In the afterword to her dizzying new novel, “Life Is Everywhere,” Lucy Ives cites a long and heterogeneous list of artistic influences. Two names in particular, Herman Melville and Georges Perec, shed light on her own ambitions. Like Melville with his whaling vessel or Perec with his Parisian apartment complex, Ives, in her novel, attempts the impossible task of building a set in which every emotional and physical detail is noted and accounted for. “Life Is Everywhere” holds out the hope that the novel might be a home to which everything belongs. At the same time, it illuminates the ways in which such novels operate like families unto themselves, absorbing so much apparent dysfunction while maintaining the illusion that all of their parts constitute a happy—or at least a believable—whole.
There’s a convenient marriage in “Life Is Everywhere” between content and form, but that’s where the happiness ends. Its books-within-books conceit is twisty and treacherous, and taken together its many stories read like an encyclopedia whose every entry is at its heart a story of intimate betrayal. Narratives of intractable family conflict abound, especially ones that involve adultery. To gloss just a few entries: a graduate student at a university lies in torpor under the desk of her professor with whom she’s been having an affair; a child named Hamlet plots the demise of her parents; an unfaithful husband jokes with his wife and daughter about Harvey Weinstein. The only section of “Life Is Everywhere” in which I could not detect these dynamics at play was in the book’s first few pages, which are about the history of botulism.
The history lesson dispensed with, we find ourselves in a classroom in New York City where a graduate-level French-translation seminar is in session. Two professors have been subbed in after the course’s original instructor, Roger Herbsweet, took leave pending a sexual-harassment scandal on campus. (It’s his desk the student is found under.) As the lesson progresses, there’s a sense that students and teachers are complicit in their desire for a seamless transition of power that will preserve the well-being of their institution. The regrettable impropriety is already in the process of being kept in the family, a wound closed with a kiss. Multiple people at the university conceive of Herbsweet’s student as a “piece of office furniture” herself. One of the professors, Isobel Childe, lets her thoughts drift to Balzac’s 1834 novel “The Duchess of Langeais,” a failed-seduction plot that involves kidnapping (already you begin to see why it didn’t work out), from which Isobel gleans, “There is always a fine line . . . between submission and enthusiasm.” This bit of sophistry encapsulates just as well the pedagogical methods on display in her classroom: intimidation, hierarchy, scarcity. These encourage the hoarding and preening of a largely topiary language that can do little aside from signal class, be beautiful, and inhibit certain views.
Erin Adamo, our hero, is among the students, although she finds the affair difficult to stomach, characterizing her inability to sympathize with Herbsweet as “a mental tightness, like trying to push a beanbag under a reasonably well-made door (a shut door).” In any case, she has more pressing matters to attend to, namely, the recent discovery of her husband’s serial infidelity, and, more immediately, dinner with her status-driven parents in upper Manhattan. Their anxieties seem to penetrate the story’s omniscient narration: “Although [Erin] was increasingly a source of tragic disappointment where her parents were concerned, at least she was enrolled in a degree-granting program.” Erin, who is long practiced in warding off feelings, prioritizing her intellect instead (at least this is what she tells herself), accepts the startling course her life has taken in the wake of her husband’s betrayal, but is otherwise numb. “It felt like it was hers, this situation,” writes Ives. “It pertained overwhelmingly and exclusively to her, a fate or chemical patterns. She was afraid in a low, ambient way, but she was not struck by terror because she had arrived at that which belonged to her and to which she belonged.”
There’s an encouraging, matter-of-fact drumbeat to Ives’s prose. It’s a style that, much like Erin’s coping mechanism, keeps emotional profundity carefully taxonomized, and therefore at bay, producing for the reader instead a mesmeric hunger for the text itself. The effect is maintained as we step away from Erin’s narrative and peer into her bag, which contains a novel and a novella by Erin, a book by Herbsweet about the life of a French author, a page from a professor’s manuscript (found on the floor), and an unpaid utility bill. “Life Is Everywhere” doesn’t depict a hero’s journey so much as a hero’s rucksack. This form takes inspiration from Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1986 essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction,” in which she proposes that—rather than a bone that bashes or a spear that pierces—a novel is best imagined as a trusty bag that accommodates and holds on to morsels of daily life. In Ives’s interpretation of Le Guin’s theory, the bag is already inside a story. It’s a shelter within a shelter, a door that closes in a home resounding with argument.
Erin’s novella is a riff on “Hamlet,” a play whose action is set in motion by the presumption of an incestuous infidelity. (“Frailty, thy name is woman!”) The presumption is founded, not altogether well, on the word of a ghost. In Erin’s version, Hamlet is a preteen girl who tells her friend Amethyst, the narrator, fantastic tales of the adventures they’d have if Hamlet’s parents suddenly died. The fantasy is a poorly disguised wish. Her parents bicker constantly; it’s “like watching a fake swordfight.” Herbsweet’s research into the fictional novella writer Démocrite Charlus LeGouffre includes a brief history of courtesans in nineteenth-century Paris, who, he argues, realized an increasingly formalized social status as the “love-marriage,” and the sanctity of the private domestic sphere, rose in importance. Hints of this subject matter—of marriage and a woman’s “place”—resonate in the book’s acknowledgments, where Herbsweet thanks his “enviably capable wife” for typing up this “flawless manuscript copy.”
But the true pièce de résistance is Erin’s novel, which contains “Life Is Everywhere” ’s most fully realized, compelling, and suffocating adultery plot. Immediately, it feels like a story recognizable as Erin’s own, or one that resembles what we’ve so far been told about her. There’s a marriage that ended after the protagonist learned that her husband had cheated on her for years; there are also dispiriting professional obligations, parents who seem lost on the surface of their lives (in this narrative, the father also covertly sleeps around), and New York City. In one of those intertextual winks that you’ll either reciprocate or roll your eyes at, the narrator’s former husband, Cody, a visual artist, keeps a bag of his own on his desk. This is back when they’re still living together. The bag, unlike the one this novel is being ferried around in, is labelled “PRIVATE.” One day, the narrator takes a peek, and finds it’s loaded with “standard issue” pornography. She wonders whether the bag will one day wind up in one of Cody’s exhibitions.
Woven throughout Erin’s novel is an extended meditation on hypergraphia, a writing compulsion that’s immense and irrepressible. Our narrator warns us not to think of it as a genius’s disease, although certain artists come up, like the German minimalist Hanne Darboven, who practiced a contentless, “nonhierarchical”-loop form of writing many hours a day. Another artist associated with the affliction, but whose sensibility couldn’t have been more different, was Balzac, who doused his intestines with caffeine while writing ultra-hierarchical tales of the relations that money, venality, and devotion bring about. The narrator’s grandmother also perhaps labored under this propensity, filling her home and then her hospice room with piles of used yellow legal pads. The narrator herself has a horror of writing, as if it were an inherited defect. She claims not to do it at all.