Dirt: Nuns having fun
Kyle Chayka on Lauren Groff's Matrix.
Kyle Chayka on historical fiction, Redwall, and contemporary ambient literature in the case of Lauren Groff’s new novel Matrix.
Do you ever feel like literature is in a bit of a weird place at the moment? There are few novels of any kind of mainstream success that are spoken about, even by critics, as intellectually or formally challenging. Many of the books that get popular seem to be novels-as-podcasts: soothing, smooth, able to be tuned out, but providing a pleasant backdrop. They address domestic concerns: relationships, real estate, material accumulation, some kind of progress toward happiness. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; those themes have provided great material for centuries. But I find more complexity in, say, Deborah Levy’s memoirs (the most recent of which is literally titled Real Estate).
Maybe we neglect the novel as simple entertainment, a role it has lately lost to prestige TV, which is the medium where we actually debate the mechanics of storytelling. (If only we were publicly breaking down the moral arcs of characters in novels with the same alacrity as Succession, which really isn’t that deep.) To that end, the last novel that I tore through in two days (binge-read) and that merited the “couldn’t put it down” label was Lauren Groff’s Matrix, a book that is equally smart, self-aware, and entertaining, in the sense that it knowingly drags the reader through its pages, at times as if the reader were a flailing Fast and Furious actor trying to hold on to a speeding car.
The bulk of my point here is that you should buy it, because it is a fun book. Voyeuristic, energetic, and tightly composed, it’s a pleasure to read. Is that so controversial to say? Buy three copies because you’ll want to give some away.
I keep wanting to describe Matrix as Redwall for adults. I know that sounds cheap and dismissive, but it’s actually high praise. The children’s series offered morality plays about medieval-ish rodents in stone abbeys who both fought wars against other species and cooked elaborate feasts. Matrix is historical fiction about a real person in the 12th century, Marie de France, a woman born to royalty (probably) who became an abbess in England and wrote poetry. A bildungsroman tracking Marie’s entire life, Groff’s novel is somehow a mixture of slice-of-life anime, tower defense game, and home decorating / farming sim.
As Marie takes over her abbey as a young woman and sets about putting it on the path to wealth and power, the plot points revolve around glancing romance between the nuns, fending off locals upset at the women’s power, and building new infrastructure. Like Redwall, there are loving descriptions of “figgy pork pies,” “good ale,” battles (complete with decapitation), and architecture. Midway through her career, Marie describes the setting:
“She sees the abbey as though with a stranger’s eyes: the stones scrubbed now, more white than gray, the fences neat, the fields rich. This is not the place she had come to, miserable and heartbroken, so long ago.”
As abbess, Marie is not quite a girlboss, but she is a good investor. Part of the comfort of the novel — cottagecore vibes? — is the sense that nothing that bad is going to happen, which is a quality that I appreciate. There is suspense but no drama, only accumulation. It’s not a spoiler to note that Marie lives to a ripe old age, devout but also flawed, her works still standing, her friends and sisters surrounding her. Religion and faith are important, of course — there’s little irony in Groff’s fictional depiction of piety — but in the end the life of the body is posed as equally vital. You can pray all you want, but excess suffering is needless and it helps if you do it in a well-lit study.
The breathtaking momentum of Matrix comes from Groff’s language. It’s written in the present tense, as if it were a detective story or a thriller rather than a calm meditation on western religion and feminism. Everything is always happening right now, observed from a close, camera-like remove. The first lines of the book, in which Marie sees the abbey, arrive with the rushing wind and orchestral notes of the opening of a film:
“She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France.
It is 1158 and the world bears the weariness of late Lent. Soon it will be Easter, which arrives early this year. In the fields, the seeds uncurl in the dark cold soil, ready to punch into the freer air.”
What more do you need to know, and how would you stop reading after that? I can already see the A24 production. Desaturated farmland. Weary young woman on a horse. Everything is brown except the white English sky. Green Knight x First Cow. People will say the actor playing Marie is too attractive for the book’s description of an ungainly giantess.
Maybe besides domestic consumerism the other thread of our current culture is escapism, the desire to be absolutely anywhere, anywhen but here and now in 2021, a desperate and increasingly depressing era of history that will subsume our lives regardless of our desires. We want to inhabit eras in which climate change and Instagram didn’t exist. We want to role-play dropping out of society. Slightly magical historical fiction, a la Matrix, seems to serve the need. There’s also a booming genre of retellings of Greek mythology from perspectives besides the warlike men; Madeline Miller’s habit-forming Song of Achilles and Circe are only the most famous. These books, with their blatant plotting and shades of Young Adult, don’t quite get the critical consideration they deserve. But everyone is reading them, even if they aren’t tweeting about it.
It’s often a problem if art is too pleasurable or fun, even if the art is good. It’s seen as unserious, unintellectual. I’m not saying “let people enjoy things,” but maybe let yourself, at least once in a while.1 — Kyle Chayka
The Dirt: Always build a high fortifying wall of well-polished stone around the outer fields.
The title for this newsletter comes from a family anecdote. My uncle, I think, used to live by a convent where the nuns would play basketball outside. I vaguely remembered him getting annual gifts of a calendar called “Nuns Having Fun.” I’m delighted to find that the calendar actually exists and you can buy the 2022 edition.