The Material by Camille Bordas - review by Julia Jordan

Julia Jordan

Serious Business, Being Funny

The Material


Serpent’s Tail 346pp £16.99

To see the most mundane of their experiences, relationships and idle thoughts as material is what writers do. Writers, indeed artists of all stripes, do not merely live their day-to-day existence but treat it as the raw stuff of life, to be shaped into art. Or, as with the trainee stand-up comics depicted in Camille Bordas’s brilliant novel, mined for laughs. One thing this novel suggests is that transforming life into material is something we all do, all the time. Consciousness itself is a bit like a relentless gag-maker, never quite allowing us to be in the moment, always training an eye on perfecting the story, always subjecting itself to critique.

The Material is set over a single day and revolves around the students and staff of an MFA programme in stand-up at the University of Chicago. It is, among other things, a campus novel, tapping the comic seam of faculty meetings in an English department (‘the Victorianists always made cookies’). Stand-up provides Bordas with an analogue for writing. As she has said in an interview, ‘It’s ripe for very raw emotion. It’s kind of like a more violent MFA in creative writing – it’s brutal to be up on stage, alone, having to sustain people’s attention. It’s a relentless kind of bravery.’ This brutality is, we understand, inherent to all art, and these characters are condemned to submit themselves and their ‘bits’ of material to politely vicious criticism of the kind that forces the budding comedian to go home and ‘consider other possible career paths’.

Olivia is the character most defined by this ‘relentless kind of bravery’, while her twin, Sally, remains usefully sceptical, espousing a despicably normie position: ‘this isn’t drama. This is my life, Olivia.’ To sustain a belief in the distinction between the two, the novel suggests, you have to be –

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