It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a certain number of years must be in want of a husband and children. Flora Willis looks at the women asking 'What next, if not that?' in Chris Kraus's Torpor, Jami Attenberg's All Grown Up and Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth.

‘GROW UP. START A FAMILY’ impels an ad on 4OD, as a gleaming four-by-four slides across the screen. We know that a man, a woman and their child are within. We believe they appreciate how smooth their new ride is.

For the three women protagonists I’m going to write about, the four-by-four looms on their fast-advancing horizons. It is on their TV screens: ‘The 30s are all about heart’, the actress Melanie Griffiths is quoted as saying in Torpor, an auto-fictional novel by Chris Kraus. ‘I’m learning now how much family really matters.’ It is on their mothers’ lips: ‘I just want you to have a co-pilot’, Andrea Bern is told by hers in Jami Attenberg’s All Grown Up. And it is ingrained in their culture: Lily, of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, ‘longed to drop out of the race and make an independent life for herself. But what manner of life would it be?’

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a certain number of years, must be in want of a husband and children. But what if this doesn’t apply to you? What next - if not that?

TorporNumbingly content

When we meet Sylvie, in Chris Kraus’s Torpor, she is travelling with her husband Jerome through eastern Europe. It is 1991. Each is unhappy, but while Sylvie’s unhappiness impedes her progress, Jerome’s is his cause célèbre. Obsessed with the Holocaust, which he survived as a child, working endlessly towards a book entitled The Anthropology of Unhappiness, his particular brand of misery has become his success. Jerome, Sylvie notes, is ‘numbingly content’ having ‘succeeded in his ambition to be dead.’

Sylvie is far from content. Her career as an artist has sputtered to a halt. She feels inferior to Jerome, indebted to the man who ‘had rescued her from her east Village hovel’, and resentful of him. He encouraged her three abortions (already having a child of his own), the memories of which haunt her. Jerome censors Sylvie intellectually, refusing to credit her on the cover of a book she edited, and verbally: ‘Every time Jerome used the word ‘we’ to talk about himself... it was as if her own existence were annihilated.’

So, what next for Sylvie? Feeling an ‘emptiness’ in their marriage, and remembering that during her first pregnancy the baby felt like ‘the first thing she’s ever had that was completely hers’, she decides a baby could be the solution.

They make a deal: Sylvie will accompany Jerome to collect a fellowship in Berlin if he agrees to travel to Romania to adopt a baby.

Why are we not enough, by ourselves?

We might despair if we didn’t feel as though Sylvie knows exactly what she’s doing, and why. In one of many wry flashes of self-awareness she explains that ‘The only elegant means to escape to torpor of their lives would be to have a baby.’ It’s thrilling to remember this line when later, in a vicious argument, Jerome spits, ‘The child is just a symbol that you use. A means of testing, how much you are able to control me.’ Jerome is right that the baby is a symbol, but it’s not to do with him. It’s all to do with Sylvie. As Kraus said in a recent interview, ‘[The adoption] is clearly not going to happen. Some part of her knows it isn’t.’ But in that moment, it’s all she has.

Skip forward twenty years to Attenberg’s Andrea Bern, narrator of All Grown Up. On the brink of 40, Andrea is self-sufficient, All Grown Uphappily single and child-free. But all is not well: ‘It’s not that you want a baby, or want to get married, or any of it. It’s not your bag.’ she says. ‘You just feel tired of trying to fit in where you don’t.’  

For Andrea, there is no route mapped out, no car adverts for her to buy into; there never have been. For want of answers, All Grown Up is a novel of questions. ‘Why is being single the only thing people think of when they think of me?’ she asks. ‘I’m other things, too.’ In response to her mother’s desire for her to have a co-pilot, she asks, ‘Why are we not enough, by ourselves?’

Who is Andrea, if she is does not want the four-by-four? Out loud, she describes herself in conventional and absolute female roles: ‘I’m a daughter, I’m a sister, I’m an aunt’, but to herself, ‘I’m alone. I’m a drinker. I’m a former artist. I’m a shrieker in bed. I’m captain of the sinking ship that is my flesh.’ Like Sylvie, Andrea’s abortion and failed artistic endeavours haunt her: ‘I weep for my lost identities. I weep for my possibilities.’ (Similarly, the refrain ‘Look in my face - my name is might have been’ recurs in Torpor.) At the same time, she sees the joy in this multiplicity, this unpredictability. Comparing herself to her married friend, a new mother, she says ‘Her life is architected, elegant and angular, a beauty to behold, and mine is a stew, a juicy, sloppy mess of ingredients and feelings and emotions ... But have you tasted it? It’s delicious.’

Andrea is complex, flawed, lonely, funny, owner of many identities, public and private; past, present and conditional. And to many of us readers, she is a huge relief. The Guardian compared her to BBC3’s ‘darkly comic’ Fleabag; together they are much-needed alternative single-woman heroines.

Better to stop and circle back

house of mirthReading the story of Andrea, ‘still realistically struggling with and defying convention because she isn’t married’ as one reviewer wrote, I was reminded of the unfortunate heroine of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Lily Bart. 29-year-old Lily is unmarried, poor, and despairing. As though in punishment for her status she is beset by a series of misfortunes which include developing a gambling habit and being betrayed by her friends. Finally, living in a cramped flat, trying to earn a living and pay off her debts, she finds herself at an impasse: ‘What can one do when one finds that one only fits into one hole? One must get back to it or be thrown out into the rubbish heap.’ (Perhaps Edith Wharton was the originator of the ‘festival of negativity’ Slate lauds Kraus for.)

Across the ages women are pitied, ridiculous or ostracised for not fitting into that ‘one hole.’ But while Lily had no choice but to consign herself to the rubbish heap, there’s hope for Andrea and Sylvie.

Lily’s story is linear and portent-ridden. Unlike our two twenty-first century protagonists, she is helpless, ‘the victim of the civilization which had produced her, that the links of her bracelet seemed like manacles chaining her to her fate.’ The four-by-four glides on up ahead. As it accelerates into the distance, we know Lily will never catch it up.

If Torpor’s ‘crappy tin box car’, driven solely by Jerome, ‘has become a metaphor for their marriage’, the narrative form is a metaphor for Sylvie’s experience. Just as ‘Sylvie’s lamentations resist the streamlining of life around her’ (Believer), so Kraus’s (and Attenberg’s) ordering of their stories resist traditional linear narrative form. As Kraus puts it, ‘To organize events sequentially is to take away their power. Emotion’s not at all like that. Better to hold onto memories in fragments, better to stop and circle back each time you feel the lump rise in your throat.’ (Or, I would add, the laughter begin in your belly.) We may reach a dead end but we double back on ourselves and rejoin the initial route. When we take the road our gut tells us is a shortcut, we lose the four-by-four altogether. Who wants that expensive monster anyway? It must be a nightmare to park.

Less absolute, but better

At a bookshop event in April with Jami Attenberg, an audience member compared Andrea’s crisis to that of the narrator of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love (published in 2006, the same year as Torpor). It was refreshing, she said, to see a woman just carrying on. Not many of us have the opportunity to re-start our lives or do something self-affirming (see: Lily Bart. No spoilers from me).

Towards the end of All Grown Up, Andrea finds more satisfying answers to her questions. Running home through the rain one night, she sees options laid out before her (including the suspiciously Eat, Pray, Love-themed ‘do I shut down my life for a year and just travel until I figure it out?’). It culminates in the decision to start making art again - and a revelation: ‘Now I realize there’s nothing to catch up to, there’s only what I choose to make. There’s still time, I think. I have so much time left.’ Perhaps she can be enough, by herself.

What next for Sylvie? Pleasingly (and unsurprisingly) she leaves Jerome, fleeing to LA for an independent life of commitment-free sex, ‘pursuing a career in an art world that no longer matters much to her or anyone.’ Her lifestyle and surroundings are the opposite of the ‘grid of European history’ that Jerome is trapped in: ‘It is less absolute, perhaps’ Sylvie finishes, ‘But better.’

So Sylvie and Andrea will live messy lives, make art, flatten tyres on unpaved road - and enjoy the view all the same. GROW UP. CARRY ON LIVING, their ad might say. That’s all you can do, and it’s plenty.

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