In this experimental debut novel, the reader spends a day inside the head of a traumatized young woman, whose pinging thoughts and impressions unfold like a poem down the page as she wakes up, heads to work, and navigates mundane tasks and encounters with her office mates.
The nameless protagonist, haunted by a trauma I won’t spoil here, offers consistently sharp and often melancholic treatments of contemporary existence: the theater of joy and disappointment represented by text messages, say, or the depressive signifiers of corporate office life. Watson depicts her protagonist’s consciousness by way of striking formal structures, using typographical tricks to illustrate the cacophonous complexity of inner life ... While this could be distracting, or even indulgent, in lesser hands, Watson’s experiments serve to both deepen our immersion and reify the buried pain at the novel’s center ... I was reminded of the experimental English novelist B. S. Johnson’s House Mother Normal, with its adventurous typography marking the convulsions, stutters and silences of the mind (albeit the geriatric variety). Little Scratch absorbs the more fragmented forms of attention and makes of them something rich, assured and sad.
Believe me when I tell you, Little Scratch is difficult. It will tax you. You will have to learn the syntax of a distracted and distressed mind. But rigor, in this case, is not without reward ... While the story line is simple, Watson’s style is experimental, and revelations about what horrors the unnamed main character has endured trickle, like droplets from a leaky faucet, until the pool of her trauma is made apparent. The writing is stream of consciousness and has the trappings of a narrative poem ... I may be making this novel sound cheerless. That couldn’t be further from the truth. One benefit of spending 200-odd pages in one character’s head is that we get to savor her idiosyncrasies, stray thoughts and offhand insights ... Much like the quiet triumph you might feel once you’ve convinced a closed-off person to unfurl, to get comfortable, to reveal intimacies, there’s a certain satisfaction to learning that she’s an aspiring writer, thinks about sex on the train and is wrestling with a consuming secret ... Granted, the style can occasionally grate on the nerves ... I suggest you soldier on. Despite the occasional overuse of repetition, the writing is economical. It’s a quick read. It takes a regular day and renders it irregularly, interestingly. It presents grief, violence, self-harm and self-doubt in an unusual fashion, driving home just how disorienting and destabilizing these forces can be. It is of the #MeToo era, tackling both catcallers and unrepentant predators, but exists on a plane all its own.
The typographical form of her account suggests that of a poem, or maybe a spreadsheet with intersecting rows and columns. It takes a while to get acclimated to the pattern, but once you get it, you’ll find yourself flowing right into the narrator’s troubled skin, living her simultaneity of sense experience and discursive thought ... her investigation into her own situation is rigorous. But her wry introspection keeps us wondering: will she circle her experience without reaching its center, or is she zeroing in on it? ... The beauty of Little Scratch lies not only in its fresh prose and innovative form. Rebecca Watson leads us to trust or to doubt—depending on the reader, I suppose—that her narrator will get to where she needs to be. Resisting moralizing as well as the closure of redemption or despair, Ms. Watson leaves this a hard-won place too personal, too individual to be prescribed. She achieves this with a richly articulated point of view.