Fiction, nonfiction, essay-parts: Kate Briggs’s first novel is an
experiment in radical possibilities.
The Long Form, by Kate Briggs,
Dorothy, a publishing project, 447 pages, $16.95
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When I was an infant, my mom would read as she rocked me to sleep. After she died, I found the list of books she finished the year I was born. On it was Agatha Christie’s Endless Night, which starts: “Is there ever any particular spot where one can put one’s finger and say: ‘It all began that day . . . with such an incident?’ ” See my mom in her nightgown, comforted by murder mysteries; me in her arms, maybe crying; and Christie, the crime writer, stymied by plot. She can’t reduce the story to the inciting incident, to a gun on the wall, to the kind of details a writer is supposed to include only if they are essential to a character’s development. Neither can Kate Briggs.
Her first novel, The Long Form, gives us twenty-four hours with a new mom and a newborn, a story made out of many, many details: sleep deprivation, sore nipples, a walk in the park to lull baby to sleep, showering, bathing, crying. For Briggs, the inciting incident, the crucial, meaningful detail, is impossible. In her book, everything in a life feels essential and irreducible. Or, rather, trying to reduce the details to something telling feels like violence. In thinking about how to describe her experiences as a new mother, the main character, Helen, says, as if talking of both baby and book, “It would need a new form. One at least part-defined by length. (By which she meant: Amplitude. Flexibility. A capacity to stretch and make room.)” Briggs’s attempt at this new form is an utterly resplendent, luminous exploration of fiction’s possibilities.
The novel is strung with references to Gertrude Stein, John Dewey, D. W. Winnicott and his “ordinary devotion,” and E. M. Forster, who said babies aren’t worthy subjects of novels. Who is worthy of being in a novel, then? Briggs’s rebuttal: everyone, everything, including, yes, babies, and new mothers, as well as schoolkids buying snacks, the delivery ward and delivery drivers. Early in the book, one comes bearing a secondhand copy of Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, which Helen reads in bits and pieces during the day. Normally such an event would quickly shuffle the driver out of the novel forever. Yet, hundreds of pages later, he gets a Molly Bloom moment, where he is in his wet sneakers, thinking of his girlfriend’s handcrafted manicure and all the work that goes into it—the stencils she makes and online videos she watches.
Her amazing fingernails. Each one its own miniature painting. A micro-burst of colours: dots, swirls and glitter. He wanted to . . . bend his head over her nails and study them. . . . They were so detailed and strange and beautiful and she was so detailed and strange and beautiful it was like his whole body had no sides anymore, no edges, it was opening towards her and yet the only words he had for the power and scale—the immensity—of this feeling were the small ones everyone else used. The words everyone is likely to say at some point in a life-time—meaning them, not meaning them, throwing them away. Only now here he was, trainers muddying the carpet, holding them ready in his own mouth, a mouth drawing closer to hers, exchanging breath, readying himself to quote them—to address them—direct them this way, in her direction, for the very first time. . . . his mouth or was it her mouth alive with colour, shape, glitter, and fear.
He could be saying yes, yes, yes, though he is actually thinking “love.” That this consciousness is given to working-class guy, a contract worker, who would usually be excluded from experimental fiction, is also profound. This, too, is what Briggs is campaigning for—everyday profundity from everyday people.
At the same time, Briggs refuses what for most authors would be THE story: how Helen came to be a single mother. There are so many possible plotlines: the one-night stand; the jilted lover; the emancipation narrative of leaving the man; or having no man at all; or the decision not to have an abortion. . . . Fill in the blank with requisite hand-wringing drama. But, that is not this story. The deep, abiding love affair here is with Rebba, Helen’s best friend and former roommate (to whom Helen addresses her thoughts about needing a new form). Much of the book is Helen’s inner monologue, and most of it is addressed to Rebba—recollections of their friendship, of living together before the baby is born.
The Long Form is partly a response to Tom Jones, and shares with it a structure in which fictional narrative is broken by sweeping sections of nonfiction, which Briggs calls the “essay-parts.” (She also employs all-caps with the abundance of an eighteenth-century novel; one passage alone is variously studded with: LOVE, BIRTH, ATTENTION, TIME, FLOWERS, SPACE, KNOWLEDGE, and HOLD-ALL, which could be a brisk summary of her book.) Helen explains of these essay-parts, “It is a distribution of authority. Everyone and everything is its own authority, supporting, nuancing, or actively countering the authorities of everyone and everything else.”
At first, I only wanted to read those elements. I’m an essayist, after all, who’s divorced fiction writing because I find the expectations of plot inexorable. At first, too, I wanted Helen’s close third-person to be an “I” (to make it easier to pretend this is an essay). Then I settled in and realized the “she,” the third-person, is vital, because I can’t pretend it’s an essay, because this is a novel on novel-ness, both of the new baby and the new possibilities for form. Briggs’s project is to try to break the novel and unfurl this transcendent vision where each element and character, however minor and tangential, is equally important.
Life is not plot; its details aren’t means to ends. That something is valuable insofar as it is useful in a narrative strikes me as a metaphor for capitalism itself. Another writer, Daisy Hildyard, calls the demands of traditional narrative “an ethos of annihilation—it eradicates the intrinsic value of anything beyond the main characters.” Briggs rejects this, too, and her book feels like a manifesto for something distributed, open, radical.
Speaking of which, back to Molly Bloom. The Long Form feels like the novel conjured nine-and-some months after Ulysses’s end, with Molly Bloom’s famous, zooming soliloquy through memory, love, and sex. Bloom calls herself “a Flower of the mountain” as she “put the rose in my hair.” And, Helen’s baby, she is named Rose. Even if not intentional (there is no mention of Ulysses in Briggs’s references at the back), I am grateful for the doubling. The new Rose, this five-and-a-half-week-old infant, is actually named for cheap grocery-store roses (I love this, too, because it is so everyday). Briggs also writes of another supermarket flower: daffodils, opening. The memory, directed at Rebba, is luminous, mundane, and wondrous: “The story, was it even a story? . . . It was all presence. A quiet room; a spring afternoon. It was all co-presence. Her mood and the start of a flower. A more constant state and the brevity of a process. A little rip. It was all general conditions and new fragile presence. But it was also an announcement, extending the quickness of the action into the future. Coming soon: trumpets.” Indeed: let there be trumpets, heralding Briggs and the possibilities of this long form.
Jennifer Kabat’s books The Eighth Moon and Nightshining will be published by Milkweed Editions in spring 2024 and 2025. Her writing has been in Best American Essays, Granta, BOMB, Harper’s, and McSweeney’s. She lives in rural upstate New York and serves on her volunteer fire department.