Break in Case of Emergency review an extraordinary study of an ordinary life

Theres nothing new about the premise the insecurities of a thirtysomething woman in Brooklyn but its the superb writing and penetrating insights that make this book remarkable

Am I too old for this lipstick? Too young for this pregnancy? What about my job, my face, my shoes am I the wrong age for those too? Women ask themselves these questions because society categorizes us according to age. Categories which overdetermine lived experience, unfortunately, tend to mess with ones mind.

Jessica Winters new novel, Break in Case of Emergency, addresses itself directly to the problem of having to live up to ones age while female. Her protagonist, Jen, is thirtysomething, so her categorical problems relate to reproduction, friendship, status and work. She lives in an unfashionable part of Brooklyn. She writes down every single purchase she made in her notebook, with the same pen each time. She takes a lot of Animexa, an Adderall-like substance. Shes married. Shes fine in a lot of ways, but also everything is awful, and thats what this novel is about: the madness of being normal, thirtysomething and female.

So, its not about much. On the face of it, Break in Case of Emergency is Bridget Jones-adjacent. You could call it Girls, for women if you were being unkind. Like Helen Fielding and Lena Dunham, Winter takes up the not-problems of an affluent-ish womans life and looks at them with generous humor. Jen has the ordinary slate of complaints: job problems, friend problems and baby problems. This is certainly not high-concept drama, and it would be easy to write this book off as chick lit, that pejorative term we give to fiction of middling quality about womens lives. These topics are not in short supply in contemporary entertainment.

Against all statistical odds, however, Winters novel is extremely good, because it is so well written. On one particularly badday, Jen sits on a bench and mopes:

On her collar she could almost smell the sour breath of her own self-pity. Her self-pity subsisted in part on simple carbohydrates and on the salt mined from the sodium-rich instant soups of a drafty childhood, but it was mostly self-sustaining, feeding on itself, an apparently inescapable genetic susceptibility to self-pity being one of the major reasons Jen pitied herself.

Winter is almost vicious here in her dedication to truth, her insistence on making us feel Jens pain, then feel all the extra pains that a woman with a bad job and status anxiety puts herself through.

And Winter is joyously and outright cruel about Jens workplace. She has an awful communications job at a nonprofit run by venal, ineffectual in-name-only feminists who waste private funds raising awareness of nothing in particular. Unpaid nieces flit around in glam outfits doing nothing, while their director of the glorious name Leora Infinitas also does nothing. In these work scenes, Winter lampoons the bourgeois Manhattanites who spend entire careers appropriating social justice movements for branding purposes and nothing else. There are a lot of them out there, and Winter captures their self-regarding bullshit with remarkable precision.

But Winter goes awry when she also mocks Jens heartbreaks, which are sad. Or, rather, its hard to tell: is Winter just being realistic when she makes Jens sadness seem ridiculous, or is she critiquing her? For example, Jen has a husband, and they are trying to have a baby. Having babies is hard, often expensive, and it doesnt always work. Jens grief over the not-baby is sometimes animal and raw but often its faintly silly. When somebody else has a baby, she is distressed but passive-aggressive about it:

Then she rolled up the New Yorker, stuffed it into her tote, fished out her phone, and tapped out a Congratulations from Jen and Jim on the fourth floor! And stared at the screen, contemplating whether or not to add more exclamation points, whether they would enhance or belittle the enthusiasm conveyed in her joyous reply-all.

She decided on four explanation points, then deleted one of them, then sent.

This book is somewhatopen to the charge of white-whining: a highly educated, married woman in New York feels sad because her friends are richer than her, and she doesnt get to have a baby right away, and her job sucks. How tragic! But Break in Case of Emergency is not a political novel it is a human one, a book about basic human fears. Jens problem is that she feels incompetent even when she is competent. She feels inauthentic even when she is real. Jen has a lot, but she feels she has nothing. This is just how it feels to be human, I think, but it is an unusually diffuse topic for a novel. Break in Case of Emergency does not ask whether these problems are valid. It asks the reader to consider whether a persons problems can be serious and complex and important even though they are everybody elses problems too.

Winter answers in the affirmative. She explores Jens thoughts: we do not encounter her problems as complaints, but rather as situations that Jen, as a mind, must navigate. Instead of overdetermining the meaning of being female and no longer young, Break in Case of Emergency complicates and diffracts that category into an experience so individualized and credible that the concept thirtysomething woman feels incidental to this book about being a person. In this way, Winters novel functions in the opposite way to a book like <a href=”https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/jan/22/bookerprize2005.bookerprize” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>Ian McEwans Saturday, in which the pregnant woman is a boiled-down symbol, concentrated and juiceless as Sunny Delight.

If our culture is obsessed by the anxiety of microgenerations, that obsession is dwarfed by our interest in the narrative sequence of womens lives. We want to be told when a woman should marry, work, reproduce, get home from work and eat her breakfast. We want above all to be told what it means for a woman to be of child-bearing years. Winters novel explains that no, there is no meaning: there is only convention versus the individual. What happens, happens, and mostly nothing means anything.

But ordinary women of reproductive age dont have to be symbolic bit players in good novels, nor bumbling Bridget Jones-alikes in insulting comedies: women merit bildungsroman, pure and simple. Break in Case of Emergencyis a high-quality tribute to ordinary experience, which makes it an extraordinary debut.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/13/break-in-case-of-emergency-review-jessica-winter

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