Of all the things an author can admit to, ‘I haven’t been reading,’ is among the most shameful. A writer who doesn’t read is the literary equivalent of a skinny chef: untrustworthy, their tastes and motives questionable. Admitting to not reading feels equal to outing myself as an imposter. ‘Why should anybody read my work, if I’m not reading?’ I wonder, when I find myself in a reading slump. ‘Why write at all?’
Yet the relationship between reading and writing isn’t always a harmonious exchange of language, ideas, and inspirations. At times, my reading-self and writing-self seem like conjoined twins, forced to share the same organs. There’s not enough of me to go around.
In January, after a year-long creative lull, I entered a frenzy of activity. I wanted to be with my new manuscript all the time; as a consequence, my patience for other people’s work diminished. Books I’d normally race through took me weeks to finish. My Goodreads challenge to read 75 books in 2019 looked more unrealistic by the day. It wasn’t just books that fell by the wayside though. I lost my taste for podcasts, TV, social media, online shopping, even chocolate. It was as though my work-in-progress was a fragile creature I had to quarantine, lest it be overwhelmed by outside influences.
Then, on the first day of March, a strange thing happened: I got sick. Intensive Care, induced coma, breathing tube, feeding tube, meeting-rooms-full-of-bewildered-medical-professionals-level sick. For eight days, I couldn’t read or write—I wasn’t even conscious.
When my faculties returned, it was tentatively. The first thing I wrote was a message to a friend, explaining why I’d been out of contact. My fine motor skills were so bad that it came out as an incoherent jumble of letters. She anxiously replied, asking if my account had been hacked.
As for reading: I read menus, giving me the choice between one kind of digestible mush and another. I read through my backlog of emails. Hopefully, I asked my husband to bring me the book I’d been reading before I got sick—J.P. Pomare’s psychological thriller Call Me Evie. For days, it sat on the table by my hospital bed, purely decorative.
Set in the gloomy coastal town of Maketu in New Zealand, Call Me Evie follows an amnesiac 17-year-old, Kate, held captive in an isolated cabin by a man who calls himself her uncle. In some ways, I was an ideal reader for Call Me Evie: I could relate literally to Kate’s memory blanks, the mysterious contusions on her body, her mistrust of herself and the people around her. In other ways, I was a terrible audience: I picked up the book between blood tests and visits from family, only to set it down after skim-reading a couple of pages. I constantly forgot where I was up to. I felt as fallible as Kate, in mind and body.
But Call Me Evie did reawaken my desire for stories that weren’t my own. After my discharge from hospital midway through March, I started another thriller: The Spite Game by Anna Snoekstra.
I first encountered Snoekstra’s writing after hearing her read at a Wheeler Centre event in 2016, after which I instantly rushed to buy a copy of her debut novel, The Only Daughter. At the time, I found it hard to believe The Only Daughter was a debut, written by an author my own age: it was so tautly plotted, the young woman at its centre so wily and captivating. Naturally, my expectations for The Spite Game were high. It more than met them; I burned through it in the space of a weekend.
As the title suggests, The Spite Game is a story of malice and obsession. It revolves around a decade-long revenge plot initiated by Ava, who is befriended by a group of cool girls in high school, only to be betrayed and humiliated. A deft manipulator, well-versed in true crime and willing to apply its lessons to real life, Ava is also cringingly self-sabotaging—the kind of narrator you want to shake some sense into, even while rooting for her. One of my favourite things about The Spite Game was the way it delved into the nature and origins of psychopathic behaviour: showing how a victim can morph into a perpetrator, if their wounds are left to fester.
Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation had been on my to-read pile for months, but I’d been avoiding it for many reasons. I’d seen the cover art—a Jacques-Louis David socialite in a gauzy dress, looking totally bored with the world—all over Instagram, to the point that it seemed so iconic, so overhyped, I was sceptical. I was also fearful: people seemed to either love MYORAR or deem it overrated. My mum, who’d read it before me, handed it over with the words: ‘I’m sick of reading about hot young things in New York.’
Ultimately, it took coming out of a coma for me to brave this novel about a 26-year-old Upper East Sider who quits her job in a trendy gallery to spend a year devouring sleeping pills, in search of perfect rest and relaxation. It’s the sort of concept that seems so self-consciously literary that you wonder how anyone can pull it off—but Moshfegh does. I’m not quite sure how she does it, but she does.
Just as I related to Kate’s physical and mental state in Call Me Evie, there was much about Moshfegh’s unnamed narrator that felt hyper-real to me. Her unintentional weight loss. Her leg muscles withering from underuse. Her intimacy with the names, auras, and side-effects of various pharmaceuticals. There was much more to MYORAR than the draw of familiarity, though. While I expected blasé humour, I didn’t expect it to be as outright funny as it was. I also didn’t expect it to be as heartbreaking. Perhaps most unexpected was the portrait of the friendship between the narrator and her former college classmate, Reva. It’s a grudging friendship, grounded in habit and mutual frustration rather than pleasure in each other’s company. Nevertheless, it’s real, and it’s the one of few ties the narrator has to the waking world.
Now that I’ve made a full recovery, I’m writing again, and reading less. The pile of unopened books on my desk is gathering dust: Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, Collen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds, George Bataille’s The Tears of Eros. But the beauty of books is, they don’t expire. They don’t care how fast you read, or if you’re short of your Goodreads target. They’re there when you need them.
Laura Elizabeth Woollett is an author from Melbourne. Her latest novel is Beautiful Revolutionary (Scribe, 2018).