, or even fully understand why We were actually there, let alone why we are here now. In many cases, Erin seems to temporarily lose touch with what we call reality, and those moments feel the most real of all. “The phenomenal reality wavered,” writes Ives. “It bounced, wobbled.”
Aron is the author of Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls: A Memoir of Women, Addiction, and Love.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/books/story/2022-10-05/review-how-lucy-ives-turned-the-whats-in-her-bag-trope-into-a-brilliantly-berserk-novel Review: Lucy Ives’ third novel, ‘Life Is Everywhere’