The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky by Jana Casale
Debut novelists disproportionately tend to write about aspiring writers. This often indicates the author’s mere desire to write, rather than actually having something of value to express. But this need not always be the case; take Leda, the central character of Jana Casale’s The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky, introduced in the title as someone who aspires to read and can’t even manage that, let alone get around to writing something. Though many of her aspirations stall in a procrastinatory stasis, there’s nevertheless a fascinating journey of identity throughout her life that rockets this curious tale into masterpiece status. The novel’s dry humor, brutal in its bluntness, will win you over through its presentation of a millennial who, despite her faults both subtle and obvious, genuinely seeks a lasting sense of self-worth and purpose. Leda’s story doesn’t just pull off the feat of making an ordinary life seem fascinating, but demonstrates that ordinary life already is fascinating, if we’re allowed to dig deeply and honestly enough into a individual person’s psyche.
Part of Chomsky’s thrill involves the way the first third of the saga leads you to suspect that you’re in for a certain type of book, only to later swerve past these expectations to somewhere greater (which this review will not spoil). When we meet Leda, she’s a fairly insecure college student who sees a cute boy in a coffee shop reading Noam Chomsky, and thus decides to read that author to become a peer with the boys she seeks to impress. She wants to stay in shape, but can’t. She wants to feel accepted and valued, but is plagued by loneliness—all the standard ingredients of a book about an aspiring artist approaching her quarterlife crisis. This portion of the story is a beautiful, hilarious portrayal of a human floating through life seeking permanence, during that thrilling, tentative time of infinite possibilities. If she says the right thing at the right time to that boy in the grocery store, perhaps one day he becomes the father of her children.
In a few abrupt but justified swoops, however, Casale breaks from this established plateau and the narrative soars to something greater, yet never loses the reference point established in the book’s beginning sections. Though a variety of different subject matters are examined, it all still feels like a single cohesive narrative. Leda’s arc is an examination of an entire life, defined in relation to the expectations and desires at the beginning of adulthood. Author Casale is in her early thirties, and the beginning chapters employ a Curb Your Enthusiasm style of observational humor that feels informed by specific true experiences. Yet once we venture forth into Leda’s later decades, Casale must draw on imagination and research; impressively, she never falters. With a gymnast’s grace, the narrative jumps forward in time with each subsequent section, yet these time hops never feel like abrupt “jumps,” devoid as they are of over-explanation, yet rich with purpose and flow. Leda may grow, but we never forget who she is, and never lose sight of the youthful experiences that inform her entire existence.
Leda’s story is somehow both brutal and heartwarming in its exploration of the sources from which people derive joy, and the persistent obstacles from society and from within. Leda is a writer, and in her youthful vigor she carries this purpose as her defining force. Constructively, she holds on to compliments from valued advisors, which fuel her self worth through difficult moments. Though the problems she faces are undoubtedly first-world, they are nonetheless daunting in their reality. Leda, like many, feels pressure to achieve and maintain beauty, to secure a spouse as the ultimate attestation of one’s own value. She also wants to crystallize her creative inclinations by creating a work that realizes her potential, but as the title suggests, her resume is not too impressive in the sticking-to-goals department. Leda does draw strength and guidance from her mother, but her limited roster of friends do more to induce anxiety and jealousy than anything else. Though ostensibly friendly, there’s a passive aggressive competition among them, an ongoing performance put on to outdo each other, which unfortunately persists throughout the decades. The novel contends that this catty competitiveness is integral to the female condition.
It’s at about this time that some readers may diverge in opinion with Casale’s social pontificating, which on multiple occasions reaches too far. Leda’s only confidants create more insecurity than they relieve. Is this an established behavior pattern across the female species, or does this equation speak more to Leda’s choice of friends? Casale would advocate for the former, and as the novel progresses she attributes a person’s behavior to their biological gender far more than any independent human agency. When the men-bashing grows frequent and egregious, the social statements feel petty and insecure. When speaking about men at large, Casale employs the same blanket generalization techniques used to oppress women and limit their accomplishments historically. In Casale and Leda’s world, men care about useless things, think they know everything, don’t like spending time with their offspring, and care only about their own sexual pleasure in lieu of their partner’s. A lot of these statements try to cash in the blank check established by Me Too culture, a check that by this point many readers may not find themselves able to sign with moral honesty. Though Casale’s gender lecturing may fall short in providing a reliable moral compass, it is absolutely an articulate representation of widely held beliefs, so the results are ripe for ponderance and discussion.
Chomsky is interested primarily in how one measures success. Does it entail the creation of influential art that makes a splash in its field? Given equal consideration is the timeless endeavor of creating a life, raising a new human to become a respectful and productive member of society. The priceless bond between parent and child might be worth it all to cast aside the aforementioned creative ambitions—maybe. There’s a compelling case waiting to be made for either stance, making this book ideal for substantial discussion at book clubs. Even if Leda never gets around to reading Noam Chomsky, her life is rich in human truth, and the novel presents her comprehensive identity with effortless precision and wit. As with Ferrante and Knausgaard, Casale curates the fascinating banalities of a seemingly unremarkable life, portraying it through the written word with equal parts power and subtlety.
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