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FICTION REVIEW

Eleanor or the Rejection of the Progress of Love

The Death of Empathy: Anna Moschovakis’ Eleanor or the Rejection of the Progress of Love

Review by Amy Lee Lillard // September 9, 2018
Coffee House Press, August 2018
Paperback, 224 pp. $16.95

Something has happened to Eleanor, the thirty-nine-year-old teacher and writer at the center of Anna Moschovakis’ debut novel. This thing permeates Eleanor’s daily routine of teaching, reading, and wandering her Brooklyn neighborhood. This thing also haunts Eleanor when she breaks her routine to track down her computer thief, take drugs with a commune in upstate New York, and finally move to Ethiopia to work in a Rimbaud museum.

But this thing, the “thing that happened—that she had caused to happen, or that she had not caused but merely not prevented from happening” is never named.

A few pages in to the novel, I assumed that “it” would eventually be named rape. When one is female and reading of female trauma, especially one tinged with guilt and self-blame, that’s perhaps our go-to response.

But Moschovakis resists and questions this reaction, and she does it with a bit of structural play that’s exciting and shocking. Interspersed with the third-person narration of Eleanor, Moschovakis adds an unexpected first-person voice: the writer behind Eleanor.

This writer details her revision process with her novel about Eleanor. She grapples with the critics: her own inner voice of self-doubt, and a male critic who questions her choices. This male critic assumes that Eleanor is a stand in for the writer, and demands simplicity and clear motivations of the characters; he wants the “thing that happened” to be named.

In some ways, the critic may serve as the voice of the reader who wants things to be explained and resolved. But at the same time, the critic is a certain kind of male that women know well, especially women writers. The critic dominates all their conversations, first with overly negative feedback on the work, and then with his own neuroses. He uses Eleanor as a therapist, an object of seduction, and an empty receptacle waiting to be filled. The writer recognizes what he’s doing, knowing he’s:

“one of those men…who speak only in subordinated sentences, developed theories…whatever insight emerged was of an apparent authority and completion that I knew from experience I could muster only after substantial thought, the painful suppression of doubt, and rehearsal before a mirror.”

Perhaps by giving this man the lines and demands that readers might also have, Moschovakis encourages us to examine how we view female stories.

That’s what I did. As Eleanor thinks of the “thing that happened” again and again, and the critic demands the writer name this thing, I started to think about how we react to female trauma in particular. If the thing that happened to Eleanor was rape, for instance, readers might pity her, while quietly (and perhaps unconsciously) poking holes into her account. If the thing was a parent’s death, we might feel sad for her, but may also want her to deal with it quickly and move on. If it’s divorce, or a miscarriage, or a lost job, or a meltdown, we might have more ready-made responses prepared.

And maybe we’ve developed these gut reactions because of the sheer volume of stories in the world. We see Eleanor herself may even do this: every day she shifts from social media to news feeds to books to films, consuming hundreds of stories in giant chunks. Most of these stories, on their own, could be deeply emotional, important, life-changing. But she reads and moves on. We’ve all had to learn to do this with the daily firehose of story, to read, digest, and move on to the next. When they’re stories of trauma, as they often are, we’ve learned practiced reactions to help us do that.

This may be the ultimate power of Moschovakis’ novel. Eleanor, and the male critic, and we readers, may no longer be able to feel real empathy, the book suggests. Detachment may be the new human state.

Eleanor for one recognizes this in herself, and tries to make herself feel something, anything. She tries sex, masturbation, drugs; she tries thinking deeply on the thing that happened. But time passes, as Moschovakis repeats again and again, and Eleanor “takes note” of events, and her reactions to them, from a distance. We may assume that this is the effect of her trauma. But really, this is life. This is Eleanor’s life, and this is ours.

Moschovakis’ book is a stunner, showing how we are detached, separated from our bodies, from empathy, from the world and its horrendous events, from time. We’re acting out patterns to cope, and in that way we make no progress.

But we still try. Eleanor does, ultimately moving to another country to simplify her life. She may still find a way to live in this world. Maybe we can too.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Amy Lee Lillard was named one of Epiphany’s Breakout 8 Writers in 2018. Her fiction and non-fiction also appear in Atlas and AliceOff Assignment, Gertrude, and Entropy. She holds an MA in literature from Northwestern University, and an MFA in fiction writing from the Pan-European Program at Cedar Crest College.

Eleanor or the Rejection of the Progress of Love
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