The Life of the Mind
The Life of the Mind
The debut novel from American book critic Christine Smallwood begins with Dorothy six days after her miscarriage, which she considers “less than a trauma and more than an inconvenience”. Like everything that happens to her, the adjunct professor of English in New York City who has no hope of finding a permanent position observes the events of her life with detached interest. The Life of the Mind is a darkly funny 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.
Tell us about the title of the novel in relation to your character and her job in academia, and whether it is also a direct reference to Hannah Arendt.
Dorothy is an adjunct professor of English literature who miscarries a pregnancy just before the novel begins. I intended the title as an ironic reference to the idea of the academic life, as a comment on the narration of the book, which follows Dorothy’s thoughts closely, and as a reference to the miscarriage. Some people have told me that they think it’s a joke about the mind-body split, which sounds right to me. I’ve read Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, but I wasn’t thinking of it when I wrote or titled my book. In fact, I didn’t even remember Arendt having a book called The Life of the Mind until my book was in galleys. That said, books exceed whatever meaning the author intends, so if someone wants to connect the two, I’m all for it.
Nihilistic and emotionally detached female characters seem to be an emerging type of protagonist. The Life of the Mind also has very detailed descriptions of the female body, notably Dorothy’s miscarriage. Why do you think this type of female complexity is coming to the fore in literature now and what are some of your favourite examples of it?
I wouldn’t describe Dorothy as nihilistic or emotionally detached. I think she cares deeply and is struggling to receive care from others. She’s not cynical; she is in mourning for a future that she cannot have. That said, I appreciate that I am part of a generation and my book will inevitably reflect some shared sensibility. I hadn’t read Halle Butler’s novels before I wrote mine, but I think that The Life of the Mind is in conversation with Jillian and The New Me.
Through losing her pregnancy before deciding if she wants a baby Dorothy is denied the choice of whether to become a mother. How does this affect her specifically and were you thinking about access to abortion, which seems particularly pertinent now in the wake of the Texas abortion law?
Dorothy miscarries before she has had a chance to decide if she will terminate the pregnancy or not. This causes her to experience a specific kind of loss – the loss of agency. The conditions of her work already make her feel contingent and ghostly, as if she lacks autonomy, and the miscarriage exacerbates those feelings. As a human being, I am very concerned about reproductive rights, but those concerns about legal access don’t play out in the novel.
The book begins with an ending, but Dorothy reflects that she doesn’t know when the pregnancy actually ended. Elsewhere in the novel she senses she’s at the end of something, but isn’t sure what. She teaches a literature class about the apocalypse. What were you exploring with this theme and are you distrustful of linear narratives?
I’m not necessarily distrustful of linear narratives, but in this book I decided to see what would happen if I put the end (the miscarriage) at the beginning. What happens after the end? When does an end actually end? What is an ending, anyway? And more broadly, what does it mean to live at a time when everything feels like it’s ending, but nothing ever ends?
Dorothy is an adjunct professor and much of her discontent comes from the precarity of her position. At one point she says: “Everyone said that to increase my standard of living, all I had to do was follow my dreams”. Is there something unique about her generation – who were often told this growing up before the financial crash, but who have come into an insecure job and housing market as adults? Or is her situation specific to academia?
I do not think that Dorothy’s situation is specific to academia. It’s possible to read her as exemplary of a generational condition – growing up with a belief in American prosperity, with a sense of the future being assured, and yet coming of age in a time of financial crisis, reduced social safety net, precarity, and climate crisis. But her situation is also specific to herself: the unique way that she has internalised the lessons of her childhood, her particular dreams and disappointments, her own sense of shame, how she is coping with the loss of faith in her profession. People have told me that Dorothy is a symptom, but she is also a character.
You have a PhD in English lit and you’ve worked as a literary critic. How do you detach yourself from your own criticism to be able to write freely, and how do you cope receiving criticism yourself?
I don’t cope well with being criticised. Does anyone?
Though just published in the UK, The Life of the Mind was published in March in the US. Are you working on another novel?
I am not currently writing another novel, though I hope to eventually.