Sofka Zinovieff’s most recent novel was meant to be a cross-section of a child’s first love, flayed and pinned back by the discerning scalpel of adulthood to show such a love for what it really is. But while Putney lands at the intersection of love and abuse, it then sits there idly, doing absolutely nothing.
The seventies were a decade of anything goes. Daphne, the girl at the forefront of Zinovieff’s novel, is the product of a Greek-English household too busy with the art world, with the national resistance in Greece and with a lover each for mama and papa to parent her in any meaningful way.
Unlike the Daphne of myth, who appealed to her father for protection against Apollo’s lust, this Daphne enjoys it willingly enough when she finds herself recipient of Ralph’s affections. This willingness is at the center of Putney as Zinovieff tries to define juvenile love alongside an adult’s reckless touch when consent cannot be real.
As more people come forward with stories of past sexual abuse, Putney may have its place in today’s conversations, but Zinovieff let its salience eat up her medium. She ought to have dangled over the abyss, but instead Putney is clinical, a cut-and-dried slog, its story remote, as if viewed through the wrong end of an opera glass.
Its mélange of kitschy art, #MeToo and the 2010’s refugee crisis (a spurious addition) tries to be relevant, but Zinovieff played it too safe and her novel is forgettable, even – dare we say it? – unneeded.
Zinovieff writes most evenly in those parts to her novel that take place in the past. But when she pulls her story up to the present day, that ease of feeling turns stiff, the story becomes contrived, the dialogue glib and the characters artificial. It’s much as though Zinovieff didn’t quite know herself how to place the things that had happened.
Zinovieff’s value proposition lay in her slate of perspectives: victim, perpetrator and witness.
But she offered these perspectives only to the extent they could be formed by words and never to the point that they could plausibly be felt as coming from three different minds.
Her singularity of voice dulls Putney to a kitchen table confession, and it’s why the one thing that could have elevated her novel – the trebling of perspective on the same crime – fails. There’s never a moment of surprise, never a memory fugged by sick justification; there’s no circuitous route of individual thought process or even a verbal tic to make it seem as though anyone other than the author is present.
Zinovieff’s turn-taking perspective, as regular as a merry go ‘round and just as placid, offers no chance to attain depth before we’re unceremoniously (and disappointingly) plopped onto the next pony only to spin around once more and see the same scenes from the same heights.
We don’t know Daphne. It isn’t because she’s hard to read; it’s because Zinovieff didn’t place her outside the context of her topic. Unlike Bernhard Schlink’s Vorleser (which also had an undertheme of statutory rape and one that aligned more closely with that in Putney than with that in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita), Putney is concerned only with it’s one subject. Daphne is a cardboard cut-out or the poster child of an outreach group’s ambitious ad campaign, but she’s never a human being.
There isn’t time to feel pity or anger; there isn’t time to be charmed. There isn’t time for Ralph to hoodwink us the way Humbert Humbert did. It’s how Putney gets its clinical vibe. Reading it feels like taking down a deposition, only without the immediacy lent by the sheriff’s figure.
No doubt Zinovieff recognized that her novel would necessarily be held up alongside Nabokov’s, if only because of its subject matter. She made the distinction haphazardly in one of Ralph’s pleas that he is no Humbert Humbert, that he loved just Daphne and not a string of “nymphets.”
It’s a detail wholly beside the point: the real difference, of course, is that Nabokov stepped into the abyss; Nabokov wrote literature.
There is only one scene in the whole of Lolita where Lolita exists as Dolores Haze, as a human girl outside of Humbert Humbert’s fantasy of her: when, during the cross-country drive shortly after her mother’s death and when Lolita, now many years his nymphet and with no friend, neighbor or relative to care for her, cries her tears.
Nabokov did something in a few lines that emoted the entirety of his novel.
After lulling us into Humbert Humbert’s fantasy where things don’t feel so wrong, Nabokov detailed in this one scene, ushering his complacent readers from the mind of Humbert Humbert to that of the outsider, and the whole tone of his novel shifts with only enough time to watch the car roll on by and feel the sting of helplessness.
Child abuse and rape. These are, of course, hugely important topics and ones that few writers dare to touch.
Zinovieff took up the challenge, but she did it with a trumpet’s blare, simultaneously abandoning style and preaching a cautionary tangent.
She did try at first to create room for the vacillation of her readers’ emotions and seemed for some time to succeed. Putney opens with the whitewashed fluorescence of a hospital and Ralph steeling himself for the next injections of chemotherapy. His thoughts trail gradually to a warm summer evening 40 years prior, when he was 27 to Daphne’s 9 years.
At first an innocent memory, it finishes with Ralph’s masturbation in the girl’s treehouse.
Nabokov drew us into Humbert Humbert’s world with a coaxing finger and charming words; Zinovieff tried to do the same by way of pity and offered Ralph to us as a dying man. The strength of her novel, though, dies out here, and her other attempts – whether more details in Ralph’s condition or Daphne’s resurgent childhood emotions of love and frustrated lust – she carries out with the sedate sobriety of mere hindsight, and the equivocal ending isn’t impactful, but tremulous.
That ending leaves Jane, Zinovieff’s witness as Daphne’s childhood friend and the one who, years later, urges Daphne to prosecute, to come out as the clock coo-coo bird that bursts forth on the hour only to retreat back into the woodwork after having its fill of loud, needless chirruping, a chirruping soon ignored in favor of continuing life as before.
The three perspectives are really only Jane’s perspective, sometimes masked, but still only her one view, and it’s because Zinovieff couldn’t risk the artist’s risk of backlash.
Putney is proof that just because what’s said has great importance, its execution may not be done well and its end product may not trade at a high value. There’s better out there, and I direct you to the newspapers, to Schlink and to Nabokov.
Putney · Sofka Zinovieff
Harper, 2018 · 384 pages, hardcover