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Best Summary and Analysis: Worry by Alexandra Tanner List of Characters and Major Themes Analysis and Study Guide

Worry (2024) by Alexandra Tanner reviewed

In college, my friend recorded an unreleased podcast episode where I discussed my approach to writing fiction. My mind had been corrupted by the popularity of autofiction in the 2010s and I said something like, the point of my writing is to capture life as directly and accurately as possible, without embellishments. Life has no narrative arc or structure, no transcendent purpose, and to write should be an exercise in refining our experience of our own real lives. We should write to reflect upon and understand our direct relationship with the world as it actually is.

When I graduated college, I truly wanted to be a writer, but writing seemed like this fantastical career out of reach of my talents, connections, and financial means. In terms of my actual writing "career," I did some poetry, had a few publications in small-to-mid-sized indie magazines, moved to Chicago, had a chapbook published, did more readings, but eventually more or less stopped writing. Instead I ended up doing my non-writer plan B career, where I spent eight years getting a shitty tech job, then a slightly less shitty tech job, then a good tech job. It's only earlier this year that I started writing again, on this extremely unread blog (which I increasingly love).

It was during my college years that I met Shy Watson, through Twitter, and invited her to a reading at a yearly arts festival (which has a Wikipedia article despite being flagged for for years for not even remotely clearing the notability guidelines). We remained friends — she lived in Chicago briefly at the same time as me, I did a reading with her for my chapbook once in Brooklyn, etc. Shy was in New York last month and invited me to a reading, only the second I'd been to in the last five years, where I briefly met Alexandra Tanner, who was also reading, and I loved her short story, then later discovered she was about to release a book, got a copy, read it, and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Worry is very funny and feels shockingly contemporary (references to TikTok threw me off a little). It is a novel about family, precarious and alienating office work, living in a city, dating in a city, and worrying. It is especially about examining a particular form of modern alienation and subjectivity that comes from living in a world whose emotional legibility is constantly and maddenlingly absurd. It is a novel in which, according to a one-star Goodreads review, "there is no plot," "nothing happens," and "not a single character [is] remotely likeable." In other words, my favorite kind of writing.

This is, of course, a common criticism of a certain kind of story, and I sometimes wonder what people mean when they say "nothing happens." Obviously, a lot happens in Worry. The book covers a year(ish?) of time where Jules Gold lives with her sister, gets in fights with her mother, hooks up with her ex-boyfriend, loses her job, gets in fights with her sister, scrolls Instagram, gets a dog, gets a new job, goes to thanksgiving, doesn't go to a high school reunion, and so on. But these events, which bear a resemblance to the normal experience of many of our lives, often overlooked by narrative fiction, evidently don't count as "things happening."

Worry is also a novel about the internet. In the words of The Washington Post, it is an extremely online novel. Its style reminded me of Jenny Odell's brief description of what it's like to read Twitter in her 2019 essay Why Does this Feel So Bad?

For example, let’s take a look at my Twitter feed right now. I see the following:

Put so matter-of-factly, the experience of reading Twitter sounds completely insane, deeply unsettling. How could one possibly process this information in an emotionally legible way? By 2019 (the year Worry takes place), this "Twitter-style" context-free rapid-fire arrangement of information had become not just a common outlook, but also the character of the world itself. When cities and political institutions are marked by a rootless nihilism, how can we possibly properly bear witness to suffering? From where can we draw our moral force?

This free associative set of images is Worry's emotional arc — the difficulty of developing a normal or healthy consciousness in a world that is increasingly insane. The book's narrative style captures this incongruity: serious, horrifying things happen after or between absurd, funny, alienating things, all in quick succession. Characters have absolutely bizarre and inscrutable responses to terrifying and serious events (the scene where Jules's high school friend talks about her stillborn child is one of the more shocking), and the reader and narrator is left overwhelmed and bewildered.

Worry offers little escape from this mode of experience — but rather a clear (and frequently hilarious) description of it. Jules feels trapped: in her relationships, in her life, in her living situation with her sister who she simultaneously loves and feels suffocated by, and is vaguely searching for some escape but cannot find it. Her primary strategy is to scroll social media, in search of some thing which will vaguely shake her out of "it" and fix her life. This is a feeling I relate to. I find myself ocassionally hopelessly addicted to my phone. Something like, I want a life full of great and interesting experiences, and the overwhelming feeling of social media is a sort of substitution. It's not exactly pleasant, but, in Jules's description of her obsession with Mormon mommy bloggers, feels like "research" for some undetermined purpose. Even near the end of the novel, when the mild irritation of the rest of the book is replaced with genuine trauma, Jules's response is to scroll Instagram (but more intensely than any time before), a particularly contemporary form of emotional dysregulation.

In an interview with Literary Hub, Tanner says:

My dream novel is just reading about the boring minutiae of someone’s days over and over and over. I would read a thousand pages of just someone doing the same thing and having this slow, almost so slow it’s unnoticeable change or struggle. Maybe I’ll write something like that one day, but Worry wasn’t the book for it.

This answer reminded me of Megan Boyle's Liveblog, or maybe Lucy Ellman's Ducks, Newburyport. I would like to see Tanner write a similarly ambitious anti-narrative ultra-realist encyclopedic novel in this vein. The world is a very strange place, and a contemporary realist novel like Worry maybe helps us understand what it is actually like, helps us organize and contextualize our experiences. This kind of writing is maybe, even, increasingly essential.