Assembly by Natasha Brown

“I feel. Of course I do.
I have emotions.
But I try to consider events as if they’re happening to someone else. Some other entity. There’s the thinking, rationalizing I (me). And the doing, the experiencing, her. I look at her kindly. From a distance. To protect myself, I detach.”

So blinded I was by the ‘for fans of Raven Leilani’ that I did notice the ‘and Jenny Offill’ that followed. And it’s just my luck but style-wise Assembly shares far more with the latter than the former.
I struggled my way through Assembly, trying to understand what was going and who was saying what. It was like reading something by Offill + Rachel Cusk with a dash of Zadie Smith. That is to say, Assembly was not for me.

I found this book confusing for the sake of being confusing, abstract to the point of distraction, and the lack of quotation marks was inconsistent (a few lines here and there have them…and these lines don’t really bear any more weight that other lines of dialogue so, why do they get quotation mark?) and a clear attempt at using an ‘in’ style (I blame Rooney for making this a trend again), the weird way in which characters would be addressed made it hard for me to figure out who was talking about who or who the protagonist was referring to, and the constant scene-shifting was so a-n-n-o-y-i-n-g.

There were things that I appreciated. The tone for one: the unnamed young Black woman narrating this book is by turns angry and exhausted by the hypocritical behaviour of her white acquaintances and colleagues, by many white British people’s denial of racism in the UK (the kind of people who usually accuse others of being racist for acknowledging the existence of institutional racism in their country), by Brexit and slogans such as ‘Britain for the British’, by the knowledge that no matter what she will achieve there will always be someone ready to dismiss her accomplishments or hard-work by crying ‘diversity token’.
The snatches of dialogues I did manage to follow rang true to life and I could sadly too easily envision people who say things such as ‘I’m all for diversity but [insert inane complaint here]’ or someone who attempts to equate their experience of being a white woman or growing up in a white working class family to being a person of color in a predominantly white country (on the lines of ‘I too am oppressed’).

There isn’t a story as such. Some passages were set in our narrator’s workplace (I would call her character but she is not really a character) after she’s received a promotion, in other passages, a doctor is talking to her about ‘options’ and ‘treatments’, and we have passages in which she is thinking about or in the vicinity of her rich white boyfriend who is never fleshed out but a mere abstraction of a person. The author often approached these scenes through rather odd angles, so that my reading experience was marked by a sense of disorientation.

There was the odd clever line or piercing observation but these were drowned by the author’s stylised prose which flirted with narrative modes such as stream of consciousness. The author’s style lacks subtlety, nuance. Perhaps if I’d never read anything by Danzy Senna I would have found Assembly to be subversive and sharp but I just found it trying. This book really wants to be clever and different but it misses the mark. Many of the paragraphs seemed just struck me as contrived and not particularly inventive. Sometimes less is more:

“Her jaw grinds rhythmically, bulging and elongating; tendons, emerging taut, flicker up past her ear into greying wisps of hair. By her temple, a bone or cartilage or some other hard aspect of her bobs and strains against the stretched-white skin. The entire side of her face is engaged in this elaborate mechanical action until, climactically, the soft-hung skin of her neck contracts familiar and the ground-down-mushed-up toast, saliva and butter, worked into a paste, squeezes down; is forced through the pulsing oesophagus, is swallowed.”

What next? Are we going to dedicate a whole paragraph to the act of excreting? Ma daje…
Look, I could sort of see what this was trying to do (it will make readers feel a sense of discomfort, maybe even abjection) but Natasha Brown lays it on a bit too thick (a line would have sufficed).

While Assembly certainly touches on important and topical issues, what could have been an astute and fervent commentary on race, gender, and class in Britain, ends up sacrificing substance for style. I’m just glad I did not actually pay to read this as I will probably forget all about it in a few weeks (whereas I still think of Leilani’s Luster).
In spite of my sentiments towards this novel—that it is too abstract, flashy, the book equivalent of a Pollock painting—I recognise that Brown is actually a good writer. Personally however I think I could only appreciate her work if it was nonfiction.

If you are a fan of Offill, Cusk, Smith or even Jo Hamya’s Three Rooms, you should probably give Assembly a try. If you are looking for the next Luster my advice is this, keep on looking because Assembly sure isn’t it.

my rating: ★★☆☆☆

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