Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel To The End Of The World, by Nell Stevens
Any fool can make a book–this book is evidence of that, as long as one has the right agent and editor who can piece together fragments that would not work as well on their own but together make something that is compelling almost in spite of itself. I’m not sure if Nell Stevens has other books within her–we could probably get a feast of scraps out of a collection of essays or short stories, but whether she has the goods to create a compelling novel is still unclear. If she wants to write travel literature about the lure of trying to remote in hunger and privation in remote and distant places, though, I will definitely be looking forward to future books from her if she has the assistance and stamina to write them. This book does not make you think all that well of the author or of her skills as a writer, but the situation of the story is compelling and those who are writers themselves will find much to appreciate and relate to in the struggles of the author to avoid the distractions that in her mind keep her from writing as well as she ought, only to realize among the most basic lessons at all and that one cannot escape oneself no matter how remote of a place one travels to. Instead, such remoteness will bring out all of the barriers that we place to our own productivity and creativity, as is the case here.
This book is almost 250 pages and it is formed from a variety of fragments that even begins with a plug for the Creative Writing Program from Boston University that promises growth to its graduate students/writers. From there the book flits back and forth among various genres, including a memoir of the author’s privileged life and education, the fragments of a novel called Bleaker House where a not very masculine young man searches for his Falklands Islands father on Bleaker Island who is not terribly bright and who is running away from his responsibilities as a father, the fragments of another novel with a semi-autobiographical young woman spying on her boss who she works for as a personal assistant and who is carrying on an affair with the previous person to work for him in that capacity, as well as a travelogue of the author’s hilariously incompetent experiences in trying to write in conditions of intense hunger and privation on the remoteness of the Falklands Islands’ Bleaker Island, all while she talks about her fondness for the metafictional nature of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, the obvious inspiration of this effort. And somehow the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This book, which is among the more genre-confused efforts I have seen this side of Italo Calvino, is a compelling work in large part because of its fragments hanging together due to the presence of the author in all elements of this immensely convoluted story. While each of the parts on their own would not be particularly exciting, and the novel that she was trying to write would be particularly dire and only worth reading as a form of penance for the sin of praising the state of contemporary literature, the fragments together offer something that neither one of them on their own can bring, and that is the full commitment on the part of the modestly talented (at best) author in being a writer despite having disastrously chosen a place to write and not possessing a skill in making things happen either in her own life or in her literature. The writer possesses the same degree of commitment to a task she is ill-equipped for the way that Don Ho wanted to be a singer or that George Plimpton wanted to be a player on the Detroit Lions. And because she has enough help to make it work, this work hangs together on the sheer force of will that the author has in being a published author, a reminder indeed that anyone can write a book, and even a decent book, so long as one has the will to write it and someone who is foolish or courageous enough to print it after it has been cleaned up and stitched together to meet minimum length requirements.