Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson

I’ve had mixed feelings about the online nature of life recently. On Sunday I avoided the Internet altogether so as not to be bombarded with (UK) Mother’s Day memes and notifications. Yesterday our home broadband dropped out completely, such that I couldn’t do any freelance work or post about the Folio Prize poetry shortlist as I’d meant to do on World Poetry Day. Too much connectivity or not enough. Today – just as a line engineer is due to arrive; that usual irony – all is normal and I’m back in the swing of working and blogging.

Using my husband’s phone as a hotspot, I was at least still able to watch yesterday evening’s free 5×15 event with the Rathbones Folio Prize, featuring Amy Bloom, NoViolet Bulawayo, Sheila Heti, Margo Jefferson and Elizabeth Strout and hosted by interviewer Alex Clark. Over the next couple of days I’ll review Heti and Strout’s novels and the entire poetry shortlist, but for now I’ll weave some of the insight I gained last night into a review of Constructing a Nervous System by Margo Jefferson (2022), the new-to-me book from the nonfiction shortlist that I was most interested in reading.

Although the subtitle is “A Memoir,” this experimental text does such novel things with the genre that it bears little resemblance to most memoirs I’ve read. For that reason alone, I can see why the judges shortlisted it. During the 5×15 event, Jefferson described her book as “an assemblage of ideas, memories, sensations, feelings, and other people’s words—not just my own.” It’s also a reckoning with culture – particularly jazz music and dance by African Americans, but also particular examples from the white literary canon.

Jefferson was a long-time theatre and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times and won a Pulitzer Prize for her criticism in 1995; she now teaches writing at Columbia University. She has previously published another memoir, Negroland, and a biography of Michael Jackson. Here she blends her chosen genres of life writing and cultural criticism. Her aim, she said, was to craft “criticism with the intensities and intimacies of memoir” and “memoir with the range of criticism.”

Jefferson mentioned that the deaths of her mother and older sister (who was like her muse) left her an orphan and, strangely, “cleared the stage for me to step out and speak my lines.” Indeed, the book is loosely structured as a play, opening with the metaphor of an empty stage and ending with the direction “BLACKOUT.” In between there are many imagined dialogues with herself or between historical figures, such as the bizarre pairing of George Eliot and W.E.B. Du Bois. Some quotations and definitions appear in italics or bold face. Ella Fitzgerald and Josephine Baker play major roles, but there’s also a surprisingly long section devoted to Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark, which Jefferson loves and has often taught, yet finds problematic for how it enshrines whiteness (“Confederate Southern mythmaking”).

I don’t feel that I got much of a sense of the sweep of Jefferson’s life from the book, just a vague impression of an upper-middle-class Black upbringing. (Perhaps Negroland is a more straightforward memoir?) To be sure, she was keen to avoid “slogging through chronology,” as she explained, instead welcoming onto the page “a repertory company of myself as I encounter all the materials of my life—the factual and historical as well as the creative.” And so I do feel I have met her as an industrious mind, drawing connections between disparate aspects of experience and cultural consumption. This is a model of how a critic (like myself) might incorporate a body of work into a record of life. Yet when so many of her touchstones do not overlap with mine, I could only observe and admire from afar, not be truly drawn in.


Some lines I loved:

Remember: Memoir is your present negotiating with versions of your past for a future you’re willing to show up in.

“Older women’s tales— ‘Une femme d’un certain âge’ tales—are hard to pull off. They risk being arch.”

(of Ella Fitzgerald) “You turned the maw of black female labor into the wonderland of black female art.”

“Women’s anger needs to be honored—celebrated and protected—the way virginity used to be! … I’ve spent my adult years working on an assemblage of black feminist anger modes.”


With thanks to FMcM Associates and Granta Books for the free copy for review.


I was very impressed with both Amy Bloom and Margo Jefferson ‘in person’ (on Zoom): elegant, intellectual, well-spoken; authors at the top of their game. I reviewed Amy Bloom’s affecting memoir In Love, about her husband Brian’s early-onset Alzheimer’s and the decision to end his life at Dignitas in Zurich, last year. She told Alex Clark that the book started as a caregiver’s notes, but Brian made it clear that he wanted her to write about the experience, to inform people about end-of-life options. She believes that ultimately the memoir is about what it means to be a person and the decisions that make up a life. Her children joke that her only four subjects – in fiction or otherwise – are love, sex, family and death. Well, what else is there, really?

I know only the barest facts about the other three books on the Folio nonfiction shortlist but none of them screams ‘must read’ to me:

  • The Passengers by Will Ashon – oral narratives from contemporary Britain
  • The Escape Artist by Jonathan Freedland – biography of an Auschwitz whistle-blower
  • The Social Distance Between Us by Darren McGarvey – a rapper’s book about inequality and antisocial behaviour

 Have you read, or would you read, anything from the Folio nonfiction shortlist?


Tomorrow: Five poetry shortlist reviews

Friday: Two fiction shortlist reviews; my predictions for the category winners and overall prize winner

15 responses

  1. I’m not convinced any of these has my name on. I’m deliberately trying to keep a grip on my TBR list though.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Not sure how I would get on with the Jefferson but I’ll probably read it given how impressed I was with Negroland. We both agree on the Bloom – such a moving piece of writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Is Negroland a more straightforward memoir? If so, I’d definitely read it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It is. Very interesting on class and race in the ’50s and ’60s. I think you’d enjoy it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. It sounds like Negroland is a more straightforward memoir than this but I still found it quite loose and disjointed (my review is here, if that’s helpful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ah, I forgot I had friends who had read it! It does sound like the strategy is similar, but perhaps with more autobiographical material illuminating the time period in Negroland. I think the judges loved this for how it plays with genre — I wouldn’t be surprised if it won the NF category award or the overall prize.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Negroland is definitely more straightforward memoir, and I remember being absolutely fascinated by the complex nuances of upper-middle-class Black life, the weight of responsibility for “the race” that Jefferson was made to feel as a child and young woman. Constructing a Nervous System sounds very different, although also very creative.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’d enjoy this, particularly the commentary on Cather.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My ears did prick up at that!


  5. I read this last year and like you, I admired it a lot more than I enjoyed it. She’s a fantastic writer, no doubt, and I’ve been meaning to read Negroland ever since

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a feeling it will be popular with the Folio judges, what with her being a ‘writer’s writer’ and this being the ‘writers’ prize’.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Rathbones Folio Prize shortlists, reading the entire poetry shortlist and two each from the nonfiction and fiction lists. These two I accessed from the library. Both Sheila Heti and Elizabeth Strout […]


  7. I really enjoyed Negroland (my review and have been meaning to read Constructing a Nervous System. Your review makes me want to even more.

    I haven’t read Amy Bloom’s memoir, but I enjoyed her novel White Houses. I’ll check out your review of In Love next.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. More people have read Negroland than I realized!

      I love Amy Bloom’s short stories and mean to read more of her novels.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. White Houses is the only book I’ve read by Amy Bloom. I shall seek out more by her.


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: