Scaffolding by Lauren Elkin review – an erudite first novel with horny energy

Set in pre-Covid Paris, Lauren Elkin’s first novel is a brainy sex comedy narrated by Anna, a Franco-American psychoanalyst on medical leave in the wake of a miscarriage. Her lawyer husband is away from home on a job in London, leaving her to oversee the long-planned knocking through of a wall in their Belleville apartment. It’s August – all her friends are out of town – and she’s drifting until she gets a new neighbour: Clémentine, an art history postgraduate who has just moved into a nearby building with her boyfriend, Jonathan – the name, coincidentally, of Anna’s most serious ex, the son of a famous psychoanalyst whose books turned her on to the discipline.

The first third of the novel ambles amiably in exploratory chat between the two women, despite a crackle of ambient dread in ominous signs of climate change (record temperatures in the city; wildfires in Corsica) as well as, more immediately, the mounting toll of French women murdered by men – an outrage highlighted by a guerrilla poster campaign Anna notices on her daily run. But Scaffolding’s real action comes in the bedroom: first when, a third of the way through the book, Elkin winds back the action nearly 50 years to toggle between Florence and Henry, an unfaithfully married couple who used to live in Anna’s flat, and then, in the novel’s final part, when we follow the narrator’s own bed-hopping in the present, as Clémentine widens Anna’s sexual horizons.

Elkin gives us two versions of an adultery plot, the second a self-consciously queered retread of the first. Clémentine, who says she spends her days “writing poetry and masturbating”, functions in the novel as a kind of constant question for Anna, loosening her view of monogamy, prodding her guilt as a slightly self-loathing gentrifier as well as needling her about the assumptions of psychoanalysis and its “Mommy-Daddy-Me structure, like there’s no one else in the world who affects who we become, or the binary take on gender… It’s, like, patriarchy, bottled and distilled”.

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Elkin’s date-stamped sign-off tells us the novel was begun in 2007 and completed last year – there’s a list of five Paris addresses where she wrote it – and it’s interesting to think of how the landscape of modern fiction changed in that period. In putting property at the centre of a novel about womanhood and sexuality, Scaffolding joins books by Rachel Cusk (Transit) and Deborah Levy (Real Estate), and as an erudite lust quadrilateral interested in ethical quandaries, it may put you in mind of Sally Rooney (even if Clémentine didn’t at one point mention watching a television series “based on an Irish novel”, which is “kind of annoying… Like, sleep together, don’t sleep together, do your thing”). Indeed, the rapid tying up of loose ends, embracing social norms given side-eye by the rest of the novel, bears resemblance to the left-turn conclusion of Beautiful World, Where Are You. Instead of a blocked writer in the wake of a breakdown, we’ve got a blocked analyst in the wake of grief re-envisioning life from the ground up (“Something Clém said has stuck with me for weeks now and I don’t know what to do with it; something like whether psychoanalysis ought to be socially transformative to justify its existence”).

Elkin, as well as being a prolific translator, has previously published cultural criticism and experimental memoir (No 91/92: Notes on a Parisian Commute), and in many ways Scaffolding is a critic’s novel, full of insights that could seamlessly appear in Elkin’s nonfiction. Anna and Clémentine exchange views of Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors or Chris Kraus’s novel I Love Dick; in a conversation near the end of the novel, when its emotional freight is heaviest, Anna looks up a word’s etymology on her phone. “In The Symposium, early on, Plato talks about…” or “At the beginning of Encore, Lacan’s twentieth seminar, which he gave in 1972-73, he says that…” aren’t untypical ways for Elkin to open a sentence.

But if her instincts as a scene-maker point towards retrospective testimony rather than in-the-moment drama, there’s no shortage of excitement in the twists supplied by what each character doesn’t know (or chooses to hide or ignore) about one another, to say nothing of the book’s increasingly horny energy, and a cheerfully deflating sense of comedy, as when another key speech is delivered with dried snot visible in the speaker’s nostril, moving “as she breathes in and out, like a flag… mak[ing] it all slightly ridiculous”. The novel’s strength lies in its balance of seriousness and lightness, and it’s a mark of Elkin’s success that her somewhat abrupt conclusion to Anna’s story nonetheless feels hard-won.

Scaffolding by Lauren Elkin is published by Chatto & Windus (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

The Guardian

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