Lauren Elkin’s ‘Scaffolding’ Analyses Our Unconscious Desires

The critic’s debut novel uses Lacanian theory as a foundation to explore the relationship between identity, language and desire 

BY Oonagh Devitt Tremblay in Books | 24 JUN 24

‘Every ten years or so, Parisian buildings must be resurfaced, and it is our bad luck to have caught the ravalement (restoration) so soon after moving in,’ says Anna, the protagonist of Scaffolding (2024), Lauren Elkin’s debut novel. Anna is a Lacanian psychoanalyst living in Paris with her husband, David. They’ve recently moved into an old flat that they are in the process of renovating. The previous owner, also a Lacanian psychoanalyst, died in the flat. She is the first of innumerable ghosts that haunt this book.

David has recently taken a job in London but, reluctant to leave Paris, Anna opts to live alone in their shared home. Signed off from work after suffering a miscarriage, she has an excess of time on her hands, which she spends obsessively contemplating (and eventually orchestrating) a kitchen renovation, as well as reading old diaries, observing her neighbours and getting to know Clémentine, an alluring art-history student who has just moved into the same block. The renovation is a point of contention throughout the book, Anna’s analyst tells her: ‘You talk about renovation every time you come in here but nothing is being renovated […] You are enjoying the fixation of your desire. You’re afraid to get it moving again. There is nothing you actually need, except to go back to work.’ Anna is stuck between action and inaction – in her home, her work and her body. Rereading old diaries, she becomes caught up in memories of her former boyfriend, Jonathan. As Anna puts it: ‘Jonathan was the first person to interfere with me.’ Not only that but Jonathan’s father, Max Weisz, is the reason she became a Lacanian.

lauren elkin scaffolding book cover
Lauren Elkin, Scaffolding, 2024, book cover. Courtesy: Chatto & Windus  

The story weaves in and out of Anna’s mind, her past and present, as well as her surrounding environment as scaffolding is assembled on the outside of her building and the ravalement takes place.  The narrative is routinely interrupted by disturbing signs written in capital letters that she encounters on jogs and outings around Paris. ‘SHE LEAVES HIM. HE KILLS HER,’ reads one. Anna quickly learns that Clémentine is part of a group of women who wander the city streets at night, pasting the signs, which denounce femicides and sexist violence. This unsettling chorus of female voices also haunts the story, weaving the politics of the female body into the fabric of the narrative.

The reader becomes aware of Anna’s own physical being as a source of tension. Hers is a body that not only remembers (past lovers, her recent miscarriage) but also desires beyond the confines of her marriage. When Anna’s doctor declares that she is fit to return to work, she doesn’t, and is subsequently fired. She talks to her analyst about her fear of not being able to carry the griefs of her patients. Anna’s concern about her capacity to treat her patients is mirrored by the anguish she feels over her miscarriage.

Anna describes the feeling of lying on her bed, unable to get up or move forward, as like being covered in  ‘cling film’. She is oppressed not only by her current reality but also by the memories of her past and the accumulation of a shared history. ‘To come to each other new,’ she reflects, ‘How impossible that is.’ She has moved into an apartment that once housed the secrets of others; her partners have slept in other beds; everyone she encounters is haunted by their own ghosts. Completely alone in her flat and fighting against the layers of history suffocating her, Anna notes: ‘There are too many people living in our apartment.’ Elkin interweaves the historical, the political and the personal with the mechanisms of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory. Despite being rooted in theory, the book never loses sight of its characters and the credibility of their story: Elkin’s theoretical expertise is elegantly balanced by her ability to craft an excellent narrative.

lauren elkin portrait by sophie davidson
Portrait of Lauren Elkin. Courtesy: Chatto & Windus; photograph: Sophie Davidson

In the middle of the novel, the reader is taken back in time to 1972, when newlyweds Henry and Florence are living in the same Parisian flat, inherited from Florence’s grandmother. The brown kitchen that Anna destroys is the one that Florence (then a psychoanalyst-in-training) is carefully decorating. Florence’s aesthetic decisions contain in them the history of her grandmother. Across three generations, a resurfacing occurs within the politicised sphere of the kitchen. Numerous elements connect the past with the present: Henry and Florence also reckon with pregnancy, female emancipation and extramarital partners; Anna’s former lover, Jonathan, and his father re-emerge as objects of desire in each timeline. The present cannot be untangled from the past: Anna’s and Florence’s stories are skilfully wrapped around each other like the strands of a double helix.

Through the framework of Lacan, Elkin cleverly explores the relationships between identity, language and desire in the lives – both unconscious and conscious – of her characters. In conversations with Clémentine, Anna breaks down Lacanian principles, describing how the ‘unconscious is structured like a language’ and ‘the way we talk about our lives encodes the way we think about them’. Lacan’s structures of thinking are another kind of scaffolding that upholds the narrative.

Towards the end of the novel, after many forms of ravalement have taken place across various timelines, Anna walks by the recently restored Tour Saint-Jacques. She describes the feeling of deflation she felt when the renovation was complete: ‘I realized I loved it better with the scaffolding, when we didn’t know what was taking shape beneath.’ We may not know all the stories held by the walls we live in, but Elkin’s novel gives us a glimpse. Like Lacan’s framework of the unconscious, Scaffolding too is made of language and, when the end comes, it is accompanied not by a feeling of deflation but, rather, by a sense of having been deconstructed and pieced back together. Anna tells Clémentine: ‘You’ll never be cured […] There’s no cure for being human.’ That might be true, but Elkin’s writing is certainly an effective antidote.

Lauren Elkin's Scaffolding is published by Chatto & Windus in the UK and FSG in the US 

Main image: View of the Parisian skyline. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Oonagh Devitt Tremblay is a writer and book critic based in London, UK.