Rachel Genn’s latest novel, What You Could Have Won, was released last month by And Other Stories. The book follows a failing psychiatrist, Henry Sinclair, who tries to rejuvenate his career by turning Astrid, his singer girlfriend, into a drug experiment. After a disastrous end to Astrid’s tour, they go alone together to a nudist campsite on a Greek island, where Henry works to manipulate Astrid but becomes interested in the campsite handyman, who is in turn entranced by Astrid. With achingly pointed observations about the impossibilities of love, filtered through The Sopranos and hilarious rehab scenes, What You Could Have Won is a triumphant novel about a star finally forced into owning her brilliance.
Rachel Genn is a neuroscientist, artist, and writer whose first novel, The Cure, was published in 2011. She was a Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence (2016), creating The National Facility for the Regulation of Regret, which spanned installation art, VR, and film (2016-17). She has written for Granta, 3:AM Magazine, and Hotel, and is currently working on Hurtling, a hybrid collection of essays about the neuroscience, art, and abjection of artistic reverie. Rachel is also working on a binaural experience exploring paranoia, and a collection of nonfiction about fighting and addiction to regret. She works at the Manchester Writing School and the School of Digital Arts, both at Manchester Metropolitan University, and lives in Sheffield.
I was delighted to chat with Rachel over WhatsApp and email about What You Could Have Won, Tony Soprano, point of view, and more.
The Rumpus: What You Could Have Won is described as being loosely based on the life of Amy Winehouse, and began as a short story. Can you tell us more about the genesis of the novel?
Rachel Genn: What You Could Have Won is, at heart, a relationship novel, which is to say it’s a novel about power, but it’s not a straightforward one. And it started as a short story about The Sopranos. Though I didn’t get to it until after the book was finished, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction describes how hero-centred stories can cause us to “cower in our own lives.” The Sopranos used to poison me but I would go back for more, wondering how much I could take. A perversion really, a kink that certain box-sets encourage. This interested me. Could I love Tony?
I started to think of describing a relationship that degrades over the course of a box set and how I might get to render the push and pull effects of the stories, the paradox of that, how we endure them and what this does to distort our relationships. Ego unsurprisingly plays a huge part in the novel. In it, Dr. Henry Sinclair wants to revive his reputation in psychiatry and so he transforms Astrid, an up-and-coming singer, into a drug experiment. So begins a relationship based on regrettable events.
Astrid had come into being before Amy Winehouse’s death. I am not positive that I haven’t amalgamated fantasy with reality here, but there was a performance when Amy was deeply into Blake, where she hung her gaze on him seated up in the Gods somewhere, and she mouthed “I love you” and pointed at her heart (or wherever Blake was tattooed) and, x-rayed by vulnerability, she was at once untouchable and over-touched. I was jealous that she had given everything for her love of him and at the same time furious with how short she was selling herself, handing over her talent and her heart to him to half-eat. A desire to be able to paint that paradox can keep me writing for eight years, apparently. Thinking back, she may have turned her toes in together. Perhaps she bent her knees as she waved with just the fingers of her right hand. In life and in literature, gestures really crucify me.
Rumpus: You have a doctorate in neuroscience. How did your career in the world of science inform Henry’s attitudes and experiences?
Genn: Henry has a definite idea of how science should shape itself around him. Apart from the politics, I had always been drawn to those cases in science that were poetic; amalgams of the comic and tragic that I would solder into the fiction I was hammering out. For example, Henry wants to be famed for discovering Birdboy—a teenager without eye-movements who moves his head with small jerks like an eyeball to make up for it—but his boss steals the glory Henry feels is rightfully his. Birdboy is storytelling gold and based on a real case; Henry himself is not, but I believe that fiction based on scientific findings can discharge reality without compromising the integrity of the fact. I defer to Hilary Mantel who, when questioned about how much she relies on history, states that “history is not shapely“ but that it is her job to make it shapely.
It’s through Henry that a lot of the bathos and the sharpest parts of the social satire of the novel take shape. It turns out that I like sproof: spoof proof. There are undeniable links between pranks and sadism. I must say, I enjoyed focalizing through Henry; I found it cathartic and it helped me get over how science had betrayed me.
When I look in the rearview mirror, I catch that perhaps what I had hoped science could do was hide my body, its desires, and the world’s responses to them, away from me, because the version of womanhood that was offered in mainstream culture was absolutely unrecognizable to me as an option. I hoped science might relieve me of my body and hang it on a peg in the lab. I heard about a beautiful Japanese children’s story about a nursery where dogs hang up their arses in the cloakroom and put the wrong ones back on for home-time. Hence a lifetime spent sniffing others’ to find the right one again.
Rumpus: As a writer, how did you control the pacing of the dynamic between Astrid and Henry?
Genn: From haphazardly in the beginning to painstakingly at the end. Since the novel takes a kind of he-said, she-said format, alternating points of view with every chapter, we discover who they are and where they came from in a rather unorthodox way before we bring them together and watch them explode.
I wanted people to finish reading my book feeling like Thelma and Louise as the car is still going out over the canyon. Where going up could be a possibility. I worked backward from that desire but forward from other images and impulses. “Text” means weave in Latin. But this book was destined to be a three-dimensional tapestry where tightening tense, slackened point of view, and messing with timing occur ad nauseam. Once in that space, I could never go back to simple chronology and the knobs that one twiddles to determine that.
The novel is brisk as it moves from thought to thought and incident to incident and it requires close attention. But I wanted the tone to be breezy—a counterpoint to the seriousness of its subject matter. Such contrasts, I hope, emphasize the weight of Henry’s betrayals and of Astrid’s struggles, and benefit pace and tension.
Editing these mobile contributors of form/pace/plot is a question of mercy; how long will I allow the wrong version to live? All of these elements interact: the unorthodox structure, the push and pull of new relationships, the uncertainty, the certainty—it all needs to be there under the story. Celan said that God made the universe from nothing but the nothing shines through. I really get that. There’s a time to beckon the reader from miles away and there’s a time to take the reader by the roots of the hair. Style is your attack on reality and reality is changeable. Now the reviews are coming in, I’m reading what others have divined I was trying to do. It feels like the relief of a diagnosis after a long struggle with a misunderstanding doctor. Which I guess could be a definition of writing. I am particularly gratified to hear the novel described as “a cubist portrait of a relationship.” So that’s what I was trying to do!
Rumpus: Tell us about the inclusion of The Sopranos. Was there a message you felt Astrid and Henry needed to decipher from Tony Soprano, or perhaps from the actual watching of the box set?
Genn: Again, only after I had finished the work did I begin to understand what I was trying to do. We must, as far as I am concerned, be unaware of our motives, otherwise we hit them too head-on and eclipse our intention. Plausibility is everything but if I enter into a work aiming to convince, I have already failed. Therefore The Sopranos with Tony as a foil to the anti-hero of Henry and a perma-threat to Astrid once embedded in her psyche, was very much a subtext that reared up, would not be tamed. It represented a perverse intimacy.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about point of view. The book is told in first- and second-person perspective, and at one pivotal moment, we go from second-person perspective to Astrid’s first-person. Did this feel like you were breaking the rules?
Genn: I was aware—but didn’t want to be—that in fictional narrative, readers and authors shift what is called their deictic centre from the real-world situation to an image of themselves at a location within the story world. These shifts are sophisticated and give a writer room to maneuver in unexpected ways, more than simple moving inside a magical circle circumscribed by the limits of a storyworld. However, working in a space where you do not know the rules is a risk.
Writing this book felt like I had no idea what the rules were but I often had the question “what am I trying to prove?” float to the surface. If I was going to construct this book as it was coming at me, in waves, it was going to take a lot of trial and error to get it right; I had to strain to hear what it was telling me, to properly translate it. I tried every tense and point-of-view combination. If I couldn’t hear it, I’d try to feel it or see it. It often felt like being at the optician, getting asked “is this better or worse?” but where I had never learned the alphabet that was on the chart. The fashion designer Dries Van Noten lines up swatches of fabric in textures and pattern and color combinations which punctuate meters of his workshop floor-space, and I absolutely sympathize with this need and the excruciating hell of choice it produces.
There’s something very indulgent about using first-person with someone like Henry who has a lack of self-awareness. It seemed doubly right for him. I used second-person for Astrid to enmesh the reader with Astrid’s states through the book, only breaking in a couple of—I hope—significant life and death places. “You” gives the writer a who me? jolt that they have to settle into. “You” holds the reader at arm’s length but allows for a simultaneous taking under the writer’s wing, and so offers a scalloping of vulnerabilities. “You” may also mean a character is afraid of the reader not believing her story, when she has finally decided to tell it. Henry of course, with his all-being “I,” knows he will never be doubted. Mat Treiber recently wrote of Astrid’s point-of-view, “If you’d used first-person, I would have assumed from the outset that she’d made it through to tell her story. Second-person allowed for uncertainty and forced me in some way to take up Astrid’s suffering for myself.” I liked that.
Rumpus: What You Could Have Won begins with Astrid as a small-scale musician, and charts her progress as a performer, and in her relationship with Henry. How does Astrid mature to a point of self-reflection while living with the trappings of great fame?
Genn: There are two examples of Astrid breaking out of second-person and both times she is forced by a catastrophic change that makes her see herself in a new light. I wanted to give a complicated, talented, damaged woman an atmosphere in which she could flourish while also providing a blackness—needing the pressure of the plot and the unorthodox form the book takes—to get Astrid to emerge into the light. The music industry seemed perfect.
In a recent talk with my editor, I read to her Kafka’s letter to Max Brod because it seemed to fit this effort somehow. Kafka says, “We burrow through ourselves like moles and emerge out of our vaults of sand all blackened and velvet-haired, with our poor little red feet outstretched for tender sympathy.” This was the arc I had dreamed of for both Henry and Astrid, as different as their intentions and paths might at first seem. I never wanted a goody versus a baddy; both had to be capable of extremes at exactly the right time to contrast with the other, and unfortunately, I was in charge of setting that up.
Rumpus: Henry displays some disturbing characteristics, such as his ability to manipulate, his aggression. Do you find him unlikable? Is he redeemable?
Genn: Henry is an Englishman abroad. He’s a postgrad, he’s ambitious, insecure, hungry for fame, and believes himself eminently deserving of it. He’s working menial research positions in other people’s labs, and he’s waiting for his big break, which he thinks he’s found. He seems legitimately mystified when people don’t immediately adore him, and becomes hostile and defensive when his apparent genius isn’t the subject of appreciation and/or conversation. This attitude goes with them from the lab to Greece and the nudist camp. And, in what might be one of the most potent framing devices in the novel, we as readers are constantly given to see what he can’t, that is, how petty, insular, cheap and commercial the field is in which he thinks he’s staking his great claim to genius and fame. He’s intensely dislikable, and he had to work as that character for Astrid’s ascendence to have its contrasting emotional impact.
Someone recently asked me if there are parallels between the way an unethical psychiatrist is able to manipulate their patient and a writer their character. Absolutely there are! At least at the beginning of the relationship, but once the writing has a life of its own, we writers are susceptible to being manipulated by it, too. The writing does things behind our back when we are not looking. I have just written a piece about how writing is very much about flirting with the work. What made lockdown so impossible for me was that I had the whole family watch me readying myself to flirt. Horrific.
Rumpus: “Le Marais wrapped around you, reminding you in its medieval way that the outside world with its disorder and cruelty was intoxicating.” You have achieved such a strong sense of place in your writing, from Paris to Greece to New York City. What part do these places play in the novel, and as a writer, how much is imagined versus based on your own travels?
Genn: When we were about nineteen, my partner was made redundant from his council job as a bricklayer and we spent his redundancy around the Cyclades, so the Greek islands stuff, the ogling of nude volleyballers? That really happened. The island party that Henry could hear but was never invited to? Henry’s pain was my pain. The millipede? Also a direct experience. The effect of The Sopranos, however, was an extrapolation. The incredible luxury of The Costes Hotel and its environs, only briefly tasted. Hypo Ray’s rehab in Paris? A pointed piss-take; after all comedy is a funny way of saying something serious. One can only hope for that elusive work of sprezzatura—a word often used of fashion—that describes “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”
I was saying to a friend that as I age, it becomes less clear—and less important—whether the “place” one is transported to by a sensation was ever real. Experiences of travel, going anywhere, have underground relationships with each other and produce artifactual triggers in the form of the destinations that are recognizable to us. The impression things make on me, what is left when the events or places are no longer there, that interests me so much more than whether stuff in a novel is true or not.
Photograph of Rachel Genn by Rachel Genn.