Where do we go from here?
By FRÍÐA ÍSBERG
Sarah Moss recently read from and discussed her new novel, The Tidal Zone (reviewed in the TLS of July 29), with her editor, Max Porter, at the London Review Bookshop. The book is about a stay-at-home dad whose daughter, at the beginning of the story, has a cardiac arrest; this results in a "narrative breakdown", as Moss describes it.
The psychological approach to narrative has become a popular subject in academia during the past two decades. Narrative is something fundamental to the self; it's an onward movement, but also a constructive process for memories and identity. It is the story, but also the telling. Having read the book, I wasn't all that surprised that Moss, an academic who completed a PhD in Romantic poetry, was preoccupied with the concept. "When you get sick," she said, "you go to the doctor." But the father's predicament is that he and his daughter have already been sent home from the doctor. There is no logical next step, no recipe to use: "I watched the monitor as if, eventually, I would learn from it what plot we were following". Moss wanted to capture the "beauty of ruinness" that comes with the failure of narrative – adding, "you can do that to sentences".
The discussion moved to national identity, which is also a kind of narrative. Moss taught at the University of Iceland in 2009, soon after the economic crisis, and saw how Iceland woke up a new country, betrayed and alienated, and therefore forced to reconstruct its identity (and consequently its narrative). The same is now happening in Britain after Brexit, Moss pointed out. Our inaction towards the refugee and war crisis is, in a way, a narrative breakdown. We are cooking our dinner at home when a bomb explodes on television and a Syrian citizen shouts: "Where is the world?" And we are completely at a loss. We don‘t know a next step. We, like The Tidal Zone‘s protagonist, have to reconcile our lives to the new information, and somehow work our way on from there.