In a 2007 essay in Tricycle, Hannah Tennant-Moore wrote about the Buddha’s “Reflections on Repulsiveness.” In the “Reflections,” the Buddha advises his followers to ruminate on the very corporeality of our bodies, down to the “swollen, blue, and festering” bodies in a cemetery. This, Tennant-Moore points out, makes us “aware of all the intricate processes and parts that make up our bodies” so that “we are less likely to identify the overall image as ‘me.’ Disdain for our bodies is, in fact, born out of detachment, not identification.”
That unforgiving process of examining intimately the bare self—dismembered, grotesque, and alien—is dramatized in Tennant-Moore’s strong first novel, Wreck and Order. What, the title asks, is being wrecked and ordered? The contradictory, messy self of a young high-school dropout in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century.
Tennant-Moore’s protagonist is Elsie Shore, a richly drawn character, someone who is impulsively drawn to disaster. As reports of detainee abuse and deep crises in American institutions emerge, Elsie foregoes college and flies off to Europe. (Americans travelling abroad during the Bush regime attracted complex, often-hostile reactions, but Elsie’s travel experiences, unlike the narrator in Leaving the Atocha Station, are fairly commonplace.) She falls into a job editing a magazine in Carpinteria and then quits. Personally, she vacillates between dating a self-destructive emotionally abusive alcoholic and a stable, upper-middle-class, but emotionally withdrawn, professional. Elsie finds refuge in Sri Lanka, which she visits over several years, growing close to a family there.
Her attempts at giving meaning and purpose to her mid-20s are comically thwarted. During her disappointing trip to France, she discovers a French novel, “a monologue of unrequited love for cats, narrated by a forty-year-old bachelor who strolls the Parisian streets seeking out and caring for strays.” She spends the next few years intermittently translating the book into English, submitting the translation to publishers, and then drawering it completely.
I especially admire how the novel gracefully drifts from California to Paris to New York to Sri Lanka. The prose is strong, with threads of melancholic wit and clarity. Tennant-Moore can craft a sentence that explores all the hatched ironies and contradictions within a moment in a life:
Only now that there was, overtly, nothing wrong with spending time with Jared anywhere and anyhow I liked, did the appropriate sense of regret, guilt, and anxiety take shape, a black mass filled with swirls of electronic noises screeching at a frequency only I could hear, hovering over the bed where Jared snored, gripping my shoulders while I swiped credit cards at Barnes and Noble and asked customers if they wanted to join our frequent buyer’s club.
Wreck and Order belongs to a rich tradition of novels, deeply enthralled with how young women live now, that complicate any easy identification with their protagonists. Tennant-Moore handles Elsie’s sexual self-interrogations deftly and wittily:
I tried watching feminist porn a few times, but it only left me unsettled and sad. The loving looks, the tonguey kissing, the focus on cunnilignus (depressing that the clinical Latin term is less unappealing than the slang—carpet-muching, muff-diving—which I cannot even write without laughing.) I should have desired these things, but I did not.
On her first trip to Sri Lanka, she writes an investigative piece about the country’s history, “kept awake at night by the sad stories and disturbing images I’d spent the day robotically transcribing.” When she takes the story to her editor at the Carp Weekly, it’s accepted, pushed back several months, cleaved in half by her editor, and squeezed into a holiday issue between “a review of a Britney Spears record and a sushi bar.”
Wreck and Order succeeds at many things, but the shortcomings are obvious: the secondary characters are only there to contextualize Elsie’s rich interior life. Their dialogue is a mess of pale clichés. A boyfriend says, “Most guys don’t care about chicks until they find the one they want.” A stranger says on the street in Queens, “Hey, baby, you dropped something. My heart at first sight of that fine body of yours.”
The Sri Lankan half is less successful than the stateside sections. It is guilty of what Eudora Welty called the “Isle of Capri” problem: narrative urgency and a deep grasp of historical consequence eludes the novel. The Sri Lankans that Elsie meets are mystified abstractions, and the stakes, in the MFA verbiage, are low. When things with her adopted family become awkward, Elsie ultimately gets in a bus and moves on to the next town. Suriya, a bright doomed young girl, and her brother, Ayya, are particularly given short shrift.
Still, this is an excellent debut. Like Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, Wreck and Order has refreshing ambition without the transparent self-seriousness of what critics usually call “ambitious debuts.” There are pages of limpid, prescient prose worth rereading. Tennant-Moore writes with perfect pitch about low-wage life, personal frustration, international travel, meditation, emotional crises, and going forward where the footing is uncertain.
John Yargo is a writer and teacher living in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Follow him @GiveUsThisNada.