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Two Novels About Social Withdrawal

Dear readers,

Recently, a lovely and well-meaning friend texted me one of those trending articles that make you want to trade your smartphone for an abacus and never speak of the internet again. The gist of the piece was that in order to survive in a terminally online world, people hoping to advance in their chosen field — painter, novelist, late-middle-aged accountant — should, like some kind of manic TikTok David Mamet, Always Be Closing: flogging their wares, their souls, their “story” on whatever platforms manifest success in likes and view counts.

In the face of so much frenzied curation and compulsory personal branding, how might a modern human maintain some iota of unshared selfhood, a soupçon of Greta Garbo mystique? (Even that legend is faulty; Garbo later insisted that she said not “I want to be alone” but “I want to be let alone,” a small but somehow critical distinction.)

The power of absence and refusal is perhaps more edifying in literature — see “The Stranger,” “The Quiet Man,” the brick-wall calm of I-would-prefer-not-to Bartleby — than in real life. Even within the two titles featured in this week’s newsletter, withdrawal can be confusing and cruel, sometimes quite literally maddening. But that tension is also what makes these narratives pulse and shimmer on the page.

I found both novels one late-winter evening in the English-language stacks of a pleasingly musty secondhand bookshop in Paris that looked like it wouldn’t know a branding opportunity if it kicked it in the cobblestones. Parfait.


Fiction, 1991 (in French) or 1993 (in this translation)

“Separation” begins with the smallest breach between two people: a hand reached for in the dark one night at a play and pulled away. While Prospero drones onstage, a silent wrestling match ensues in the stands, the anonymous husband grasping for his wife’s fingers in the dark and finding instead an unexpected stiffening, then palpable disdain.

And so the cold war begins, at least from her end; she has fallen in love with another man, she doesn’t seem to mind telling him, but she is also not in any pressing rush to leave their Paris apartment, their seven-year marriage or the two young boys (one still a baby) they share.

What follows is a slow-motion conjugal car crash: impetuous, bruising and very, very French. He rages and begs and bluffs that he will leave her first; she looks away or simply past him at some fixed point in the distance, already halfway gone to a blissful future without him.

There is a misguided idea that because they and their peers are liberated products of the cultural upheavals of 1968 — modern bohemians unburdened by old bourgeois ideas of fidelity and gender roles — the pair can somehow navigate this mess differently. And that because the husband is a novelist and screenwriter, he can write his way out of it, a man of letters neatly converting his pain into art.

Instead, he gobbles Valium like Junior Mints and rails helplessly against her cool indifference. Wine, weekend trips and bedding other women (vive le France!) don’t temper the devastation; desperate threats are turned against him or breezily ignored. If you’re still in the blast radius of a breakup, “Separation” might be too much: Franck writes from the fresh hell of the walking wounded. But his words (elegantly translated by Rothschild) nail both the universal ache and heartsick detail of watching love turn to ashes, even before the fire is out.

Read if you like: Fraught car rides, “Scenes From a Marriage,” more than one glass of Sancerre at lunchtime
Available from: Ideally a post-divorce estate sale, although you could also get it from a good used-book store or library

Fiction, 1988

“What kind of creature are you, Peter?” a character asks the institutionalized narrator of Sayer’s slender, unsettling debut. “Are you psychotic? Traumatized? Hysterical? A sad case? Or are you simply having us all on?”

Peter doesn’t answer, because he never talks at all. What he presents as, more or less, is catatonic, “a scarcely breathing hotchpotch of hair, skin and bone.” He cherishes the blank weightlessness of his days, and a body left undisturbed beyond the obligatory rounds of forced feedings and fresh air in a wheelchair. So he is less than thrilled to find he has been selected for an ambitious new trial program that aims to rehabilitate even the saddest case.

Nothing in his hospital records indicates how he landed in long-term care alongside a bunch of compulsive hair-pullers and schizophrenics, or why; even the celebration of his 33rd birthday feels like a put-on. How, Peter idly wonders in his ongoing inner monologue, would these loony strangers cutting a cake for him even know when he was born?

It is unclear whether it’s the daily mystery injections Peter receives or just the disruption in his routine that starts dislodging old memories, but soon, bits of the distant past begin to fill in. The back story that eventually spills out is almost gothic in its awfulness, and the denouement is nightmare-bleak; putting “Comfort” anywhere in the title feels like cruel misdirection at best. Still, it’s an effective kind of haunting, sparse and lingering.

Read if you like: Linoleum, despair, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Available from: Secondary sellers on Amazon, or perhaps your preferred sleep demon.

  • Redefine quiet quitting with Marissa Higgins’s taut debut novel, “A Good Happy Girl,” in which a young lesbian lawyer with a Mariana Trench-size streak of masochism whiles away her work hours posting online videos of her feet in the office restroom, and relitigating the hurts of her Dickensian childhood via sex and self-destruction? (It’s not out until April 2, but available for preorder now.)

  • Read about a similarly alienated “innovation consultant” in Vivian Hu’s feverish short story “Arrangements” — a spiraling 22-year-old with a gift for bulimia, dissociative daydreaming and empty corporate double-speak?

  • Escape into the vanished analog world of Joel Meyerowitz’s “A Question of Color,” a photo book rich with pigment, not pixels?

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