Parenting in a Pandemic, and Other Tales of Woe

NEGATIVE SPACE, by Gillian Linden

Reading Gillian Linden’s “Negative Space,” I kept thinking of the Lydia Davis story “Fear.” The story opens with a woman running out of her house, “face white and overcoat flapping wildly.” “Emergency, emergency,” the woman says. In the next sentence, Davis tells us that “nothing has really happened” to this woman, but still the community comes out to comfort her. “Fear,” like Linden’s novel, grapples with an amorphous sense of something coming, threatening; it situates the reader inside a world in which awful things exist but nothing, really, has happened yet. In the meantime, the world around both the woman in Davis’s story and the one in Linden’s novel mostly wants her to be quiet.

“Negative Space” has a straightforward enough shape: We are with our narrator, a wife and mother of two, over the course of a week. At the outset, her daughter has a gum infection. A not-quite emergency — a couple of her baby teeth will have to be extracted; all will almost certainly be fine. Our narrator goes on to work at the Manhattan private school where she teaches English part time. It’s almost June and she’s waiting to hear if she’ll have work in the next school year.

While searching for a class set of Shakespeare plays (Shakespeare can be taught only at the end of the year, because, in the eyes of the private school’s customer-parents, he is problematic, but also perhaps necessary), she sees the head of her department — the man who will decide whether to bring her back on staff — maybe “nuzzling,” maybe “nudging” a troubled student in what looks to the narrator like an overly intimate way.

Insofar as the book has an engine, this is it: Jane, the daughter, with her gum infection, is anxious about the tooth extraction; our narrator attempts to report her boss, to talk through what she saw with various friends and administrators, but it mostly comes to naught. There are faculty meetings, family dinners, a phone call with a friend and another later with our narrator’s mother. Nothing really happens, in other words, but then, as the title tells us, that nothing really is the book’s interest.

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