Wreck and Order seems, at first glance, to fit squarely into the genre of young-privileged-white-girl-seeks-enlightenment-in-Eastern-culture, but I’m going to ask you to suspend that judgment for a moment. Hannah Tennant-Moore has not written the next Eat, Pray, Love. Nor is her debut novel a traditional story of self-discovery. There is no redemption in Wreck and Order. There is no happy ending, no sense of found enlightenment, nor any transformation of the narrator. Life remains unchanged, though not unexamined.
The novel is narrated by Elsie, a young woman with literary aspirations, a trust fund, and an inclination toward Buddhism, boredom, and bad boyfriends. We watch, down to the dirtiest detail and sometimes with horror, as Elsie pursues raunchy sex with dishonorable dudes, navigates failing relationships, looks for meaningful work, and leaves on a trip—in search of what exactly? Not even she pretends to know—to Sri Lanka. The novel is a multi-layered exploration of sexuality and female desire. It’s a disarming and sharply-rendered portrait of a woman attempting to wrangle some sense of meaning from a world filled with lust and rage.
Elsie is aware that her actions have negative consequences for her life, mostly because they produce damaging emotional responses inside of her. She is a woman moved by her gut, by how she feels or doesn’t feel, by what she wants or doesn’t want at the moment—although she is just as likely to do something that brings her pleasure as she is to do something that doesn’t. Her capacity for self-destruction is as painful as it is human. In the following passage, she acknowledges this capacity and places it in a wider cultural discussion.
Women who write about the failure of feminism for glossy magazines would use my experience as proof of the depravity of hookup culture, which turns girls into desperate sluts and boys into ruthless ejaculating machines. Women who write about the triumphs of feminism … would use my experience as proof that free love depends upon reverence for the vagina, that I was dissatisfied by my hookups because the heartless boys were degrading my inner goddess. I suppose it would be a relief to have such ethical clarity. All I have are clear memories of strong feelings. Lust, rage, lust, rage.
Lust and rage indeed. We watch Elsie lust after momentary desires, then rage against their inability to fulfill her. Tennant-Moore gives us an unnerving portrait of a woman embracing sex-positive culture only to be subjected to the inequalities and inherent sexism within it. Elsie seems to acknowledge this, if only tangentially, but she is unable to gain any semblance control over her actions. She seems to be getting dragged along through life, not able to take the reins of her own destiny. But what is it she actually wants anyway?
Here, Elsie explains her reason for going to Sri Lanka, which also coincides with leaving Jared, her bad-choice boyfriend, whose violent tendencies seem to soothe her existential moods.
I like the idea of going to a tropical paradise that was also a recent war zone … I’d like to believe my attraction to other people’s suffering is compassion, but likely it’s a twisted need to justify my own unhappiness. Either way, Sri Lanka was perfect.
One of the most fascinating things about Elsie is her ability to be so cripplingly self-aware of her questionable choices. Watching her move through the story, making one ill-fated, sometimes good-intentioned decision after another, is like watching a house burn down. You can’t look away. There is something beautiful about the flames and the destruction.
Elsie will not find enlightenment in her journey through Carpinteria, Paris, New York, Sri Lanka, and the suburbs. At times she finds nothing at all. By moving between physical places Elsie hopes to become unstuck. In some way, these places promise possibility.
Elsie returns to Sri Lanka twice over the course of the book. The country has a profound pull on her. During her first trip, Elsie met a young woman named Suriya, and she continued to write letters to her back in the States. Halfway through the novel, after Elsie has broken up with her reasonable and decent fiancé Brian, she decides to return to Sri Lanka to visit Suriya. The following passage shows the complicated nature of her decision.
Someone faraway was beckoning. Or rather something … Of course I would visit Suriya in Sri Lanka, help a kind stranger change her life. Which would, in turn, change me. Because I needed to be changed … I would finish my translation, get serious about meditation, I’d become involved in some important way with this poor, kind, Buddhist family—condescending, I knew, but I didn’t care, so much did I need Suriya’s invitation to make me better.
The wording here, “needed to be changed,” speaks to Elsie’s idea that she is not a participant in changing her life—change is something that will just “happen to her” if she puts herself in its way. This strikes me as the most realistic part of the novel. Elsie is just as likely to make the same choices on the last page of the book as she was on the first because it is not up to her. How human is that? She clings to her personal brand of suffering because it is in her chosen suffering that she feels most comfortable.
There is an urgency to Tennant-Moore’s writing that kept me turning the pages. Her ability to write one quotable sentence after another astounded me. Sentences like: “The careful way he courted me felt like grace, like something mysterious was finally pushing my life in the right direction.” The novel is chaotic, too. If not for the crystal clear sentences and Tennant-Moore’s ability to “go there,” I am not sure I would have trusted the narrator as a guide. The book wanders without a clear destination in sight. Elsie’s lack of evolution made me wonder why I was reading. Why should I care about Elsie? Why this particular slice of her life? What lesson was being learned? I found myself hoping that something good would come from all of the searching and suffering and the doomed decisions. But maybe the lesson is just that—there is no necessary redemption. Sometimes you go to Sri Lanka (twice) and return in the end to the same apartment, with the same alcoholic boyfriend and attend the same parties while working the same job. Perhaps the point is: beautiful sentences, woman imbued with her own suffering, change not inevitable.
Wreck and Order: two words that sit on either end of a spectrum. These words are at odds with each other as Elsie is with herself. But there is also an order inside the wreck. If there is one stable thing throughout the book, it is the wreck. That is the constant, that is the flow, and that is life.