Rewrite It All

Lydia Bunt reviews Sarah Bernstein’s The Coming Bad Days

Sarah Bernstein, The Coming Bad Days
Sarah Bernstein, The Coming Bad Days.
Daunt Books, £9.99.
Buy direct from the publisher.

The female protagonist of Sarah Bernstein’s first novel, The Coming Bad Days, is often in receipt of letters. Moving between the different spaces of an unwelcoming city, she finds notes tucked under her door or delivered to her on a tray of champagne glasses. They are personal, questioning, and aphoristic by turns, and their sender remains unknown. But in saying this, even messages from those who are known to the narrator are thrown into doubt in this novel. When she receives an email from her father to notify her of the death of her mother, from whom she is estranged, she questions its authenticity: “My return note bounced back with the suggestion that the email address from which my father had written did not now, or perhaps ever, exist.” Integral to Bernstein’s novel is this questioning of the validity of writing. If letters are never reliable, never confirming one’s own positionality in relation to others, then one cannot be expected to write the self with any form of certainty.

Bernstein is from Montreal, but now teaches literature and creative writing in Scotland. She is also the author of a collection of poetry, Now Comes the Lightning (2015), and poetic influences filter into The Coming Bad Days — not least via references to Paul Celan, the poet who Bernstein’s protagonist is working on in her role as academic at an unnamed university. Despite her lagging enthusiasm for her work and the few explicit mentions of Celan, the tonal banality of a poem like ‘Death Fugue’ colours the novel’s flat prose, its listless depictions of a dystopian world under a state of constant surveillance. This style is not always particularly engaging and means that theoretical remarks, of which there are several, are sometimes submerged into a wider monotony. But as cultural commentary from the perspective of a woman likely saddled with the weight of mental illness, the style also seems self-consciously even-handed — tightly controlled — and therefore appropriate to our times.

In general, Bernstein’s dystopia is not a safe space for women: “At times”, her unnamed narrator says, “I could see just behind the knife-like smiles the men at the bus stop directed at me, and I hated them.” A culture of street violence is written against women in “knife-like smiles” — women are clearly the victims of urbanity, even if these knives are sometimes nothing other than metaphorical. And elsewhere, the narrator speaks enviously of “the frictionless manner by which [a man] progressed through the city, while I crept low to the ground like a slug, my soft and slimy body licking the tarmac, aware of the perils awaiting me above and below but basically powerless to stop them coming.”

It’s in this context that the narrator renders herself the city’s abject product; while men soar through the urban space, women merely squirm, and as a result this dystopian setting often appears exactly like the world we live in. The Coming Bad Days is distressingly timely: events like Sarah Everard’s death in London and the over-policing of her vigil on Clapham Common suggest that women still do not enjoy the right to feel safe in the city. Even when the narrator sits in a pub surrounded by other women, she has the feeling that she is being watched, as though women’s bodies have unwittingly turned against themselves. Her world is a sort of urban panopticon, and The Coming Bad Days explores it while trying to tease out spaces where women like the narrator might eventually feel safe. At points, the narrator appears able to reclaim the city as a space for herself. Strolling the “tree-lined boulevards” reminiscent of Paris, observing the flower vendors and fish stalls or “sitting on a bench in a leafy esplanade”, she allows herself to become a flâneuse, despite the air of hostility: “We walked through the empty city as if we had a right to it, as if it belonged to us, as if we had reclaimed it from all the events of the past year and a half.” And when she turns onto “Jane, a street full of warehouses”, we get a sense that women are gradually mapping themselves onto the urban space, changing the balance of a Gileadean situation.

Despite these glimpses of a new urbanity for women, bisecting the novel is an act of sexual assault. Clara, the narrator’s close friend, returns one day to the home they practically share, “[h]er head like a great, heavy moon, and hot. Between her legs she ached.” This reference to female pain connotes a violation, though the nature of it is not made explicit. That the narrator refers to Clara’s experience as “an inevitable rite of passage” suggests the disquieting parallels between the dystopia’s ruthless exclusion of women and the realities of our lives. And the affectless prose means that the assault is as banalised as much else in this novel. The narrator’s own sexual and romantic experiences, too, are largely characterised by flatness, if not a deeper desire to suffer. In fact, she desires violence during sex; the banalisation of this violence reduces the risk of sensationalising the experience but also makes it easy to miss. On the whole, then, The Coming Bad Days risks subsuming various experiences of pain and suffering into blandness — provocatively, though also at the expense of something visceral and moving. The most intense moments of the novel do not always have as much force as one might wish.

As the novel progresses, Clara’s ordeal seems to occasion a rift between the narrator and her friend: “Up until now I had conceived of Clara purely in the abstract, barely as a body”, the narrator says, “and I was disappointed and angry at this sudden eruption of the flesh in our lives.” The narrator internalises a conception of the female body as something that is not supposed to be fleshy and visceral, feeling both anger at an instance of female suffering and a rage that stems from her society’s perception of the female body as passive, silent, and receptive. Women should feel pain without saying anything, according to these unspoken assumptions, for to speak out is to show a vulnerability that destabilises a system based on male pleasure and desire. Bernstein writes poignantly about the disempowerment of this situation, if not with overt emotional engagement. And as the narrator’s relationship with Clara devolves, it moves away from a solidarity between female bodies — even a symbiosis — and towards heterosexual isolation.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their physical differences — Clara is fair and broad, our narrator dark and slim — the two women initially appear as doubles of each other. They both work at the university, writing and teaching literature, and the narrator feels the charge of a “negative space between our bodies” that suggests interdependence, even sexual intimacy. At the same time, Clara appears also to be the narrator’s alter-ego; they operate on the same wavelength — “Had all my ideas been Clara’s first?” — and Clara reveals aspects of the narrator that she wishes to hide: “Clara had a way of telling one the truths about oneself, as though not to do so would be to encourage in oneself a terrible sense of well-being.” Clara is therefore a different version of the self that precludes the narrator from ever being truly original, embodying the narrator’s sense that it is impossible to write an image of the self authentically. Early in the novel, she all but moves into the narrator’s cottage, with her books and belongings populating its shelves. After the assault, however, something breaks between them: “And Clara”, the narrator says, “that intensity between us that I could not articulate seemed to have run its course, too.” Clara leaves; and much later, when they meet each other again by chance, the narrator finds that Clara has cut her hair short, perhaps an indication of woman’s relationship with herself being divided by this invasive act of masculinity.

The problematic of writing the self thus extends beyond Clara’s character and filters through the entire novel: what other possibility is there for a narrator who finally isn’t a whole person? “I could not remember the word for it”, she writes of her struggle to articulate her inner being. “It was a problem of language, of falling short, of what can be spoken and what must never be spoken.” And the recognition of how difficult it is to find originality in writing the self is expounded by Bernstein’s references to literature and literary theory. These are not usually very explicit — for example, the narrator simply remarks on “a certain writer’s love of butterflies” — so that the novel seems to be intertextual by accident, or in an off-hand way, though sometimes obtuse and overly academic. There is sometimes a sense that the narrator’s words can’t exist at all without her leaning on other works of literature: “I had a strong sense I had read these words before”, she says at one point, and there’s every possibility that her words have indeed come to her from someone else.

Is there any way out of this bind? Maybe: the narrator posits the idea of “a mutation in the grammar of looking”. This would entail learning to see things differently, not as part of a tried-and-tested formula that pre-programs how the phenomena of experience will be interpreted. But in a writerly space governed so strongly by intertextual connections, this shift in perspective is difficult for the narrator to achieve. One way to achieve it, perhaps, is to consciously relish the freedom of transport, often on a journey via train. “As the train sped through the surrounding landscape”, the narrator observes, “a feeling came over me of electric emptiness, of exhilaration as the mind unhooked itself.” This landscape presents a contrast to the built-up environment of the city, only grudgingly making space for women and mired in the experiences of others. Even so, the train operates as a place where the narrator can embrace the inherent uncertainties of her self.

The self is in a constant process of becoming in Bernstein’s novel — though it’s difficult to discern whether what is coming for it is good or bad. On the one hand, there is the aching banality of everyday existence to contend with; on the other, there are simple pleasures: “the morning, the first days of spring, a paper cup of hot coffee”. If the banality of the narrator’s prose sometimes precludes depth of feeling, it also mirrors her difficulty in feeling anything — though there are moments where an appreciation for small details emerges amid the female suffering of Bernstein’s dystopia. Ultimately, then, though the future may not look bright, The Coming Bad Days leaves its readers with a certain comfort in the notion that the self is constantly open to a multitude of possibilities: “We rewrite it all.”