This slim book is a satire on the New York literary scene which utilises meta-fiction, magic-realism and a sense of dream-like whimsy to great effect. Depicting a cross-section of literary life in 1970s Manhattan through the eyes of a young writer, the novella opens as a comedy of manners with a touch of satire.
The writer in question is Lucinella and she is attending a writer’s retreat at Yaddo with a range of famous and not so famous writers and critics, who spend most of their time trying not to read anyone else’s work and relishing each other’s misfortunes.
When the group return to the City, they mingle at soirees and symposiums where the power dynamics of the literary world play out. Lucinella begins to date a fellow writer, everyone is trying to get their work published in the hip literary magazine called The Magazine and they all keep attending parties that they hate being at.
“Saul Mailer is supposed to be here. Why does one come to these wretched things?” he asks and his eyes quicken in recognition even as I have that déjà-vu feeling of déjà-vu as I answer, “In case it is the right one.”
But rather than unfolding as a witty satire of self-obsessed creatives (which it is), Lucinella eschews its initial realism to embrace a more fantastical atmosphere. At one party, Lucinella chats to a woman and explains her theory that guests are all holding bottomless buckets to keep compliments in, buckets that can never be filled. The woman agrees with her theory and then holds out a bucket to receive a compliment. At another party, a scathing literary critic literally makes writers disappear from the room just by telling Lucinella what he thinks of their work. The most famous writer among Lucinella’s peers is an actual God – Zeus – with whom she embarks on an affair.
Most interestingly, Segal introduces two more characters, Young Lucinella and Old Lucinella who attend the same parties as Lucinella. Young Lucinella is eager to please and Old Lucinella’s cynicism is indulged. Lucinella herself isn’t fond of either of them and gets particularly annoyed when she thinks her husband is having an affair with Young Lucinella. It might sound utterly daft, but is in fact a very deft way of exploring Lucinella’s concerns about aging and the validity of her work and her legacy.
While much of the style of the novella is very much of its time and place, there is a universality to Lucinella and her world which makes it feel fresh and still relevant. In a world of instant online reaction and feedback, criticism can make a writer disappear. The literary world is still a cutthroat one, with luck playing as much a part in success as talent and Segal shrewdly explores the self-centred nature of these creative people.
There is even a prefiguring of the Bad Art Friend narrative which has been dominating Twitter discourse these last few weeks as Lucinella has a falling out with her best friend Ulla over her inclusion of her in her novel.
“Why?” cries Ulla. “What did I do?”
“You put me in your novel,” I say.
“Did I say something unkind or untrue?” she says. “You come off perfectly interesting and nice!”
“I know!” I say, and hang up on her. How could Ulla make me into a minor character with a walk-on in Chapter VIII and one eleven-line speech at the very end, when it’s obvious the protagonist is me.
What Lore Segal does in this brief book is remind the reader that, just like life, there are no rules in fiction. The devices she uses prefigure similar tropes used in the writing of contemporaries like Ben Lerner or Emily St John Mandel, and while Lucinella has a distinctly European feel, it is also deeply rooted in New York City.
Lucinella is a book that will divide opinion and it can at times be as frustrating as it is enjoyable, but it is fresh and unforgettable and by the time Lucinella, all her friends and her old and young selves gather at a Manhattan street party for what might be the end of the world, I was completely won over by Lore Segal’s striking imagination
read on: Book
number read: 347
number remaining: 399
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!