cover image Elaine


Will Self. Grove, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-8021-6353-0

Self (Umbrella) draws on journals kept by his mother in the 1950s for a shattering portrait of a woman trapped by her domestic responsibilities and lingering “postpartum neurosis.” Elaine Hancock describes her life in Ithaca, N.Y., with a “terrifying boundlessness of her own contempt.” She’s married to John Hancock, a pompous junior faculty member at Cornell, and is constantly at war with herself, battling “migraines and menses” and overwhelmed with loathing for her husband (“The front room is all his head.... His rear end squidges against the back wall of the kitchen... there’s... no room for me!”). Elaine is mortified by her thoughts of harming their child, Billy, and feels excluded from the love he and John share, leaving her in search of someone to satisfy her sexual urges. When she falls for one of John’s colleagues, her view of the affair mirrors her feeling about herself: “The whole thing is likely to explode at any moment.” She’s also a writer, but worries her work is no good. When she meets Vladimir Nabokov at a faculty party, he advises her with heartbreaking precision to “paint the bars of my own cage.” Still, she views her writing as “nonviable... as some obstetrician might say of an embryo.” Self pulls off a painfully authentic depiction of Elaine’s interior life, doing justice to her fierce anger and sexual desire along with her fears and humiliations. This is a tour de force. (Sept.)