Friday, April 26, 2013

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

“She had given up her right to keep her place as the children's most beloved. The small, daily offices of love that had connected her to the children before—the shoe tying, the hair combing, the nightly storytelling—were no longer hers to claim.” (255) 

                                                            Just Mother (cinema 1914), NYPL Film Archives

Nancy Horan's Loving Frank is a novel I'm surprised to be posting about. I almost didn't keep reading it after the first few chapters. In many ways, this novel didn't, and still doesn't, strike me as a very good piece of fiction. Horan is a journalist by training, and she's writing an extremely historical novel that closely follows everything she was able to discover about Frank Lloyd Wright's affair with a married mother of two, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Much of the detail Horan includes seems included only because it's something she discovered. Little of it goes to theme or helps to unify the story as a whole. As a result, there are red-herrings all over the place for a reader who's looking for a writer of fiction to develop these things. I spent half the book waiting for the youngest daughter to die of typhoid or something because we get so much detail about how sick she feels on the train. I kept waiting for Horan to do something with the fact that this woman named Mamah abandons her children. I kept waiting for her to use space as a metaphor. None of this happened... and yet...

I kept reading. In part, I kept reading because a friend told me something terrible happens. This is undoubtedly part of the reason I continued flipping pages (don't google the names if you want to have the same experience), but I found myself actually moved by the identity crisis Horan imagines for Mamah as she tries to reconcile her love of her children with the irresistible pull she feels toward her own projects, mostly translations of feminist author Ellen Key. A lot of what she says feels very contemporary, so even though I think it may be Horan's voice I'm hearing, I like it. 

The other thing the book brought home was that even when fiction isn't "great," even when it doesn't consider unifying themes or execute them particularly beautifully, there is something powerful about simply telling things as we know they happened and imagining how people felt in those circumstances. It was like a guided tour in a museum by a very creative guide, and that act on its own can be powerful. 

Mostly though, I can't wait to read T.C. Boyle's The Women.


Monday, April 8, 2013

"When She Is Old and I Am Famous" by Julie Orringer, Plus "Misery" by Anton Chekhov

"But perhaps by then we will love ourselves less fiercely." (Orringer, 45)

     "Iona looks at his fare and moves his lips... Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes out but a sniff. 
     "What?" inquires the officer. 
     "Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: "My son..., er... my son died this week, sir."  (Chekhov)

These two stories don't go together. It's just that I read them at the same time. Also, I'm feeling erudite and studious enough to attempt a connection

Guys, I had an insight. Who knows how long it will last, but it feels monumental.

I have been thinking intently about truth as a motivation for writing, and as a source of conflict. In my own writing, I always struggle with figuring out what has to happen to a character over the course of a story to bring that character, or the reader, some deeper understanding. It feels like a plotting problem. When I re-plot, when I think I've got something figured out because it makes sense the way the plot of an episode of Law & Order makes sense, I'm so proud of myself for a minute. Then I try to write it, and half way through, it fails. I'm not saying what I mean to say. 

It occurred to me this week, as the plot problem happened again, and I thought I'd solved it, that it is not a plot problem I have at all. I have a vision problem. I have a problem understanding what I think the ultimate stake is in any conflict and in knowing what, for me, starts the fires of tension and conflict raging in the first place. 

As soon as I knew I had the problem, I had the answer, too. To me, it's always a character's inability to say what she really means to say, always his inability to hold onto the little kernel of truth he knows, that sets any conflict going. 

And it is our inability to tell and believe any static truth, the encounter with knowing that as soon as we put words to something it's bullshit, it's never the whole picture, that is the reason I write. All we have are different changeable versions of stories, but having to change them all the time, having to admit their truth and their falsity, their inevitable inadequacy and their inevitable beauty all at the same time-- that is the most dramatic thing in the world. 

"When She Is Old and I Am Famous" and "Misery" were the first two stories I read after my realization. They are test cases for the questions, "Is this really how I see all stories?" and "Is this the most helpful, clarifying, propulsive way of seeing my own stories?" I think it is, for my own stories at least, and I think, even if I am reading things into other stories by applying my theory, that the activity will teach me more about craft than will going in with the same stale set of tools I'm carrying now. 

I am so excited to have something fresh. (Can you tell?)

I was re-reading Orringer's story because I'm teaching it in class, and it's perfect and engaging for high-school seniors. I was surprised at how much I still like the story, and pleased that my ideas about truth being the source of conflict helped me understand the events of the story in a new way. 

 Mira, the twenty-year-old art student who tells the story, is caught firmly in a static and opposing vision of herself-- fat, smug, never good enough-- and her younger cousin, Aïda-- thin, beautiful, miraculous. Her problems, her perceived conflicts and tensions, all stem from this problematic, but comfortable vision of herself and who she is in the world. It's opposed to her vision of Aïda, sure. There's enough conflict around this version of truth to keep things interesting before Mira's version of the truth breaks down. Everything that happens confirms Mira's vision of things until she is literally injured by her cousin's lies. After she breaks her ankle, her vision of Aïda breaks, too. In a moment when they're both vulnerable, Aïda is able to say what she is afraid of, and Mira is able to believe her.

This isn't where it ends though. There's true connection here, some kind of new understanding, but even when it gets good for Mira at the end, when she's sold a painting and her cousin is gone, there's never the empty promise that she and Aïda will understand each other for good now. It's only that the possibility is there, where at the beginning the only possibility for Mira was to stick with the same old story, the one version of truth it's safe to believe because everyone confirms it. 
After I read Orringer, I read Chekhov because I was thinking last night about the encroachment of the body and nature, and because the Big Daddy of the short story, the one who makes me cry in just a few pages, seemed like an important test. The first Chekhov I came across in my classroom, a Constance Garnett translation in a textbook, was “Misery,” not my favorite, but I at least like all of his stories, so I read it.

Misery” exemplifies another way that truth and our inability to tell it is at the root of conflict. Here, Iona, the cab driver, doesn't have a version of truth that is de-stabilized in the action of the story itself. It's been de-stabilized before we meet him; his son has died quickly and senselessly after three days in the hospital. His struggle is how to say the new truth and how impossible it is to say at all, let alone to an inhospitable world that won't listen. “He feels it is no good to appeal to people,” Chekhov writes. And it is no absolute, permanent, completely fulfilling good. It will be imperfect and go away. But telling stories, sharing that incompleteness is all we have.
He cannot think about his son when he is alone... To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish...”


"The Member of the Wedding" by Carson McCullers

"'And we will meet them. Everybody. We will just walk up to people and know them right away. We will be walking down a dark road and see a lighted house and knock on the door and strangers will rush to meet us and say: Come in! Come in! We will know decorated aviators and New York people and movie stars. We will have thousands of friends, thousands and thousands and thousands of friends. We will belong to so many clubs that we can't even keep track of all of them. We will be members of the whole world. Boyoman! Manoboy!'" (356)

Back to the weddings, and back to the blog. Returning for Spring, (I've been hesitant to take time for this project when time's scarce, privileging my own writing instead) I'm surprised to see this is my third wedding-related post in not so much time. I am getting married in July, but I didn't pick this title, I swear.

I had never actually read McCullers (of course, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is on my list) before Fai, SBC, and Gurms told me I ought to read "The Member of the Wedding" with them, both because it's written from the point-of-view of an early adolescent girl-- a point-of-view I'm still trying to "make work"--and because I really ought to get back to the blogging thing, too.  So, of course, I said yes, and here I sit, a few weeks after meeting over biscuits and tea to discuss, sharing the most adorable picture of flower-girls I've come across in all my months of wedding planning.

The photo is misleading, though. It pre-dates the story of Frankie Addams by at least ten years (she is eager to go to the Front in WWII), and "The Member of the Wedding" takes place in the American South, not Ireland. Still, I like to think that the photo above is the kind of thing Frankie imagines when she develops a deep "crush" on her older brother's wedding, which is to take place a few days after the short novel begins.

For Frankie, her brother's wedding represents the chance to escape a town and a life to which she no longer seems to belong: "This was the summer "when Frankie was sick and tired of being Frankie. She  hated herself, and had become a loafer and a big no-good who hung around the summer kitchen: dirty and greedy and mean and sad" (274).

In one sense, Frankie's summer after the seventh grade seems entirely normal. Those pre-teenage and teenage years are heightened for us all, and when we get over them and look back it's easy to dismiss our longings and confusions as hormones. But whether or not they are true in some sense, it is more interesting to engage those memories of high emotions, and certainly, it is engaging to witness McCullers sit with Frankie's.

What seems to disturb Frankie most is recognizing her individuality, her almost irreparable separateness from the world. Here she is on WWII: "She was not afraid of Germans or bombs or Japanese. She was afraid because in the war they would not include her, and because the world seemed somehow separate from herself" (275).

To me this seems quite an adult worry, a first encounter with the truth we all live to learn with and to ignore most of the time: the world spins without us, and we are encased as much as we are connected. Frankie's recognition is all the more moving because of the fantastic way she imagines she can fix it (the wedding, and subsequent travel with her brother and his new wife will transfigure her, she thinks) and because no one around her, not her small friend John Henry, not her father, not the maid and nanny Berenice, can confirm that her longing is true.

         This short novel was a Broadway play!
         ...and TWO movies!  1952 and 1997

Sunday, December 2, 2012

At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott

"While the other little girls told themselves I will be a nun, I will be a nun, as Sister leaned over them at their desks, brushing their arms with her robes, placing her long, thin hand with its single gold band on their desks, Maryanne whispered instead, "I have the saddest thing in the world to tell you."

Her intention was not to emulate but to charm, to be admitted into the young woman's life as no other student or friend or other nun had ever been, to become for Sister Miriam Joseph the very wonder that the nun was for her." (57)

It's probably close to a month now since I first read Alice McDermott, and I still cannot believe I hadn't read her work before. Charming Billy and At Weddings and Wakes had been sitting on my book shelf for over a year (I got them cheap at a local thrift shop) before a friend's recommendation finally prompted me to pick them up. 

This may seem like a technical point, but for the reader and writer I am, it's everything: What this woman can do with point of view! It's stunning. I read this book slowly, with so much pleasure, and when I was finished, I wanted immediately to read it again. 

The first section is a seamless collective memory told in present tense, like a dream whose immediate impact we are trying to recall through re-creation. A mother takes two sisters and a brother to their grandmother and aunt's house in Brooklyn on summer days. There are the various bus and subway rides, the transformation of scenery as they move through space, there is the city. There is the top-floor apartment, their mother's complaints, the grandmother who was the sister of their mother's mother who raised their mother and aunts when her sister died. Their aunts have their own sorrows and joys: one a former nun who indulges them; one a tragic drinker with debilitating skin problems; one an executive secretary who reads the most boring magazines in the world. We discover this family as the youngest members discover it. The later sections unfurl to reveal the beautifully rendered experience of each individual member of the family as they grieve and grow and love one another with heart-wrenching imperfection. 

As the youngest daughter, Maryanne, hopes to be the same kind of wonder for her teacher that her teacher is for her, McDermott makes every human soul in this novel a wonder for her readers. 

A pretty wedding photo contemporary with the novel's setting

I've been reading Lydia Davis's translation of Swann's Way and can't resist sharing a little excerpt. There's a surfeit of them!

With all Proust's talk of sleep, I found myself lying in bed amazed that we manage all our lives to fall asleep in different places, in entirely changed situations, worlds away from where we're born, without much bewilderment at all. This is what he has to say about how we manage it: 

"Habit! That skillful but very slow housekeeper who begins by letting our mind suffer for weeks in a temporary arrangement; but whom we are nevertheless truly happy to discover, for without habit our mind, reduced to no more than its own resources, would be powerless to make a lodging habitable." (8)

Sunday, October 14, 2012

"Walker Brothers Cowboy" by Alice Munro

"Under the arms her dress is a little damp, and little drops form along her upper lip, hang in the soft black hairs at the corners of her mouth" (16). 

I looked back at this story on a whim Friday morning-- Friday, a day off, which I am still profoundly grateful for. I spent the day writing a new piece that started running through my mind at the beginning of the month (but really, as with most of what I write) has been running through my mind and in strands of things I've written for years and years. Something told me to return to Munro. I'd started writing with an older narrator in mind, but I want to travel back in time, too, to the things she recalls and the ways they still affect her, and Munro is a perfect text to study for how to deal with memory. 

She has so many stories that are written in present-tense, but are truly about a vividly remembered past. Walker Brothers Cowboy is one. The narrator is eight or nine; it is the 1930s in Canada; her family is poor. But the memory is so strong, so vivid, that the piece begins: "my father says," "We leave my mother" (3). About halfway through, the story-teller breaks through the immediacy of the past with, "The 1930s. How much this kind of farmhouse, this kind of afternoon seem to me to belong to that one decade in time, just as my father's hat does, his bright flared tie, our car with its wide running board (an Essex past its prime)" (9). It is not that the story is happening now, but that it is happening in this narrator's consciousness now, as she remembers and can put language to the things she perceived as a child but could never have said then.

The story is about her father, the mystery of him. It's very similar to Royal Beatings in theme an execution, though not so brutal. The narrator and her brother go with their father on his Walker Brothers route through the country, and they wind up at an old farmhouse where there father knows a Catholic lady. It's clear the father was involved with the woman in the past, but not clear what he's trying to get out of the visit, or what he's trying to share with his kids or the woman, Nora, by bringing his past and present together in an old kitchen with a scrubbed oilcloth-covered table. Nora dresses up for her visitors, serves their father whisky, and she dances. The line above, where the narrator notices the imperfections of Nora's body, seem to me the lines that make Nora human and real, and consequently, everyone else in the story begins to carry the same kind of mysterious dignity. 

I like to think she might have danced with the children's father in a place like the one above. Also, I think this Walker Evans' portrait captures her essence.  

I also noticed the ending on this read, and how Chekhovian Munro can be. She gestures outward, shows that the inscrutable character and past of the narrator's father is as large and wide as the changeable water and sky: 

"So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father's life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine. 

When we get closer to Tuppertown the sky becomes gently overcast, as always, nearly always, on summer evenings by the Lake" (18). 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor

"She should have died a child; she knows that but has never said it to the nuns, has never included in the story of herself the days that felt like years when she lay among the fallen stones. It would have lowered their spirits, although it lifts her own because instead of nothing there is what there is" (227).

This line is from the end of William Trevor's short 2002 novel The Story of Lucy Gault. Lucy should indeed have died as a child, but she lives, a little ghost-like, waiting for her parents to return. 

The plot is fantastically intriguing, the kind of story that would sell magazines or end up as a Lifetime movie or a 48 Hours news special. It's the early 1920's in Ireland. Lucy is nine and lives with her parents at Lahardane, the family estate. Irish nationals try to burn it down one night. The dogs are poisoned. Captain Gault, Lucy's father, shoots one of the young men. He tries to apologize, but the family must leave. Lucy's mother is English, and they decide to return there. The day before the move, Lucy  runs away and hides in the woods. She breaks her leg and cannot return. Everyone believes she's drowned in the sea. Her parents leave, broken-hearted, and vow never to return. 

Lucy survives and is eventually found, but her family is long-gone, and each day, it seems a little less certain they will ever return. 

Trevor writes from the points-of-view of Lucy, her parents the care-takers who find her, the lawyer who searches for the Gaults once Lucy is found, and the young man who eventually falls in love with her. Every character is revealed as possessing an enormous fount of secret love, longing, and regret. Each wants to connect with someone or something that will always remain at least a little bit hidden. Each is acutely conscious that breaks are permanent, that even the most intense relationships are imperfect and incomplete. Their love for one another is the longing kind--mawing, heart-opening wishing that beautifully echoes every human experience of loss. 

Trevor's portrayal of loss is stunning, in part, because of physical things that re-appear, not as symbols, but, more truly, as comforts that draw us back to old times, old loves we never forget. There are hydrangeas in the yard, the old house in the woods, the dark kitchen, and the boiled egg that is Lucy's first meal when she is re-discovered, all beautifully rendered signs of a surprising continuity.

Powell's (with Alice McDermott's Review), Amazon, Google Books

P.S. It's not all mellow, sad-sack longing. The love story is fantastic!

P.P.S. I'm back after months away! I'm engaged, moved, have an M.F.A. and a new job. But I haven't stopped reading. I'll be posting weekly now, every Sunday (Sunday mornings, I hope).

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty

"There were moments of life when it did not matter who she was—even where. Something, happiness—with Troy, but not necessarily, even the happiness of a fine day—seemed to leap away from identity as if it were an old skin, and that she was one of the Fairchilds was of no more need to her than the locust shells now hanging to the trees everywhere were to the singing locusts" (40). 

Oh, I am a sucker for a beautiful line, and Eudora Welty's 1945 novel "Delta Wedding" is full of them. I must have marked twenty pages of contenders for my favorite.

The line above comes from Dabney, but the novel wends its way through the consciousnesses of many women of the Fairchild family during the days surrounding her wedding. Shellmound Plantation, Uncle George, Uncle Battle, deceased Uncle Dennis, the Yazoo River, the bayou, the great abandoned house, Marmion, and the Fairchild family itselfall exert inescapable, mysterious influence.

Each woman's encounter with the power of family and place is at the heart of Welty's gorgeous prose and her enduring portrait of the early twentieth-century Deep South. (At least, it's enduring to my mind. I've never been to Mississippi, but if I someday get the chance, I will be hoping for white cotton fields, hot blue skies, rivers with whirlpools, banana plants, crepe myrtles, and enormous old families, big white houses always full of noise.)

There is nine-year-old cousin Laura, whose mother has recently died, desperately wanting to feel part of the Shellmound clan. There is Dabney, gay and rather frivolous, marrying 'beneath' her station, delighting in maintaining and breaking family boundaries. There is her mother, Ellen, a Virginian never been quite at home in Mississippi, pregnant again. There is Shelley, the first daughter, sober and thoughtful with no marriage prospects, unsure of what her life might become. And there is Robbie, Uncle George's wife, who runs away and returns without knowing how to live with the fact that her husband will always put the Fairchilds first.

What I like best is that despite all the family noise, the demands for attention, all the things to be done, each woman portrayed is called by some mystery, some deeper meaning in life, and each finds a place quiet enough to reflect, appreciate, wonder.

P.S. One more line I love, this time from Shelley: "The house was charged with life, the fields were charged with life, endlessly exploited, but the bayou was filled with its summer trance or its winter trance of sleep, its uncaught fishes" (256).