A Good Listener

Lucie Elven, The Weak Spot

Soft Skull Press, 176pp, $15.95, ISBN 9781593766306

reviewed by Eliza Goodpasture

We are often told that listening is a skill — thoughtful listeners are treasured as friends, children are disciplined for failing to listen properly, and straight men are stereotyped for always talking and never listening on first dates. Lucie Elven’s debut, The Weak Spot, takes these tropes of listening and inverts them, interrogating the power dynamics and dark intentions hidden behind the facade of a good listener. In the opening pages of the novel, the narrator, an unnamed recently qualified pharmacist, is told by her potential employer that a pharmacist’s job is ‘to enhance the locals’ potential by listening skillfully.’ This strange interpretation of the profession consumes the narrator and her world. Though mysterious and somewhat unreliable in her narration, throughout the novel she confronts the selfishness inherent in the desire to serve others, the unsustainability of listening to others but never oneself, and the difficulties that ensue when two people listen but hear different things.

The book begins with the narrator’s move to a mountain town in an unnamed place reminiscent of central France – perhaps Auvergne, where Elven’s family is from. She once visited the town as a child, and remembers her uncle regaling her with tales of a horrible beast who killed many locals. When she returns as a pharmacist years later, another man tells her the same story. She is attracted to the ‘wildness’ of the town, she says, but she is so desperate to bury her own feelings and selfhood that this interest in wildness seems contradictory, or perhaps prescient. She describes her desire to feel nothing and think nothing repeatedly. ‘My work was like sleep,’ she says, ‘the less I thought about it, the better it went.’ This desire not to think or feel carries over into her descriptions of the town and the pharmacy where she works, which can be inconsistent and vague, as if she really is half asleep as she observes the world around her.

Yet even through the erratic voice of this rather tormented woman, Elven evokes an incredibly tense, claustrophobic sense of the town. Trains rarely come, and it is difficult to leave. Everyone seems trapped, physically and psychologically. The townsfolk have known one another for generations, and when they visit the pharmacy they are enticed by the pharmacist, Mr Malone, and his two employees into sharing their cares and woes. The narrator believes that they are helping their customers by articulating their ailments for them, and she works hard to share enough of herself to extract the truth, but not too much to make herself vulnerable. She prides herself on being a ‘reflective surface,’ believing that ‘the right phrase could ease harm.’

As the narrative progresses, the character of the pharmacist, Mr Malone, darkens. He hires a new assistant, Annie Milk, who is strangely distant and high-strung. She helps him prepare to retire from the pharmacy and run for mayor. She leaves abruptly, and the narrator doesn’t allow herself to wonder why. Mr Malone tells the narrator that a customer, Helen Stole, has become seriously ill and is in critical condition. He suggests that this is because of a medicine the narrator prescribed.

But when the narrator visits Helen, an ‘articulate listener’, in the hospital, she learns that she had stopped taking the medication weeks before falling ill. The narrator also speaks with Annie Milk again, who tells her that Mr Malone harassed and sexually assaulted her while she worked for him. He constantly gave her ‘new memories’ to replace her recollections of what happened, which confused her. As we, the readers, realise the extent to which Mr Malone has gaslit these women, as well as the customers he serves, the narrator seems a step behind us. She is confused and depressed, but struggles to pull herself out from beneath Mr Malone’s magnetism. ‘All feelings will pass if I [don't] engage with them,’ she tells herself.

When Mr Malone is elected mayor, the pharmacy assistant, Elsa, asks, ‘If he wasn’t any good, then why was he winning elections? Why was his behavior confirmed by the people around him?’ This final section of the book feels almost too on the nose — the town and the people in it suddenly pass from a trance-world into our own, where rapists regularly win elections or see their behaviour endorsed or ignored by those around them. The sense of strangeness that pervaded the first half of the novel dissipates as it becomes entirely believable that a creepy man would manipulate and connive his way to elected office, leaving bemused and broken women in his wake.

Elven’s prose is sparse to the point of being unclear on occasion, but the little world she evokes, revolving around the pharmacy in the town square and hurrying townspeople looking over their shoulders, wondering who knows what about them, is sharply drawn. Though it does have a fable-like quality, the book is not a fairy tale. The narrator’s struggles to engage with her own life, to assert herself in her workplace, and to find and trust friends, are contemporary and real. Though Elven’s work has been compared to that of European experimental and surrealist writers including Anne Serre, Fleur Jaggy, and Franz Kafka, the strange yet funny particularity of the narrator’s inner monologue also reminded me of the adolescent, mopey, and misunderstood protagonists of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends. Elven’s short stories have been featured in NOON, Diane Williams’s celebrated avant-garde literary annual magazine, placing her among the ranks of NOON alumni Ottessa Moshfegh, Roxane Gay, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others.

The beast that the narrator was told stories about overshadows the book; I was waiting for it to pounce on every page. But as the story draws to a close, without a real climax or resolution, I was confused. Was Mr Malone the beast? Or was the beast another example of manipulation and gaslighting, just a story used to scare women into submission? These questions are left unanswered, and they left me feeling unsatisfied and unsettled. Elven does not take the easy or obvious route to neatly wrap up her story. Though the narrator has watched herself and those around her be exploited and toyed with, she never shakes the sense that her own inadequacies and moral failings are equally, if not mostly, responsible for her unhappiness. The reality that exposing the falsities that underlie gaslighting is not a quick fix for the emotional and psychological consequences of being deceived is difficult to grapple with, but Elven does so with a gentle grittiness.

Eliza Goodpasture is a writer and art historian based in York. She is currently working on a PhD examining female friendship among early 20th-century British artists.