Somewhere north of forty a woman stops being allowed to be the heroine of any story, even her own. She may be cast as the mother, the wise crone, the determined survivor of drink, disease, or other tribulations but there must be an archetypal role to secure her place in the foreground, because (unlike her ageless male counterpart) she in her sagging subjectivity is not enough. We all know by now that the starring role is reserved for the ingénue, right?
Enter Deborah Levy at the exact velocity required to make her silk dressing gown furl out behind her. A playwright before she was a novelist, Levy’s a creature of the footlights, most at home making a grand spectacle, and The Cost of Living is a one-woman show performed with a hot side-eye to the cheap seats. Following fast on the heels of her latest novel, the critically-acclaimed Hot Milk, and covering a period of great transition in her life, the book is the second volume in a projected trilogy of memoirs about writing and womanhood begun in Things I Don’t Want to Know.
By putting herself in the foreground, Levy claims the attention traditionally reserved for the ingénue, but hedges her bets by borrowing a few ingénues for supporting roles – a plucky writing student, an intriguing foreign academic – and by strewing their stories liberally among her own, she stretches the memoir to cover more of womanhood. The book opens with a conversation she overheard in the Caribbean between a boorish man she dubs ‘The Big Silver’ and a much younger woman (a scene tasting so strongly of Hot Milk, a surgical exploration of female power and sexuality set in a seaside resort, that it could be an outtake.) The woman tells a strange, revealing story while the Big Silver makes dismissive comments and ogles her breasts: ‘It had not occurred to him that she might not consider herself to be the minor character and him the major character. In this sense, she had unsettled a boundary, collapsed a social hierarchy, broken with the usual rituals.’
That kind of boundary unsettling is what I think Levy is attempting with this book. And while I applaud her aims, The Cost of Living is a maddening object. There is so much brilliance here in Levy’s lucid, confident prose and that unfailingly sharp eye for the symbolic potentialities of a chance encounter. And it’s a pleasure to follow her exquisitely-stocked mind around its digressive ruminations, leaping from Heidegger to Duras to Ziggy Stardust. But ultimately it felt safe, like a missed opportunity.
Marketed as a kind of divorce memoir, this production might appeal to literary fiction readers who delight in intrigue, highbrow gossip and real-life drama, but they will be disappointed. Unlike Rachel Cusk in Aftermath, who served it all forth without a blink, Levy allows the uncomfortable blank on the other side of the aisle a polite distance. Instead, she focuses on the day-to-day travails of her changing life – divorce at 50, leaving the family home and starting a new life as a single mother to teenage daughters. There is struggle. She struggles to move two huge stone plant pots from the mature garden of the family home onto the balcony of her new flat in North London. She paints her bedroom walls bright yellow, decides they’re too loud and repaints. She struggles to write in the flat – yes, A Room of One’s Own – so arranges to rent a garden writer’s shed from an eccentric London friend. ‘It is there that I would begin to write in the first person, using an ‘I’ that is close to myself and yet not myself.’
The shed’s cold, but fortunately her friend has a portable gas heater in the style of a Provenҫal wood-burning stove that she isn’t using. More struggle ensues: now the shed’s roasting, and she has to wear summer clothes to write. At this point I had to take a break and go re-read Garments Against Women, Anne Boyer’s brilliant work of lyric prose about being a single mother writing in poverty, which I’d recommend as a cooling corrective if anyone else finds themselves getting steamed up in Deborah’s shed. In Boyer’s tired succession of low-rent Midwest apartment complexes, ‘we get only slivers of the self-directed life.’
Writing good personal narrative hinges on making connections which are startling and true –challenging work to sustain for a project of this length or form. In a less overtly cohesive essay collection there would perhaps be more room for risk, but here a novelish arc of difficulty, search for meaning and redemption is imposed upon the work as a whole. I wanted it to be messier, slower, more ambiguous. Too often, Levy spells things out (‘I have stopped thinking about why I am obsessed with birds but it might be something to do with death and renewal’) and moves briskly on, leaving the reader with her hands in her pockets kicking a can down the street.
Levy’s is a book fashioned for the age of #MeToo, which boldly sets its sights on ‘a new way of writing about femininity’, beyond the version ‘written by men and performed by women… the exhausted phantom that still haunted the early twenty-first century’. There are men here, but mostly they’re variations of the uber-entitled Big Silver. An encounter with one of his incarnations at a literary soiree echoed the pivotal scene in Rebecca Solnit’s seminal Mansplaining essay a hair too closely for me; at this cultural moment, anecdotes of talked-over womanhood are cathartic and legion, but what’s next? As feminist writing, this feels more like an exposition of the recent past than a provocative and truly challenging incursion into a radical new future for women and men.
When Levy’s story veers into coping with her mother’s illness and death, the book seems to lose steam and become more repetitive. It is most effective as a work interrogating self-transformation by one in the throes of it, and I wish Levy had narrowed her focus on this, turned inwards, dug deeper, challenged herself – and us – more. ‘I had to decide who I was and then convince everyone at the party that was who I was, but unfortunately in this phase, I was whistling in the dark,’ she writes. ‘I had to survive my losses and find some rituals to celebrate them.’ Perhaps writing this book is the ritual she found, and we readers have been assembled in order to be convinced, along with the author, that she is who she presents herself to be.
Kate Feld is the editor of The Real Story. She writes essays, poetry, short fiction and work that sits between forms. Her writing has appeared in journals and anthologies including Hotel, The Stinging Fly, minor literature[s] and The Letters Page. She lectures in Journalism at Salford University.