Hexis by Charlene Elsby
Clash Books, February 2020 (preorder now)
When the London Underground was first built, the maps that indicated the direction and the stops on each line were too complicated. The maps contained too much detail, particularly when it came to geographic location. Passengers had trouble deciphering the maps, because exact locations of stops and lines made the relations between the stops and lines too tricky to work out. Eventually, someone (Harry Beck) came up with an improvement. It did not feature exact locations as they corresponded to roads and other geographic markers, but instead featured the lines as distinct colors moving in distinct directions, with stops listed at roughly equidistant intervals (although this did not fully reflect reality), taking design inspiration from schematics of electrical circuits. The design was successful; it was legible. To this day, the design for every major transportation system follows Beck’s lead. One measure of creative success, then: Focusing the perception of the user, the experiencer, the reader, the viewer, the consumer.
Charlene Elsby’s debut novel, Hexis, is a study in focus, concentration, condensation, and obsession. The book opens with a murder, and it’s significant that the murder does not stop there, at chapter one. The murdering continues; there is never not murder in the book, whether it’s a plan to murder, an actual murder, or the aftermath of a murder. It is also significant that the murderer is a woman, and that the person being murdered again and again is a man, or men.
Elsby is attuned–one might say obsessively attuned–to the ways in which women’s lives are composed of violences both major and minor, crystal-clear and oblique. Watch as she reveals instance after instance of such violence in tones that could be mistaken for casual or even dismissive, if the book weren’t deadly serious about the reality and ubiquity of such violence. There’s the overarching violence of having been abused: “[H]e just sat there, the most natural thing in the world, drinking his fucking coffee like he hadn’t fucking ruined me.” There’s the violence of being reduced to just one of many, entirely indistinguishable from the rest: “I didn’t have to say anything. I was just all women. It didn’t actually matter to him.” There’s the violence of being denied an autonomous interior world: “You can’t tell other people how to feel, they told me. But then I always had to feel as I was told, and it didn’t make any sense.” There are the varieties of sexual violence so ubiquitous in the real world that Elsby does not need to describe them in great detail for readers to feel their horror. She can provide the reader with streaks and lines of color–indications of direction that correspond with eventual locations–but she does not need to provide a detailed map. In fact, she cannot give you a detailed map if she wants to focus your attention on the experience of being propelled through space in a troubling direction. Does it reflect reality? Yes. No. Yes and no.
There are many more gendered violences present in Hexis. They ought to be faced, and Elsby will help her readers face them, but it will not be easy. However, the fact that Hexis operates in at least one register as a revenge fantasy makes facing such violences something more important than easy: exhilarating and terrifying.
We need our fantasies. We know that there is a fine line between fantasy and reality, and that the line is often blurry, but the fact remains that we are creatures in need of imaginary lives and selves. Let’s call the imagination a tool; every tool is productive of possibilities “good” and “bad” and everything in between. We ought to understand the tools we use, and how and why we use them, to produce things we call lives and selves. Maybe some of us have been subject to violences that can only be addressed in acts of the imagination, in fantastical revenge-killings that bend the laws of nature. Maybe we find some agency here. Maybe we use the tool that is the imagination to build a self and a life that seems stable and solid enough to exist, to carry on, to go about the business of living, when we are also, and maybe even primarily, consumed by rage and fear and doubt. As in Nietzsche’s notions of the Apollonian and Dionysian spirits, for example. None of this is meant to suggest that Hexis is merely a fantasy, or that the book ought to be read as one long, violent fever dream. It is not my place to make such a suggestion. Hexis is a sophisticated book, and one that is deeply aware of what books can do when they come into contact with the imagination.
Time and space pose problems in Hexis. Bodies moving through time and space pose problems: “The problem with any good plan is temporality. That’s what it always came down to.” Elsby requires her readers to sit with these problems. Hexis does not allow the reader to abandon the struggle of existing in time and space. Hexis reminds its readers that to be a body moving through space and time is a profoundly strange and often alienating experience. In other words, Hexis makes apparent how and that existence itself is profoundly strange and alienating. In challenging and rewarding ways, Hexis is nearly a world-less book. Where does it take place? Who are we watching, following around, reading the mind of? What, exactly, is happening, and does it correspond to some fictional reality? But it is crucial that the book feel worldless, as our narrator has been violently stripped of a world and a place within it, and it is a stunning feat for a worldless or placeless book to be as compelling as Hexis is.
“Worldless” is perhaps not the right word. Elsby’s narrator is so obsessively focused on the man or the men who have harmed her–taken life from her–that the rest of the world need not even exist, really. In Hexis, we are invited to share the obsessive concentration of the narrator–to be both deprived of a world and offered the creative potential of a narrowly focused, limited world. Sometimes this kind of storytelling is called a sleight of hand, but if that’s the case, it’s just the sleight of hand that is storytelling and reporting on consciousness–something that necessarily limits and is limited. All of this applies twofold (at least twofold) when the consciousness in question is a traumatized one. As a storyteller and a reporter on consciousness, Elsby is keenly aware of this: “I could go through months of a person’s life in a single evening, if I focused on the relevant events, i.e., the ones that were relevant to whatever the point of the story was. A story that was proportional to how long life was would have to be as long as life itself, and that was unreasonable.” Continuing with the subway map metaphor: Hexis is a compelling schematic of an electrical grid, in book form–worldless but at home in the fact that no story can do life justice, just as no map can do a territory justice. Hexis is a text like any other (a map, a film, a grocery store receipt, a menu, a billboard, a tweet), and it knows that, and it warrants your attention.
Our narrator in Hexis is possessed of dangerously sharp reasoning skills, and Elsby demonstrates–in ten tight, thrilling sections–just how unreasonable life appears when reason shows up on the scene to rigorously scrutinize it. Hexis takes on everything, fearlessly: What are we doing when we’re eating, driving, cleaning, falling in love, having children, being employed, paying the bills, having sex? And yet, the unreasonable acts persist–the living persists. “I didn’t know how long it would take–a very long time, by my own estimate. That was the thing, though. It was one of those situations where I couldn’t just give up. There was no other option than to get the job done. That’s what most people didn’t understand.” Unreasonable acts–like writing books or going through the motions of living out a life, for instance–persist, because sometimes there is no other option. Let Elsby focus your attention and show you what it might mean to not give up.
Lindsay Lerman is a writer and translator. Her first novel, I’m From Nowhere, is out now with CLASH Books. Her first academic translation will be out in 2020. She is writing more books.