The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
By Anna North
Blue Rider Press, 2015
What matters more: making great art or being kind? Anna North raises this question by creating a protagonist who cannot, for the life of her, do both at once. The Life and Death of Sophie Stark circles a highly talented but socially illiterate filmmaker, who co-opts other people’s life stories for her films and inevitably winds up sacrificing their feelings for the good of her work. The pattern, whose motivation is always partly erotic, plays out with three different muses: the first is Daniel, a beautiful college basketball star whom Sophie films stalker-style, sleeps with for a while, and eventually leaves for a fellowship. Next is Allison, who graduates from “one hundred percent trash” to become Sophie’s leading lady, both onscreen and off—but she walks after Sophie deliberately triggers her traumatic rape memories to get a better shot. Then there’s Jacob, the “artisanally bearded” indie musician whom Sophie impulsively marries, then alienates by making a very different movie about his mother’s suicide than the one he wanted. Isabella, Sophie’s fourth film and the only one she makes without inflicting collateral damage, falls comparatively flat. Shortly afterwards—well, the spoiler’s in the title already.
The novel pursues its tragic trajectory in a circuitous way, by channeling different voices from different periods of Sophie’s short life, only roughly observing chronology. Allison, who stars in both Marianne and in Isabella, gets three chapters, while Sophie’s brother Robbie gets two, telling us first about childhood and college, and later about her final days. Jacob takes his turn before Daniel does. The outlier of the bunch is George, a lonely L.A. producer who houses Sophie for a week after she shows up uninvited, and helps her to negotiate the deal for Isabella. He knows her least, but supports her ruthless pursuit of artistic integrity more than anyone, making it all the more poignant when she disappears from his place in the middle of the night with only a Thanks and sorry note hidden under a box of Pop-Tarts. Sophie is the nexus uniting this group of narrators, all of whom have been injured at worst, emotionally absorbed at best, and profoundly shaped in any case, by this elusive character.
Changing narrators with each chapter provides North with an easy solution to the problem of shifting focus, allowing her to signal tidy transitions between different characters’ perspectives. It’s the same narrative configuration George R. R. Martin uses to manage his densely plotted Song of Ice and Fire series—and indeed, it’s part of what makes those books so readily adaptable for the screen in Game of Thrones. In the case of Sophie Stark, these cinematic cuts between different characters and settings work to build a subtle sympathy with the artistic medium the novel is most interested in. But the most pronounced effect of this narrative structure is the way it augments the sense of obscurity shrouding the novel’s strange protagonist. The author surrounds her main character with peripheral ones, telling the story through everybody’s point of view but Sophie’s, leaving a void in the middle where its eponymous life force should be. This technique lets her formally enact the book’s central character trope—that of the unknowable creative genius.
What structure subtly suggests, characters confirm in no uncertain terms, making statements like “I … spent months talking to the people Stark loved most, and I still don’t understand her.” This line is written by Ben Martin, an established film critic who has followed Sophie’s career since his days as a reporter for the quirkily titled Burnell College Mongoose. Ben Martin is an unusual sixth cast member. He is mentioned only passingly in the narrative proper; instead, his voice comes to us in the form of his reviews, which pop up after nearly every chapter, and which perform a great deal of narrative work in the few pages they occupy. Indeed, it is largely through Martin’s positive reviews that readers are asked to buy into Sophie’s extraordinary directorial talent.
North is a convincing ventriloquist of the critical voice: fittingly, we can hear Martin’s pretension diminishing as his years (and the chapters) progress. By the time he’s a household name, he’s making complex yet vague observations about Sophie’s work—there’s “a certain quality I associate with Stark’s films,” he writes, “an attention to framing that seems to convey a subject’s emotional state almost by accident.” North uses the authority she builds for him to turn not just Sophie’s talent, but also her unknowability, into faits accomplis: as Martin tells us, even he can’t understand the filmmaker after spending time with her loved ones and a career on her work. Through him, North asks us to accept that we are simply not meant to be able to know the woman we’re reading about—which would be easier to do if she didn’t seem so clearly to be an asshole.
Sophie certainly behaves like one, particularly in telling Peter, the actor who plays opposite Allison in Marianne, to panic the rape survivor with an aggressive kiss. It’s actually hard to believe that a director could lead an actor blindly in this way:
She told me that because of something that happened to you, you might get really mad if I tried to kiss you. That you might even leave the set. But that I shouldn’t worry because that was part of it. Whatever happened to you—she didn’t say what—was going to make the movie better.
We hear Peter’s second-hand account, here, and we see the vodka bottle-smashing breakup that ensues between Allison and Sophie. But we never get access to the mind that is motivated—by ambition? By artistic instinct? By some neuro-chemical misfiring?—to such an emotionally violent act. Instead, Sophie’s friends describe her as an odd duck, someone who’s “terrible at being a normal person and doing normal-person things,” and whose ethically dubious behavior is what allows her to make good art—without providing quite enough information for us to be able to agree actively. For those readers who feel fairly convinced of the asshole theory—for those who are actually intrigued to see North staking a claim for this kind of female character, one who is sociopathic in the service of her work—the book can at times feel frustratingly cramped.
The narrative embargo on Sophie’s voice also affects how North scripts this character’s dialogue. In the novel’s opening pages, Sophie’s colloquial flatness is one of the first things that stands out. Listen to her explaining to Robbie why she dropped out of the group of girlfriends she tried joining in college:
To me, hanging out together was like acting—putting on the right face, laughing at the right time. It was interesting, and I liked it in a way, but I didn’t need it like Jenny did. That’s when I knew that I could spend time with people but I was never really going to be friends with them the way they were with each other. And so I just stopped trying.
This passage seems to reverse the adage of the writers’ workshop (Iowa, in North’s case)—show, don’t tell. As someone who studies English literature of the 18th century—which operates in a telling mode more than in a showing one, and is uniquely interesting because of it—I’ve often wondered what a told novel would look like now, if a contemporary writer were to challenge the hegemony of that old craft rule. North does so in both of the novel’s narrative modes—in scenes of dialogue and in those of summary—with mixed results.
In the case of dialogue, the author’s reliance on telling seems to be a symptom of the novel’s demanding structure, more than a deliberate attempt to renovate conventions of narration. Because Sophie has no chapter of her own, the only avenue for hints of her inner life to come through is dialogue. As a result, North often wedges in too much background information when Sophie is talking: in the most heavy-handed instances, she no longer sounds quite like a real person. Look again at Sophie’s account of failing at female friendship, above: there’s nothing there, stylistically, to distinguish the prose as speech rather than narration. She often sounds like she’s explaining herself to an audience rather than conversing naturally, and over the course of the novel, it starts to chafe. North’s insistent efforts to make this character enigmatic have an unfortunately ironic side effect: more often than being mysterious, she instead comes off as obvious, even flat.
Sophie’s language is spare and unbeautiful; her neutral voice continually reminds us that she is not an essence in herself, but rather “like one of those crabs, where it builds itself out of parts of other animals,” to use the analogy she draws in describing herself to Jacob. Her undifferentiated style of speaking is strange, and often grating—but it is there for a reason. And we’re not the only ones who can hear it. When she unfeelingly informs Daniel that she is leaving college for a film fellowship in New York, he writes: “I’d always liked her plain way of talking, like everything was simple and obvious. Now it made me feel like an idiot.” Her peculiar way of using language is meant to symbolize her under-nuanced, black-and-white view of the world—the “fundamental flaw” of social understanding that causes her final film to fail, as Martin argues in his review of Isabella.
Telling serves more satisfying ends in passages of summary, the novel’s dominant narrative mode. North is very good at plotting: she devises unusual, highly specific backstories for each of her narrators, letting them emerge through well-executed transitions into flashback. The most affecting of these storylines is the one about Jacob’s mother, who was born with disrupted finger bones and underwent multiple reconstructive surgeries in childhood to fix them. North’s gift for evocative specificity comes out strongly here, in Jacob’s listing impulse:
And then it was over. She was in the tenth grade, and her hands were as good as they were ever going to be. They turned out to be pretty good. She could write and draw and braid hair; she could count change and wear gloves and use chopsticks. She could even play the trumpet, and she was in the school marching band for a year until she quit, not because the fingering was hard on her new hands but because she was tone-deaf. There were only a few things she couldn’t do, like play cat’s cradle, fasten a necklace, give someone the finger.
In moments of retrospection, like this one, North’s storytelling really comes alive. In fact, the long stretches in which characters look back, and tell us what came before, are the smoothest and most engaging ones the novel has to offer.
Elegant design is essential in a story told from six different points of view. Equally important is the ability to evoke voice stylistically. North is attuned to linguistic personality, and capable of generating distinct ones in text. The high point of the novel, in this regard, is also Jacob’s chapter, in which the author achieves real flow with this perceptive, melancholy character; she also inhabits Allison’s voice comfortably.
But all of the narrators have moments of wobbling, particularly when the book’s deeper arguments and conclusions are channeled through them too explicitly. Hints of a logic that sounds more like author than character are most evident in Daniel’s chapter, as they stand in such blunt contrast with his Midwestern jock’s voice, which is conjured through a rambling style, and strategic errors in usage, like comma splices and putting adjectives where adverbs should be. This description of Sophie’s second film—Marianne—gives a good idea of the way Daniel speaks:
It wasn’t the plot so much as the way everything looked, all closed up and closed in, like when Marianne was cooped up with her family and she couldn’t get a breath of fresh air or enough space to lie down safe in, even. And the only time you get a break is at the very end, when she stabs Bean and then you see the whole empty parking lot and the trees and the street, nobody on it anywhere.
Now listen to him trying to reassure Sophie that she’s not a bad person:
I’ve thought about this. Some people, regular people like me, we play by the rules. We act a certain way, we say what we’re supposed to say. But if everybody was like that, the world would be a pretty boring place. That’s why there are people like you, who shake things up a little bit. And maybe it’s not always easy for the people around you, but overall you make the world better for everyone.
This sounds far too wise for Daniel’s character. It’s a good example of something that happens often in this book. When Robbie, watching his sister leave for New York, tells us he “was afraid of what she was capable of”—or when Allison compares herself to her alcoholic stepfather in saying, “sometimes the sick part of me just seems like the truest part”—we sense that the characters North has designed are not strong enough to carry out the thematic ambitions she has for the book.
North’s use of characters as mouthpieces for necessary information has something to do with her peculiar style. Her consistently basic and unadorned writing could be a holdover from the literary mode in which she made her debut: her first book, America Pacifica, was a dystopian Young Adult novel. Also consistent with the features of this genre is North’s skill in plotting. In her next novel, a freer experimentation with style might allow for some subtler means of presenting thematic information, and developing more complex voices for characters.
In the end, the novel’s poly-vocal form proves to be the source of its strength as well as of its weakness. Sophie Stark is nobody’s novel—a narrative paradigm that proves as challenging as it is interesting. On one hand, building the novel as a series of intimately linked stories told by a group of people who all have Sophie in common is what leads to its narrative variety, and the page-turning intricacy of its plot. On the other hand, the lack of an overarching narratorial intelligence restricts how the novel can project its deeper meaning—a technical challenge that it never quite manages to overcome.
Katie Gemmill is a writer and a PhD student in the Department of English at Columbia University. Her reviews have appeared in Public Books and Open Letters Monthly. She is a native of Canada, now living in Brooklyn, New York.