When I was nineteen, I worked at a Waldenbooks in the mall. The manager was a stalky, balding, mercurial man with a deep and complicated love for the fantasy fiction of Terry Brooks. It was like any mall bookstore in the United States—obnoxious discount signage dangling from the fluorescent overheads, tables full of pink romance paperbacks, endcaps, lots of magazine racks—but it was also a quietly disturbing place to work. For example, there was a woman who would regularly come into the store and meow softly, her face hidden behind the cover of Vogue. Afterward, she would approach the register and ask if anyone had heard a cat, and then she’d chuckle into her turtleneck when we each nodded our heads yes. I worked there for a year—a very long year—before I finally told my manager I was through. He listened intently, then explained to me that, as a key-holder, I would need to finish out the month. I’d never heard of this rule before, but I agreed to stay for that time. Imagine my surprise when the next month came and my name was still on the schedule. Heart in throat, I went to the manager and reminded him that I’d put in my notice. He nodded, patted my shoulder gently, and said he understood. Just one more week, he said, smiling. I worked that week, each day returning to the back room to see if the schedule had been updated, each day seeing that it had not been, each day feeling crazier and crazier. On the last day of the week, I taped my key over my name and walked out.
While my story may not be particularly common, it illustrates, I think, a type of everyday abuse of power that happens behind a smile and a pat. Many of us have stories like this—a moment when our personal agency is subordinated to another’s private interest—but rarely are these day-to-day aggressions named. I knew what he’d done was manipulative, but I didn’t see it as an offense though without a doubt it was. Choked, wrenched, like a dog on a leash—that’s how my body responded when I saw my name on the schedule.
The subtle ways authority warps individual autonomy is central to Lucie Elven’s debut novel The Weak Spot. The story follows an unnamed narrator as she arrives in a tucked-away European mountain town to apprentice under a charismatic pharmacist, August Malone. Provocative in its simplicity, the novel shows how power is wielded through seemingly innocuous words, acts, and gestures.
Elven’s prose has a hidden, still-waters-run-deep quality, spare and reminiscent of fable, yet the story itself is grounded in concrete human situations. The narrative is slow-building, unsettling in the best way, but Elven’s sentences are swift and punctured with wonderfully odd phrasing, dry humor, and elegant insights. With writing reminiscent of Dorthe Nors for its inventive concision, yet as haunting as Bruno Schulz, Elven’s details are strange and startling. Reading her, I am reminded of what Milan Kundera calls “the spirit of the novel,” which “relies on ambiguity and uncertainty, rather than a single truth.” A reader looking for a traditional character arc with a confident narrator that takes them by the arm and tromps them through the story may be somewhat disappointed. The Weak Spot is more interested in the invisible forces that guide our ways of being in the world.
The primary invisible force is the hold Malone has over the townspeople, acting less like a pharmacist and more like a spiritual guide. People come to the pharmacy to make confession, eager to follow whatever advice he prescribes. The narrator sees Malone’s “magical control” over the townspeople as both reassuring and dangerous. Still, being new to the position and the town, she adopts his unorthodox methods, listening to the townspeople’s disappointments, hopes, and ambitions, climbing into their perspectives and offering guidance as Malone would. Casually, almost lazily, she begins to lose herself in their lives:
I felt that each of the townspeople lived inside my body and rocked me from side to side, so that I could no longer judge whose side to privately take in an argument between neighbors, or who was hopeful, who exaggerated, who was insightful, who was bureaucratic, who was merely anxious. It was as if I employed my mouth to make the shapes of the lyrics of whatever song was filling the high walls, sonorous, resounding, vibrato. My opinion of an event could change several times in a day.
As the narrator’s life blurs with the lives of others, she not only loses her sense of self, but also of reality. Or, rather, reality morphs, depending on who might be “employing” her. If it is difficult to follow the narrator’s arc, it is because—for a while, anyway—she hasn’t one. Like Ms. Cogito in Elven’s story “A Hotel of a Woman” published in NOON, she has a “habit of keeping herself just outside of the frame,” blending in or distancing herself.
In this way and others, Elven shows the slipperiness of self and narrative—how easily we buy into other people’s stories, how many of us choose to live inside another person’s destructive narrative rather than forging a path for ourselves, how we look to stories as a cure or to hide, how myths shape our realities. Take, for example, this moment when the narrator feels subsumed by the tales of the town which her uncle imparts:
As we went, he had overpowered us with stories about a mythical monster local to the area that devoured humans neck-first, about a nun who had turned into a hillock, about the black sheep of the family, who had moved to a house nearby and pinned live flies under the needle of a gramophone so that they were slowly dismantled as he listened to Ravel.
In her essay on folk tales in ZYZZYVA, Elven writes about the myths of the Auvergne region, a rural area in France where her grandparents live and where she stayed for a time during the pandemic. She considers the lasting effects of folklore on the history of the region. Of one tale, she says, “the narrator seemed either to be withholding or letting me in on something half-known, something that therefore seemed to have its own agency.” We don’t get a lot of information about the myths the uncle shares, but The Weak Spot seems to suggest that there is danger in this type of myth-making, which might distract or excuse people from the everyday damage at work. The striking image of the dismantled flies underscores the slow, seductive violence that spreads throughout the town.
The mythical monster knows that if it devours its prey neck-first, no one will hear its victim scream. Speaking (or not speaking, or not not speaking) is a recurring motif in The Weak Spot. Throughout, there are curious descriptions of people’s mouths or throats—the titular phrase itself is first used when a character describes her own throat as her “weak spot,” and then later when the narrator is trying to circumvent her feelings, “I have a weak spot, I had taken to telling people, a magic phrase that I used to trick my way out of an emotional hole, glossing over my blues.” Despite her efforts to avoid feeling, the narrator begins to see cracks in Malone’s charismatic exterior, later, when he decides to run for mayor. During a speech, the narrator, now referring to Malone by his first name, August, comments on his voice and gestures:
August became controlled and soft-voiced, so that you could hear rivulets of emotion as he explained how the town’s empty houses pertained to the larger loss of pride, twisting his torso as he went along, using his hand as a pinch, as a skewer, as a caress.
Malone’s gestures again recall the narrator’s early view of him as a person full of contradictions—someone who is dangerous, but softly. Malone, after all, is not a monster, though sometimes he appears monstrous, just as the narrator sometimes sees herself as such. Malone’s certainty provides the townspeople with a sense of importance—a plot easy to follow. The townspeople, like many of us, long for this story—to be told how to be in the world, to avoid the painful feelings that come with failure or discovery. “I loved the idea that the right phrase could ease harm,” the narrator says. “The way an effigy of a beast might protect a town from illness.” And yet, there is no magic phrase. No single truth. No symbol or tale that can protect us.
Unlike Malone’s, the narrator’s story is not straight, nor clear, nor is it painless, but she does, with the help of others, create a type of jagged route for herself, which I found refreshingly honest in its uncertainty. Again, I’m reminded of Kundera here, this time in his legendary interview with Philip Roth: “it seems to me that all over the world people nowadays prefer to judge rather than ask, so that the voice of the novel can hardly be heard over the noisy foolishness of human certainties.” Ultimately, as she talks to more of the women in the town, the narrator starts to question Malone’s plan. It is through these discussions that she starts to envision a larger life for herself. Some of my favorite passages in The Weak Spot are the moments when the narrator notices the value in such conversations amongst friends. “Helen was an articulate listener,” the narrator says, “carefully continuing our half-formed sentences, giving them body. Talking to her, you felt like a skeletal tree was being sketched faintly around your thoughts, a framework of branches that put them in a broader perspective.” About Elsa, the narrator says, “She spoke with such uncertainty about whether she would be understood that she gave me confidence to articulate feelings that I wasn’t sure were common experiences either.” The importance of these conversations, of course, is not that Helen, Elsa, or the narrator come to a conclusion, but that they all have a voice, an extra dimension to a story they are each trying to suss out.
In the mall parking lot, I sat in my car and cried. I knew that I had every right to quit my job, that I’d given well over two weeks’ notice, but still it felt wrong. Eventually, though, I wiped my face, turned the keys in the ignition, and left the lot. On the drive home, I let the story drain from my mind. Perhaps this was a survival instinct of sorts, or maybe this is what happens when something goes unnamed. The story disappeared—for a while, anyway—but it left inside me a residue. A feeling, hard to define, until later, when I found it in someone else’s story.