Isolating Bricolage

Rebecca Watson, little scratch

Faber, 224pp, £12.99, ISBN 9780571356584

reviewed by Genevieve Sartor

Rebecca Watson’s relentless debut novel, little scratch, propels readers with its experimental approach to language that ricochets the thoughts and actions of a nameless female narrator across each page. The novel’s presentation, which is varyingly reminiscent of an excel spreadsheet, a Twitter feed, and the vanguard, unconventional prose of modernist literature, weaves difficult subject matter into a new narrative fabric. This jarringly presented and deceptively simple text reflects important elements of our contemporary moment, and its unconventional form challenges the innovative use of prose often associated with literary modernism.

The novel’s story offers a myopic view into the inner world of a young, London-based woman who works a day job in a newsroom. It begins with her waking up from behind the ‘red capillaries’ of her closed eyelids; she compulsively scratches herself before she begins her day. We follow her hungover ablutions, her disregard for breakfast, and her eventual London tube ride before she reaches the headquarters of her job. The early sections of the novel shuttle between the automated doors of her mind and are liberally rendered in a dialectical prose style that is frequently, though sporadically, columned throughout the text.

Watson’s experimental style gives an essential weight to this book. In many instances, each side of the page can be read adjacently or more conventionally (from left to right) to form a coherent or a disjointed synthesis: it depends on how one reads it. Thus, the reader cannot approach the text passively, but rather has to be an active interpreter in the way they consider the narrator’s own narration of their world. There is meaning to be derived from this layered approach. Watson’s style creates a multi-tiered, distancing effect that readers must actively partake in to make sense of, which in turn mirrors the representation of the narrator’s precarious relationship to herself and her environment. As Watson writes early on in the book, ‘we don’t know who is the caller and who is the responder’ — the narrator is at odds with the world she inhabits, which contributes to the ongoing sense of disassociation that permeates the text.

This book is intrinsically close-circuited, though to call it ‘stream of consciousness’ wouldn’t be an accurate use of that term. Watson’s text does something different, given, among other things, its pages are often occupied with the mechanical whirring of external activity, rather than the flow of interior thoughts. In pages filled with the repeated word ‘filing’ or ‘peddling’, we absorb the mundane activities of her world as mere verbs. However, it is eventually made clear that her thoughts, and in particular her habitual scratching, are stimming a traumatic event that steadily reveals itself as the text progresses. The generated, compulsive, and disembodied quality of the prose-style is illuminated as a precise, requisite container for depicting the narrator’s dissociation in relation to her mind and her body.

The event is that the narrator has been sexually assaulted — ‘RAPED!’— by her boss. Her difficulty in processing and stifling the aftermath of that assault has been deeply self-confining, effacing, and indeed, has caused the profound depersonalisation conveyed in the book’s atypical style. The novel’s textual representation expresses a subterranean, psychological impasse — instantiated by trauma — that the unique narration quite ingeniously portrays. Watson depicts the experience of post-traumatic disassociation and thus, rather than bearing the characteristics of a fluid stream of consciousness style, this book stands on its feet as strikingly dissociative, jarring, self-questioning and uncanny.

Much like the bruises that the narrator recalls being left on her thighs following her assault, the text shows its colours over time, inviting a different way to experience a ‘little scratch’ one is so often told ‘shouldn’t hurt’. The ‘little scratch’ is itched as the narrator recalls or imagines her perpetrator slicing into a steak ‘well mannered/telling me to scratch/scratch.’ She has not told anyone about the assault, and interrogates herself on whether or not she should tell others who care about her – namely, her mother, and her boyfriend (referred to as ‘my him’) whose loving ‘eyes might grow dull’ if he learns what has happened to her. He has noticed a change in her behaviour, and the marks on her body where she has scratched, but she is afraid and uncertain as to how to tell him what happened: 'will I tell him? / thought. really? really? really? / how? practising / can I? dare I? should I?'

The zeitgeist of #MeToo rings within the text as a living memory striving towards adequate vocalisation. A direct confrontation with the narrator’s memory of her sexual assault as rape is, in a sense, a word too difficult and loaded to enunciate aloud. The isolating bricolage of language on each page builds force around its traumatic centre like energy might generate out of a stranglehold. Literal white space on the printed page becomes a terroir of anxiety, and the disjointed prose draws readers into the character’s narration of their dislocated and confining inner world. Although the topic of rape remains essential to the text, the method in which Watson writes shows a perspective far from the embodied subject; she personalises it precisely because the deadening aftermath of traumatic assault many have experienced is, in fact, a sense of disembodiment.

Watson is no Eliot, Woolf, or Joyce — her debut novel offers something different in its scope. This difference reflects a cultural moment that has brought attention to what we cannot dismiss the importance of, but must learn, like the narrator, how to articulate. The force of her prose and the single-mindedness of the text creates and puts pressure on the psychological luxation caused by a ‘little scratch’ that cannot begin to heal or reintegrate until it is voiced. What little scratch does is begin that vocalisation through a scintillating depiction of what it is to be a stranger to oneself and those around oneself as a sustained trauma, through a literary form that is both singular and representative of our times.
Genevieve Sartor has recently completed a PhD at Trinity College Dublin. She is the editor of James Joyce and Genetic Criticism and has published in the Journal of Modern Literature, the University of Toronto Quarterly and the Irish Times.