HOW THE WORLD HAPPENS TO US: LUCY IVES’S LIFE IS EVERYWHERE
REVIEWED BY JAMES WEBSTER
October 4th, 2022
Approximately 365 pages into Lucy Ives’s Life Is Everywhere sits a rejection letter. Erin, the book’s main character, has received a resounding “no” from a literary agent who has, in one fell swoop, rejected both a novella and a novel written by our main character. The agent displays a kind of shrugged-shoulder indifference to the plotless ennui of the fictional characters contained within the manuscripts, saying that they lack something: an arc, a hook, an excitement of some sort. It’s a great moment, because by this point, Ives has attempted no less than four death-defying feats of writing—including making you read both of these rejected manuscripts in full.
The book opens with one of these feats. It tells, in short, the 1,156-year-long story of a species of bacteria. The bacteria produce a protein called botulinum, which attacks the body’s muscles and causes them to seize. The condition, botulism, was exacerbated by the invention of canning, allowing bacteria to thrive and ferment. Botulism was later weaponized during the World Wars, before the banning of bio-weaponry; the thinking was that the bacteria could make enemy soldiers lose control of their bodies. Eventually, researchers realized that hyper-localized injections of the toxins could freeze the body’s muscles in such a way as to prevent them from displaying the effects of aging—a procedure called “Botox,” short for botulinum toxin.
We are then introduced to a New York City academic who has received a not-insignificant number of Botox treatments. We learn about her research. We sit in on one of her classes. We meet several of her colleagues and learn about their personal lives, their scandals both personal and professional. We are introduced to one of the students in the lecture hall. We learn that this particular student is going through a terrible divorce, and that she has changed the locks to the apartment. And finally we are told that this student, our main character, has ended up locked out of her apartment.
And it is after 86 pages that the reader reaches a line break. “These are the events, to the extent that any human events are knowable, that led Erin Adamo to stand alone on the street in upper Manhattan,” Ives informs us. It is the first of Ives’ many spectacular sleights of hand—everything that has preceded this moment, a millennium of niche history and academic pseudo-celebrity, has merely formed the explanation for how a single person in New York City ended up standing where they did.
If it wasn’t obvious from its title, Ives’s third novel aims to signal the entrance of a new player into the realm of the “systems novel,” an increasingly popular term used to describe, most frequently, the Big Ideas books of the 20th century. Historically populated by male writers like Pynchon, Gaddis (whom Ives name-checks in the novel), DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace, the “systems novel” depersonalizes in favor of the larger picture. Inspired by the rise of technology like the radio and then the 24-hour television channel, these novels zoom out, shifting the focus from the lives of characters to instead demonstrate how the world at large imparts its influence on our lives. It’s an apt form for the social media era and the misery of staring at one’s phone, having our brains pummeled by outrage cycles and watching collapse happen in real time. We are now intimately familiar with the ways that macro-scale happenings dictate how we feel on a personal level. Life is, in fact, everywhere.
The title of the book also nods to an oft quoted but impossible to source quote from Arthur Rimbaud, who allegedly wrote that “life is elsewhere.” And life did often seem elsewhere back in 2014, when the book takes place. It’s an unseasonably warm Thursday in November, Barack Obama is the president, and we are careening off the sharp edge of the information age into an era of heightened connection and awareness of others, but also of online misinformation, purposeful division, demagoguery, and “doomscrolling.” “Whatever it was that we were living in now, we were not modern. We had no word for ourselves,” Erin writes.
Erin, locked out and wandering, seems aware of this impending cultural contract (or lack of one) as she contemplates the negative space of the atrium in the never-named library where she ends up. The library is clearly the Bobst library at NYU, and worry not, we are given a full biography of both the library’s problematic namesake and its architect. This void at the center of everything, as Erin thinks of it, seems to permeate the very air as she sits in the library, surrounded by both limitless information and crude, ad hominem graffiti.
Like the millennium-spanning introduction and the lengthy examination of library architecture, enormous amounts of Life Is Everywhere feel, at first, like needless digression—and perhaps they would be, in the hands of a lesser writer—but these offshoots add depth, texture, and an experimental flourish to the structure of the book. Ives, in an author’s note at the end of the book, mentions her desire to challenge the form of the novel by imagining a world where “cause and effect sometimes trade places.”
This type of nonlinear approach appears in one of Erin’s rejected manuscripts, a piece of autofiction written by a fictional character. Erin’s novel concerns a woman in her twenties, who has been married for years and who learns, gradually, about the actions of her unfaithful husband. It’s a fascinating intertwining of narrative form that hinges on art’s ability to tell us something about ourselves, or the world in which we live. Erin, the fictional protagonist of Life Is Everywhere, uses her autofiction to reveal to us details about herself that we are otherwise not privy to through traditional third-person narration.
We learn, after having read the manuscript, that Erin wrote the novel about a woman and her unfaithful husband before she had learned of her own husband’s infidelity—effect arriving before cause, or at least a conscious understanding of cause. Erin supposes she must have been aware that something was going on under her nose.
It all might sound a little meta, a little MFA-program, but Ives pulls it off in part thanks to an unshakable confidence in what she is attempting, and the fact that she can write. On a sentence level, the book is full of personality, stunning imagery, and ever-deepening philosophical roots. For example, the way that Erin thinks of her husband, Ben:
Erin knew now the extent of Ben’s laziness. His was a torpor of stupendous, infernal proportions. Although he appeared to be a fully grown man, in fact he was an early pupa, a limbless slug basking in the broth of some spiritual incubation tank, a feeding tube plugged into his neck. Ben was The Matrix (trademark).
The novel’s form is a miraculous, shapeshifting thing, changing at a moment’s notice. Ives radically, deftly reinvents herself throughout, mostly in the unbelievable middle section of Life Is Everywhere, in which we read through the contents of Erin’s backpack: her two manuscripts; a book by the disgraced professor; and several pieces of scrap paper, including an unusually high electric bill. Ives guides readers through dense academic writing about dialectics and gender, a condensed history of the early 20th century surrealism scene, and a translated short story. Each is written in its own distinct voice, even displaying progression in Erin’s own writing ability between the novella and the novel.
Life is Everywhere shatters any kind of straightforward narrative arc in favor of a collage of shards that emphasizes the tone, atmosphere, and the general experience of life in the world at a particular moment. And it wouldn’t work were Ives not a Big Ideas writer on the level of Gaddis, or DeLillo, or Wallace. Fortunately for all of us, she is.
The truly necessary point of comparison would be Helen DeWitt, who, like Ives, is a writer similarly lauded as a genius by those in the know. Life Is Everywhere, like Gaddis’s The Recognitions or DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, is a triumphant celebration of human beings’ capacity for knowledge. These literary pyrotechnics never become self-indulgent, however, as the digressions serve a purpose: the books and articles within the novel all point toward an erasure of women in specific fields, including the “systems novel.”
Ives’s previous novel, Loudermilk, or: The Real Poet, or: The Origin of The World was a vicious and hysterical (here meaning both “funny” and “frenzied”) satire of post-9/11 America, and of prestigious literary programs like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Ives herself is a graduate of the IWW, so her barbs land with a realistic weight. Life Is Everywhere takes similar aim at academia, art-world posers, and an aging class of tenured professors and publishing industry careerists who got to where they are simply by being white, male, and having a PhD. Ives, it’s worth noting, is now an adjunct humanities professor at NYU, and her eye, as well as her teeth, remain sharp.
It’s almost self-defeating to talk about Life is Everywhere in any kind of limited fashion, such as a review, because so much of it depends on the form—a truly spectacular gestalt that requires every one of its 472 pages. To reveal too many of its tricks would take away from the joy in experiencing all of the disparate parts that make up the whole. In the end, Life Is Everywhere is the funny, heartbreaking, and incredibly complex story of how a woman ends up sending a petty email—revolving around a pun, no less, on the word “work,” referring to both a person’s career and to cosmetic surgery (“having work done”). It’s a minor event, this email, but it is one that would not have been possible without thousands of years-worth of human history transpiring exactly as they did. We should be thankful, too, that human history has run a course that allows us to read a writer operating on the level that Ives does, able to see the individual threads that we follow through the world writ large.
Across that same course of history, Lucy Ives has proven herself to be one of our greatest under-the-radar geniuses, but an achievement like Life Is Everywhere demands attention. The systems have long been in place, but everyone will see them now.