Sunday, August 17, 2008

The State of Me by Nasim Marie Jafry

It's a particular experience, reading a book by someone you know - I always feel so personally involved, which is why I always write about those books on this blog rather than my other, more detached, critical blog. Quite often I've been party to the joys and struggles of the book's creation and/or publishing history and often I can't read the book without hearing the author's own real-life voice and envisaging the gestures which usually accompany it.

Nasim Marie Jafry's debut novel The State of Me, a revelatory depiction of life with ME, is an especially pertinent case since, for one thing, it is an avowedly autobiographical novel. Thus if you know what Nasim looks like it is just about impossible to read it without projecting her appearance onto that of the protagonist, and indeed the witty, wry, angry yet philosophical voice of that narrator-protagonist is the voice I know from emails and internet forums. In fact, many people will know Nasim as well as and better than I do, since it is also the voice of her successful and touching blog. This novel's publishing history is an interesting one: an agent persuaded a very reluctant Nasim that in a world where memoirs are the big sellers the book would be more easily marketable if sold as 'fictionalized memoir'. However the agent's first attempts to sell the novel quickly failed, since as an autobiographical novel it failed to meet publishers' expected parameters for memoir. The agent promptly dropped the book, leaving the author to tout it herself, but without the energy to do so, debilitated as she was by the condition which forms the very subject of the book. Instead, Nasim posted extracts on her blog and Clare Christian of The Friday Project came along like a fairy godmother and snapped it up, and now at last the book is published. Thus the author's real-life experience of having the book published after a long ME-troubled struggle becomes a kind of meta-ending for the novel's story, and in this respect the story of the novel and real life bleed into each other in a very particular way. This, and the identification which many must have with Nasim through her blog, may be why some commentators have judged that the novel should after all have been published as 'fictionalized memoir', which, in spite of the highly positive nature of the reviews, must be a dismaying thing for Nasim to hear.

In fact, it's nonsense. OK, so we may be able to see for ourselves, and Nasim's blog has told us, the things in the novel which relate to the real-life Nasim. But Nasim has also told us that there are things in the novel which don't relate to reality, and in my view, as in hers, that makes it fiction full stop. Come on, folks, there's no such thing as 'fictionalized memoir' (only insofar as no memoir can ever be truly objective - but that's not what we're talking about here.) You start making things up, you change the tenor of everything, you're making an artifice, which is what artists, including novelists, do.

So let's look at this book as an artifice, as a novel, as Nasim would want us to do. It's the story, beginning in the eighties, of Helen Fleet, a popular, lively university student of French who is struck down during her year abroad by a mystery illness which leaves her debilitated, cutting short her studies and forcing her withdrawal from life. Later tests reveal that her initial illness was caused by the coxsackie virus, and much later, physical tests prove that her muscles are no longer capable of producing enough energy. Initially, however - at a time before ME has been named, leave alone generally acknowledged by the medical profession - Helen encounters medical disbelief in her symptoms, and even after it has become acknowledged and her originally projected five years of the condition turns into six, seven, and finally, by the end of the novel thirteen, she comes up against both medical and lay resistance.

The novel is the story of Helen's rearguard psychic battle against the condition itself and her forced retirement, against such disbelief, and against the consequences for her relationship: the bond between Helen and her boyfriend, though ultimately strong, is stretched to breaking point as he sets off on the youthful adventures on which she can no longer accompany him. And her weapons in this battle are her wit, her verbal inventiveness and precision, her vivid eye on the kaleidoscopic world which is going on around and without her, her acute observations of character and physical detail, and above all her anger, which is the motivating, energizing force of this novel.

The amazing feat of this novel is to give one a physical sense of the pain and frustration of this condition, and yet to be bouncing with life, the inner life and the irrepressible psyche of Helen. For long stretches of time not a lot happens - which of course is the nature of the condition and the point of Helen's tragedy - and this may be why some commentators have insisted that it's 'not a novel'. Wrong again. Look at the word novel: the novel is called the novel because it has the capacity to constantly reinvent itself anew. It doesn't have to conform to conventional expections - the best ones in my view don't; it doesn't have to be action-filled or action-based, as long as it works, by which I mean it involves you emotionally, makes you want to keep reading, and this novel certainly did that for me. The story of this novel is an inner, psychological one; it's the story of Helen's fight to retain the sense of who she is while in outward ways the condition changes the kind of person she is or can hope to be, and of her psychological maturing in the process.

The ways in which the effects of this novel are created are highly literary (and novelistic), with precisely honed, sometimes lyrical prose and with highly stylistic devices. Helen uses the conceit of Play-School type windows through which her situation can be viewed via different viewpoints; intermittently she brings in an imagined conversation with a stranger who begins by expressing disbelief in her condition and must be educated into its reality and with whom she reviews her own progress.

The ending is inconclusive, which again seems to have led people to a reading of the book as memoir, but once again I'd say that formally this is the perfect novelistic end, replicating both Helen's uncertain future and the unfinished story of ME's acceptance by the medical profession. And, come to that, fitting that feeling of wishing a book hadn't ended...
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