Books editor Claire Mabey reviews the stunning new novel from Thomasin Sleigh, published by Lawrence & Gibson, one of the most interesting indie presses in Aotearoa.
Once upon a time at the University of Otago you could get a degree in art history. I am the recipient of one such relic and along the way I remember having my young mind blown in a lecture on a famous painting by René Magritte called The Treachery of Images. It’s the painting of a pipe (the kind you smoke) with the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”) written underneath it. The idea is that neither the image nor the words are in fact a pipe, but the representation of one. And that relationship – between word and image, sign and actual thing – is called semiotics. Inter-semiotics (the relationship between types of signs, like words and images) can quickly descend into a merry art-wank style of conversation (art wank being a term brilliantly and cheekily employed by MONA) but it is, nevertheless, extremely relevant to our lives.
We are living in a glut of representation: every day millions of images are uploaded and dispersed. But what would happen if you suddenly disappeared from it all? If there was a you-shaped gap in all your photos, videos, hard copy and otherwise? What if it also happened to your family? Your friends? What would the world look like with such absences? What if you were un-recordable?
These are the questions that churn in Thomasin Sleigh’s novel The Words For Her, because this is exactly what happens. As people start to disappear from images, society as we know it begins to erode and implode. On an initial reading you might suggest that Sleigh’s book is a lengthy comment on the aggressive hold that social media has on us. Or as the “her” in the title of the novel puts it: “‘People have forgotten to do normal stuff without taking photos. It’s all gone wrong.” And the novel is about that, but it’s also a thrilling journey that takes in a whole lot more.
Sleigh’s previous work (her novels, but also the extensive art writing) are signs that we are in for an intellectual exercise. However, her approach with The Words For Her is to first ground us in a world so normal it’s almost banal. Jodie lives in Whakatāne. She is a single mum to Jade. She works in a mill and lives close to her Dad, who is blind (important), her Mum and her sinister brother, Guy. Money is tight, her ex is a loser, and her best friend Miri has gone somewhere. The hyper-banality is reflected in the spare, plain language (for example, the words “stuff” and “or whatever” are used often): Sleigh is extremely careful with words.
The setup, like Charlie Brooker’s TV anthology Black Mirror, works to dig us deep into the lives and concerns of everyday people. At first it has nothing to do with art. But it is fruitful to think of Sleigh the writer as something of a photographer or cinematographer: using words to take snapshots of normal, regular things to make them appear singular, beautiful, strange, astounding. To capture them in a certain light, action, angle. There is a horror to this: the reminder that extraordinarily off things happen to regular people in regular, even boring (that word is used 11 times in the novel) places.
Black Mirror does this time and time again: each episode takes a familiar scenario and then flips it by pushing the limits of technology, and human nature, to surprising, often sickening, degrees. The work of those stories is to show us some new and dastardly possibility of what we’re actively pursuing through this industry of social media and voracious content production and consumption.
Sleigh’s novel operates within the same rules. When people start disappearing from photos and other visual media like TV/video, regular, boring life is slowly but emphatically disrupted. And through the lens of the artist’s world we are jolted into considering the consequences of the way we are living now, in this real one.
I have to admit at this point that there was a moment or two early in the novel where I did struggle with the conceit. Specifically when children ask if it hurts to become a “gap” (as the disappeared are called throughout the book). I couldn’t quite buy it to start with: my initial response was to think “would they really respond to it in terms of physical harm?”
One of the primary concerns in Sleigh’s novel is image-making as memory. When babies, in the novel, are born as “gaps” a hysterical note is sounded. There is TV footage of parents mourning as if their children have been born without a soul. At first it felt to me like the author was pushing things too hard. Would it not be a sort of relief if your baby was born free from the habit of relentless capture? About the time I was questioning this I went to check on my child. He’d fallen asleep in one of those miraculous poses that only children can pull off. I took a photo knowing I’d never remember if I didn’t have the record. That’s when it occurred to me how devastated I would be if I lost it all. All of the photos, all the videos.
My memory is appalling: I have to work very hard to recall the baby I once had, the toddler, the four-year-old. The several thousand images I have made of him are a way to graft his life to mine: they commemorate the boy he once was as he changes almost before my eyes. I suddenly understood what Sleigh was getting at, why the parents in the novel are so terrified of their child-gap and why characters might wonder about physical pain.
So, how might society cope if photography and film were lost to us as ways to commemorate and remember and witness? As the world in the novel descended into a chaos, in real life a Teju Cole article magically popped up (in that creepy way that forces you to suspect that your phone is spying on your mind) as a suggested read on my Instagram feed. Cole writes, “Photography is inescapably a memorial art. It selects, out of the flow of time, a moment to be preserved, with the moments before and after falling away like sheer cliffs. […] But when the photograph outlives the body — when people die, scenes change, trees grow or are chopped down — it becomes a memorial. And when the thing photographed is a work of art or architecture that has been destroyed, this effect is amplified even further. A painting, sculpture, or temple, as a record of both human skill and emotion, is already a site of memory; when its only remaining trace is a photograph, that photograph becomes a memorial to a memory. Such a photograph is shadowed by its vanished ancestor.”
This is the atmosphere of The Words for Her: that the gaps are suffering an erasure not just now but in the future. That without the ability to be captured they are unable to be memorialised. Like they were never there. Sleigh could have left that atmosphere there on the page to unsettle, and make us scramble to back up our photos. But because she is an extraordinarily clever thinker, she goes a step further.
On page 145 of the book (about halfway) there is a conversation between Jodie and her mother who is the genealogist in the family. Her habit has been to wade through “old newspapers and stuff” in the Whakatāne Library to find information and stories about people in their family tree. Jodie’s mum says: “it’s so awful you know, these women, going, because they’re already so hard to find. […] “Women didn’t get to sign documents, or get loans from the bank, or really be, in the written record. So, they’re that much harder to track, to find out about. It’s a real pain. Men are in the reports, in the news, in property deals. […] And it’s got me thinking, with the going, that, in the future, all these women who have only just become part of the picture, will disappear again, be lost.”
On my desk is a new, hefty book called Through Shaded Glass: women in photography in Aotearoa between 1860 – 1960 by Lissa Mitchell. In the book, Mitchell presents evidence of many, many women in photography but in an interview about her research she says, “It is very challenging to locate information about women as they were not part of many official records at this time. Often unless something exceptional or tragic happened to them it can be hard to find out more about them.”
Not only does The Words For Her interrogate our present, it also makes a strong point about the past and the very real and ongoing struggle that record keeping has always been for certain groups. This aspect of the story recalled one of my favourite books of recent years: Irish writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s memoir A Ghost in the Throat. In the book, Ní Ghríofa excavates the life of Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill, a scarcely remembered writer of one of the most famous poems in Irish literature. The practise of the book is to call Eibhlín up with words, describing imagined scenes in her life but also recording the process that Ní Ghríofa went through in order to at least partially see her (painstaking archival research in which she affirms that women are written out of records because the stuff of a woman’s life (back then) was hardly ever considered worthy of remembering).
This struggle is a sustained tension within Sleigh’s story: on the one hand our hyper-documented lives promise a kind of void if it all falls away, and on the other that documentation is always a political act. Who has access to being recorded/remembered and what gaps might that leave? What problems might that inequity cause in the future?
Sleigh draws up side-plots that illuminate this woman-shaped loss: Jodie and her best friend Miri both have to free themselves from relationships with aggressive, useless men. Right from the start there is an air of threat, not just from the chaos of people disappearing, but from the tensions in the domestic scenes. We are spared any overt violence but it is always implied: Jodie suspects someone has been in her house; Miri is so scared of her boyfriend that she wants to disappear so he can’t see her. The tone reminded me strongly of They: A Sequence of Unease by Kay Dick, a masterful 1970s dystopia rediscovered and republished last year. Dick’s series of interconnected short stories are about a sly, destructive force (“They”) that destroys art and culture: the artefacts and the people.
In Sleigh’s world, the violence isn’t contained to the domestic. As more and more people disappear, a mass panic awakens: people start to take photos of each other to test whether they’re encountering a “gap” or a “present”; an evangelical movement takes off amassing a following of “gaps”; countries embark on a race to work out whether the phenomenon is genetic, contagious, and if there’s a cure. The Words For Her is a pandemic novel that mirrors our now collective experience: the “movements” that separate one group from the other (like vaxxed and unvaxxed), lockdowns, police presence, looting, the exploitation, the swiftness of it all.
The real twist in the novel isn’t the disappearing or the mass hysteria or the collapse of society. It’s Jodie. It’s clear from the first pages that we’re reading her own book. That she’s actively putting the words down on the page as a way to “see” her daughter and what has happened. And it does read, astonishingly, like we’re stepping into the realm of a sort of antidote to death. That the words are trying to revive, record, make real. Like René Magritte did way back when art history was real, The Words For Her kind of blew my mind. It’s an exercise in making us think about semiotics: about how words are images and how they too can memorialise, commemorate and illuminate. What are written records if not ways to see?
Over the course of her writing Jodie confesses things to us. She’s vague at first but we learn that Jodie notices the “boring” things. She can articulate them with words and in doing so can “colour” the world for her blind father. This is where that semiotics stuff comes into its own: in the book, Jodie is some kind of witch of semiotics. I’ll leave you to read the novel to find out what that means but it impacts everything.
The lingering question for me is whether The Words For Her is a dystopia or not. Is Sleigh offering a nightmare or a necessary breakdown of the treachery of the image? A way to redistribute power across the signs: shifting away from image and towards the written word, which may help us see the normal, boring things in our own lives, with our own eyes, and be satisfied with the words for them.
I always admire writers and artists who have a focus. A subject. It gives their work the robust sense of the intrepid: like you’re in the hands of a creative who has gathered the equipment to burst onto a new frontier because they’ve doggedly mapped what already exists and so they have located an edge, a chink. The Words For Her shares the same preoccupations as Sleigh’s first two novels (Ad Lib, Women in the Field: One, and Two): visual art, women versus the patriarchy, motherhood, and the ways in which image-making is co-opted as a power tool by social and political forces. But in this book she’s mapping something quite new. And I think someone should get Charlie Brooker on the line because this would make a much better episode of Black Mirror than almost all of the stories in the recent series.