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Scaffolding by Lauren Elkin: Accomplished novel tarnished by enslavement to male minds

Paris-set novel overburdened by analysis and detached by privilege from lived city reality

Lauren Elkin: In Scaffolding, there are the obligatory accounts of Deeply Important and Meaningful Activism, all while not one heating bill or homeless person is seen.
Author: Lauren Elkin
ISBN-13: 978-1784742942
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
Guideline Price: £16.99

Sexual freedom, menage-à-many, infidelity; repeatedly, we seem to come back to these same old nuggets. I must move in terribly staid, petite-bourgeois circles because, despite reading numerous accounts of such shenanigans, I never come across them in real life. It’s women who write about it, and perhaps that’s an inevitable flexing of newfound freedoms. But it all sounds so messy and, frankly, it’s so boring. There are other ways to engage the modern mind than romance and copulation, surely? Writing about free love amounts to little more than a kind of ongoing, deeply solipsistic navel-gazing, although admittedly with the gaze a little further south.

Which brings me neatly to Scaffolding, the new tome by Lauren Elkin. It’s described as a novel “in the key of Éric Rohmer” (which I assume is D minor, “the saddest of all keys”). Only this is less La Collectionneuse, and more Rohmer-does-#MeToo.

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Along with a flashback to a (remarkably similar) couple living in the same apartment in 1972, the novel focuses on a woman called Anna who, after a miscarriage, sits around said apartment in Paris, thinking deeply. She does this after morning runs, between bouts of sleeping with her neighbours and considering her kitchen. Nothing can happen without analysis – even rubbish thrown into a canal must contain intentionality. There are the obligatory accounts of Deeply Important and Meaningful Activism, all while not one heating bill or homeless person is seen. This perspex-cased privilege makes the characters not only difficult to care about, but is just quite dull. If Anna’s therapist grows tired of her talking about her floor tiles, you can imagine how I felt.

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Which brings me to my next issue with this highly intelligent, worthy, topical and accomplished novel (all of which it absolutely is). Why is it that authors such as Elkin feel the need to confirm or support their philosophisings by constantly (one might say incessantly) referencing great male minds who’ve gone before? This book is all allusions, it is a compendium of careful underlinings. This is absolutely fine if it’s worked in naturally, if the concepts and ideas are contained in the characters or happenings of a book, but, my God, writers please stop telling what you know. Stop telling what year Lacan said what, or how Freud died or listing Satie’s idiosyncrasies. Reading, I sometimes felt like I was correcting a university assignment. These (women, because it is women) writers need to trust that they are intellectual and interesting enough to carry the weight of their work. As Elkin’s own protagonist reflects: “I think how sad we were, these two intelligent women in a museum, trading the insights of great men, letting their vision stand in for our own.”