Smyles (Iris Has Free Time, 2013) delivers a maddening and moving not-quite-novel, not-quite-memoir about a wayward eccentric who can’t connect with others.
Depending on how you look at it, Iris is a writer who spends not a moment of this novel writing—except that she has somehow managed to finish every page the reader holds. Instead of working, Iris thinks about her inability to maintain healthy relationships while simultaneously trying to frighten her friends and lovers away. As with most precocious would-be intellectuals, she’s able to list plenty of reasons why friendship is just too much of a hassle, even wishing for a Facebook- and Kickstarter-esque service that would allow “friends” to support one another monetarily in lieu of actually—God forbid—spending time together. In one of the book’s many hapless episodes, Iris even attempts to scare off a particularly boring boyfriend by popping in multiple documentaries about historic explorations gone haywire—the Donner Party, Shackleton & Co.—right before the doomed couple has sex. “I press on,” Iris confides to her reader, “viewing my debasement not as a failure of will but the final straw in a heroic tale of survival.” Characteristically, debasement is easier for Iris than actually cutting ties and facing the world alone, a reality she attempts to avoid at all costs. Emotional survival is the name of the game, since Iris lives in Manhattan thanks to an influx of cash from her parents that her brother dubs “I-fare, ‘like welfare but for Iris.' " At once both tone-deaf and bitingly funny, Smyles has created a contemporary portrait of the disaffected artist barely making her way in the big city, facing no repercussions except her own loneliness. Structured in small episodes like Homer’s Odyssey, which serves as an epigraph for the book, Smyles’ adventuress calls to mind a Jane Bowles heroine who's read Ulysses while scrolling in despair through 10 open apps on her iPhone. Smyles’ portrayal of Iris in all her weirdness offers much to recognize, fear, and embrace.
Walking the line between self-obsession and thoughtful portraiture, Smyles explores an inextricable link between sex and loneliness, self-loathing and self-acceptance in contemporary New York.