By Meaghan O'Brien
Jana Casale finds beauty in the truth of life’s small moments, the everyday occurrences that make up every day. In her debut novel, The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky, protagonist Leda lives her relatively ordinary life, told through vignettes of smaller moments in her life. We meet her in college in Boston, as she tries to force a meet-cute with a boy in a coffee shop who’s reading Noam Chomsky. It doesn’t go very well. And the title is all you need to know about the Noam Chomsky.
The germ of the idea came from a conversation between one of her professors and a classmate, who was telling the professor all about the project she was doing about Noam Chomsky.
“But have you read any Noam Chomsky?” the professor asked.
“Well, no,” the classmate replied.
It was an odd moment that stuck with Casale, enough so that it spawned her BFA fiction thesis at Emerson in 2011. There she worked with a thesis adviser who understood her project and encouraged her to experiment. Next, she took the book overseas to Oxford University, where she earned her masters and worked on the book again, turning it from one thesis into another one. In the UK, she learned how differently they teach and consider writing, both because of the long literary tradition and the much smaller market. But that strengthened her resolve, and belief in her own project. And by the end, she had a book that examined modern womanhood from, as Casale put it in an interview with Powell’s “the moment she [Leda] decides to read the book to the moment she never reads it.”
Jana (which, by the way, is pronounced “Yah-nah”) wanted to write about specifically female experiences, especially how millennial women navigate normal life. “I think women, on a very molecular level, face constant tension and angst and complications in their minds that I find fascinating and like writing about,” she told me.
Leda’s college life in Boston, as a writing student, is greatly influenced by Jana’s own. For Leda’s life as a married woman, a mother, and an older woman, Jana (who is married) drew greatly on her mother’s experiences, and those of the other women in her life.
The small moments that Casale deals with are ones that average people do over and over—getting up in the morning, running errands, going shopping—to the point that they might lose meaning. But Casale, instead of ignoring those moments, zeroed in on them to find the importance therein. “That’s what we spend so much of our time doing,” she remarked. “We spend so much time doing nothing, or doing the same thing we did the day before, and yet there’s so much conflict in that.”
She really does get into the minutiae. There is a chapter in which Leda walks to CVS to buy paper plates, and then walk back home. But through small, sometimes mundane settings, Casale finds a deeper truth. “It’s a way to talk about bigger issues and get to the rawness of the thing,” she said. “Everything that we do that we don’t HAVE to do—eating, sleeping, drinking—is about understanding ourselves better.”
While Jana always believed in her project and in the story she wanted to tell, that doesn’t mean that she went through the writing process without fears. One particular fear was that if she delved too far into particular women’s issues, then the book wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Casale deals a lot with body image in the book—a sometimes intimate issue that many women wrestle with every day. An issue that, if left out of this book of the minutiae of the modern woman’s inner life, would make such a portrait seem incomplete. But she feared how readers and critics would treat her work because she talks about body image and other definitively feminine experiences. “I don’t want this to be a body image book, I don’t want people to discredit it because of that,” she said.
There is one chapter in the book where Leda goes bathing suit shopping and struggles with the experience. Casale had an epiphany while writing this scene that she particularly feared might not be “serious” enough: it actually isn’t at all small or trivial. “So many women spend their lives hating their bodies and that’s very hurtful and central to who we are as people and it’s also devastating, and it shouldn’t be that way.” She lamented that this fixation is often dismissed as women being vain or silly, instead of devastating. Jana decided to keep the scene in the book and, if all of the critical praise and appearances on must-read lists stand for anything, she’s being taken seriously.
And that is why The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky is an important book: it gives the experiences of normal women their proper due, and finds deeper value in the seemingly trivial. It’s about finding meaning in the fact that a girl never got around to reading a specific book. And, in case you were wondering, Casale did, eventually, read Noam Chomsky.
Meaghan O'Brien is a writer, editor, and copyeditor with a worrying book habit. Her work has appeared on Bustle, Sound of Boston, and Blast Magazine. She lives in Boston with her partner and their permanent houseguest, a plastic skeleton named Bob. Follow her at @AndMeaghanSays or at @lookatthoseendpapers.