The Fine Art of Falling to Pieces
On the Literature of Romantic Abandonment
Once upon a time I was falling in love,
But now I’m only falling apart.
–Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
What happens to a woman alone? This question, though in theory settled by experience—they muddle on much like anybody else—is one we can’t seem to quite let go of. Books are written in defense of the single woman’s experience (against whom, it’s not quite clear), in praise of their revolutionary potential (for whom, it’s not quite clear). Even if in the real world, such a person no longer raises anyone’s eyebrow, that woman, in literary terms, is question.
Anyway, the answer is—she falls apart. Going entirely to pieces is an option available to anyone, but in fiction it’s usually the prerogative of women. Men might run into grand existential dilemmas, but they resolve it by, for instance, killing their pawnbroker. If, on the other hand, you do little but sleep and drink, you are likely to be a woman. “How far one can let oneself go, when one is entirely alone and shut in!” wonders the wife in Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Woman Destroyed” after her husband has left her to vacation with his mistress. Later, when she realizes he has truly left her, she writes:
Now I am a dead woman. A dead woman who still has years to drag out—how many? Even a single day, when I open my eyes in the morning, seems to me something whose end I can never possibly reach. In my bath yesterday the mere act of lifting my arm faced me with a problem—why lift an arm: why put one foot in front of another? When I am by myself I stand there motionless for minutes on end at the edge of the pavement, utterly paralyzed.
At the end of the story, the woman prepares to re-enter her empty house with dread. She has nothing but the empty and unstructured prospect of her future before her, from which she cannot be saved, and which she cannot bear. Her life was supposed to be over—she had moved through courtship, marriage, and children—but in destroying her, her husband has given her life again. The trouble is, she doesn’t want it.
“Courtship, marriage, and children” is a story. But a solitary person—what kind of story can she have? She’s shapeless; her life is a problem for her. She has to keep on putting one foot in front of the other. Other people get bored of hearing how her husband left her, and even she gets bored. Though the woman’s been destroyed, she’ll have to go on living in the ashes of her feeling. Her life is a problem for her.
But why women? In real life, to be undone by romantic loss is not peculiarly female. “Women who do nothing cannot bear those who work,” the husband in de Beauvoir’s story tells his wife, and perhaps work is part of the answer. For his wife, work was merely the prelude to the actual story of her life, which began and ended with him. Her life exists to support his. Without that, she’s nothing—and nothing is what she becomes.
“But a solitary person—what kind of story can she have? She’s shapeless; her life is a problem for her.”
The premiere artist of the crack-up isn’t Simone de Beauvoir, however. It’s Jean Rhys, a woman who herself was almost incapable of boiling water, whose posthumous reputation has languished in the foyer of the canon without ever being admitted all the way inside. Too admired to be underrated, too consistently remembered to be forgotten, but with a reputation too slim to be firmly and solidly recognized, she lingers and will continue to linger at the threshold of respectability, talented and beautiful and yet curiously helpless. She’d like you to rescue her, but enjoys knowing she can’t be saved.
Rhys’s women were never specimens of health in the first place, but by the time we meet them, they’ve lost their men, so they might as well be dead. To be so abandoned is a failure of being; their role is essentially parasitical—they need to be cared for by a man. So they disintegrate, exquisitely, falling to lower and lower depths, shabbier and shabbier hotels. Rhys and her novels inspire two reactions. One is over-identification. In Flaneuse, Lauren Elkin recalls teaching Rhys’s Good Morning, Midnight to her students, only to be confronted by the school psychologist:
“You’re the culprit!” she said. “You’re the one who taught Jean Rhys last week.” “Yes,” I said warily. “Why?” “I had four of your students come to see me, totally shattered by that book!” A couple of those students came to my office hours. One was the most dynamic person in the class, a Gallatin student who had so identified with the book that he waved it in the air and declared: “I am Jean Rhys!” He was having a tough time romantically, and was worried that there was nothing he could do to be happy again.
Over-identification is followed, in turn, by disgust. Jessa Crispin recounts in The Dead Ladies Project how a teenage enthusiasm for Rhys was undone by reading about her life:
What I once saw as vulnerability I now see as passivity. What I saw as fragility I see as victimhood. What I saw as a clear-eyed view of society and its sexual dynamics I now see as self-serving justifications for bad behavior. Perhaps it was the revelation that despite writing incessantly about loneliness, Rhys always had a man on hand to buy her things, pay her rent, get her books published, put her up. Perhaps it is that her default mode was to lie on the floor in a puddle drinking until someone picked her up and pointed her in a specific direction.
That Rhys herself inspires this height of irritation can’t be denied. (In Carole Angier’s biography of Rhys, she reproduces a poem that is, in its entirety, the phrase “I didn’t know” written three times; this note of deep self-pity is representative.) The difference between her and her fictional avatars is not only the relative availability of men (they don’t have any), but that her women have no work. Their falling-apart is itself an art; it is their work. They give themselves, freely, over to having no identity and no dreams, let themselves fall in a graceful act of destruction. This is all there will ever be for them; when they allow themselves something like hope, it’s usually only to open the door to a deeper and blacker despair.
From Jade Sharma’s Problems to Jane Alison’s Nine Island, plenty of contemporary novels have also taken up the destructive woman. But in the contemporary novel, when a woman spirals, her work is usually there to save her. Making your manlessness itself into an art is not only no longer necessary, it’s almost impossible. Women themselves are no longer so easily reduced to failures if they simply never marry. Perhaps the solitary woman becomes a drug addict, stops eating, is evicted, kills her cat. But she’s doing something—often, writing—that provides the thread of her story. The romance and struggle takes place between a woman and her work.
But literarily speaking, women haven’t entirely shed their role. That purity of grief speaks to something about us, so we continue to chase it. Maybe nobody’s life has that Rhysian shapelessness, but our grief does. Grief is the opera; it’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart”; it’s selfish, self-indulgent, and all-encompassing. It’s not knowing why you put one foot in front of the other. A story in which grief can’t be allowed to make its single primal, reproachful howl is false to experience. If not to reality.
“Their falling-apart is itself an art; it is their work. They give themselves, freely, over to having no identity and no dreams, let themselves fall in a graceful act of destruction.”
So if the old form is lost to us, new ones must be made. The nameless narrator of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond has neither love nor work. She lives in a little cottage in Ireland, and though she’s not entirely isolated there, she’s also created a distance between herself and other people. Rather than spiraling, this woman becomes peacefully diffuse, sinking into the details of her home and her landscape. She constructs elaborate rituals and meanings behind her meals. She spins elaborate fantasies, sometimes horrifying ones, of what will happen if she encounters others: She imagines a man on the road will rape her; then wonders if he’ll think ill of her clothes; and finally worries that she might pee on him in the moment. In the end, however, the man passes her by. Her interactions with people, when they do occur, are skittering and anxious.
In her past life, the woman was an academic of some kind, and the shed behind her little house is filled with the loose pages of her unfinished dissertation. When she recalls a conference paper she once delivered, she says that it was “about those adventitious souls who deliberately seek out love as a prime agent of total self-immolation”:
It attempted to show that in the whole history of literature love is quite routinely depicted as an engulfing process of ecstatic suffering which finally, mercifully, obliterates us and delivers us to oblivion. Dismembered and packed off. Something like that. Something along those lines. I am mad about you. I am going out of my mind. My soul burns for you. I am inflamed. There is nothing now, nothing except you. Gone, quite gone. That kind of thing. I don’t think it went down very well.
Since, as the narrator herself admits, “my interest was far too personal and not strictly academic,” and since there are references elsewhere to loves that did not work out, we meet her on the other side of this ecstatic experience—consumed, delivered to oblivion, gone. Stored along with the dissertation is a love letter. But both documents belong, as it were, to a different person.
Still, she’s not entirely without intellectual pursuits. There’s a book in this book, a novel that the narrator reads about a widow who wakes up to discover she’s the last person on earth. On a visit to two rural friends, the widow declines to join them on an evening excursion and goes to sleep instead. In the morning, she discovers that the farm in which she was staying is now surrounded by an invisible wall. Outside of it, everything is motionless.
Though unnamed, this is a real book: The Wall, by the Austrian novelist Marlen Haushofer. It tracks a life that has indeed been rendered entirely shapeless—all the woman can do is keep on living, and recording her days for herself, even though there is no real reason to live and no one to read her diary after she’s gone. Much of the book is given over to the brute domestic details of how she survives and does the work that needs to be done. To be the last person on earth is a heavy burden, and yet a new kind of freedom. Nothing (short of death) can happen to the last woman on earth that she does not choose, which means that while she is driven by necessity, she’s also liberated by it:
If I think today of the woman I once was, the woman with the little double chin, who tried very hard to look younger than her age, I feel little sympathy for her. But I shouldn’t like to judge her too harshly. After all, she never had the chance of consciously shaping her life. . . . She knew a great deal about many things, and nothing at all about many others; all in all her mind was governed by terrible disorder, a reflection of the society in which she lived, which was just as ignorant and put-upon as herself. But I should like to grant her one thing: she always had a dim sense of discomfort, and knew that all this was far from enough.
In The Wall, the narrator of Pond finds a reflection of her own experience, and to some degree, it’s comforting. She objects to characterizations of the book as “dystopian.” At the same time, her relationship to the world is not quite the same. On the other side of her love and ambition, there is a strange world which she can endlessly observe as someone already dead. Perhaps one could become a merry ghost, no longer a woman at all, enchanted with the world, entering into it, yet also, already, untouchable, emptied-out. And as a ghost, she’d transcend the whole problem of living, the context in which it takes place, the troublesome dimensions of space and time.
As it is, space and time are problems for all these women. If your life doesn’t have a shape, a story, how are you to cope? What is that you move through, what kind of space can you take up, where can you be going?
“Perhaps one could become a merry ghost, no longer a woman at all, enchanted with the world, entering into it, yet also, already, untouchable, emptied-out.”
For most of these women, the house is the context they try to create for themselves. “I have arranged my little life,” Rhys’s Sasha tells herself in Good Morning, Midnight, as she settles into the hotel room in which she intends to live, making an account of the street, the bed, and the wash-basin. The woman in The Wall winds the clocks every day: “I wash myself daily, brush my teeth, do my laundry and keep the house clean.” The narrator of Pond goes about her cottage “cleaning mirrors, sweeping floors, polishing glasses, folding clothes, wiping casements, slicing tomatoes, chopping spring onions.”
But while these women pour themselves into their houses, the houses aren’t homes. Sasha drifts through hotels; the house in The Wall is owned by (now-deceased) friends; the cottage in Pond is a rental. They’re containers, a way of trying to give shape to shapelessness. Even as the woman in Pond recounts her housework, it’s also clear that the cottage is not especially clean. Housework is a way of killing time.
But time is tricky, too. In a way, it’s the greater enemy. The whole problem, after all, of this solitary creature is that she’s stuck in time, but can’t fill it. In Pond, the woman opens and reads again the love letter she once received. As she reads, she reflects that it is “the defeated aspect of desire, hopes dashed and ragged, which in the outlives any exalted pronouncement striving towards the eternal. . . . Everyone knows deep down that life is as much about the things that do not happen as the things that do.” In Good Morning, Midnight, Sasha thinks: “Even the one moment that you thought was your eternity fades out and is forgotten and dies.”
It’s precisely horror that life goes on—whether or not you yourself would like to—that fills these books. One part of the drama of grief is knowing that you cannot grieve forever, a knowledge that brings no comfort. If the worst thing happens, and you go on living, if you even recover, what does that say about you? Who wants to love after love?
In life, you’re well-advised to get over it. Buy things you like, wear—as self-help guru Marjorie Hillis advised in 1936—a rotating series of bed jackets, develop hobbies, make yourself useful. Put one foot in front of the other, stop asking why you’re alive. Get a plant or a cat or a dog. Go to therapy. Give yourself a real home and structure your time. Work.
There’s much to be said for happiness, even when it’s solitary. But spare a moment for that grief that won’t be consoled. Those fictional women who go on bleeding forever, who want to be destroyed, a monument to suffering. They are secure in the conviction that their lives did matter, that what happened can’t be moved past. No justice or restitution is possible for them. They will bring their grief into eternity. They will not allow it to be forgotten. With their iron will, with their self-fidelity, they alone will overcome time.