There is a rather odd aversion to the “unlikeable” character in the novel, as if fiction is to cloak itself in the sunny vestments of children’s television and portray the world only through the lens of those protagonists that pass some illusory morality test. But if fiction is to be an authentic—and, to some more than others, an entertaining—depiction of the world in which we live, then the antihero too is due his hour to strut and fret upon the modern novel’s commercialized stage. In her debut work, Sedating Elaine, Dawn Winter creates just such an antihero—rather, antiheroine—in a book at turns humorous, emotive, perplexing, and on balance, effective.
The novel is something of a bait-and-switch (in more ways than one, as we realize later) in that the titular Elaine has but a supporting role to play. The crux of the matter is this: Frances, a self-deprecating young Londoner with a strong affection for alcohol and associated recreations, is entwined, quite literally, in a relationship with Elaine, whom she really doesn’t like all that much. Living in her small flat and working as a dishwasher in a floundering restaurant, Frances is short on both specie and sanity, and the insatiable, incorrigible, inexorable Elaine only adds to her exasperation.
Despite her general dislike of her girlfriend, Frances is forced to take things even further when her drug dealer, the amicable but businesslike Dom, calls in her debts. In need of a quick two grand, Frances invites the posh and monied Elaine to move in with her, so long as she pays rent, of course, in the hopes of swindling her somewhat inattentive girlfriend out of enough cash to save her from all manners of low-level criminal retribution. In an attempt to withstand her presence long enough to get the money, Frances buys one more item from Dom, a mysterious drug with apparently virile soporific powers with which to, as the title would have it, sedate Elaine.
As this premise suggests, Frances is far from the most scrupulous, kind, or likable of characters. But it is her somewhat distasteful mission and overall ethos that makes her amusing, and which provides ample room for Winter to display her skill with humor, which she does often and with good reason. As the book progresses, she is able to layer in more depth, both to her novel and protagonist. Frances, we learn, is recovering from the end of her relationship with Adrienne, something of a twenty-first-century femme fatale, who broke her heart. Winter slowly tells this backstory, at times ceding long stretches to the history of Frances and Adrienne. Indeed, Sedating Elaine is at its best when Winter changes speeds in her scene-heavy, primarily fictive present narration, mixing in Frances’ strikingly visceral memories of Adrienne:
Adrienne. Frances allowed the name, the face, the person, to enter her mind and body. Adrienne. Impossible not to love a woman who smells and feels so cool, natural, unfathomable, like a beautiful relic at the bottom of the sea, permeated by minerals and miracles. So many times they had lain here in a multitude of knots—limbs and hair and fingers—letting the chilly night air rush upon their nakedness, encouraging them to tangle tighter.
Of course, the irony is palpable in drawing the similarities between Elaine’s fixation on and love for Frances and Frances’ same feelings towards Adrienne. Winter does a good job of maintaining subtlety here, avoiding either spelling it out for the reader or giving her protagonist too much awareness. In fact, the only downside of the storyline is that it is perhaps too good, overshadowing the original plot, especially as Elaine drops off into a near-comatose slumber and nearly vanishes from her own book.
By the time we reach the midpoint chapter relating how Frances met Adrienne, one wonders why this storyline wasn’t the central focus of the plot. The engaging and quite successful section, one that explains the jacket design even if it further confuses the title, feels the most alive, as does the entire Adrienne plotline. As a result, Winters resorts to reanimating the book’s initial tensions halfway through, granting a few days’ reprieve for Francis to get the money and for her book to continue to enjoy forward momentum within the ostensibly central storyline.
For the fast pace and natural humor Winter is able to bring to her work, Sedating Elaine at times is inelegant on the sentence level. The point of view, as a limited third-person focused on Frances, never gets close enough to be able to map her inner world without an authorial guiding hand. While this exposition can be somewhat foreseeable, the real issues are mechanical ones. Winter’s narrative entity will at times wrench itself free of its focus on Frances, looking at her from a remove that rarely seems intentional. When Elaine, in a fit of wakeful amour, proffers an engagement ring, Frances accepts even as she’s far more focused on getting Dom’s money before his henchwomen arrive:
Frances stared at the ring as a voice very quietly said, “Yes.”
Elaine smiled. “I knew you would. I knew you were good. I love you.”
Then she stopped speaking. Frances put the box on the floor, and leant closer to Elaine, saying, “But Elaine, what about the money? I need to know—it’s very important,” but no answer came.
She stood up and drifted out of the room, unaware that she was wearing a ring Elaine had paid several thousand of pounds for.
The effect of the abrupt pull-back in narration is something like an emergency brake being pulled on a scenic drive, or the house lights accidentally coming on during the opening night’s performance. There is of course nothing wrong with such a move in a vacuum, and texturizing a third-person narrative entity with its own idiomatic worldview can often be a compelling, sophisticated technique. However the approach here is not harnessed with enough precision to make the most out of it; instead, moments such as this one leave the reader feeling as if the voice of an authorial god has come down to clarify a key plot point, just in case you hadn’t noticed, my dear.
But for many readers, such lapses will be little noticed or, at least, little problem. Winter eventually wakes Elaine up and resuscitates her central premise, and throughout the book maintains its readable humor and contact with emotion. While the redemptive arc is certainly present, Winter manages to avoid too much predictability and, crucially, keeps from totally whitewashing Frances. The unlikeable character is indeed alive and well, and for that alone, Sedating Elaine is a notable accomplishment.
by Dawn Winter
Knopf Publishing Group
Published on April 12, 2022
D. W. White is a graduate of the M.F.A. Creative Writing program at Otis College in Los Angeles and Stony Brook University's BookEnds Fellowship. He serves as Founding Editor for L'Esprit Literary Review and Fiction Editor for West Trade Review. His writing appears in The Florida Review, Another Chicago Magazine, and Necessary Fiction, among several other publications. A Chicago ex-pat, he now lives in Long Beach, California, where he frequents the beach to hide from writer's block. He can be found on Twitter at @dwhitethewriter.