Zinzi Clemmons: What We Lose

Clemmons, Zinzi (2017), What We Lose, Penguin
ISBN 9780525505051

In German journalism, there’s been a shock recently: Claas Relotius, an award-winning journalist, admitted to having invented the majority of facts and descriptions in his long, meandering tales of Syrian orphans or Yemeni prisoners or Texan racists. Apart from all the implications regarding the SPIEGEL fact checking system, and the institutional racism that underwrites the whole affair, some have noted the recent confluence of journalism and fiction, primarily about how journalism has taken up the tools of fiction. Now, if you make a point about journalism, you’re wrong about it being a new phenomenon. But there’s a particular aspect in the way it bleeds into fiction, not the other way around. I’m not talking about nonfiction novels, per se, either. There appears to me an increasing amount of fiction written with the journeyman routine and simplicity of journalism. I’m probably wrong about when this started, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all the novelists that sprang up around journals like n+1 wouldn’t have been one of the first waves of this happening. Look, we live in a time of memoir. There are so many excellent memoirs being published recently, it’s hard to keep up. Depression, mormonism, motherhood, Lord knows everything is somehow covered, and because no two stories are exactly alike we are not tiring of it. Most encouragingly, the recent wave of memoirs or memoirist essays, is largely led by female writers, with Tara Westover (Educated) and Terese Mailhot (Heart Berries) being two especially stunning examples just from this year alone. It seems however, as if this has started seeping into fiction – the tone, the structure, and, regrettably, the style.

This is not to say that the memoirs I mentioned are badly written. They are not. But they are written with an eye for a specific kind of simplicity – and many of the fêted autobiographical essays that have been published on the internet and shared thousands of times, are often even more simple. It has become so recognizable a style that I can’t help but recognize it in the pages of Zinzi Clemmons’s debut novel What We Lose. There is much to admire about the book, and there are many fascinating aspects to what Clemmons does here – with blind spots sometimes as intriguing as moments of insight. But all of this is told in a language that you could call “restrained,” as I have seen reviews call it. You could also call it bland. Almost everywhere, wherever you open the novel at random, it is written in the style of the well meaning personal essay, published by one of the many great online journals. There are two exceptions: sometimes, Clemmons employs short, declarative sentences and line breaks for poetic effect, which never, to my mind really works. And sometimes, greatly emotional moments in the book do benefit from the language, which, on a handful of pages, creates an exciting tension. But it’s never the tension of fiction. Many of the nonfiction novels that arose from New Journalism managed to tell a fact based story, a report of some sort, with the effervescence, the linguistic breadth, the power of fiction. The New Journalists were more than journalists, they were brilliant writers, and they married a brilliance of style to the craftsmanship of journalism and managed to get a bit closer to what we imagine truth is than mere journalism could. There’s no real comparison to the SPIEGEL affair – part of the reason Claas Relotius was never suspected was that his (in hindsight, obvious) inventions were cloaked in the drab and predictable language of SPIEGEL journalism. He just lied, he didn’t extend the vocabulary of journalism to reach for something more, something deeper.

And this is the strangest thing about Clemmons’s novel. There’s some autobiographical link, given that both the novel’s protagonist and Clemmons share some biographical facts – and as a long autobiographical essay you’d praise this book. It could be tighter you might say. It could interrogate some situations better, you might say. But this would absolutely be an interesting portrayal of a mixed-race woman with South African ancestry, who struggles finding her place in the world, struggles in relationships, and struggles with loss, both loss she lived through, and potential loss. Given that this is a novel, you’d imagine Clemmons somehow expands this brief, reaches for possibilities beyond what the autobiographical essay allows for. And she is playful with form. She includes pictures, graphs. Some quotes are not immediately marked as quotes, allowing for a text that sometimes swims between facts and invention – and I feel someone needs to write an account of the various ways WG Sebald’s outsize popularity among writers in anglophone countries has shaped a certain kind of fiction, but that’s not the place to do it. But none of this really pushes the book into a new place. Sebald, particularly in translation, reaches, and in the best moments achieves, a kind of sublimity that is uncommon, and that stems from the way he uses memory and objects, literary texts and observations, to situate himself in an inbetween world of text and reality. It doesn’t happen in What we lose. It’s curious: Clemmons cites various memoirs, from Obama’s to Mandela’s and Lorde’s, and makes a point about how they are tethered to a moment, how textuality limits the trace of autobiography, but then doesn’t really go anywhere except constantly pointing out small moments of indecision, where the life of her protagonist shifted but didn’t have to.

Her protagonist, who is very certain of her own intelligence, never engages with life – her own or that of others, and sleepwalks through her life, as she sleepwalks through that account of her own life. It is so striking that it made me wonder whether the blandness and obliviousness was intentional. If the bland style reflected the protagonist’s unhurried, superficial account of her life. I mean, it’s a lot. The protagonist’s family comes from a rich part of South Africa, and she’s terrified of the country. Clemmons juxtaposes her protagonist’s privileged musings with a study about real and imagined levels of crime in Durban, South Africa. She quotes at length from that study, which makes for compelling reading, and then – just moves on. The study functions as a reproach to the protagonist’s tense opinions, but the next time she returns to South Africa, this topic doesn’t come up again. Some of the book’s effects are effects of juxtaposition, where quotes and citations outshine the things we learn from the protagist’s own point of view. If the idea of the book is for us to critically read the memoir-style narrative for its failures and blindnesses, this still sticks the reader with a lot of blind, bland writing, even if the overall book is critical of that. The protagonist points out the gaps in the heroic narratives about Winnie Mandela, notes the violence in her biography. She then declines to further examine the topic. Or does she? Are we supposed to read the memoir-style passages with Winnie Mandela’s myth-making and her violent actions in mind? This allows for intriguing analyses of the novel – but not necessarily for a great reading experience, because, as I’m sure I’ve written before: writing things in a bland style to criticize blandness, still forces the reader to sit through the generic internet blog memoir style blandness for a whole novel.

That’s it though – as a metafictionally heightened comment on a bland woman’s encounter with grief and loss, there’s much to love about the book. The book shines most when you describe it, not when you quote it. The way the chronological structure of the book creates a genealogical continuity, all while focusing on loss and fear, is exciting. Meanwhole I can’t find any paragraph or sentence in the book I would love to quote to illustrate this. It’s odd – but as a novel, the writing has to be relevant here, and as interesting as the book is in many ways, it reads bland at best. This is the life of a woman who is terrible at self-reflection, and the book makes this clear constantly. It does not provide the literary tools to elevate the resulting text into great fiction.

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