The Life of the Mind

A Novel

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“[A] jewel of a debut . . . abundantly satisfying.”—Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker
A witty, intelligent novel of an American woman on the edge, by a brilliant new voice in fiction—“the glorious love child of Ottessa Moshfegh and Sally Rooney” (Publishers Weekly, starred review)

As an adjunct professor of English in New York City with no hope of finding a permanent position, Dorothy feels “like a janitor in the temple who continued to sweep because she had nowhere else to be but who had lost her belief in the essential sanctity of the enterprise.” No one but her boyfriend knows that she’s just had a miscarriage, not even her therapists—Dorothy has two of them. Nor can she bring herself to tell the other women in her life: her friends, her doctor, her mentor, her mother. The freedom not to be a mother is one of the victories of feminism. So why does she feel like a failure?

Piercingly intelligent and darkly funny, The Life of the Mind is a novel about endings: of youth, of professional aspiration, of possibility, of the illusion that our minds can ever free us from the tyranny of our bodies. And yet Dorothy’s mind is all she has to make sense of a world largely out of her control, one where disaster looms and is already here, where things happen but there is no plot. There is meaning, however, if Dorothy figures out where to look, and as the weeks pass and the bleeding subsides, she finds it in the most unlikely places, from a Las Vegas poolside to a living room karaoke session. In literature—as Dorothy well knows—stories end. But life, as they say, goes on.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Life of the Mind

The End of March

Dorothy was taking a shit at the library when her therapist called and she let it go to voicemail. The therapist was calling because Dorothy, who at this moment was rereading the flyer for student health services taped to the wall above the receptacle for used feminine-­hygiene products, had left a voicemail at eleven o’clock last night canceling today’s session. It wasn’t that the miscarriage was such a big deal or that she was broken up in grief about it; it was that she hadn’t told her therapist she was pregnant, and didn’t want to have a whole session about her tendency to withhold. In the asymmetrical warfare of therapy, secrets were a guerrilla tactic. Not that Dorothy had been plotting to keep things to herself. She wasn’t the plotting type.

It was day six, and she was still bleeding. Not the unceasing hemorrhage of the first ten hours—­now it was thick, curdled knots of string, gelatinous in substance. In most cases of gestational stall it wasn’t necessary to intervene; the body knew to spontaneously expel its failures. Perhaps that accounted for the trauma in other women’s accounts—­the element of surprise. You will know not the day nor the hour! In her case the body had held on, deferential, waiting for her to clear her schedule. The result was less than a trauma and more than an inconvenience. She would never know exactly when it had happened—­when it had stopped happening—­only that she had persisted for some time idly believing that she was persisting, her body busy fulfilling its potential like some warehouse or shipping center. How typical of her not to know something was over when it was over. And how typical that it was proving more difficult to extricate herself from the dead-­end pregnancy, the halted progression, than it had been to become pregnant in the first place. Her womb would not let go. The contractions had needed two Cytotec suppositories before they would even start. Misoprostol was the drug’s generic name, the same one they gave you for a medication abortion. But when she did it, when she self-­administered the uterine evacuation, terminating a—­what was it, exactly? What did you call it when a life stopped developing, but didn’t end?

tests got you stressed? the flyer quizzed. don’t despair. text to talk it out. A sad stick figure in one corner, a smiling stick figure in the other. kill yourself, someone had written in green ink above the smiler. stop the hate, someone else had written alongside, in letters so small they seemed afraid to draw attention to themselves. Then the hand in green ink had returned to draw a drooling penis with a thick beard and a natty top hat. Dorothy wondered if she had taught any of these students. It was possible.

She hadn’t intended to lie to her therapist—­if an omission even counted as a lie. Dorothy hadn’t been pregnant for very long, but she had been pregnant long enough to understand that unless she was very tactical in her behavior, her body and what she did with it, what she put into it, would be a matter of community interest. Maybe pregnancy changed the body from a private to a public thing, or maybe it exposed the nature of the body as already public. Whatever it was, it was something she wanted to talk out with her therapist, except when it was on her tongue to do so, the therapist had interrupted a warm-­up story that Dorothy was telling about her boyfriend, Rog, to remark that he was “a keeper.” Dorothy saw at once that after the language of “keeping” had been introduced into the room, it would be impossible to keep it from becoming attached to the pregnancy, to define the pregnancy in terms of a keeping or a not-­keeping, when in fact Dorothy was not ready to talk about retention, even as a future decision toward which she was inevitably hurtling, and so she, driven into a cul-­de-­sac by a linguistic overdetermination that would have been rich material if she only could have borne it, said nothing.

The therapist had apologized for calling Rog “a keeper.”

“Who you keep is up to you, not me,” she had said, gazing earnestly into Dorothy’s eyes, willing her into compliance, but Dorothy disagreed. What was this American fixation on doing it yourself? Wasn’t she in therapy so that someone would tell her what to do? What use was expert knowledge, the years paid out acquiring experience, if it was kept in reserve, hoarded like canned goods, while the masses stumbled about, starving and ignorant? Voicing these opinions only worsened the situation; they spent the rest of the session processing the incident, and when Dorothy returned the following week, she couldn’t find her way back, couldn’t justify not having confessed the pregnancy right away. Time had ­intervened; an innocent delay had become a falsehood. So she kept it to herself. And kept it the next week. And again the week after that. And then she “lost” the pregnancy—­misplaced it, like a keychain—­and now she thought she might keep it forever, so awful was the thought of returning to the beginning of the story, now that she was in its end.

Martin Luther thought up the “95 Theses” while he was on the toilet.

Dorothy couldn’t remember where she had read that.

She wiped, examined her fingernails, wiped again. She wiped back to front. She knew this was incorrect, but she had been doing it her whole life, and there are habits one gives up on breaking.

The toilet didn’t have an automatic flush, so Dorothy could sit for hours if she chose and never be sprayed with water. She opened her phone and scrolled back through her photos. There was an old one that she liked a great deal, of Rog playing with his brother’s dog. Rog was at peace, and the dog’s face was a rictus of joy. Rog had dumb long hair then. The dog in the photo was now dead. It had died of a mysterious ailment that manifested as a sudden explosion of tumorous growths all over its long body. Dorothy remembered stroking the dog the day before they put it under. It was like stroking a sock filled with gravel.

Dorothy did not frequent the large women’s room by the water fountain, with its row of six open-­bottomed stalls under which could be passed fistfuls of paper or whatever else a person required. She used the single-­occupancy bathroom by the critical-­theory reading room. The bathroom was large—­designed to be wheelchair accessible, though everyone used it—­and smelled faintly of disinfectant. She bent over and took from her bag a small bottle of peppermint oil and sniffed.

The handle of the bathroom door shuttled back and forth.

“I’m in here!” Dorothy called.

If she had opted for the in-­office procedure, they would have vacuumed her clean. But she had wanted to bleed at home. It had seemed less official that way. She hadn’t known how degrading the dribble would be. Dorothy was starting to fear it might never end; that until the last of her days, whenever she wiped, the tissue would come back bloody and brown. She didn’t have much experience with blood, abscesses, sores, things of that nature. She had never broken a bone or needed stitches. Once she saw a cyst explode. It happened in college. Her roommate, Alyssa, had developed a soft lump on her elbow that over several weeks expanded like a balloon being pumped with water until one afternoon she bent her arms to put her hair in a pony and streams of white confetti burst out, decorating the books, pencils, etc., on her desk, as well as her denimed lap, with foamy spray. Dorothy ran from the room in horror, but Alyssa, fascinated by the materials of the body, took photographs.

Alyssa had a “natural” approach to life. Dorothy had learned this early in their friendship, when during a wild party for spring fling they fell into an embrace. Dorothy would estimate the number of rum-­based drinks she enjoyed that evening at five. She and Alyssa kissed and groped and were soon scouring the building, whose name was Trotter, for a room with a door, pursuing like two moles the feeling of being shut in, unobservable, burrowed. The classrooms were locked, but the spacious single-­occupant bathroom on the ground floor was open.

In her memory the floor sparkled cold and blindingly white, as did the lavatory’s other features: the walls, the sink, the toilet, the light, the grout that separated and conjoined the tiles. There was a word for that, “cleaving,” for what joined together and pushed apart. Alyssa jerked down her pants, exposing a tangle of hair, and reached a hand inside. She pulled out a maroon latex cup that came to a point like a nipple. It was called, Dorothy remembered, a keeper. Hippies used them, vegans, people like that. In her drunken enthusiasm Alyssa was clumsy and spilled the blood. It left a trail like drizzled syrup on her blond leg, across the clean tiled floor. Alyssa’s reaction was merry. She tossed the cup into the sink and wiped the blood away with the cheap single-­ply toilet paper, leaving smudges everywhere, and without pausing to apologize showed Dorothy how to form her first two fingers into a rod and ram it back and forth in the place where the keeper had been, and as Dorothy did this for Alyssa she was overcome with a feeling of desolation and loneliness and fatigue. Dorothy wasn’t used to being so active, sexually speaking. She preferred lying down on something soft and warm like a bed and letting someone else do the ramming.

- About the author -

Christine Smallwood’s fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, n+1, and Vice. Her reviews, essays, and cultural reporting have been published in many magazines, including The New Yorker, Bookforum, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine, where she is a contributing writer. She has also written the “New Books” column for Harper’s Magazine, where she is a contributing editor, and been an editor at The Nation. She has a PhD in English from Columbia University, is a founding faculty member of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, and is a fellow at the New York Institute for the Humanities.

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