Novel Thoughts - Natasha Brown, Assembly (Penguin 2022)
Updated: Jul 5
Elsewhere in this blog I have asserted with the (false?) confidence of a creative writing teacher, that a novel can be defined as nothing more than prose fiction at length. I have also implied that fiction, when examined, turns out to be a blend of invented characters and scenes, fact, history, memoir, and essay.
The concept of a novella challenges the idea of the novel as prose fiction at length, and blurs the techniques of writing with that of short story. At 100 pages, and approximately 15’000 to 20’000 words, Natasha Brown’s Assembly is only a little longer than some short stories in the collections of Alice Munro - another writer whose technique has challenged the boundaries of form, (in a very different way).
Before this begins to feel like a discussion on the semantics of titling genre, a reminder that this blog is concerned with what I learn about writing technique from reading. One of the interesting questions unlocking technique for a writer is: why is this writing the length it is?
In the writing process, this question usually answers itself. I don’t know many writers who worry about whether their work is described as novella or novel, or set out with a word count in mind. (Although most start with the intention of writing a short story, or a novel, something that tells us a lot about perceptions of technique). But, in reflection, the length question is useful for identifying technique.
Novellas are most often short because their techniques will not sustain a reader at greater length. The novelist needs to keep a reader committed to its final pages, combining the tensions of plotting, depths of characterization, and thematic interest. Novellas are not short because the subject exhausts itself. Gigi is not a novella because the subject of love and commitment couldn’t fill an epic novel. The subjectivity of being a black woman in colonial countries is a subject that fills the novel of Leilani’s Luster, and Roxanne Gay’s short story North Country, but Natasha Brown explores it in 100 pages, because her techniques exhaust themselves in 100 pages.
Note how few the events in Assembly. The first-person narrator suffers the toxic masculinity and sexism of a workplace in the financial sector, she visits a doctor’s waiting room to discuss a cancer diagnosis, she gives a motivational speech at a school assembly, she attempts to find consolation in a recently purchased flat, she travels to her boyfriend’s upper-class country home for his parent’s wedding anniversary.
These scenes are sometimes developed with the emotional detachment of the alienated and depressed, an effect achieved by defamiliarization, (which comes here through over-description), and the hollowing out and stripping of embodied character. Characters are reduced to their social roles (‘son’, ‘wife’, ‘father’), and have no physical features, except those which disgust the narrator. Two characters are given names (Rach, Lou), perhaps because they share one element of the narrator’s struggle (womanhood, class), making them more alive to her than white, male colleagues, and those with inherited wealth, who are most ‘other’.
More often, the scenes are glanced at, referred to - and situated in - a form that comes to dominate this novella’s technique: personal essay. The essay is written in fragments, like the meditations of philosophers, and provides reflection upon the scenes. The subject of these meditations – the unbearable complicity of a financially successful black woman in ‘post-colonial’ Britain, the persistence of colonial attitudes, and the foundation of western civilization on slavery, explain the depressed alienation of the narrator. They also break the spell of scene-making; the tricks of fiction that allow us a false, ontological certainty, like our false consciousness of colonialism. Once this spell is broken, Brown is free to range across other techniques – poetic pagination and referencing.
If defamiliarization creates the effect of alienation, and form challenges ontological certainty, selective interiority is the language of depression. It is a technique I have observed in the memoirs of depressed students, and sadly common in writing. All writing is selective. Although we are not always aware when writing, we choose what to focus on, and what to leave off the page, what to foreground, and what to keep in the background.
First person is the common mode of the depressed. The depressed memoirist focuses relentlessly on the emotional injuries done by others, and produces writing that cannot find an empathic connection with others. This is part of what makes Assembly such an uncomfortable, and painful, read, and perhaps one that is affirmation for the many who suffer in the particular way the narrator does. But also, it is a technique which would surely be in danger of palling entirely over more than its short length. How long can any of us sit in the anger and depression of another?
Without the element of personal essay, ( the voice of the author, or the narrator) weaved between the scenes, Brown’s novella might have been even more shocking, painful, and unbearable. A perfect short story. The essay elements provide a political and sociological narrative to explain the novella’s existence, and provide a form of meaning and consolation through understanding.
In sum, it's a challenging read on many fronts, and the length of the novella mitigates that challenge.
Certainly, something very telling has happened with the book’s publication. My copy came with no less than 64 cover endorsements - inside and out - impressing upon the reader how valuable, innovative and stunning the book is. I have never seen this done quite to this extent before, and the effort struck me as deeply ironic. Brown’s narrator lives in the diversity trap of decolonization and affirmative action, always aware that she is part of a racist narrative, and a socio-economic reality she can’t escape. 64 endorsements surely imply the publisher decided this would be a hard sell. In an attempt to convince a broader readership, they are themselves in danger of not letting the book’s words speak for themselves.