Not every plot is a marriage plot—although the case can be made that novelistic plot is very difficult to extricate from the conceit of marriage. E. M. Forster famously defined “the king died and then the queen died of grief” as the prototype of plot itself. Since Forster, countless critics and scholars have charted the importance of the “marriage plot” to the Anglo-American novel, from Samuel Richardson through Jane Austen and up to the present day. Jeffery Eugenides even named a novel after it.
But must the novel as a form always stand in the shadow of the institution of marriage? In her review of Curtis Sittenfeld’s new Jane Austen reboot, Eligible, Anna E. Clark concludes by suggesting that the novel “leaves us with the sense we don’t yet have satisfying narratives for women’s lives as they exist apart from marriage” and that “we should look beyond the horizon of matrimonial choice” to uncover new narrative forms. “Once you say no to the marriage plot,” she asks, “what new strictures—what new possibilities—appear?” Yet many contemporary female writers have responded to this very question, examining a social world in which heterosexual marriage has lost its symbolic central position. Take for example two recent nonfiction books, Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City and Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, which take as their subject the feme sole, the single woman who is in control of her own fate, whether by choice or by circumstance. But it is in fiction that the marriage plot really unravels—the breakup of a marriage serving as the necessary precondition for the novels’ experimentation with form.
The primary events, such as they are, of Sheila Heti’s 2012 novel How Should a Person Be? follow the dissolution of the protagonist Sheila’s marriage early on in the book. Deeply unhappy and filled with dread, Sheila silently repeats the same violent mantra over and over: “Punch yourself through a brick wall, punch yourself through a brick wall.” Then, one evening, Sheila recounts, “I saw what the brick wall was: my marriage,” and later that night she turns to her husband and announces she cannot be with him anymore. What follows is a brainy, and sometimes maddeningly aleatory, chronicle of the friendship and conceptual art projects of Sheila, her visual-artist friend Margaux and a few others. Anything like a conventional novelistic plot seems as beside the point—or perhaps as impossible and unsustainable—as Sheila’s marriage had been.
Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, somewhat comparably, proceeds through a sequence of loosely linked observations, anecdotes, mordant jokes, numbered lists and literary citations, eventually revealing itself as a novel of marital breakdown and separation. One senses that Offill adopted the collaged form of her text precisely in order best to relate the dislocation and uneasy freedom following the breakup of a contemporary marriage: “General notes: If the wife becomes unwived, what should she be called? Will the story have to be rewritten? There is a time between being a wife and being a divorcée, but no good word for it. Maybe say what a politician might say. Stateless person. Yes, stateless.” To be “unwived” is to be something of an exile, but as Offill and Heti’s books both show, there is freedom in this dislocation. Their characters throw out the old script of their lives and start writing one anew.
More than one commentator has compared Offill’s book to the elliptical cult novels of Renata Adler, Speedboat and Pitch Dark, published in 1976 and 1983 respectively. These novels, recently reissued by NYRB Classics, have been celebrated for both their portrayals of intelligent, autonomous women and their unconventional narrative style. Pathbreaking as they were, Speedboat and Pitch Dark are not sui generis, and share certain qualities with a cluster of other works by female writers from the Seventies and Eighties: Joan Didion’s novels, especially Play It as It Lays, Susan Sontag’s short fictions in I, etcetera, and Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights. All of these writers were known better for journalism and criticism than for their fiction, a fact that points to some of the generic porousness of their books. They make a point of moving away from traditional plot-driven fictional narrative to something else much less teleological, incorporating techniques of collage, fragmentation and free association. They evince a willingness not only to broach or flout conventional boundaries between fiction and memoir but also to render in the implied autobiographical resonances an element of larger authorial self-presentation. And in all of these books, a seemingly autofictional protagonist—one whom we guess is more or less based upon the author herself—explores the largely unattached life of a single or divorced woman in the city.
These novels reached towards alternatives to conventional plots and plottedness, in an effort to give shape to the experience of “female bachelor.” For these writers, conventional plot seemed fatally associated with domesticity, with the spaces, forms, vocabulary and temporality of marriage and the married couple’s home. In contradistinction to the staid narratives of married life, these texts offer experimental representations of a new kind of life, a more or less feminist, more or less urban-bohemian existence. To adopt the title of another Vivian Gornick book, we might say that in these fragmentary, exploratory texts, we see an announcement of the End of the Novel of Love.
Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights offers one especially memorable attempt to explore the mid-to-late twentieth-century female bohemian existence disassociated from the strictures of married life. The book’s central concern is the lives of what Hardwick defines as the “loosely connected persons” of the New York City world she inhabited as a young woman and recent transplant from Kentucky. These are “persons” and not characters: in this novel-memoir almost no one aside from a few historical figures and the narrator herself is named (though we take the narrator, “Elizabeth,” to be some version of Hardwick). She sometimes steps back and assesses them with a distancing eye:
Most of [the people at the Hotel Schuyler] were failures, but they lived elated by unreal hopes, ill-considered plans. … Undomestic, restless, unreliable, changeable, disloyal. They were not spinsters, but divorcees, not bachelors but seedy bon vivants, deserters from family life, alimony, child support … The Hotel Schuyler is gone now. Uncertain elevators, dusty “penthouse” suites, the greasy, smoking ovens of “housekeeping units,” the lumpy armchairs—a distracted life … The irregular tenants were most pitiful when they received visits from relatives, from their ex-wives, their grown children. They walked about sheepishly then, as if they had met with an accident. Soon the disappointed sons and daughters left, wives went back home, and at the Schuyler, free once again, our people returned to their debaucheries.
Hardwick, who lived for some time at the Hotel Schuyler, at once does and does not include herself among these she describes. She feels sorry for these “failures,” and yet she clearly recognizes them as kindred spirits, since she too is “loosely connected,” the protagonist of a “distracted” and an “irregular” life, a deserter from the stabilizing structures of family. The larger rebellion and unconventionality is sketched out in the very floor plans of these hotel apartments, which allow “the sharing of premises, premises laid out in these hotels with a brilliant economy that could make of strangers a mock family and turn a family into strangers.”
Hardwick also lives for a while in one of the “rooming houses near Columbia.” There she finds a slightly different species of unconnected person. The working women who lived in these “houses with their separate rooms and communal kitchens … were talkative and yet evasive in the extreme. From many rooming houses they had gathered their expertise. … what the rooming house represented for these persons, who had been in the same job for years, was the fear of the rental lease, of the acquisition of furniture.” Presenting a distinctly gendered vision of a marginal bohemia, Hardwick considers the opportunities and challenges facing any woman who attempts to live in the same manner as a male artist or intellectual who has turned away from domestic family life. In one passage, she alludes to her own divorce from Robert Lowell:
I am alone here in New York, no longer a we. Years, decades even, passed. Then one is out of the commonest of plurals, out of the strange partnership that begins as a flat, empty plain and soon turns into a town of rooms and garages, little grocery stores in the pantry, dress shops in the closets, and a bank with your names printed together for the transaction of business.
I often think about bachelors. A life of pure decision, of thoughtful calculations, of every inclination honored. They go about on their own, nicely accompanied in their singularity by the companion of possibility. For cannot any man, young or old, rich or poor, turn a few corners and bump into marriage?
Hardwick seems also to be considering, in effect, the lot of this new generation of female bachelors. She is well aware of the precariousness of some of the lives of the single women she lives among, as in her description of a former neighbor and a neighborhood bag lady: “The two women do not know what they look like, do not see their lives, and so they wander about in their dreadful freedom like old oxen left behind, totally unprovided for.” But in Sleepless Nights Hardwick also depicts the exhilaration and joy of life as a woman and artist in New York City—the unconventional living arrangements and rapidly dissolving and reassembling personal ties. Her idiosyncrasy and open-minded approach to social arrangements carries over into her writing, which, as Geoffrey O’Brien observes, “often finds its resolution not in a full stop but a question mark.”
In what is probably the most justly famous section of Sleepless Nights, Hardwick considers the singer Billie Holiday, a woman who embodies, in the book, the possibility of a female artistic life of radical, almost frightening, unconventionality and absolute rejection of domesticity. “Never was any woman less a wife or mother, less attached; not even a daughter could she easily appear to be,” Hardwick writes: “All of her living places were temporary in the purest meaning of the term.” Hardwick describes her admiringly as a changeling with a totally undomesticated spirit: “Somehow she had retrieved from darkness the miracle of pure style. That was it. Only a fool imagined that it was necessary to love a man, love anyone.” Holiday embodies the freedom and stylishness available to those who dare to live in a state of radical non-attachment—a style that Hardwick attempts to model both in her prose and in the structure of the book. Sleepless Nights becomes an attempt to replicate, not so much Billie Holiday’s music, but the tone and effect of her life, the sense of reckless possibility in severing ties, living in a state of radical disconnection that might feel either like dreadful or exhilarating freedom. In its loosely linked, episodic series of descriptions, aphoristic declarations and essayistic reflection, the book turns itself into something like the Hotel Schuyler, or the women’s rooming houses: a space of occasionally melancholy disconnection, but also of thrilling openness and independence.