Celebrating Failures in Nell Stevens’s Bleaker House

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Woe to the author whose apolitical, news-hook-less memoir comes out in the Age of Trump! Between the coverage of the fall of Rome, the endless SNL clips popping up in one’s Twitter feed, and Hillbilly Elegy, who will have the time to dip into a slight, melancholy book about a young woman’s attempt to write a Dickens-inspired novel during three months on the remote Falkland Islands? Who has time for Writer Problems in the midst of all these PROBLEMS?

That’s the beginning of the bad news for Nell Stevens’s Bleaker House: Chasing My Novel to the End of the World, a travelogue-cum-memoir. When the book opens, Stevens is a recent fiction MFA grad who has been granted a fellowship to travel anywhere in the world for three months. The fellowship’s press release says the purpose of the grant is to “widen eyes, minds and hearts,” but Stevens specifically hopes to use her time to do the one thing she’s failed to do in her mere twenty-seven years on earth: write a successful novel. If you happen to be a writer reading this book—and it’s hard to imagine who else might feel a yen to—you might be stricken with pangs of envy, and start to wonder where on earth you might go were you given the opportunity. Somewhere predictable like Paris? Somewhere warm and jubilant like Rio? But Stevens doesn’t want to have fun, or get a tan, or meet people or see great art: she wants to go somewhere “empty, remote”; she wants to experience “isolation and disorientation, displacement and homesickness.”

So she chooses, naturally, to head for the Falklands, a spat of 776 inhospitable islands off the coast of Argentina. The Falklands have been heavily fought-over by Britain and Argentina throughout history, though from this moment in time, it’s rather hard to remember why. As Stevens describes it––in true masochistic writerly fashion, she chooses to go in winter––it’s freezing, the only weather is inclement, the people are suspicious, provincial lushes, and the Internet never works. “This is a landscape,” Stevens writes of the view from her window, “that an art therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea.” But it is here she will remain for three months, much of this time on the eponymous Bleaker Island, inhabited only part-time by a farming couple and full-time by penguins, sheep, seals, and the occasional maudlin writer. (“There is no road. There are no trees.”) The maudlin writer, in this case, fails to bring enough food, to download enough movies to her iTunes, to pack enough books to last her the six weeks. She is, in a word, screwed.

As Bleaker House is a memoir and not a novel, you might intimate from the outset that Stevens does not meet her stated goal. It can be tough to enjoy a book you already know the ending to. But failures (plural, as Stevens sees herself having committed many), and the attendant long, mild emotional hangover that seems to define her life, are the raison d’etre of this book. She couldn’t hack it in a regular job, she can’t make her relationship with the sweet but troubled musician work, and her attempts at fiction always fail to launch. “Perhaps,” she writes halfway through the book, as her mood starts to dip from malnutrition, “I have, consciously and less consciously, spent my entire adult life on a self-indulgent, agitated tour of bleakness.” As a narrator, she’s not quite so self-indulgent and agitated as to warrant a diagnosis of “millennial,” or to make me resort to over-employed phrases like “navel-gazing” (though there is the instinct to roll your eyes when you realize the harrowing ordeal that birthed this book was only three weeks long) but she also doesn’t make any major attempts to universalize her struggles, or to strive for objectiveness. Everything is meaningful, and all meaning leads back to her. In this way, she is a bit like Joan Didion’s heroine in Run River, who tends to imbue meaning into things that maybe she’d be better off dismissing: “Somebody holds the door open for Lily in a hardware store, and she thinks she has a very complex situation on her hands.” And the complex situations are often strung together like a beads on a necklace, which is another way of saying that Stevens is a big fan of using what I like to call the “isn’t that weird?” effect: lining up a series of anecdotes, some interesting and some, yes, even a little strange, and then asking, either outright or implicitly, “Isn’t that weird?” Unfortunately, unless you reach new heights of strange (and it’s hard to imagine, after Kathryn Harrison’s incest memoir, what revelation could succeed in doing so these days) the answer is usually a bemused “Kinda?”

The core text, which is the memoir, is interrupted occasionally by snippets of Stevens’s fiction, which varies in quality. One short story, titled “The Personal Assistant” and inspired by her time working as the assistant to a smarmy non-profit exec who ran suicide awareness programs in Asia, will give the heebie-jeebies (the good kind) to anyone who has ever worked as a personal assistant. (Again, as this book is most likely to interest writers, I’m guessing that’ll be a hefty percentage of the readership.) Other stories, like the one about a musician mid-drug binge reminiscing about his fleeting encounters with Amy Winehouse, fall a little flat. It’s disappointing that there aren’t more extracts from the novel she attempted to write on Bleaker, but on the other hand, it’s not terribly surprising, given how much she insists it failed (and indeed the passages she does include, while not bad, are not anything to go wild over).

There is one thing I suspect could have vastly improved this book, and that is humor. There is a fair bit of in here, including one darkly hilarious chapter about Stevens participating in a reality show called Any Idiot Can Write a Novel alongside a single other aspiring author, a skinny dude with a “shakily drawn snake tattoo winding around his neck in the shape of a noose” who turns out to have been heavily coached by the producers. But overall, Stevens favors the pensive and blue over the jocular, which is a shame. Though the final chapter of the book is titled “Punchline,” the reader will be left wanting one.

Kelsey Osgood has contributed pieces to publications including New York, The New Yorker's Culture Desk blog, Harper's and Longreads. Her 2013 book, How to Disappear Completely: On Modern Anorexia, was chosen for the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers program. She lives in London. More from this author →