Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women

Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women. Picador paperback 2016. First published 2015.

Lucia Berlin had an eventful life. Born in Alaska in 1936, she travelled extensively in the USA in her youth because of her mining engineer father’s work; eventually they moved to Chile. She married three times and had four sons, continuing her peripatetic existence, living mostly in the American southwest, California and in Mexico, with spells in New York City, working at menial jobs (many stories like the title one give rueful insight into how a spirited, intelligent woman survived the hardship) to support her family and her drinking. An alcoholic until the early 90s, she then began a new career in teaching creative writing. She died in 2004; her literary reputation only took off with the first publication of this collection.

This motley life is reflected in this collection, which in some ways reads as an embellished auto-fiction. Her female protagonists are usually called some variant of Lucia, or Carlotta, and their experiences mirror Berlin’s own. But she makes something richly strange out of them.

Lucia Berlin, cover of my edition of A Manual for Cleaning WomenHer subject matter is often bleak, and in that respect resembles the addiction stories of Denis Johnson. Like him she doesn’t idealise or condemn her drunks (herself included) or addicts (often the men she loved and was treated badly by). She presents the events of life – ‘fraught with peril’ as she ironically recalls her mother’s favourite phrase.

Oh yes, her mother. Her stories depict a childhood in which her mother, also alcoholic, treated Lucia coldly, even contemptuously, and her grandfather abused her and others in the household. Many of the stories tell how she and her younger sister Sally became close in later life, when their mother had died and Sally was dying of cancer. They argued and fought a lot at this time – friction that proved to them, with characteristic humour, that they must have become ‘real sisters’.

It’s that humanity and lack of bitterness that lifts these stories out of the misery memoir category. They celebrate life in all its harshness: she finds beauty in ugly places (but doesn’t disguise the surface ugliness). And she’s very funny and witty, usually in the most unexpected places and ways.

It’s never easy to convey the experience of reading a short story collection (there are 43 in this volume, some are brilliant flash fiction, just a few paragraphs long, most of them published in small magazines from the 60s onwards; some thirty more have just been published), and this one is so varied in tone and range that all I feel I can do is to give some more or less randomly chosen passages in the hope that some of the uniqueness of this gifted writer comes across.

The voice full of oblique humour is one of the first qualities  I’d commend to you. She has that capacity to buttonhole you and keep you attentive as if she were sitting beside you, chatting, reminiscing, probably smoking, a glass of Jim Beam in her hand: ‘Wait. Let me explain…’ begins one early story. Here’s the beginning of another:

Got into Albuquerque from Baton Rouge. It was about two in the morning. Whipping wind. That’s what the wind does in Albuquerque. I hung out at the Greyhound station until a cabdriver showed up who had so many prison tattoos I figured I could score and he’d tell me where to stay.

Economy of style is an overused phrase for writers’ technique, but look how much she packs into those few lines. The omission of a subject in the opening sentence, of a finite verb in the third, the brevity and clipped syntax, as if she’s thinking faster than she can write. Those resonant place names. But these are clearly crafted sentences with cadences and sonorities all her own – it’s such a distinctive voice, right down to that rueful reference to being pleased her cabdriver is an ex-con because he’ll know where to score drugs and flop out afterwards.

In the next paragraph this colloquial voice continues:

All this happened many years ago or I couldn’t even be talking about it.

And then she ends up in a grim desert detox unit.

Humour: this is her account of one of her clients in the title story – she breaks her own rule and cleans the house of friends:

I don’t make much money with them because I don’t charge by the hour, no carfare. No lunch for sure. I really work hard. But I sit around a lot, stay very late. I smoke and read The New York Times, porno books, How to Build a Patio Roof.

Such random lists, contradictions and non sequiturs abound, delightfully. Grimness and suffering are always lightened by these bizarre detail which seem to say, That happened, but then so did this.

This is from ‘Teenage Punk’: recently divorced, she’s living in a New Mexico house with ‘leaky roof’ and ‘burned-out pump’, but, with typical delight in the natural world, takes her kids and their eponymous drifter friend to watch the arrival of beautiful cranes that come to feed nearby:

We crossed the log above the slow dark irrigation ditch, over to the clear ditch where we lay on our stomachs, silent as guerrillas. I know, I romanticize everything.

The following description of the birds is radiant and graceful.

Endings of her stories are as vivid as the openings. One of her detox stories, ‘Step’, closes with an account of a boxing match the inmates are watching on TV. The defeated fighter sinks, one knee to the canvas:

Briefly, like a Catholic leaving a pew. The slightest deference that meant the fight was over; he had lost. Carlotta whispered,

“God, please help me.”

 

I could quote like this from pretty much every story, but will end with ‘A Love Affair’, which is about her job as a doctor’s assistant. One of her tasks was to assist with gynaecological examinations and tests conducted by the doctor. She was to get the patient in the right (highly undignified) position in the stirrups and then was ‘supposed to get the women to relax’. She was surely good at this: ‘That was easy, the chatting part.’

The doctor would arrive, a ‘painfully shy man with a serious tremor of his hands that occasionally manifested itself.’ He’d switch on his headlamp, take his swab (which he waved with cheerful incongruity from the narrator ‘like a baton’):

At last his head emerged with the stick, now a dizzy metronome aimed at my waiting slide. I still drank in those days, so my hand, holding the slide, shook visibly as it tried to meet his. But in a nervous up-and-down tremble. His was back and forth. Slap, at last.

Surely a male writer couldn’t make such a scene so hilarious and yet sympathetic to the women involved: their world is so absurdly skewed against them. That’s Lucia Berlin – those last three words.

 

 

 

Patricia Highsmith, Edith’s Diary

Patricia Highsmith: Edith’s Diary. VMC 2015. First published 1977

Patricia Highsmith’s psychological thrillers probe the twisted minds and lives of people who adopt an oblique approach to what most would call reality. (Carol, which I posted about last summer, is different.) In Edith’s Diary we are back in the world of disquieting mental states in a deceptively tranquil domestic setting in the nineteen sixties and seventies.

Highsmith Edith's Diary coverBrett and Edith move from the city to a sleepy Pennsylvania suburb to enable their son Cliffie to grow up in a healthier environment. Big mistake. It’s not the city that’s unhealthy. Aged eight he tries to smother the family cat. At ten he jumps off a local bridge into the river below – twice – and is fortunate to be rescued.

Sullen, contemptuous and uncommunicative, he clearly has mental health problems way beyond the usual adolescent truculence. As the novel develops Cliffie emerges as something of a psychopath, cruel and unsympathetic to those around him, and with murderous tendencies. As a boy he watches the collapse of his parents’ marriage with detached curiosity verging on pleasure: if he’s ‘not normal’, what are they?

But it’s Edith who’s at the heart of this novel. When Brett leaves her for a younger model, her own difficulties with reality worsen. The occasional entries in her eponymous diary become increasingly out of touch with the heartbreaking and often dangerous realities of her disintegrating life – and mind. One of her earliest entries sets the tone for the rest:

‘Isn’t it safer, even wiser, to believe that life has no meaning at all?’

She’d felt better after getting that down on paper. Such an attitude wasn’t phony armor, she thought, it was a fact that life had no meaning. One simply went on and on, worked on, and did one’s best.

 

Edith’s existential passivity and nullity is at odds with her apparently committed views on politics and social mores. Contemplating her husband’s unmarried elderly hypochondriac uncle, who she ends up caring for alone when Brett abandons her, she angrily wonders why he’d never married:

Edith couldn’t imagine a man thirty-five or so not getting married, if he could afford to, because it was so convenient to have a wife, he wouldn’t be here now, for instance.

Highsmith astutely handles Edith’s incongruous mixed-up thoughts in order to expose the hypocrisies and inequalities in a complacent patriarchal society which Edith lacks the strength or clarity of mind to confront head-on. It’s apparent that the newspaper she co-edits is received with either indifference or contempt in her community, and it becomes as trivial and banal in its editorials as its target audience.

Edith in her diary fabricates an alternative existence in which Cliffie goes to Princeton (he’d flunked all his exams or cheated and been exposed), and becomes a global executive in an elite engineering firm.

As the indolent young man in the nightmare real world becomes a violent alcoholic parasite, ever more antisocial and unhinged, she cranks up the perfection of this imagined world of her diary: she marries him to a trophy Wasp, gives him two adorable children and they all dote on her.

These fantasies serve to heighten the sense of foreboding and horror of what’s really going on under her roof: ‘it was pleasant and reassuring to imagine’, the narrator confides at one point as Edith invents a happy wedding for misfit loner Cliffie.

As the gap between ugly reality and her own delusions widens, Edith becomes as deranged as her obese, monstrous son. Brett had been a leftist journalist, while Edith produced a local free paper in which she could write fervently liberal anti-Vietnam War polemics – but her mental collapse is accompanied by an alarming swing to authoritarian conservatism which alienates her few friends. She loses her job as a result of her increasingly erratic behaviour.

This is an unsettling, meticulously constructed exposure of a dysfunctional family – all of whom are damaged, deluded and self-deceiving in their various ways. They could be seen as a metaphor for the disintegration of fragile liberal American values at the time. I wonder what Highsmith would have made of the present post-truth world.

It’s not possible to say it’s an enjoyable novel, given its uncomfortably disturbing subject matter, explored with unflinching forensic attention by Highsmith. But it’s gripping in a car-crash sort of way.

 

 

 

Ruthlessness. Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton. Penguin paperback, 2016. First published in the USA 2016.

Is the visit of her mother at the hospital overlooking the Chrysler building in NYC, a woman from whom she’d been estranged for so many years, who beat and traumatised her as a child, partly to mitigate (in Lucy’s eyes) the more brutal and disturbed behaviour of her war-damaged husband, Lucy’s father? Is her visit a real event, or does Lucy imagine or hallucinate it? She’s in hospital for a serious somatic condition (or is it?) that requires nine weeks of treatment, but we never learn exactly what it is that ails her. Is her illness in her head? Is she really ill, or even in hospital? All this happened back in the seventies.

After all, the warping events that bent her out of shape as a child make me feel that the unexpected appearance of her mother after such a long separation, and who colluded in her fierce, abusive upbringing, is more of a deus (dea?) ex machina than a realistic event.

This is a mother who did nothing to prevent her PTSD-suffering husband from cruel treatment of his children, such as shutting up Lucy, when she was a little girl, in the cab of his truck when they were both out at work all day. On one occasion a snake entered the cab and so freaked her out she can’t even bear to hear the word ‘snake’ as an adult. He publicly humiliated her little brother when he innocently dressed like a girl; now he seems even more traumatised than Lucy.

Strout Lucy B coverI found the first half of this novel deeply affecting. Then it began to pall a little after such a dazzling start. The fragmentary structure – each chapter is very short, sometimes just a paragraph, and written in lucid, simple prose – perfectly conveys the mosaic of mostly bitter memories the narrator Lucy pieces together as her drug-dumbed mind tries to cope with this unprecedented solicitude from a mother she loves dearly, but who showed little in return when she was little, and is still incapable of saying now that she loves her daughter.

The mother is a damaged Madonna, a vampire nurse, who seems to need contrition and her daughter’s nurture as Lucy needs a gesture or expression of love and kindness from her – which is not forthcoming.

The kids when growing up were so poor they felt deeply the insults and mockery of their peers at school, who sneered at their ragged clothes and unkempt, filthy appearance, their uncouth manners.

If her mother’s sequence of stories is to be believed, nearly all of Lucy’s former female acquaintances married badly and are now divorced or worse. Has she embroidered the truth in order to deflect Lucy’s attention from her own neglect, or to exculpate herself?

This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.

Lucy still meets people who try to denigrate her, as they did when she was a child when she was dirt poor, living in her uncle’s garage:

It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people…Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

The deceptive simplicity of style here and through the novel, the colloquial, unadorned register, are used to express some profound and gnomic insights into the human condition – and in particular into the tribulations and recriminations of the mother-daughter relation.

Lucy found refuge in reading, she tells us, and then in writing. She meets a writer whose work she’d admired, and feels inspired to overcome her lack of self-confidence and do her own writing. These character-assassination stories her mother tells her, Lucy’s own experience in the hospital: all this becomes the novel we’re reading. She shares what’s become her artistic mantra:

I like writers who try to tell you something truthful.

Telling the truth: that’s what she’s trying to do here. In a work of fiction.

That’s partly where I start to part company with this novel: it’s too self-referential, like a creative writing exercise. ‘I had to become ruthless to be a writer,’ she says a friend told her. Even that inspirational writer who set her off on the road to becoming one herself had her struggles:

I think I know how she spoke of the fact that we all have only one story, and I think I don’t know what her story was or is. I like the books she wrote. But I can’t stop the sense that she stays away from something.

Staying away from something, thinking she knows or doesn’t know something: such simple language, such complex concepts – like the need for ruthlessness in a writer. So she’s got herself out of her first, unsuccessful marriage to

hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think./My mother told me in hospital that day that I was not like my brother and sister: “Look at your life right now. You just went ahead and …did it.” Perhaps she meant that I was already ruthless. Perhaps she meant that, but I don’t know what my mother meant.

Refreshing to find a narrative voice that doesn’t profess to know everything. Maybe she isn’t yet ruthless. There’s pity for this cruel mother, for one.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, about which I wrote last December, I found a more fully realised and satisfying novel.

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado

Elaine Dundy, The Dud Avocado. First published 1958. Virago Modern Classics 2011

When I think of Paris in 1958 I picture smoky Left Bank cafés filled with proto-beatnik students from the Sorbonne earnestly discussing Sartre and Camus, or the Algerian War or communism. Sally Jay Gorce, the fun-loving protagonist of The Dud Avocado, haunts similar places, carpeted with students in ‘old boots, checkered wool and wild, fuzzy hair’, but she shows little or no knowledge of or interest in intellectual or political life – though she sometimes gets drunk near these intellectuals. Her life revolves around parties and sex, financed for two carefree years by a kindly rich uncle back home in the States.

Dud Avocado coverAs for culture: well, she does pose in the nude for one of the rare artists of her acquaintance who’s got a modicum of talent. More to her taste, as a would-be sophisticate, is the married-with-a-mistress Italian diplomat who plies her with champagne at the Ritz and sex at his bachelor pad – though she admits with typical candour in this breathless first-person narrative that she lacks ‘the true courtesan spirit’. It’s this ingenuous sequence of failures to prove herself as mature and sophisticated as she aspires to be that makes her so charming. It’s that free-spirited, freewheeling voice that propels this novel through a rather silly plot and large cast of characters of varying degrees of decadence and selfishness.

Like a good stand-up comedian, her verve and rapid delivery carry the reader through the less successful jokes and escapades – even the duds (sorry about the pun) are entertaining. Let’s start with the gushing, self-deprecating self-portrait of this Parisian Sally Bowles. From the opening scene we’re told she’s (as usual) inappropriately dressed in her evening gown (it’s 11 in the morning) as her clothes haven’t come back from the laundry. Her hair is the shade of pink ‘so popular with Parisian tarts that season.’

The dialogue she quotes herself as using is as demotic and fizzing as the narrative voice; when Larry, the poised, untrustworthy American friend she meets in this opening scene takes her to task for using ‘ridiculous expressions’ like “Holy Cow!” – the only other Americans he’s heard using such colloquialisms are ‘cartoon animals’ like Micky Mouse – she corrects him: “Micky Mice”, and feels the pleasure of someone who’s just scored a debating point, oblivious to the absence of linguistic dazzle she believes she’s just displayed:

Incidentally I haven’t the faintest idea why I do talk the way I do. I probably didn’t do it in America…Maybe I just assumed it in Paris for whatever is the opposite of protective colouring: for war-paint I guess.

Now that is linguistically smart and insightful. This apparently effortless naiveté our heroine specialises in is what gives this otherwise pretty frothy novel an element of literary solidity: that kind of double-edged innocence takes a great deal of ingenuity and wit to pull off – as if Holly Golightly was being tutored by Dorothy Parker.

Let me give a favourite example of this faux-artless technique; this is Sally Jay musing on her on-off lover, that talented artist Jim, a ‘country boy’ from Delaware, who’d managed to turn Paris from the anguished ‘champagne factory’ of tortured artists into a ‘country village’. After posing naked for him she tells us he ‘smelled like new-mown hay.’ As their affair begins Sally Jay knows he really needs ‘some nice, simple, outdoor bohemian girl’ – she has no idea what he sees in her or she in him:

Jim was a bundle of virtues.

See what I mean about D. Parker. Not surprisingly the relationship with Jim is doomed.

This is her with that diplomat, Teddy, who’s just accused her of being a ditzy bobby-soxer, and she agrees cheerfully:

So he gave up. And in a way I kind of gave up myself. I gave up wondering if anyone was ever going to understand me at all. If I was ever going to understand myself even. Was I some kind of a nut or something? Don’t answer that.

As she says, he should be ‘having witty, elliptical, sexy conversations’ with urbane types, not ‘wasting his time with a sulking, skulking, bad-tempered and very recent schoolgirl.’ Except this narrator is capable of using adjectives like ‘elliptical’, hinting at qualities even Sally Jay doesn’t yet know she possesses deep down. She can show party animals behaving badly (including herself) and reflect on the ‘lubricity’ of ‘these old biddies’. That telescoping of registers is what makes this such a scintillating read – the narrator’s pose of ‘callowness’ enables her to make screwball comedy highly entertaining.

For me the novel was best taken in small doses. Read too much of it and it’s like eating chocolates. But I thoroughly enjoyed those small doses of this nuclear-age Daisy Miller from the New World colliding with a kind of cultural fission with the Old, just emerging from its trauma of the war and finding a new kind of energy and philosophy, but with a transfusion of vivacity from across the Atlantic with this kind of person. Each world benefits and learns from the other, which isn’t always the case in the sober, observing Henry James.

There’s a good lexicographical joke in the final sentence, too.

 

 

 

Edith Wharton, Summer

Edith Wharton, Summer. First published 1917. Penguin Twentieth Century Classics, 1993.

There are only two major works of Edith Wharton’s that aren’t set in her own world – high society, affluent New York and Europe. Last time I wrote about the winter-set Ethan Frome. Summer, published six years later, is its counterpart, her ‘hot Ethan’ she called it. Gone is the bleak iciness of the earlier story – this short novel begins with scenes full of the warmth of this season. Until later, when autumn comes and events take a darker, chillier turn.

Wharton Summer cover

Now that’s a better cover: from a painting also called ‘Summer’ by Thomas Wilmer Dewing

It opens with a seventeen-year-old girl emerging from lawyer Royall’s house in North Dormer, Massachussetts (again it’s set in the area similar to the Berkshires where the author had built a house and got to know the locality and its dour rural inhabitants), and the lyrical description sets the tone for the first part of the novel:

The springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village, and on the pastures and larchwoods surrounding it. A little wind moved among the round white clouds on the shoulder of the hills…

She shrinks away from the figure of a young man in the street, a stranger with a ‘holiday face’, and looks critically at her ‘swarthy face’ in the hall mirror, wishing she had blue eyes like Annabel Balch – a society girl who sometimes visits.

“How I hate everything!” she murmured.

She repeats this statement more than once in this opening chapter: clearly she is discontented. We soon find out why:

North Dormer is at all times an empty place, and at three o’clock on a June afternoon its few able-bodied men are off in the fields or woods, and the women indoors, engaged in languid household drudgery.

So there’s her reason: drudgery is her lot, and all she has to look forward to in this torpid, desolate, repressed place. There’s more:

There it lay, a weather-beaten, sunburnt village of the hills, abandoned of men, left apart by railway, trolley, telegraph, and the forces that link life to life in modern communities. It had no shops, no theatres, no lectures, no “business block”; only a church that was opened every other Sunday if the state of the roads permitted, and a library for which no new books had been bought for twenty years, and where the old ones mouldered undisturbed on the damp shelves.

Soon we learn that this is Charity Royall, adopted daughter of the burnt-out, hard-drinking lawyer who’d “brought her down from the Mountain” – a wild, lawless region nearby where no respectable person ever goes. Her ‘tainted origin’ adds to her sense of estrangement; ‘she was the child of a drunken convict and of a mother who wasn’t “half human” and was glad to have her go.’

She knew that, compared to the place she had come from, North Dormer represented all the blessings of the most refined civilization.

The young man she’d glimpsed in that opening page turns out to be Lucius Harney, a rare sight in this village, for he’s from the city, educated and artistic. He’s an architect who while visiting his cousin is researching and sketching the old houses in the area; these were once grand and imposing, but were not valued by the locals, and have fallen into disrepair or been abandoned. This is the moral and cultural void which has inspired in Charity such dismal feelings of ennui and longing for escape – a theme prevalent also in Ethan Frome.

All seems set for a romance that will enable her to find fulfilment and escape to a fuller life, one with love and prospects. Sadly, as in Ethan Frome, dreams shatter, love brings pain and humiliation.

So what’s its significance? Elizabeth Ammons in her introduction sets out in detail the historical and biographical context: Wharton had been working with refugees in war-torn France as she wrote the novel, hence perhaps some of the key motifs and situations in it. She’d found passionate love at last after an arid marriage – which would explain the passionate sexual and emotional awakening that Charity experiences – and the misery that tends to accompany such cataclysmic changes when the loved one is fickle or flawed.

But is it, as Ammons suggests, a sort of allegory for the colonial oppression and racism of the white European nations blowing themselves apart in WWI? Or of the shameful racism and xenophobia of early 20C America in its dealings with former slaves and later with the huge numbers of immigrants? Both are plausible readings.

How then to interpret the Mountain? The ‘savage misery of the Mountain farmers’ which made the impoverished crudity of North Dormer’s villagers seem comparatively affluent and desirable? Near the end of the novel the girl travels there, vaguely in search of her mother and some new connection, and experiences instead a ‘tragic initiation’:

Charity vainly tried to think herself into the life about her. But she could not even make out what relationship these people bore to each other, or to her…mother; they seemed to be herded together in a sort of passive promiscuity in which their common misery was the strongest link. [my ellipsis to avoid spoilers]

She tries to picture what her life would have been if she’d stayed in this purgatorial place, ‘turning into a fierce bewildered creature’ like the wild girl she’d encountered on arrival – yet she feels a weird ‘secret affinity’ with that girl – who may even be a relative of hers.

Wharton seems also to be appraising the ahistorical, amoral underbelly of rural America at that time, the capacity of the uneducated, alienated, indifferent villagers like those of “dormant” North Dormer, to be surpassed in their primitivism and state of socio-cultural atrophy by these inbred hillbilly close cousins. The theme of incest that Ammons discusses is clearly a feature in this Mountain world. It’s as if the rural poor that Wharton had seen in the Berkshires and discussed as she passed such places with Henry James in her large car had impressed her with the bleakness and animality of their lives.

Is this snobbish elitism? In some ways, yes. But the richness and empathetic warmth of Wharton’s portrayal of Charity, and the growth and changes she undergoes, the exploration of life’s constraints and barriers for most women at the time it was written, lifts the novel into a higher artistic realm, where we learn what it is to be fully human, even when all around us humanity (and sexual and marital relations in a dysfunctional patriarchal  world) seems absent, selfish, cruel, even obscene.

It lacks the visceral punch of Ethan Frome, but is still a powerful, moving depiction of a strange but recognisable, dying world.

 

 

 

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome (first published 1911; OUP paperback, with Summer, 1982, reprinted 1989) (with companion text, Summer)

These two short novels are counterparts, Ethan Frome being set in a bleak, snowy New England winter (the story’s title is Hiver in the French translation), while Summer’s title indicates its contrasting atmosphere.

Unlike the majority of Edith Wharton’s best-known works (links at the end to those I’ve written about in previous posts) neither is set in the high society worlds of New York and Europe that the author, a wealthy woman, and close friend of Henry James, knew so well. Their setting is the remote, impoverished rural villages and small towns of Massachusetts: Starkfield (aptly named), and North Dormer respectively.

Edith had a large house (The Mount) built at Lenox in the Berkshires in 1901 as a place where she and her incompatible husband Teddy might reconstruct their marriage. The attempt failed, but it brought her into contact with the austere country settings and stoical, inarticulate people who populate these two stories. There’s maybe something of their dysfunctional relationship in the two novels under discussion here.

Wharton Frome Summer cover

What an awful cover. It depicts the pickle dish that’s broken by the cat, an accident that’s important in the plotting – but this image does the subtlety of the narrative no favours

Both tell of tragically thwarted love affairs. Ethan, a dirt-poor farmer and failing sawmill owner, inept at expressing himself or his feelings – to himself or to others – is married to the whining, needy Zeena (Zenobia – an ironic name, for the third century queen and empire builder was both regal and cultured – qualities which Zeena palpably lacks). Once married, she’s lapsed into self-obsessed hypochondria and constant complaining and fault-finding.

When she leaves to consult yet another quack doctor in a neighbouring town, she leaves Ethan and Mattie – Zeena’s orphan cousin who has lived with them for a year as an unpaid skivvy – alone together overnight for the first time. Their unstated, furtive love for each other leads to tragic conclusions.

It’s interesting to see the patrician, urban socialite Wharton portraying lives of these taciturn characters, as dour as the granite outcrops of the landscape, like those in Wuthering Heights. But she does it with aplomb.

Here’s a passage where the neurosis and perverse passions that seethe beneath the bland surface of this remote, backward region are anatomised; it narrates how Zeena responded to her move to Ethan’s house:

She chose to look down on Starkfield, but she could not have lived in a place which looked down on her…And within a year of their marriage she developed the “sickliness” which had since made her notable even in a community rich in pathological instances. When she came to take care of his mother she had seemed to Ethan like the very genius of health, but he soon saw that her skill as a nurse had been acquired by the absorbed observation of her own symptoms.

There’s a little trace of the potentially patronising scrutiny of the sociologist or entomologist here, but the power of the portrayal carries the reader through such qualms, and it’s impossible not to read on in fascinated horror as the story plays out to its inevitably painful conclusion – one almost as heartbreaking and cathartic as great tragedy.

The evocation of the landscape and climate of the New England winter is done with exceptional skill; key images recur – blackness, whiteness, ice – all of which play a crucial part in the terrifying, gruesome climax. And this is followed by a less dramatic but even more gut-wrenching conclusion, a generation later, mediated through the poised, interpreting voice of the frame narrator. Like the one in Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity, which I wrote about last time, he’s engaged in constructing and reconstructing this story out of fragments and narratives of others – a pleasing effect again reminiscent of Emily Bronte.

I’ll turn next to the companion text, Summer.

 As noted above, here are links to previous posts here on Edith Wharton:

The House of Mirth

The Age of Innocence

The Children

 

Homeless in Texas: Denis Johnson, The Largesse of the Sea Maiden

Denis Johnson (1949-2017), The Largesse of the Sea Maiden. Jonathan Cape, 2018. 207 pp.

It’s evident in this posthumously published final collection of stories by Denis Johnson that he was aware of his nearing demise; there are frequent references to mutability, mortality and waning strength:

This morning I was assailed by such sadness at the velocity of life – the distance I’ve travelled from my own youth, the persistence of the old regrets, the new regrets, the ability of failure to freshen itself in novel forms – that I almost crashed the car.

Johnson LargesseA little later this narrator reveals he suffers from back trouble, a pinched nerve in his spine that incapacitates him, causing ‘a dull, sort of muffled torment, or else a shapeless, confusing pain.’ That’s the startling imagery and confident, lyrical voice so typical of Johnson, taking up where he left off in his astonishing, pyrotechnic first story collection, Jesus’ Son (1992). The best of these new stories is up there with them – and that’s among the best American short fiction of the last hundred years. Most of these new stories consist of loosely tacked-together vignettes or fragmentary anecdotes that gradually cohere, illuminating what’s gone before and foreshadowing what’s to come.

The passage I just quoted is from the first and best in the book, the title story, in which an ageing ad man called Bill Whitman, ‘just shy of 63’, reflects on his successful but not entirely satisfactory life in advertising and the people who have inhabited his spaces.

In the first vignette, guests at Bill’s dinner party swap stories about ‘the loudest sounds [they’d] ever heard’. Young Chris changes the theme to silences; the most silent thing he’d known was the moment when a land mine blew off his leg on his tour of duty in Afghanistan. Deirde asks to see it:

“No, ma’am,” Chris said. “I don’t carry land mines around on my person.”

She rides his joke and repeats her request – to see the part of his leg that’s left. “I’ll show you,” he said, “if you kiss it.” She bends to do so then starts to cry; everyone feels awkward, so someone changes the subject, and the moment passes. The vignette ends with the announcement that six months later Chris and Deirdre were married ‘by a magistrate’:

Yes, they’re husband and wife. You and I know what’s going on.

This strange, deceptively colloquial direct address buttonholes the reader and tightens the already gripping hold that assertive narrative voice has established, and it’s a device that’s repeated throughout the collection with timely grace.

Later sections of this opening story become ever more disconcerting; at another dinner party the host takes a priceless painting from the wall and throws it on the fire. A chiropractor is dressed as an elf (well, it is Hallowe’en). Bill gets a call from his first wife Ginny; they’d married ‘long ago, in our early twenties’, but ‘put a stop to it after three crazy years.’ She’s called to tell him she’s dying, and to try to forgive him the hurt he’d caused her. They talk, forty years on, ‘about the many other ways I’d stolen her right to the truth.’ Then he realises he’s not sure if he’s talking to Ginny or his second wife, Jenny, so he doesn’t know ‘which set of crimes’ he’s apologising for. It’s another supreme moment of fuddled embarrassment that Johnson carries off with aplomb.

There are many more such moments in this story and in later ones. In ‘The Starlight on Idaho’ a young man in rehab writes letters in fizzing demotic prose to the people with ‘hooks in his heart’ – most of them dysfunctional losers, like him; one of them is Satan. Near the end he reflects on his life after jail in what sounds like the lyrics to an early Tom Waits song:

Just to sketch out the last four years – broke, lost, detox, homeless in Texas, shot in the ribs by a thirty-eight, mooching off the charity of dad in Ukiah, detox again, run over (I think, I’m pretty sure, I can’t remember) then shot again, and detox right now one more time again.

The title of the story ‘Strangler Bob’ is the name of one of a weird collection of prison inmates surrounding the protagonist, an eighteen-year-old serving a sentence for stealing and crashing a car. It’s the 60s, so we’re in similar territory to Jesus’ Son. All his cellmates are as outlandish as him: addicts, murderers and psychos. Hallucinatory drugs are smuggled in and ingested. Strangler Bob tells how he had a meal with his wife ‘and then I sort of killed her a little bit.’ The heroin addiction the narrator endures later in the dark part of his life is also reminiscent of Johnson’s beaten-up junky protagonist Fuckhead in that first collection.

In ‘Triumph Over the Grave’ the narrator, presumably with the insouciance of irony, reflects how easy it is to write fiction. There are several deaths, then he’s told he too is dying:

It doesn’t matter. The world keeps turning. It’s plain to you that at the time I write this, I’m not dead. But maybe by the time you read it.

Yet in addition to the Beat/Hippy/Junky aspects, these haunting, elegiac stories are redolent of the powerful Christian faith of their author, who’d kicked his various addictions by the early 80s. That other Johnson obsession, Elvis, is the subject of the strange final tale in which conspiracy theories about the singer’s stillborn twin not having died, but lived on to replace the real, murdered Elvis, are counterpointed with other doppelganger/poltergeist stories involving the English professor narrator, who may or may not also have a ghost twin existence in his life, his talented poet student (who comes up with the murdered/haunting Elvis theories), and the Twin Towers.

Summarising them doesn’t do these stories justice. They are to be experienced rather than read. I wrote a valedictory piece on Johnson back in May last year, in which I discussed Jesus’ Son, Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke.

Nicole Krauss, Man Walks Into a Room

Nicole Krauss, Man Walks Into a Room: first published in 2002. I read the Anchor Books paperback, published 2003.

This was Nicole Krauss’s debut; as such it’s impressively confident and accomplished – if a little over-dependant on its high-concept central plot feature. Samson Greene, an English professor in his thirties at Columbia University, New York, is found one day wandering dazed and confused in the Nevada desert. A brain tumour has impaired his cognitive functions. It’s successfully removed, but he’s left with no memory after the age of twelve. What happened in the ensuing twenty-four years is a blank.

The narrative focuses on how this impacts upon his sense of self, his identity. In particular, he finds himself married to a beautiful woman, Anna, but with no emotional or historical connection with her. He’s devastated by the frequent ‘discoveries’ about his past, such as the death of his mother five years earlier.

He finds some kind of companionship and solace with a freewheeling student of his, who’s so laid-back she simply accepts that he has no recollection of who she is. A romantic liaison seems imminent, but comes to nothing.

Then the plot veers off into speculative territory that seriously threatens the credibility of the already so-so plot. Out of the blue Samson receives a call from a scientist who wants him to participate in what turns out to be a highly dodgy project in a sinister desert facility involving memory: how to capture people’s memories from a sort of brain photocopier and transfer them into someone else. As Samson’s brain is more or less a tabula rasa, he’s the ideal guinea-pig as a memory-receiver.

Not surprisingly all doesn’t go well. His fellow volunteer at the facility, a man who becomes his friend, has a memory captured and transferred to Samson’s brain that is so traumatic he freaks out and sets off on a quixotic quest – effectively to in some way find himself and tie up the loose ends of his past – those few that he can remember from his childhood, and the rest that he’d been told about.

Krauss Man Bar coverIt was a good read while I was recovering from illness in bed. Any other time I’d have probably not finished it, for the reasons I think I’ve hinted at above. I’ve maybe been a little over-critical; Krauss writes well, and when she’s inside Samson’s damaged consciousness has some interesting ways of exploring how his brain trauma manifests itself in terms of his behaviour, feelings and fractured, fragmented relationships.

There’s a good portrayal of his dog, Frank, too, who sadly drops out of the story when it lurches off into sub-sci fi territory. Frank accepts Samson for how he is, memory or not, for dogs don’t really care about memory. Here’s a typical canine aside, after Samson has been reaching out to his student friend on the phone, but failing to connect with her:

In the far corner of the room the dog moved his feet in his sleep, as if he were treading water.

There’s a touching moment when Samson is trying to explain to Anna what it’s like to be him with his adult memory gone: “Like an astronaut”, he says. They agree he should move out. He’s packed and about to leave:

“Isn’t there something else?” she asked, the dog crouched between them like a small country…[He says No, then catches sight of a camera on a shelf] Anna took it down and handed it to him. “Take it.” He lifted it to his eye and found her through the lens. She stood patiently, like someone whose face is being felt by the blind, but when he pressed the shutter she flinched. “To remember me by,” she said, and smiled grimly. The dog rolled over as if he were dead.

The first half of this novel has some good images and poised writing of that kind. It lost its way, in my view, when it rode off into the desert on a horse with no name.

A portable abyss: John Cheever, Bullet Park

John Cheever (1912-82), Bullet Park. First published 1967. Vintage paperback 2010.

This is a startlingly strange book, full of narrative elisions and unsettling shifts, a linguistically pyrotechnic display of insidious intent.

Its subject is that old American existential dilemma, from Hawthorne and Melville to Updike and Stephen King: the paradoxically simultaneous impulse towards the untamed forest of Sabbats, ocean as pratum spirituale, and the ironically deadening pull of the suburbs.

Bullet Park coverBullet Park is a ‘precinct of disinfected acoustics’, where everyone knows the price of everyone else’s property, where men paint their houses obsessively then go out into the garden and shoot themselves, unable to ‘stand it any longer’. These people numb their neuroses with cocktail parties and pills, gossip, mowing the lawn or taking the chainsaw to a diseased elm or soul.

In a typically weird and lyrical outburst early on the narrator imagines ‘some zealous and vengeful adolescent’ who might rail like Lear in the storm against such a deadening place, with its

legion of wife-swapping, Jew-baiting, booze-fighting spiritual bankrupts. Oh, damn them all…Damn their hypocrisy, damn their cant, damn their credit cards, damn their discounting the wilderness of the human spirit, damn their immaculateness, damn their lechery and damn them above all for having leached from life that strength, malodorousness, color and zeal that give it meaning. Howl, howl, howl.

Tony Nailles is such an adolescent, but his resistance takes the form of neurosis: he takes to his bed and, like Oblomov or Bartleby the Scrivener, prefers to stay there. His father, the uxorious Eliot, a chemist who helps make a mouthwash called Spang and hates himself for his bourgeois uselessness, has to drug himself to endure the daily commute by train into the city of New York, for a cold shower

had no calming effect on his image of the 7:46 as a portable abyss.

Part I ends with a mysterious Caribbean swami curing Tony with a mix of magic and prayer. Then it all gets much weirder.

Paul Hammer, who with his bitchy wife Marietta has just moved into Bullet Park at the start of the novel (shown his new home by a realtor named Hazzard), takes over the narrative; his monomaniacal first-person voice gives us his lengthy dysfunctional back-story. It’s hardly surprising he’s so deranged; from his exiled mother, crazy as a badger herself, he picks up the idea of crucifying a denizen of suburban respectability and excellence: the collocational congruence of names and pure chance (hazard) of contiguity provide the perfect candidate: Nailles. Or even better, his angsty teenage son.

The purpose of this symbolic crucifixion is ‘to awaken the world’, Hammer believes, with the certitude of the terminally lost. Nailles represents ‘a good example of a life lived without any genuine emotion or value’, he decides – this from Hammer, a man who falls in love with a woman because of a white thread on her shoulder, and who kills because of a piece of string or a much-coveted yellow room.

Nailles’s excellence is shown by such gestures as dutifully to turn on his windshield wipers, whatever the weather he’s driving through, to convey the ‘nomadic signals’ of his church’s somnolent belief in ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’ In their white-painted house (like all the other Bullet Park houses) the Nailles family ‘seemed to have less dimension than a comic strip.’ It’s the Dick van Dyke show scripted by Mephistopheles: this is hell, nor am I out of it.

I’ve written here before about Cheever’s deftly crafted short stories; this novel in some ways is a loosely linked collection of such units. This weakens the flow a little, but interest is sustained by that barely-contained sense of mayhem in the lawned pacific real estate, and by the dazzling language that often reaches levels of poetic delirium that’s akin to a spell. An example: Tony has a spat with his astrologically obsessed, seriously neurotic French teacher, blessed with the lewdly inappropriate name Miss Hoe:

She lived alone, of course, but we will grant her enough privacy not to pry into the clinical facts of her virginity…As a lonely and defenseless spinster she was prey to the legitimate anxieties of her condition…She had read somewhere that anxiety was a manifestation of sexual guilt and she could see, sensibly, that her aloneness and her virginity would expose her to guilt and repression. However, the burden of guilt must, she felt, be somewise divided between her destiny and the news in the evening paper.

‘Sensibly’ is just so well placed in that wicked profile.

How Nailles is impelled to thwart Hammer’s demented plan to immolate Tony in the chancel of the local church is the nearest this strange novel gets to a regular plot. It works, just about, as a sequence of disturbingly ironic, magical-surreal vignettes of a civilisation whose barbarity and existential vacuity is barely concealed, or tolerated. In one such scene Nailles wakes his wife by blazing away with his shotgun on his lawn in his underpants at a century-old snapper turtle that’s emerged from the local bog:

In this pure and subtle light the undressed man and the prehistoric turtle seemed engaged in some primordial and comical battle.

That battle takes many forms in this extraordinary novel, where one feels it’s turtles all the way down in an infinite regress to nothingness.

In therapy they go straight after the mother. Elizabeth Strout, ‘Olive Kitteridge’

 

Photo: By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44665615

With Christmas visits and trips about to happen this will be my last post probably this year. I’d like to write more attentively about Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel Olive Kitteredge, Pulitzer Prize winner in 2009, but as time is pressing this will be an impressionistic piece.

Olive Kitteridge cover

My Scribner’s paperback edition, published 2016, still with the charity shop price tag stuck indelibly on the front

It’s a fragmentary novel in the form of thirteen linked short stories, each self-contained, usually about a different set of characters in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, but Olive and her pharmacist husband Henry appear in all of them, sometimes as peripheral characters, in others their story – their fitful, troubled relationship with each other and their son Christopher – develops.

Olive is a difficult, irascible, moody woman, but gifted with surprising empathy. The opening story, ‘Pharmacy’, is a microcosm of the whole novel. It begins with the Kitteredges in their prime, some time in the sixties when ‘the hippie business was beginning’, and ends near the present day when Henry has retired. Henry at the story’s start employs a new assistant, Denise, in his pharmacy, and falls passionately, platonically in love with her. Olive, meanwhile, is subject to fits of emotional ‘darkness’ that distances her husband and surly teenage son. We learn that Henry finds his workplace a safe haven, like ‘a healthy, autonomic nervous system, in a workable, quiet state’, away from ‘any unpleasantness that may have occurred back in his home, any uneasiness at the way his wife often left their bed to wander through their house in the night’s dark hours’. Olive is clearly deeply troubled.

Henry is a long-suffering character it’s easy to warm to, with his perennially ‘cheerful’ nature, and his desire to make everyone happy – even his spiteful wife. Adolescent Christopher has some of his mother’s genes, for he snarls ‘angrily’ at his father near the story’s end:

“Why do you need everyone married?…Why can’t you just leave people alone?” He doesn’t want people alone.

The free indirect style throughout unobtrusively allows us into the main characters’ minds, as here with Henry’s. He can’t bear to see Denise or anyone else ‘helpless’; he wants to help. He needs help – and Olive provides it beautifully but, tragically, too late for him.

The story reveals that Olive’s waspish mouth and misanthropic impatience with people is partly the result of her own unrequited passion for a fellow teacher at her school. The couple never speak about their sorrows or pain, for in their own way they love and need each other. Christopher’s angst, as the other stories unfold, is also explained by his frustration with his mother and her stifling love.

I’d like to say much more about the other stories – maybe I’ll return to them in the new year. All I have time for here, then, is this: a unifying motif or theme is the damaging effect that mothers have on their children. In ‘Pharmacy’ we learn that Henry’s mother had two ‘nervous breakdowns’ and had otherwise cared for him ‘with stridency’ – a word that suits Olive’s maternal style; Henry has to restrain her from giving Christopher too hard a time, and at one point she admits she used to hit him – not smack, hit. Yet her love for her only son almost overwhelms her, and she’s devastated when he moves away from New England with his first wife to live in California; it’s pretty obvious that Olive’s antipathy towards her daughter-in-law is reciprocated, and that Suzanne insisted on leaving. Christopher would not have resisted; when they divorce, he stays out west, and rarely even visits his parents. Tough love hasn’t worked for him.

When pharmacy assistant Denise’s husband dies, Henry cares tenderly for her. Olive is scathing in her dismissal of ‘mousy’ Denise – largely because she’s aware that her transparent husband has feelings for her. Olive acidly observes that at first she couldn’t see why Denise’s husband (also Henry) had married her, until she saw young Henry’s mother at his funeral.

“…he married his mother. Men do.” After a pause. “Except for you.”

It’s typical of the subtlety and psychological insight into her complex characters that Elizabeth Strout reveals in this way how the dynamics of relationships both reveal and conceal truths. Olive is no doubt right about Denise, her husband and his mother; but does she realise that her Henry, too, has married a neurotic, volatile, potentially suicidal woman like his mother? Such self-awareness eludes her, or she swerves away from it, despite her frequent, surprisingly warm empathy for and insight into other people.

In ‘Security’, late in the novel, Olive visits Christopher and his second wife, Ann, in New York City, where they’d followed their therapist (he’d needed one after living first with Olive, then with Suzanne; he’d married his mother that time; Ann is the opposite: vapid, colourless, but damaged in her own way; he’d learned his lesson). The visit is a disaster. Olive detests Ann, and says on the phone to Henry:

“They’re ok, but she’s dumb, just like I thought. They’re in therapy. She hesitated, looked around. “You’re not to worry about that, Henry. In therapy they go straight after the mother. You come out smelling like a rose, I’m sure.”

As before, she shows a startling flash of insight here, while at the same time seeming in denial about the devastating impact she’d had on both her son and her husband. The rueful self-deprecation morphs in typical Olive fashion into an attack on Henry’s benign nature, the opposite of hers.

This quiet, becalmed coastal town of Crosby, Maine (Strout herself was born and raised in Portland, Maine) is the kind that Stephen King might set up for horrific, supernatural mayhem to unleash itself on. Elizabeth Strout prefers a quieter, more insidious kind of hell – the hell of a woman’s seeing her husband suffer a stroke, be emptied of his humanity, and ultimately die. A mother’s realising that the son she adores has been so alienated and intimidated by her acerbity that he dislikes her.

There are many other broken, suffering characters in this novel, and suicide is often not far from their minds, but it usually manages to avoid becoming depressing. There is redemption for most of them, often in surprising places and people. In ‘Incoming Tide’, for example, Olive manages to quell a former student’s suicidal thoughts by revealing with sympathy that she knew his mother killed herself, as her own father did. When he rescues a former classmate of his from drowning in the ocean, we realise she had probably jumped, for she too had tragedy in her life: she’d been unable to become a mother. Their salvation is mutual, reciprocal, and the prose that reveals all this is meticulous and satisfyingly understated.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this multi-faceted, carefully crafted novel. I recommend it – but it’s a bumpy ride.