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Scaffolding by Lauren Elkin review – parallel lives in Paris

Scaffolding by Lauren Elkin review – parallel lives in Paris

Lauren Elkin’s first two books, Flâneuse and Art Monsters, combined rigorous and often scholarly thinking with prose that was at once agile and gorgeous. Those books’ strengths – historical understanding and a deep commitment to the life of the mind – aren’t always sufficient tools for the more playful worlds of fiction, and in some ways Scaffolding is the sort of very cerebral novel that a good essayist would write. Epigraphs from Lacan and Cixous set the scene in terms of cultural references as well as intellectual sophistication.

Scaffolding has a double narrative: two young couples living in the same apartment in north-east Paris in 1972 and 2019. Both women are psychologists contemplating motherhood: Anna in 2019 is a psychoanalyst on leave after a late miscarriage; while Florence in 1972 is hoping to conceive with her husband, Henry, who doesn’t much want a baby and isn’t consistently sure he wants a wife. French-American Anna introduces us to “the Parisian apartment I had always dreamed of living in”, imagined since childhood Christmas trips to Paris with her French mother. It has “all the indispensable Haussmannian details” and is “high enough on the hill to see all the nearby rooftops and beyond”. It would have been the scene of a sociable family life, “but then the baby didn’t come”.

In the aftermath, Anna returned to her own therapist for “a control”, “a means of verifying that the therapist has not completely lost her shit and can go on seeing patients”. Instead she had her medical leave extended, so in the time of the novel she’s at a loose end, unmoored, trying to recover normality while also questioning the nature and existence of normality. She encourages her husband, David, to take a job in London, and withdraws further into solitude, the internet and the very slow remodelling of her dated kitchen. The only real-life, real-time interaction is with her neighbour Clémentine, a student who also spends too much time home alone but has another life as an activist. Feminist slogans begin to appear on walls around Paris, howls of distress at rising rates of femicide. Anna agrees to accompany Clémentine on her night missions but doesn’t – perhaps can’t – follow through. She has lost agency to sadness.

And then we are in 1972, initially with Henry, who is off-putting (“Ask not for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for my sex life”). The joins in any artefact are the weak points, and books always risk losing readers at the moment of narrative handover, but it’s worth trusting Elkin that Henry’s eight pages of misogynist self-regard will pay off in the second half. Anna and Florence, trained to make and unmake the stories we tell ourselves, know that first-person narrative is unreliable. Henry’s lack of self-awareness is a variation on the theme of analytical, hyperarticulate narrators, and also speaks of – rather small – shifts in the power and expectations of bourgeois masculinity across half a century.

The narrative begins to dance between voices and times: Florence, Anna, Henry, five decades but one apartment, with sometimes only a line or two before we’re in another mind. All the narrators think of the prewar Jewish community in this arrondissement; all of them are dismayed by and also participating in gentrification. If you’re the kind of reader who wants to be fully oriented to time, place and person at all times, you’ll need to concentrate hard. If you’re happy for reading to be a little hallucinatory, for the themes of home and city, desire and betrayal, history and hope, to weave between voices, there’s a more instinctive pleasure in a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Scaffolding is absolutely a novel of ideas. Not much happens and plot development is mostly psychological, interior in both spatial and intellectual ways. The prose is as well crafted as Elkin’s nonfiction leads us to expect, and the characters are very finely developed. She writes beautifully about ennui, literal and metaphorical disorientation, and the love of place. Not every good essayist should write a novel, but we should be glad Lauren Elkin did.

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Source: theguardian.com