She had a perpetual sense, as she watched the taxi cabs, of being out, far out to sea and alone; she always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day.
(Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, 1925)
But it's there. Dread. Every day is an opportunity to fuck up.
(Assembly, Natasha Brown, 2021)
My copy of Natasha Brown’s ‘Assembly’ features a vividly oversaturated image of a rural country house, the doors and windows tinged a hellish red, as if it were possessed, or a fire was raging from the inside, but leaving the outer shell of the architecture pristinely, eerily untouched. As I read through this brutally slender book, I found myself pondering on the clever similarities - or subversions, perhaps - of Virginia Woolf, particularly her 1925 masterpiece ‘Mrs Dalloway’. It seems I was not alone in thinking this. Numerous critics have drawn comparisons between Virginia Woolf and contemporary virtuoso Natasha Brown, who’s novella was published in 2021 to deservedly rapturous acclaim. The Guardian’s Sara Collins baptised the text in her review as ‘a modern Mrs Dalloway’, while the likes of Olivia Sudjic and The Atlantic’s Megan Garber continue to string together the words of Woolf and Brown, as if Clarissa Dalloway is the proud literary grandmother of Brown’s unnamed, fractured speaker. I found myself reflecting on the validity of these comparisons - Brown’s text was advertised, surely as a promotional strategy, as a glowing sister to Woolf, along with poet Claudia Rankine and philosopher Frantz Fanon; Assembly explicitly draws on Rankine and her notion of the historical self, enumerated in her 2014 work Citizen: An American Lyric. As Rankine states:
Then the voice in your head silently tells you to take your foot off your throat, because getting along shouldn’t just be an ambition.
‘Just getting along’ is a majorly different procedure for the characters of Brown and Woolf. For one, it is maintaining her identity, for the other, it is the struggle to even devise it. Here ‘Assembly’ diverts; indeed it offers some of the richest indications of where literature today, in the form of Natasha Brown and her contemporaries, may be heading. ‘Mrs Dalloway’ itself marked a moment. For the fluid expression of interiority and consciousness, womanhood, mental health and temporality, it stands as a signpost of where literature would change its direction. So too, it seems, does ‘Assembly’. In their reviews, Max Porter suggested that ‘Assembly’ ‘moves the English novel on’, corroborating with the view of Ali Smith, who said; ‘I’m full of hope, on reading it, that this is the kind of book that doesn’t just mark the moment things change, but also makes that change possible.’
Brown epigraphs her novella with a line from Ecclesiastes, the chapter of the Bible in which Koholet, a king and teacher (some also ascribe this chapter to King Solomon) shares the wisdom he has accumulated over his life: ‘This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind’. Koholet argues that work, earthly possessions, and even wisdom itself is futile and without value, and that only God (and worshipping Him) can imbue human existence with any tangible meaning - ‘Vanity of vanities! All is futile!’, laments Koholet. The etymology of the word ‘ecclesiastes’ has further bearing itself upon an interpretation of Brown’s text - the word is taken from the Greek ekklesia, which translates to assembly. Some interpret the word to mean a member of an assembly, but others suggest the term refers to someone who holds public assembly, such as a teacher or preacher. Brown’s narrator, who goes into schools to emptily enthuse on the benefits of a job she despises to impressionable students, could be cast as such a modern ekklesia. The object to which the epigraph addresses itself is obscure - could it be the concerns of Koholet, or something more specific? It feels like a reference to the text itself - the futility of literature to imbue meaning, perhaps, in this late ‘post-postmodern’ age of the world’s experience, one where art becomes an empty social statement for those who consume it, and language itself deconstructs anything the Black subject may try to assemble from it:
My only tool of expression is the language of this place. Its bias and assumptions permeate all reason I could construct from it.
Yet, on the surface, like the well constructed edifice of a stately home, ‘Assembly’ and ‘Mrs Dalloway’ are strikingly alike - a woman reflects on her life and identity as she prepares for a party during the evening. Behind the windows of plot, the structural and textural interior of each story could not be more different. Woolf, in her impressionistic and fluid style, flickers between the interiors of numerous characters in a formless, embedded narratorial consciousness; it is without breaks, a flowing, burbling, persistent mass of interchanging lives and experiences. Brown takes a jolting, yet refreshingly different direction. Brown’s unnamed narrator, a woman of colour working for a high end financial company in London, does not exactly tell a story. Rather it is a jagged, disembodied cluster of vignettes, impressions and reflections, diced and sliced throughout the pages. It details her encounters with the micro and macro aggressions of casual racism, sexism and classism as they intersect within her person, pulling apart her identity as the text itself is left similarly crumbling. The party at the end of the text is not thrown by her narrator, but her boyfriend's parents, and the final assembly is one that leaves her perpetually othered, a spectacle for the other attendees; she is made neither a real member of the assembly, or given the opportunity to assemble herself. I may be hyper-analysing, but the spaces in the text feel just as pronounced and considered as the words themselves. These spaces, the suffocating whiteness of the blank page, isolates and shreds the black words printed upon them, envelops and destructs any chance of a cohesive or flowing, Woolfian narrative. Brown’s use of the material texture of her book is both breathtakingly inventive and jarringly potent.
Clarissa, as an individual, has to manually task herself with her own ‘assembly’; ‘But she must go back. She must assemble,’ she indirectly commands herself after hearing of the death of Septimus Smith. ‘That was herself when some effort, some call on her to be herself, drew the parts together…into one centre… and made a meeting point, a radiancy…’ she earlier considered, viewing her face in the mirror. A meeting point - an assembly, perhaps? Indeed, Clarissa’s purpose in a world in which ‘not for one moment did she believe in God’ is to bring people together, assemble them, in the form of parties and gatherings - in a world without God, people must be left to create their own meaning. And these meanings are centred in the notion, for Woolf, of the assembly, the connections between people. The opportunity to create meaning in the cohesive, the singular, and the connected, is not one afforded to Brown’s narrator, due to the toll racism and prejudice, even within the echelons of exterior success, takes on her interior. Sara Collins expresses it beautifully:
Brown plunges us into a single consciousness that is being forced to split. In doing so, she pinpoints how being black in modern Britain involves a disorienting simultaneity Woolf couldn’t have imagined – being cleaved mercilessly between the sane world and the insane world, at once.
I love Woolf’s writings dearly, and her novels and personal correspondences have impacted my life irrevocably. But it must be acknowledged that Woolf’s sometimes uncomfortable positions on race, class and privilege make the comparisons to Natasha Brown’s work more complicated. In my own view, Woolf herself, and her monolithic position as a composer of 20th century literary consciousness, represents the oppressive whiteness and elitism that ‘Assembly’ so brilliantly dismantles; so could these Woolfian evocations be an indirect surgery of the (white) British literary canon? The snobbish parents who throw their anniversary party at the end of ‘Assembly’ could well be Mr and Mrs Richard Dalloway in another time - a party in which the woman of colour is excluded from the ‘assembly’ of consciousness and experience, neither a part of the assembly or the assembler themselves. As Rankine stresses, however, ‘context is not meaning’. As fascinating as it proves for critical comparison, it is wrong, indeed a disservice, to only find meaning in Brown’s text through the backdrop of Woolf, as the text stands alone as a giant achievement for British literature - if Brown echoes Woolf, it is only to take the bricks of literary Britain and reassemble them into something truer, harsher and tighter. Is Brown writing back to the racism of literary Britain, and their figureheads? We learn that Clarissa, at the start of the novel, has recently recovered from her ‘illness’ - whether that be the Spanish Flu, or Major Depression (which Dr Bradshaw treats her for) is undecided by critics. Brown’s narrator is succumbing, even surrendering herself, to an illness slowly eating her body away, in white cancerous chunks like those that split and occupy the novella’s textual space. The cancer of oppressive whiteness, and its terminal capacities, slowly destroy the singularity of black consciousness in ‘Assembly’, where a recovery such as Clarissa’s feels increasingly impossible.
Smith and Porter are justified, however. ‘Assembly’ feels essential, and, perhaps contradictorily, singular in its purpose. It is not written for the consumption of white people, either earnest liberals or ignorant right-wingers, literary elites or to the entire rotting island of Conservative Great Britain, festering its own self righteousness as it leaves its subjects to freeze and starve and work themselves to death, as politicians drinks martinis and cool themselves on the breeze from the void they rule in the middle of the ocean. Not for any of this is ‘Assembly’ written - unlike ‘Mrs Dalloway’, which revels in the beauty of London, a glimpse of the King and Queen and the presence of politicians at parties, the supposed glory of colonial Britannia. ‘Assembly’ is much closer to the truth. It demands its own integrity. It demands its own space. It is not written for the socio-historic benefit of others, like an anti-racism Instagram post, but for the value of its own existence, the importance of a truth that is not designed for consumption or easy reading. It demands to own itself. For that, Brown deserves every accolade going.
In her essay, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, written in 1924 during the genesis of ‘Mrs Dalloway’, Woolf writes of her vision of the future of literature, embodied in the fictional character of ‘Mrs Brown’, ‘captured’ by her author, a woman devised and expressed through the zenith of artistic endeavour:
Moreover, let us prophesy; Mrs Brown will not always escape. One of these days Mrs Brown will be caught. The capture of Mrs Brown is the title of the next chapter in the history of literature; and, let us prophesy again, the chapter will be one of the most important, the most epoch-making of them all.
I doubt Woolf ever considered that ‘Mrs Brown’, her symbol of the possibilities of literature, would take the form of a Black British woman, on the train to work in her pencil skirt, and that jagged, jarring, brilliantly sharp shards of narrative would line her emotional interior. What made Mrs Dalloway so innovative, and so to ‘Assembly’, is their inventive attempts to reach the singular truth, the closest version possible, of the complexities of human consciousness. As the generator and subject of art both, this interiority is as boundless as the imagination that fuels it. To capture such a vivid and powerful version of it, so lucidly and inventively, makes ‘Assembly’ indeed a singular artistic achievement. Personally, I don’t think we have to wait much longer for the next epoch-making chapter of literature, with the arrival of Miss (Natasha) Brown.
For here she is.
Brown, Natasha 2021. Assembly (U.K: Penguin).
Collins, Sara 2021. ‘Assembly by Natasha Brown Review - A Modern Mrs Dalloway’.
Garber, Megan 2021. ‘The Great Novel of the Internet Was Published in 1925’.
Rankine, Claudia 2014. Citizen: An American Lyric (U.K: Penguin).
Woolf, Virginia 1925. Mrs Dalloway (U.K: Penguin) 2008. Selected Essays ed. David Bradshaw (U.K: Oxford World Classics).