March 31st, 2017
Apparently Bleaker House was just what I was in the mood for right now: it’s a travel/writing memoir with a playful form and a mix of nonfiction and fiction (Stevens includes a few short stories in the text, as well as excerpts from an unfinished novel) and I kept finding myself looking forward to the next time I’d be able to pick it up. The subtitle is “Chasing My Novel to the End of the World” and it’s about how Stevens, having done an MFA at Boston University, then had the opportunity, thanks to a fellowship, to travel anywhere in the world to write. Wanting to go someplace different, and thinking that isolation will be good for her in terms of providing time and space to concentrate on her work, she picks the Falkland Islands, where she plans to spend most of her time on tiny Bleaker Island, with a bit of time spent in a settlement in Darwin and in the capital, Stanley, too. Spoiler alert (not really, I think this is pretty apparent from the beginning): the book she writes is not the book she set out to write, but that turns out to be an OK thing.
I really enjoyed the structure of the book, which is a mix of landscape writing about the Falklands, and personal narrative about being there/trying to write, and personal narrative about how Stevens got there (both in terms of immediate preceding circumstances, like applying for the fellowship through the MFA program, and farther back, in terms of what she did in university and afterwards that ultimately led to her doing the MFA program, and also more-loosely connected bits of her life/writing life), and fiction. I liked the interplay between this book and Stevens’s rereading of Bleak House, which is the only print novel she has with her on her trip (she does have a Kindle) a whole lot. I also really liked the landscape writing and the parts about Stevens’s experiences on Bleaker Island or in previous travels, with sentences like this: “I walk for hours and see only monosyllables: cliffs, birds, waves, sand, sheep, rock, moss” (4). Or this, about Boston: “The windows frame the silver curve of the Charles sliding between brownstones and glassy office blocks. It is dusk and everything looks pink” (6). I like how Stevens brings Bleaker Island and its changeable weather alive: she talks about sitting in a glass-roofed sunroom during a storm and feeling like she is “sitting inside the weather itself”; she writes about watching “a sheet of weather approaching the island over the water”; in another storm, she writes that “the sky is filled with so many birds that they look like a new kind of weather: seagulls emerging from waves like an extension of the spray, grey wings overhead dripping down from the clouds.”(99, 115, 202).
I also appreciated the humorous bits a whole lot. There’s a very funny section about Eat Pray Love being the only movie she’s able to watch during her trip (because it’s the only one saved on her computer and there isn’t reliable/fast Internet), and a bit about counting out raisins for her food rations that made me laugh out loud on the subway, and a great exchange between Stevens and the housekeeper in an otherwise-empty guesthouse in Stanley that is so good I feel like I have to quote it in full:
“Wi-Fi?” I repeat. “The Internet?”
Maura looks troubled. “The Internet?” Jane would know, she says. She leads me into the hall, and points at a bulky machine squatting on a table by the door. She looks doubtful as she says, “Is that it?”
“No,” I say, “no, that’s a printer.”
“The Internet?” Maura repeats, again. She shrugs. “I’m sure it’s around here somewhere. I’m just not sure where.” (31)