By Gage Saylor
Participation by Anna Moschovakis.
Coffee House Press, 2022.
There are two groups in the world of Participation: Love and Anti-Love. E, our narrator and protagonist, navigates the ideals and syllabi of these two reading groups, Anti-Love meeting irregularly in the café where E. works and Love meeting virtually and anonymously with one-letter pseudonyms. Preoccupied with duality, Participation considers the gaps between these two seemingly opposite poles (Love and Anti-Love), and the ways in which they overlap, in search of a middle ground that rectifies the halves. Time is unstable in Anna Moschovakis’s novel, as is place, as is reality:
Don’t be fooled by the present tense, the future tense, when they occur, which they will. This is a story about the past. It’s already over. When I say that the story is over, I mean that a merger has happened, which is not to say an acquisition. (This is a story about two groups.) I am also insisting on the safety of storytelling, to protect myself, and you, from a certain pain. Story is an emergency. (4)
A cross between a direct address and a meta-narrative, E., Participation considers not only what stories we tell, but the stories we tell ourselves.
Through E’s reading from the syllabi of Love and Anti-Love and her conversations (one of which buds into a digital romance between her and S, a member of Love), we’re meant to consider how learned ideas shape us. Concepts extrapolated from history, psychology, biology, economics, philosophy are a means to cope with the modern condition and the formations of self, the longing for connection. “The peak-end rule is a psychological heuristic in which people judge an experience largely based on how they felt at its peak (i.e., its most intense point) and at its end, rather than based on the total sum or average of every moment of the experience,” we’re told amidst a sexual fantasy between E. and the capitalist, one of her employers (66). Again, our interpretation of the world is bound to the stories we tell ourselves. The peak-end rule serves as a lens to understand failed relationships, and as such, we’re liable to miss the average for the peak. As E says, “Happiness: It’s all about the ending” (66). Participation never claims that resolute answers hide behind these concepts and anecdotes. Instead, it considers how people employ knowledge to organize their understanding of the world. Participation is a stunning, lyrical novel and invokes poetic forms and devices (like enjambment) to propel the reader through its brief, titled sections that dazzle and spark deep contemplation. As E moves between poles of duality, so do we. Fate versus coincidence. Infinite versus Finite. Coherence versus Cohesion. Pain versus Pleasure. And, of course: Love versus Anti-Love. The neatness of these dualities is a central concern for Moschovakis, and though the book is organized by E’s shifting relationship to Love and Anti-Love, it’s acutely acknowledged as a messy but vital entry point, a means to triangulate the self along a complex and often recursive spectrum.
Midway through the novel, when an environmental disaster strikes, the perspective shifts and Participation sets a new trajectory. When focused on the characters in E’s sphere who have their lives upended in the disaster, the novel shows how we grapple with an increasingly unstable world and the personal ramifications of disaster. But, when representing the scale of the disaster and departing from the principal characters of the novel, Participation slightly falters. In certain “The News Report” sections, individual stakes fall away, focused instead on redacted victims injured, stranded, and dead after the disaster. The book is torn between making the disaster feel “real” and conveying how characters act in response to disaster and adapt their sense of self. Participation exists in a space between a “real” world and a world as intellectual exercise. A book situated in the un-real, in a contemplative non-existent space, becomes more “real” but not real enough in certain middle sections related to the disaster. Participation often defies expectation and acknowledges when it does so, addressing the reader’s expectations about the very novel we’re reading. Choices that leave the reader doubtful or skeptical or confused are often addressed directly:
You may be wondering whether you’ve seen the end of the News Reports. You may be waiting for E to be handed back the narration. You may be waiting for something else. If you resist or even resent being told what you may be waiting for, you aren’t original, which is another way of saying you aren’t alone. (163)
Because the book is so invested in admitting in its potential faults, it’s easier to overlook sections that seem out of place. What it hopes for is a starting point for introspection, no matter the messiness. If Participation is willing to consider its flaws, shouldn’t we consider our own? Instead of leaving us answers, Moschovakis wants to leave us with questions. She wants us to rethink our relationship with the world, ourselves, and the people we choose to love.
Gage Saylor was raised in South Carolina. His work has appeared in Passages North, Moon City Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. He received his M.F.A. at McNeese State University where he was awarded the Ada C. Vincent Scholarship, the Robert Olen Butler Award for Fiction, and the Paul-Avee Prize. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Fiction at Oklahoma State University.