Jana Casale’s debut novel, The Girl Who Never Read Noam Chomsky (Vintage Books, 2019), raises important questions about what it means to be female in contemporary American society. More significantly, it raises questions about how female creativity, subjectivity, and accountability operate within a capitalist system that gives the impression of being progressive, liberal, democratic, and individualistic. At its root, this is a novel about what happens to a girl who never reads Noam Chomsky. Casale takes readers on a journey through the life of the main character, Leda, and all the decisions she makes as a young college student, wife, mother, middle-aged woman, grandmother, and finally, an old woman on her death bed. This novel, at its heart, is an investigative text with deep implications, asking readers to think critically about what is missing from the contemporary female experience, and how it is ultimately stifling, oppressive, and unsatisfactory.
What stands out about Leda is that she is highly imaginative, creative, intelligent, funny, and independent. What stands out even more about Leda is that she wants to be a writer. This is the major desire that the novel spins around and this is also what makes Leda compelling as a main character. However, Leda is also emotionally fragile, obsessive, and lonely. Her creative drive and her personal insecurities are in constant conflict and this is something she never completely reconciles with. She looks for solutions within the framework of contemporary American society that are cosmetic rather than substance-based, and as a result, she never develops a full sense of self. For example, on the night before her first date with John, her future husband, she imagines a highly-idealized version of their dinner conversation:
I’ll say: You look handsome.
And he’ll say: You look gorgeous.
And I’ll say: Thanks.
And then maybe I’ll wink or shrug my shoulders, kind of.
And then at dinner he’ll say: What do you like to write?
And I’ll say: I like writing about women. I write for women.
And he’ll say: You only write for women?
And I’ll say: Yes, I’m fine with that. Aren’t you?
And he’ll say: Yes.
And he’ll smile in the way he does. He’ll get what I mean. He’ll see me as I am.
This imagined conversation represents Leda’s biggest dream: to be a feminist writer who is loved by a man for who she is. But the big issue of the novel is that Leda never gets to find out who she really is because she lacks the inner strength to turn her imagined self into a reality.
Noam Chomsky becomes an important figure in the novel even though he is only mentioned a handful of times. Leda, after seeing an attractive boy reading Noam Chomsky in a café, purchases one of Chomsky’s books, and then never reads it. This is where the novel takes on a double meaning. It is very much about Leda’s life, but it is also about what her life could have been. This gets more pronounced as the novel progresses and it turns into a blinking red light as she gets older and continually makes the choice not to read Noam Chomsky. Instead, he becomes subsumed into her romanticized world:
When she came across the Noam Chomsky, she flipped through the pages; they were still so crisp and free of fingerprints or stains. The book felt weighted and smooth in her hand. She smelled it again for the second time since she bought it, and tucked it about halfway down the pile. She figured she’d get to it before John and she would be back in New England. She imagined herself sitting in a fancy window seat of an old Victorian looking out on the bay, reading Chomsky and sipping some kind of lemonade or pina colada. She sealed up the box with red duct tape and wrote “Books” with a thick black Sharpie across the side. She took a step back and looked at her books all taped up like that in their box, and then she drew a heart around it. “Books,” it said in a heart.
From this point on, Noam Chomsky takes on a deeper, more symbolic meaning. He represents radical political thought. Even more importantly, he represents a possible gateway to other radical thinkers such as Howard Zinn, Michel Foucault, Frantz Fanon, Adrienne Rich, and Angela Davis—thinkers who could provide Leda with the necessary tools to imagine alternative paths that might help her become a fully-realized human being. Never reading Noam Chomsky means she never develops creatively, intellectually, or politically and her sense of self as a woman is often defined by capitalistic, patriarchal notions of what a woman is even as she resists these definitions. She ends up giving into them. Readers begin to wonder what might happen if Leda actually read Noam Chomsky; this is the invisible thread that runs through the novel.
Leda tries very hard to be a progressive woman who is well-principled in feminist thought, but because she struggles to develop a sense of self, she struggles to make use of her political beliefs. In a key moment in the novel, Leda is confronted with having to decide whether or not she should allow her daughter to play with Barbie dolls. In the chapter, A Conversation with a Three-Year-Old About a Barbie, she comes to the following important conclusion:
Leda’s first reaction was to tell Annabelle that she couldn’t have the Barbie. That there would just have to be something else in the toy store and that that was the end of it, but then she thought about what her daughter had actually said. She knew that her child did just want to like what she liked. And really, wasn’t that enough? Was there anything wrong with her daughter sporting a hyper sense of femininity that was centered around princesses and ponies and bright floral bikinis? Could she really condemn the child for being herself and for just liking something? How was it fair to tell her that everything she loved wasn’t important?
Leda is not inherently wrong in thinking that she should let her daughter go toward the things she naturally likes and responds to. The problem is that they are in this particular store in the first place, because they are Christmas shopping, and Leda had to bribe her daughter by letting her pick any toy of her choice if she behaved during the shopping trip. The problem begins with Leda. Because Leda fails to develop her own interests, her daughter struggles. A Barbie is a toy, and toys are designed to assist children in their creative and imaginative development. Leda fails to recognize that what her daughter actually needs is creative nurturing that stems from the self rather than outside sources with prescribed notions about gender and selfhood. Because Leda is unable to provide a deeper sense of personal development for her daughter, she overcompensates: “That Christmas Annabelle got six new Barbies and a Barbie Dreamhouse.” What Leda is really giving her daughter is a skewed sense of self. Her inability to achieve a raised consciousness has severe consequences for her daughter, who can never know fully know who she really is or what she really likes. The cycle continues.
In this novel, a world that is white, patriarchal, middle-class, and capitalistic is the dominant world. There is no class consciousness, no race consciousness, and no true personal development on Leda’s part. However, The Girl Who Never Reads Noam Chomsky is a valuable novel because it draws the reader’s attention to these facts repeatedly. It asks readers to think about what Leda’s life might have been like if she had made the decision to read Noam Chomsky and skillfully invites them to consider other possibilities. This is what makes Casale’s novel a noteworthy text. It plants that suggestion in the reader’s mind and then gently backs away.
June 3, 2019