In his 1884 essay “The Art of Fiction,” Henry James criticizes the critics, chastising their propensity to divide novels into discrete categories. Over here, there’s the “novel of incident,” which propels the reader forward through “extraordinary and startling” events: public scandal and private misadventure, murder, blackmail, and the stuff of melodrama. Over there, there’s the “novel of character,” which homes in not on plot but interiority, finding the drama of the mind dramatic enough on its own terms. To James, such “clumsy separations” reflect the critical will to distinguish rather than any property inherent in the things being distinguished. After all, “what is character but the determination of incident? What is incident but the illustration of character?” What matters is the quality of the novel, not its kind. As James writes, “The only classification of the novel that I can understand is into that which has life and that which has it not.” The novel came that we might have life and have it more abundantly, and that is the standard—does it have life or doesn’t it?—by which novels should be judged.
James’s essay is quoted at length in Siobhan Phillips’s debut novel, Benefit. The narrator, Laura, is an adjunct who finds that academia is breaking up with her. The novel begins in 2011, three weeks after Laura has lost her temporary teaching position “at a small all-women’s school north of Boston.” She previously wrote her dissertation on “characterization and indirection in James’s theory of the novel,” focusing on characters who dwell on the periphery, like The Golden Bowl’s Fanny Assingham. Laura did not choose James as her research topic because of the pleasure his writing offered. (“None of my students found Henry James fun or imaginative. I wasn’t sure I did.”) Nor did she choose him because of the job prospects writing on him promised. (There are few jobs left in academia; there are even fewer for people interested, as Laura is, in James’s notion of beauty as “a grace and magnanimity of gesture”). Rather, Laura decided to work on James because he offered so much material to work on: “He produced many long books that grow progressively more difficult without ever becoming obviously experimental or solidly classic. James’s writing would never be significant or easy. On this I had spent a decade. On this I could spend a lifetime.”
Academic work, though, appears to be at an end, and Laura moves back in with her mother in Connecticut. A temporary job soon comes along: Laura was once a Weatherfield Fellow (the program is a fictionalized version of the Rhodes Scholarship, which Phillips herself received), and she’s asked by another former Fellow and current Foundation board member to contribute an essay on the founder, Ennis Weatherfield, for a centennial gala. The Weatherfield family made its money in sugar, and Laura soon sees that thinking about sugar leads to thinking about capitalism, and thinking about capitalism leads to thinking about the systems—academic, economic, social, and racial—that have shaped you: “Taylorism, Fordism, the alienation of factory work: It’s all there in sugar production.” Phillips tacks between these kinds of thoughts (true but not terribly surprising) and Laura’s thoughts on James and her own failed relationships. We get a sense of Laura’s mind: its severity, often toward herself and sometimes toward others; its dry humor (“I think you need to be very beautiful to do everything exactly as it should be done. Also, you need to have money”); its unfussy learnedness. Laura soon becomes interested in Florence Weatherfield, Ennis’s wife. It was she who actually established the Foundation, but she left little else to the historical record. Laura begins volunteering at Welcome House, a shelter in New Haven. She starts working as a fellowship advisor. She drifts, worrying over what to do next: “Anything you do is part of something, some institution, system, way of operating, and all of these ways are founded on cruelty or heading for a crash or they have no use for you. Or all three. Have no use for me. I mean me when I say you.”
Benefit is a superb academic novel (yes, I know—just the kind of literary category James hated). Phillips is herself an associate professor of English at Dickinson College and has published a book on modern poetry. “It feels like I’m trapped in something I don’t want to be part of,” Laura realizes at one point, “and that something has also rejected me, and also I can’t escape it.” I’m not sure that any writer has so pithily articulated how it feels to be on the market, year after year, half-hoping for something that almost certainly isn’t there and won’t be that great even if it is.
Benefit is also, and more deeply, an excellent novel of vocation. (The word occurs on several occasions.) What does it mean to understand one’s work as a calling—to see a job not just as something one does but as, in a real sense, something one is? What happens when our supposed vocation fails, either because we can no longer hear the call or because the call, if it was ever there, ends? Work itself, the sheer will to grind, has sustained Laura for years. When she won a Weatherfield to study at Oxford years ago, she “trusted whatever took the most time and effort.… This faith had always been what [she] substituted for ambition.” She missed graduating from Oxford with distinction because, as her professor observed, her paper on James “substituted details for argument.” In the narrative present, “at the end of a failed decade,” Laura remembers “not what came of” her years spent in the library “but the work itself, happy, peaceful.”
There’s something noble about this understanding of work as an end in itself. There’s also something self-denying, maybe even life-denying, about so valuing work in the abstract. To make an argument is to open yourself up to disagreement; it’s to assert yourself and your vision of things and, in doing so, to take a risk. To merely accumulate details, by contrast, is to hide away, moving yourself, like the James characters Laura writes on, to the periphery. “I cared about work, but not the work,” Laura reflects at one point. “I knew work would save me, and I didn’t think about what I was doing because of that, I was too scared.” One gets the sense that, for Laura, academic work saves her both from incident (not much happens when you live your life in a library) and from character (if all you care about is work, you don’t have to worry about what the work is for, how or whether it contributes to a life well lived). In other words, work saves her from life itself, until it doesn’t.
Laura is a recognizable type in contemporary literary fiction: the female protagonist who doesn’t really act, who doesn’t want things or at least won’t admit that she does. Rachel Kushner, Jenny Offill, Raven Leilani: all are interested in characters whose lives seem to float. They consider what this passivity has to do with patriarchy and capitalism and how such lives shaped by such systems might be reflected in fiction. As a form, the novel has centered on desire and the plots that desire gets going. What to do with characters who seem to suffer from a lack of clear desire? Laura remembers comments she received from her graduate advisor, Renata: “At some point, Renata wrote at the end of one of my dissertation’s chapter drafts, you may wish to consider whether your description implies a stronger indictment of narrative structure.” Phillips doesn’t so much indict narrative structure as play with it. One chapter consists of diary entries; borrowing from James, another alternates between short sections labeled “incident” and “character.” The best chapter in the novel imagines several possible versions of Florence’s life: “I can imagine it, maybe, as conversion,” one iteration opens, presenting a Florence who converts to Catholicism; “Or I can imagine it, sometimes, as exploration,” the next section begins; “Or I can imagine it, sometimes, as illness.” Conversion, exploration, illness: each has its particular tropes and rhythms. Such structural variety can be exhilarating for an author. It can be terrifying for a person trying to make her way in the world.
Benefit doesn’t provide anything so neat as a traditional Bildungsroman arc. Still, by the end of the novel, Laura has come to some “delirious clarity about [her] feelings,” temporary as it may be. She talks with Renata, her one-time advisor, letting her know, months later, that her adjunct position hasn’t been renewed: “It felt like the end.… The right end.” Renata pushes back: “No position is satisfactory.… Granted. But one’s work is not the job. The job is merely to enable one’s work,” and the work is forming, not erasing, a self. She goes on:
“I know the inevitable dissatisfaction, the continual dissatisfaction with one’s subject.” She paused. “The work, after all, is oneself, and the subject is that by which one proves—” She broke up. That was uncharacteristic. “I have only the obvious solution to offer, but it has the virtue of being true in my limited experience. Dissatisfaction with the task is part of the task.”
“Which is oneself.”
“Precisely.” Renata gave a quick nod to indicate we understood each other. I had been trying to pose a question. “The practice answers the lack it makes plain.”
Here, we see a scholar of Henry James receiving a lesson that sounds an awful lot like something his brother, William, might have said. Benefit is a (Henry) Jamesian novel of money, its beauty and its ugliness. But it’s also a (William) Jamesian novel of the courage needed to act and to be in the world. Toward the novel’s end, Laura reconsiders what it means to work and to be saved:
I sat on the concrete stair now and thought about lives, how they are saved, and what came back to me was the feeling I didn’t admit in front of a stack of books at my mother’s house or a cart of boxes as the Dawes library or a page of questions on the train from the city or any of those anxious hours at Oxford. It was the feeling of taking things in; it was the feeling of needing more—information, words, understanding—and of having more and not enough and then again needing; it was the feeling not of wanting to work but of wanting to learn. It was not a moral feeling. Selfish, rather. But so utterly distant from myself at the same time. How badly I had served the desire, and yet how faithfully it continued nevertheless: That was something to trust. Yes. As I stood up to open the hall door I felt almost dizzy.
Laura begins the novel seeing work as something that might save her from the pain of being a desiring self. She ends it by seeing learning, and the desire that drives it, as the very bedrock of character.
Bellevue Literary Press
$17.99 | 320 pp.