The Coming Bad Days by Sarah Bernstein review – a study in unknowability

A sense of doom hangs over this exploration of the distance that exists between people, revolving around unnamed characters in an unnamed town

Over the last decade or so, literary fiction has often taken a particular shape on the page. Everything is folded into one neat justified column – memories, digressions, dialogue (never signalled with quotation marks). New paragraphs are scarce. Page breaks do the work chapter breaks used to. This has an effect on language and tone. There is usually a resulting flatness, a poised Jamesian distance from which everything unspools. The diction is lofty and purposeful. Disturbances or disruptions are embedded in this cool, calm delivery, underscoring their gravity while also maintaining distance. Conversations of a surprising intimacy prompt unexpected reflections. The narrators rarely have names; geographic location is often unspecified; plot is hazy. I am thinking of the novels of Tom McCarthy, Teju Cole, Rachel Cusk, Sophie Mackintosh or more recently Amina Cain. Is this the new millennium’s answer to modernism?

Sarah Bernstein’s debut novel, The Coming Bad Days, belongs to this category and takes distance as its central concern, using the form of fiction to think about how we live with other people’s utter unknowability, their complete separateness. If characters lack names, it is because – well, what is a name? How limiting, how imprecise? (The enemy of millennial modernism is the latent imprecision of things we used to take for granted.)

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