Smiley, Hannah, Dandicat: the last Granta American long stories
Jane Smiley, The Age of Grief (1987). I don’t recall a story about a married pair of dentists before. This is one of the better stories in the collection, a touching account told from the husband’s viewpoint. His wife is having an affair, but he’s not a man who likes talking about their relationship – or about anything much – so he avoids confronting her about it. If she doesn’t confess, he can somehow cope. Smiley creates an engaging, affecting picture of this family and each character in it – there are three little girls as well – and I found myself wanting them to come through this crisis. It’s one of the least grim or depressing stories in the collection, despite this rather painful storyline.
Joyce Carol Oates, I Lock My Door Upon Myself (1990). This is probably the best in the book. Although it also deals with some emotionally fraught themes, it’s told with quiet authority. The central character, who calls herself Calla (like the lily), has the given name Edith Honeystone. She’s from a family of farmers in the Chautauqua river valley, Colorado.
The feckless father has lost most of his land, and finally absconds. Mother dies, too. Calla has always been mutinous, ‘a difficult child’, wilful, solitary, self-contained, intractable. She’s possibly ‘touched in the head’, whisper the locals – or maybe she’s of ‘unusual intelligence and sensitivity.’ When the scary schoolteacher in the tough country school attempts to whip her with her willow branch, Calla deftly seizes it from her – something even the tall, strong farm boys hadn’t dared or been able to do – and strikes her ‘full in the face’ with it.
Aged only 17 she accepts the offer of marriage from an ugly, earnest little ‘gnomish’ 39-year-old German farmer called George – ‘but with character, distinction’. She doesn’t love him, so why does she agree to marry him? To escape from her relatives’ house, or because of over-confidence and exultation in her sexual power over him?
This question is posed by the narrator, Calla’s granddaughter, who’s telling the story of her wild grandmother’s youth (Calla was born in 1890), wondering if her ‘mad’ blood courses through her own veins.
At first Calla refuses to let George touch her, then a change takes place and she has three children. She still frequently takes herself off alone into the wild country, and sleeps goodness knows where, coming back dishevelled and filthy, something she’d done since she was a child. She’s not unhappy, but retreats into her ‘aloneness’. Never once does she reveal her personal, secret name to her husband.
George’s disapproving mother, who lives with them, thinks Calla is ‘feral’, a disgrace, a bad mother and wife. She’s not wrong, but can’t begin to understand this complex, shameless young woman.
There’s a crisis, of course, and Calla’s disgrace is worsened considerably in the eyes of her husband, his family, and the community. What follows comes close to being both tragic and epic.
Barry Hannah, Hey, Have You Got a Cig, the Time, the News, My Face? (1993) This strange sentence never figures in the story. I didn’t enjoy it. A troubled father-son relationship that I cared nothing about.
Edwidge Dandicat, Caroline’s Wedding (1995). This was much better, the second-best story in the collection. A charming, heart-warming portrayal (by an author of Haitian heritage) of the loving family of Haitian Americans in Brooklyn: sisters Grace, who’s excited to have just been given her US passport; her younger sister Caroline, who is a US citizen, having been born there; and their mother, still at heart a Haitian, who finds American life brash and alien. She’s still more comfortable speaking Creole than English, unlike her assimilated daughters.
The mother disapproves of Caroline’s fiancé, a Bahamian. Why can’t she find a nice Haitian boy? The story traces the days through the wedding preparations, the ceremony itself in a registry office (to mother’s consternation), and the wedding meal afterwards.
Mother’s solution to all problems is to make soup out of cows’ bones. She and the girls are still close enough to their roots to believe that the spirits of the dead, including that of the late husband and father, return to importune the living. As a sort of apotropaic defence, mother insists the girls, still at school at the time of his death, wore red pants, because ghosts don’t like the colour of blood. Secretly, the girls wear black ones, because they miss their father and would quite like him to communicate with them.
The sisters are American, but still play the word games their father taught them from his Haitian heritage. The same with their exchanges of proverbs, folklore and the everyday interpenetration of the natural and supernatural worlds.
Each character comes fully to life on the page. Their relationships are loving but spiky, and the clashes or tensions between the girls’ generation and new culture and their mother’s are dramatized with insight and deep sympathy. At last a story that’s not grim or depressing, but neither is it sentimental.