Her 37th Year, An Index

By Suzanne Scanlon


Noemi Press
March 2015

Reviewed by Lindsay Hauck


Suzanne Scanlon's Her 37th Year, An Index is one of those books that if, after reading it, you mention it in conversation with an acquaintance and they ask you what it's about, you might say it's about marriage, divorce, infidelity, aging, parenting, teaching, bodies, New York, and mental hospitals; there are a great many tangible descriptors to choose from should you choose to remain cool and casual. If, though, the person you're in conversation with is someone you care about and trust, you might say something that will make you sound hopelessly nerdy or slightly crazed. It's about why art exists, how to escape from the prison that is your body, and what to do in cases of extreme loneliness. It's amazing, you'll say. Brave and honest and potent. You have to read it. Tell me you'll read it.

There is a lot going on in this 160-page, sparsely-formatted collection, so many layers to try on like lenses on a camera. Reading it, however, feels anything but technical. It feels like beginning to know someone: hearing about their memories and dreams, listening to their little anecdotal stories, catching those bits of cultural commonality (especially the books you've both loved) and latching on to them joyously together. The someone you're getting to know in this case happens to be wonderfully, scathingly honest about things that are harder to name. Scanlon's truthful vulnerability sometimes elicits a shudder of recognition, as in "Devorah," where she relays to us a memory from someone she knew while hospitalized for depression. Devorah's therapist, while trying to convince her that masturbation is key to her recovery, moves his hands slowly, menacingly along his thighs. Devorah gets up and leaves the office. Scanlon interjects via footnote to admit to us "that I should have left, too, but I was not so strong. I was always too curious, too eager to see what would happen next." Throughout Her 37th Year, there are moments like this, where you feel the sensation of partially shaking something heavy off of you. You're still covered in it, but lighter.

But reading Her 37th Year, like getting to know someone, involves witnessing a person's construction of herself. It's a carefully designed fabrication. The indexical structure of Her 37th Year—alphabetized, cross-referenced, and footnoted—reminds us of this fact over and over again. A few entries consist of only a parenthetical reference, as in "Leek Soup (see also: Duras, Marguerite; and Suicide)" and "Query (see also: Hysteria)." Sometimes these entries result in a compelling non sequitur—there is no entry for "Hysteria"—while others snowball into bits of found poetry as we traverse the text. "Leek Soup" points to "Duras, Marguerite," which leads to "Dubois, Blanche," which leads to "Desire," which leads to "Boredom (see also: Inner Resources, and Marriage), which Tolstoy defined as the desire for desires." Rather than constricting Scanlon's voice, the index form amplifies it to the point that, like poetry, it evokes a sense of veneration for language and its possibilities.

Midway through the collection, Scanlon offers up some context in a quote from Chris Kraus on the interrogation of privacy as a foundational practice in contemporary female art. She says:

The willingness of someone to use her life as primary material is still deeply disturbing, and even more so if she views her own experience at some remove. There is no problem with female confession providing it is made within a repentant therapeutic narrative. But to examine things cooly, to thrust one's experience out of one's own brain and put it on the table, is still too confrontational.

Scanlon's index becomes a site to do that—to examine things cooly. She documents and dissects the many ways in which we are contained: by mortality, patriarchy, shame. By institutions and expectations and regrets. And always, inescapably by our bodies. Scanlon quotes Simone Weil: "To see each human being (an image of oneself) as a prison in which a prisoner dwells, surrounded by the whole universe." Despite the apparent bleakness of this particular image, there is power in naming it. Acknowledging our imprisonment becomes a way to mitigate its isolating effects. Maybe we can even embrace it, even just momentarily, as in a letter filed under "Despair (see also: Asylum, and Teaching)," in which Scanlon's narrator declares "I think I'd prefer to spend the rest of my life in a mental hospital . . . if it instead was some utopian alterna-space, a true asylum."

The index also creates the space for Scanlon to forge meaningful links between herself and other confrontational women, including those among her readers, by intertwining her stories with theirs. In "Nin, Anaïs, (see also: Human, and Maternity)," Scanlon recalls a critic's response to Nin's account of her own botched abortion; he characterizes it as "chilling inhumanity." Then, she gives us the image of a fourteen-year-old girl who receives a bottle of perfume called Anaïs Anaïs, by Cacharel, for her birthday. She's infatuated with the scent and thereby with Nin. Scanlon writes:

She knows nothing of Nin's radical manifesto, or her belief in personal freedom or transformative, transcendent love. She thumbtacks index cards with Nin's words all over the bedroom wall: 'Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage,' and 'Life is truly known only to those who suffer, lose, endure adversity and stumble from defeat to defeat.' Knowledge is constructed.

This whole thing is a construction, she reminds us again. Gleefully in fact, as if to say: Look what I can build, without ever leaving my prison. And because Scanlon is so courageously honest, the story is able to expand proportionally; it reaches way beyond itself.

In Her 37th Year, Scanlon argues, subtly but consistently, that despite all that contains us, we can, through art, connection, and memory, construct a version of ourselves without boundaries. We are constantly and forever in the process of building and adorning our own personal prisons, surrounded by the entire universe.