Book Review: “Delphi,” by Clare Pollard

DELPHI, by Clare Pollard

Clare Pollard’s debut novel, “Delphi,” covers roughly a year in the life of a London classics professor, wife and mother who is struggling during the pandemic. Her challenges include but are not limited to: the possible fraying of her marriage; her 10-year-old son’s loneliness, confusion and frustration; and her desire to hold her family together against all odds. While the plot is peppered with a handful of specific events — Zoom school, a holiday trip, a Covid diagnosis, a daliance with a colleague — the main driver of “Delphi” is a strange miasmic anxiety shot through with boredom. You’ve probably experienced this feeling at some point in the past two years.

Pollard’s story unfolds in the first person, through the eyes of an unnamed narrator. While I’m pretty sure the term “autofiction” has been leeched of nearly all its meaning, this novel has the texture and the tenor of a certain type of fragmentary storytelling — including short aphoristic paragraphs and sharp, sometimes funny distillations that would easily fall under a popular definition of the term. Our narrator asserts her own individuality through a kind of fleet-footed intelligence, moving seamlessly from stories of Athena and Ovid to virtual cocktails, watching “Normal People” and learning tarot. Pollard is the author of six poetry collections, and her talents are on display as information and anecdotes unfurl with pleasing syntactic turns.

Despite the fact that the first line of the book is “I am sick of the future,” its chapter titles all have to do with what that future might hold. There’s “Theomancy: Prophecy of Foretelling Events,” “Dactylomancy: Prophecy by Means of Finger Movements,” “Videomancy: Prophecy by Electronic Visual Medium” and so forth.

The third paragraph subtly sets up what will amount to the main action of the book: “So it is that somehow, one winter night, I find myself hissing shrilly to my husband: I don’t know if my son will even live to middle age.” The narrator is referring to the pandemic — “It is weird, though, isn’t it, the way the virus doesn’t affect children?” — but also to the climate crisis, and that pervasive, anxious feeling that characterizes our present moment (and this book).

Pollard’s project is, in part, to depict our ever-present sense of dread: knowing there might be no such thing as knowing, but still constantly trying to see and understand. Her character is trapped inside her own head, inside her own house, unable to know when or how to focus her attention. And so her energy flits, from distraction to historical anecdote to worry, it’s impossible to name or understand. When tragedy does occur at the very end, it feels almost otherworldly, not least because of how concrete and irrevocable this moment is in contrast to nearly every other moment of the book. It also feels true to life. How often, in our distracted attempts to see the future, have we missed the catastrophes unfolding right in front of us?

I often wish I could read contemporary fiction outside of its modern context, at a time when it wouldn’t feel too high stakes and too soon. “Delphi” distills something elusive and upsetting about all the things we can’t quite see or understand about the present moment, even as all we ever do is look. This feels impressive, part of what good fiction is meant to do. But fiction is also meant to show itself as something separate, to deploy, by virtue of existing outside of the very time and space we’re trapped in, a logic all its own. As much as “Delphi” is able to observe and capture something about life these days, I still yearned for it to be more of itself.

Lynn Steger Strong’s new novel, “Flight,” is coming out in November.

DELPHI, by Clare Pollard | 208 pp. | Avid Reader Press | $26

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