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What I've Been Reading

The Women in Black by Madeleine St John


 
 The Women in Black is a favorite of Clare Chambers, author of Small Pleasures, the novel I discussed in my last post.  Published in 1993, it was Madeleine St. John's first novel and for me, an introduction to a writer I had never heard of before.   I was riveted by the end of the first chapter, quickly falling in love.  And since the first chapter is only two and a half pages, the spell happened fast.  That's because there were several embedded messages to me, the reader, within the dutiful discharging of a first chapter's traditional business, to provide the where, when, and with whom.
 
It introduces us to Goode's Department Store in Sydney, Australia at the beginning of a Christmas season sometime in the late 1950's, an exact year not given. The employees at that department store wear the regulation black nylon frocks the store provides, and thus, right away, we understand the significance of the title.  We meet two of them in these first pages, Patty Williams and Fay Baines, and we learn the name of the department they work in, Ladies Cocktail Frocks,  but first, we are treated to a vision of Patty Williams at home "washing out her undies in the handbasin that night" when she has "a sudden sensation that her life was slipping away with the rinsing water as it gurgled down the plughole" (1)…
 
And with that, here is the first message from the narrator: Dear reader, I mention the business of washing soiled undies on the first page because I want this novel to have the appearance of being about mundane concerns, yet, between you and me, that is not my true business.  The sentence goes on in this way: "; but she pulled herself together and went on with her chores, while the antipodean summer night throbbed outside all around her" (1-2).  Message number two: My characters will feel immense emotions, but when necessary, it will be my language that will express what they themselves lack the words to describe.
 
Of course, this is always the purpose of a third person narrator; she stands slightly behind each character, helping him or her to put into words inchoate, difficult to express feelings, but here, the reach is so bizarre, undies to the throbbing antipodean night, we know immediately we are in the company of an unusual mind.
 
The narrator goes on to describe the department store's newspaper ad: "'I got it at Goode's,' as the caption said, on that insufferable drawing of a superior-looking lady preening herself in a horribly smart new frock before the envious and despairing gaze of her friend—the frocks and poses might change with the years, but that ad always ran in the bottom left-hand corner of the Herald: I believe the space was booked in perpetuity…" (2) Clearly, the narrator is opinionated as well as unconventional, and this irreverent point of view suffuses the pages, creating a humorous and wickedly subversive tone.   
 
There's even a third message to the reader; it's a subtle one but it gives a zing of pleasure if you catch it: the "I" in "I believe the space was booked in perpetuity…"  It is the only place in the entire novel the first person point of view appears; everything else is in an omniscient third person.  And what classic novel of female desire does this remind you of?  Flaubert's Madame Bovary where the narrator refers to himself as "we" only in the first chapter of an otherwise third person narrative.
 
Anna Karenina, another classic story of a woman's struggle in matters of love and matrimony, is also in play as two employees are reading it.  And indeed, love and matrimony are also the concerns of The Women in Black, even though its narrator's humor dispels any partnership with tragedy.  Indeed, as she probes deep into the psyche of her characters, shifting between the lives of four Goode's employees, two of them in Ladies' Cocktail Frocks, one in Ladies' Model Gowns and a young temporary hire, a woman named Lisa who shuttles between the two during this Christmas season, it is also a portrait of 1950's Australian culture.  The narrator mocks and ridicules, and we have a sense of the provincial airlessness of that place in those times. And just as that "throbbing, antipodean night" is uncommonly paired with the soiled undies, Lisa, is paired with women who, at first glance, appear to be her opposite.

When Lisa is introduced to Fay and Patty, the two women who manage "Ladies' Cocktail Frocks," she tells them she has just taken the exams that immediately distinguish her as a high school graduate of high academic standing and Patty, duly impressed says, "'You want to be a teacher, do you?'
     'Oh no, I don't think so,' said Lisa.  'I'm going,' she said, believing that she was obliged to offer a truthful account of herself, 'to be a poet.  I think,' she trailed off vaguely, noticing the horrible effect of her candour [sic]…
     "'No, I mean,' amended the confused girl, 'I'd like to try to be a poet.  Or perhaps,' she added, in the hope of deflecting Patty's amazement, 'an actress.'
     'An actress!' cried Patty, 'an actress.'
     And Lisa saw at once that she had only magnified her initial error, and that she was now suddenly an object of open ridicule; for the appearance she presented in her black frock and utilitarian spectacles, thin and childish, was so far from their conception of the actress that the two women both now burst into laughter" (30-31).  And here is another parallel with Flaubert's masterpiece: when young Charles Bovary enters the classroom for the first time, he is laughed at because of his ridiculous looking cap.  cap=poet.
 
What so delighted me throughout this novel is the tone.  In the exchange with Lisa, the artful phrasing, obliged to offer a truthful account of herself, combined with the dramatic paragraphing and punctuation, is the work of a narrator who wants to trash earnestness. Her objective is to strip each character down to her essential desires, to reveal the buried joy or sadness so she will be vulnerable, wanting, hungry to discover what, for her, is the path to something true.  And with the help of a Balkan-Slovak contingent, piloted by the saleswoman in Ladies Model Gowns, the formidable Magda, that's exactly what happens.
 
After finishing The Women in Black, I read St. Johns's 1997 novel, The Essence of the Thing, a story about a young English couple going through a break-up.  When the man asks the woman to move out, she is taken by surprise, having supposed he was as happy with their life together as she was.

 

Despite the gravity of the subject, the tone is deceivingly airy and light, but this only lulls us into the false suspicion that the female protagonist must be an air-head.  How could she miss what must have been clear warning signs?  But midway through, we shift to the boyfriend's world and all preconceptions are quickly dashed.  It's a delicious manipulation of the unsuspecting reader.
 
The story unfolds almost exclusively through dialogue as it examines the differences between men and women or, more specifically, between a rationalist and a humanist.  In this novel, too, the omniscient narrator moves between multiple characters.  And though the characters are diverse in age, gender, sexual orientation, and social position, their dialogue is so pitch perfect, it reflects those contexts as well as the character's emotional range while still feeling spontaneous and believable.

 

St John, Madeleine. The Women in Black. New York: Scribner, 2009.

St John, Madeleine,  The Essence of the Thing.  Melbourne: The Text Publishing Co., 2013.

Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers

 

As I work on my next novel, I have been thinking about the many ways a writer can keep a mystery alive through hundreds of pages.  Clare Chambers' extraordinary new novel, Small Pleasures is a stunning accomplishment in that regard.  It is a limited omniscient narrative from the point of view of Jean, a middle-aged woman who lives with her demanding and tiresome mother and works as a reporter for a small English newspaper in a London suburb.  It is 1957 and a scientific study of parthenogenesis in "sea urchins, frogs, and rabbits" has just been released with the headline, "Men no longer needed for reproduction!"(3). Could parthenogenesis be possible in humans, queries the article. This prompts a letter from a woman named Mrs. Tilbury who claims that her ten-year old daughter was conceived without sperm and Jean, the only female reporter at the paper, is asked to investigate.
 
As she explores the woman's circumstances during the time of conception, which occurred when she was a resident in a nursing home where she was undergoing treatment for severe arthritis, each facet of her story appears to be true.  The first series of lab tests on mother and daughter and interviews with people who were at the nursing home at the same time, seem to support her claim and yet, unfazed, remaining open to possibility, Jean continues to chase each clue that presents itself.
 
The mystery of the virgin birth is sustained for the entire novel as the reader follows Jean along the path of discovery and the great pleasure is our intimacy with a woman who observes everything around her with a keen, questioning mind.  The reader knows that science will triumph eventually, but in the context of 1957 England, guided by a reporter who never misses a detail, what was originally a quest for truth turns into a deeply emotional experience for someone whose life seemed to be set in certainties: at home Jean is a slave to her mother's whims; on the job she is an efficient and dependable reporter and an easy companion to the men at the newspaper.  As proof that the story is true accumulates, the reader finds herself doubting evidence; it is a form of involvement that unites us with Jean's quest.  
 
The narrative moves at a slow pace and this is not a failing but rather, an essential reason the novel is so compelling. Details of Jean's life abound and because the core mystery saturates even unrelated details, including what she and her mother had for dinner (grilled lamb heart and mashed rutabaga) our senses are open and receptive and they stay that way for three hundred pages.  Not even a long list of picnic provisions, including the unimaginable kidney pie, can dull them.
 
Why are we so receptive?  What does Chambers do to keep her reader so attentive?  Interview after interview, lab test after lab test, each appearing to support a claim that must be false, gives strength to the absurdity, and what everyone at the newspaper assumed would quickly be debunked, appears sound.  There is a love interest of course, but it too develops at a deliciously slow pace, and that too adds to our investment in the outcome. 
 
I believe that what keeps the momentum strong is the type of mystery we are presented with.  It's a complicated one, spanning biology, myth, and Christianity, and tucked into it are all kinds of inhibitions and matters of privacy, especially in the world of 1950's England.  And because the mystery that prompted her investigation is so expansive, the ordinary occurrences in her life (soaking tea towels in a tub of borax before she leaves the house) take on a heightened significance.  We look for clues everywhere, even in the most mundane events, and when there is an interchange with hidden emotion as when Jean tells Mrs. Tilbury, "'I met someone the other day who wanted to be remembered to you.  I wonder if you can guess,'" she notices "a flicker of uncertainty" crossing the other woman's face, "a faint blush [rising] to her cheeks.  It took no more than a second for her to master herself and say, 'No, I can't.  You'll have to tell me'"(59).
 
Later, when they are on a first name basis and she thinks of Mrs. Tilbury as Gretchen, "a look of utter desolation came over Gretchen's face when she believed herself unobserved.  The fit of melancholy, or whatever it was, had lasted a few seconds; as soon as [her daughter] Margaret called her name, she had snapped to attention, rearranging her features with the brightest of smiles" (87).  Whenever Jean notices a lapse in her subject's confident demeanor, she tucks it away as evidence that there is more to this story than first supposed.  The lapses continue at well-spaced intervals throughout the novel, nursing our suspicions, adding a psychological depth that further expands the original mystery. Each glimpse of hidden turmoil acts like the Jamesian screw, tightening the narrative wire.  Close to the end, Jean herself is pulled into the family drama and loses all objectivity.  Another turn, the wire even tighter.  "Sometimes Jean had the sense that they were adrift in a perilously overladen boat; a moment of emotional turbulence would be enough to capsize them"(195).
 
When a nurse who used to work at the convalescent home asks, "'Are you sure you want this?' and Jean responds with "a now-familiar sense of foreboding"(315), we know there won't be a black clad rapist climbing out a window, only and more compellingly, the mistakes and foibles of characters we once thought were ordinary.
 
 
Chambers, Clare.  Small Pleasures.  New York: Harper Collins, 2021.
 
 
 

Improvement by Joan Silber

 

I've been rereading the novels I've loved in these last few weeks as I've moved from a rural location in western New York State back to Brooklyn, and in this post I want to discuss Joan Silber's Improvement.  Like Tony Doerr, she has recently published a new novel, but before I read A Secret Happiness, I wanted to re-experience her deeply satisfying and quietly brilliant novel, Improvement, published in 2017.  Some have called it a novel in stories, but to me it feels like a novel because it has a strong through line that links the characters despite disparate contexts that never fail to reveal a connection to the central character, Reyna, a woman we meet in the first two chapters of the book and then don't see again until 140 pages later.  Yet despite that, she does indeed feel like a central character! The extraordinary thing is that the novel's opening pages, Reyna's chapters, stick with us even as we're drawn into the stories of the other peripherally connected characters.  Contemplating the absence of the central character through most of the novel's pages, two questions occur to me.  Why are we so committed to her and why are we so willing to wait for her to return? 

 

Most obvious is that we empathize with Reyna and are deeply sympathetic to her situation.  We have watched her become entangled in an all-consuming problem that lacks an obvious solution.  It is the unfortunate outcome of a decision she made quickly, involving her boyfriend; she agrees to participate in an illegal money-making scheme and when, at the last minute, she pulls out of it, she alone carries responsibility for the tragic outcome that her defection caused. 

 

It's a burden Reyna hefts willingly, but her resources are as limited as everyone else's, and because she is the only one in the group of schemers who is a single mother, those resources, both emotional and financial, are stretched thin.  Reyna's chapters, the two in the beginning and the one at the end are the only chapters narrated in the first-person voice.  It is a chummy, friendly voice we warm to immediately.  The ad-hoc family she creates with her son and her boyfriend Boyd, incarcerated at Rikers Island when the novel opens, and her Aunt Kiki, a well-travelled older woman who has returned to New York after years of living in Turkey, older and wiser but still, like Reyna, living a humble, resourceful life, engages us.  Boyd (an African American) and Kiki (an older white woman) have different perspectives from Reyna who is a young, under-employed, white single mother, and as a result, their encounters are full of friction.  She wants things from them she is unable to ask for directly and that subtle frustration saturates the point of view: "Why in God's name would I ever think of splitting up with Boyd before I could at least get him back home and in bed again?  What was the point of all these bus rides [to Riker's Island] if I was going to skip that part" (23)?

 

Yet, after those two first person chapters, the narrative changes to third person and we meet characters whose lives are affected by the same tragedy that has shocked and stunned Reyna, or whose lives are connected to Reyna's solution.  What a magnificent balancing act!  Silber is a juggler throwing many bowling pins in the air, each one spinning in a different arc, expanding space and time and creating a community that is visible only to the reader who feels a kind of enchantment as she watches the circle grow.  And still the question persists:  when will Reyna return?

 

The cast of other characters is large and diverse, yet there is one thing they have in common: their problems can be solved.  We watch people come up with logical, thoughtful solutions to the situations that complicate their lives.  Even the more troubled ones understand how to get past their obstacles.  It is only Reyna who is stuck with the energy-sapping horror.

 

It is something Reyna can't discuss with anyone, especially her aunt and her boyfriend.  It is something she

must solve on her own, and so when we return to her voice, it's evident that while we've been away from her, she has been thinking about how to ease her burden, and just seven pages into the 27 pages of the last chapter, she arrives at a fix that won't change anything, but will, at least, give her peace.  It is both an anonymous gift to a person who has been harmed and a means of erasing the guilt that overwhelms her. 

 

But nothing is simple.  There are doubts and set-backs, yet by the end of this remarkable saga, Reyna has not only paid for the consequences of her choice, but the moral balance between her principles and the people she lives among has been restored.  The last chapter returns us to Reyna's casual, practical first-person voice and the irony of her victory, "Look what love had done even if it hadn't done it," expresses the slippery quality of her secret maneuvers. 

 

I ascribe to the notion that from the beginning, a novel sets a contract with the reader, meaning that if it begins in the first-person, it should maintain that point of view throughout.  It's not a binding contract, of course, nothing is in this business, but if the reader is going to go with an abrupt change like a change in the point of view, it shouldn't feel arbitrary.  As I contemplate a shift in the point of view of a novel I'm working on, I wanted to understand why Silber made the change and how she crafted it so that it feels utterly natural. 

 

But maybe, before I get to that, it would be helpful to address the issue of narrative distance.  People are always claiming that the first person is more intimate than the third.   Is it?  I don't think so.  A close third person point of view can achieve the same intimacy.  For an example, look no farther than Chapter 3 which is in the third person voice of Darisse, as she narrates recent events, both before and after the tragedy that Reyna inadvertently caused.  Our hearts go out to her; she is a woman who functions with such limited options her only bargaining tool with her patronizing, rule-wielding ex-husband is to offer him fellatio.  That is how she gains access to her daughter.  So, when she thinks, "A person as sad as she was shouldn't have to do this," we are right there with her, tangled in the weariness of her soul.  You can't get closer to a character than that.

 

Okay, then why does this shift in perspective work so well?  I believe that when the narrative returns to Reyna's first-person voice in the last chapter, it creates a change in texture that makes us feel urgency once again.  In terms of the novel's design, the first person bookends the middle chapters, making Reyna's chapters distinct, bringing her problem to the forefront where it overshadows the others. The bookends suggest that Reyna holds this community of people together, not literally, she doesn't engage with or know, most of them, but in the design of the novel her story gives order, importance, even, in a sense, a larger meaning beyond the specifics and details.  Mostly, it makes her distinct.  She is the center: inventive, rigorously honest, and unafraid of moral complexity.

 

The book-ending that the first person creates in this novel gives authority to the prose and that's why it feels right.  We don't question it.  When her voice returns, it simply feels like we've come home.

Valiant Gentlemen by Sabina Murray


 
After finishing All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, I turned to Sabina Murray's Valiant Gentlemen, another novel about lives impacted by World War Two written in the third person omniscient voice and narrated in the present tense.  But there the similarities end.  In Doerr's novel there is a satisfying neatness in the parallel stories of two characters who grow up in different European countries that will find themselves at war.  This symmetry creates a balanced narrative design that is not unlike the three dimensional puzzles Monsieur LeBlanc constructs every birthday for his blind daughter's fingers to explore, with their cleverly interlocking parts and perfectly smooth surfaces. 

 

Valiant Gentlemen, on the other hand, has a raw messy quality that is equally engaging and totally appropriate for a novel that is about the messiness of love in all its forms: requited, unrequited, homosexual, heterosexual, familial.  At the center of its vigorous sprawl across Africa, Europe, and the United States, is a triangular friendship between three historical figures: the Irishman Sir Roger Casement, his English friend Herbert Ward, and Ward's wife, Sarita Sanford.  As in any triangle, the love is unequal: Casement feels an enduring passion for Ward that lasts throughout his life as he takes up one political cause after another, first working to end the enslavement of African tribes in the Belgian Congo, then becoming a leading figure in the fight for Irish independence, sacrificing health and emotional stability as he travels across continents raising awareness, money, and arms.  The novel follows the life stories of these two adventurers who first meet in Africa where Casement falls in love with Ward yet keeps his feelings secret. The narrative moves from one to the other, and then, wisely, to Sarita, who understands Casement's predicament while Ward remains oblivious.   The friendship and the marriage are changed by the war and Sarita, as a character, grows in complexity, becoming, in the end, the most "valiant" of all three.  But it is always with Casement, flawed, lonely, betrayed, that the narrative gets its greatest momentum. 

 

I wanted to understand why, in a novel that features two other richly drawn, complex and interesting characters, he is the one who is most compelling, a magnet exerting its force even when we are far removed from him.  To find the answer, I examined a crucial scene.  It is 1889 and Casement has travelled to New York for the first time.  An elegant gentleman notices him standing at a hot dog cart looking confused and offers to take him to a restaurant.  Later, he takes him to a gay bar, the kind of place Casement has never been to before, maybe never even imagined, and introduces him to the regulars.  It is the first time Casement's attraction to men can be admitted, perhaps even to himself.  "At the end of the evening, when more drinks have been consumed than can be reasonably counted, it is Rourke [another Irishman] who leads the way past the urinals and into the back alley" (116). 

 

Casement is alone the next morning, lying in bed, recollecting the events of the night before. 

 

"There is Rourke, 'I'll show you the way,' and Casement following him through the tables, Rourke checking over his shoulder to make sure that Casement is still with him.  And then the marble urinals in a long row opposite the wooden stalls. And Casement is using the urinal, and Rourke too, although Rourke finishes first.  And then Rourke ducks his head down, checking beneath the stall doors, which are all closed.  Perhaps a stall is free?  But no. And then Casement is buttoned up, thinking they'll head back to the bar, but Rourke grabs his wrist and jerks his head towards another door.  Casement hesitates because he doesn't know what Rourke is on about and Rourke says, 'Fresh air,' and Casement says nothing, just wanders after him and then they're in the alley.  And then Rourke presses his mouth on Casement's and Casement can feel the man's stubble.  Then Rourke is unbuttoning Casement's trousers as expertly as he must handle his own and after that.  Well.
"At what moment did this happen to him?  At what moment" (117)?

 

In the passage above, he tiptoes through the memory moving from one connecting word to another, each and, each then getting him closer until he lands on that beautifully meaningless word well, that closes it all up again.  But first, it gives us knowledge.  And curiously, a more direct description of body movements or emotional reactions would not have been as effective.  The very ambiguity and meaninglessness of well forces the reader to enter Casement's mind and fill in the blanks, feeling, with him, the astounding nature of the very private and intimate act he has been hurtling towards, and at the same time, shying away from all of his life.  And because it is just so astonishing, he is unable merely to accept it.  He must interrogate himself again:  At what moment did this happen to him?  At what moment?

 

As the interrogation continues, he begins to understand the liminal space he has occupied for most of his life until that moment last night when finally, he stepped through the door. 

 

Forty pages later the narrator tells us that, "Casement, like most men, is built of a tough exterior and a tender middle, his constitution only remarkable by the extent to which his inner self is kept secret" (159).  That inner self is leaked to the reader bit by bit as the years pass, but it is this moment in the bar, his cautious exuberance as he recalls it the next morning, when the reader is invited into his most private thoughts: Well.  That one word provides the reveal by not providing it at all, making us interrogate our own imagination to supply the missing details and thereby linking us, in a lasting way, to this compassionate, selfless, deeply flawed human being. 
Withholding information from the reader can be a powerful tactic if used sparingly.  In a life-changing scene, if all is not revealed, the reader will be moved to use her own imagination to supply what's missing, putting her, very effectively, in the character's body where she will be inclined to stay.

 

In other words, less is more.  That old truism states it perfectly.  Less is more because what's not said invites the reader's participation.  Or, in the case of music (if I may switch art forms for a moment), it is like Duke Ellington's plangent piano chords in "Tricky Licks," a tune from an album I've been listening to recently called Jazz Violin Sessions with Duke Ellington on piano, Stepane Grappelli, Ray Nance, Svend Asmussen on strings, Ernie Shephard on bass, and Sam Woodyard on drums.  In many of the tunes, Ellington withholds while the others come forward to fill in.  In "Tricky Licks" he does little more than play a single chord at the beginning of each phrase.  But when that chord sounds, it contains the rhythmic tension of the entire phrase, even as the bass and violins unspool around it.  Those chords have the same function as Well.  They seem to be completely ordinary, nothing remarkable about them at all, and yet, it feels as though they contain the very mystery of life.  As a fiction writer, here's what I want to remember: Hold back.  Restraint creates narrative tension. 
 

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

  
Before Tony Doerr's new novel arrives, I wanted to reread "All The Light We Cannot See," his previous novel, published in 2014.  This time, I read it slowly, only a few chapters a day--ten or fifteen pages--enjoying the elements of a well-told story.  For any who are not familiar, it takes place during the Second World War and focuses on two characters, a young French girl named Marie-Laure, who is blind, and a young German boy named Werner, who is an orphan.  Their formative years are shaped by caring adults.  Marie-Laure has a devoted father who gives her the confidence that allows her to go forth in the world bravely and securely.  He does this by creating wooden models of their neighborhood that his daughter can learn, first with her fingers, and then with her footsteps in the outside world. 

 

Werner grows up in an orphanage for children whose fathers have perished in the local mines.  It is run by a French woman who is able to create a loving home that nurtures Werner's uncanny skill building radios.  On one of his homemade models, Werner and his sister, Jutta, listen to science lessons broadcast from France, a man's kind and patient voice explaining the workings of the world in phrases that will become touchstones of comfort, rolling through Werner's mind far into the future. 

 

During the siege of Saint-Malo, a coastal town the Germans have secured, the paths of these now grown children finally cross.  Werner, wearing the Nazi uniform, but an ambivalent soldier at best, rescues Marie-Laure and discovers the broadcasting equipment stored in the attic of the tall, narrow house that has been in Marie-Laure's family for generations.  He learns that it was her grandfather he and Jutta listened to.

 

It is this believable intersection of time and place that seems to be where the narrative, all along, has been taking us.  But for Marie Laure, the hours with Werner are only one memory dwarfed by others, and the novel's timeline, we discover, goes far beyond this remarkable coincidence.

 

"All The Light We Cannot See" offers many pleasures, but I want to talk about two in particular. On the macro scale, the narrative design is wholly suited to the novel's purpose.  It moves back and forth in time, building both dread and anticipation, and on the micro scale, the sentences, describing either interiority or action, peel open the characters' sensory experience at every step.  Metaphors are infrequent, but when they appear they are pointed and effective.  Here is Werner searching a radio dial for allied broadcasts of Nazi movements:   "....it's like reaching into a sack full of cotton and finding a razor blade inside, everything constant and undeviating and then the one dangerous thing, so sharp you can hardly feel it open your skin" (335).  When he hears Marie-Laure's brave broadcasting of music from her grandfather's old equipment, it awakens his imagination: "Now the piano makes a long, familiar run, the pianist playing different scales with each hand--what sounds like three hands, four--the harmonies like steadily thickening pearls on a strand, and Werner sees six-year-old Jutta lean toward him, Frau Elena kneading bread in the background, a crystal radio in his lap, the cords of his soul not yet severed" (407). The cords of his soul not yet severed.... The reader has been watching Werner's moral disintegration, but this moment of self-reflection is when, at last, he throws off the Nazi yoke and rescues, and then falls in love with, Marie-Laure.

 

Why did Doerr choose to write this novel in the present tense?  And why did he create short chapters and a narrative design that not only moves back and forth between two protagonists, but back and forth in time?  My speculation is that it allows him to create an illusion of simultaneity.  And why is that important?  Well, it allows the reader to see how the characters' lives as children determine who they will become as adults.  This is true for all of us, of course, but a novel offers the clarity real lives never have.  We see how they are guided by what they learned as children, but more to the point, by who they loved.  Werner loved his sister Jutta, a girl who possessed a stronger moral compass than he did.  She asserts herself in his imagination frequently, her disapproving presence forcing him to examine his actions.  Marie-Laure loved the missing father who appears frequently in her imagination, giving her confidence.  And the illusion of simultaneity, created by the layering of time, reproduces the fragmentary and vivid experience of life. 

 

Though Werner and Marie-Laure are trapped in the dramatic events of the nineteen forties, they serve only as context and backdrop.  What the novel prefers to chronicle is the growth of conscience within Werner, the growth of courage within Marie-Laure.  These are quiet developments.  We're not at the front, or in battles, thankfully.  Doerr whittles the drama of wartime down to a couple of objects: this is clever, interesting, and most importantly, with the changing scenes and constancy of the present tense, a tense that erases the grammatical markers of time, they quickly orient us to place, character, and time period. So, when a new section opens with the lumbering Opel truck, we know we are with Werner in 1944; when it opens with a loaf of bread, we are likewise in Saint Malo with Marie-Laure.

"Audition" by Dennis Norris II in American Short Fiction, Vol. 23, Issue 72, Winter 2020

 

Lately, I've been reading more fiction published by small presses because, overall, those books receive less attention from reviewers and so it's often harder to know about them.  I also want to occasionally talk about a short story when I discover one that demands to be remarked upon.  I find stories in the few quarterlies I subscribe to or, when the content interests me, the single issues I order of others.  A recent volume of American Short Fiction, Vol. 23, Issue 72, winter 2020, was devoted to Black emerging writers chosen by Danielle Evans, a celebrated writer of short fiction.  Of the nine stories, two stayed with me long after I finished reading them, a story by Jonathan Escoffery called, "If He Suspected He'd Get Someone Killed This Morning, Delano Would Never Leave His Couch," a story stuffed with dark humor and absurdity that crescendos, elegantly, in a surge of recklessness fueled by frustration.  The other is "Audition" by Dennis Norris II that ends with the same intensity but builds to it slowly until a dramatic event on the last page that comes as a complete surprise because the author has so successfully misdirected the reader's attention.    That's the story I want to look at here; I want to try to deconstruct the way Norris sets the reader up.  I have to do it without revealing the ending because, for the story to have its powerful effect, the ending must be a surprise. 

 

"Audition" is about the relationship between a widowed father and his teenage son, and though we have access only to the father's third person limited point of view, the story works like a duet.  The high-school age son, Davis, is always within the father's sight and it's easy to infer Davis' attitudes from what his father, Reverend Doctor Preston McKinsey, sees.  Davis is given only two opportunities for dialogue.  Here is one of them:
"'His name is Jake...And we're together.' He waited, then spoke again, more quietly, the whisper of a smile gracing his lips.  'I have a boyfriend'" (135). 

 

That proud statement is wasted on the Reverend who has returned home unexpectedly in the afternoon to discover Davis and a white boy having sex in the backyard pagoda.  When the Reverend tells his son to leave the house he replies, "This is my house too"(135), but that second line of dialogue also has no effect on the Reverend and from that point forward, Davis barely tolerates the presence of his father, avoiding all eye contact and physical proximity, which is difficult because they continue to live together.  Davis' silence communicates as effectively as words and through the father's eyes, we understand that his son is consumed with rage and shame.

 

The other thing we know about their relationship is that the Reverend is proud of Davis' devotion to music.  He has been invited to audition at Julliard and he practices his cello many hours every day to prepare.  In fact, the afternoon the Reverend came home unexpectedly, the first thing he noticed when he opened the front door was that he didn't hear the sound of the cello coming from his son's bedroom.

 

Before Reverend McKinsey had been called to the clergy, he'd been a drinker and womanizer and now is not only a successful man in terms of the American culture (the description of the house and its suburban landscaping is lavish and exact as he lays fond eyes over all of it when he first drives up), but he is also a righteous man in the Church, an institution for which he has black ministerial robes and black well-polished shoes.  In fact, as the father waited for the son and the white boy to leave the pagoda, he sat down in front of the sliding glass door to polish his shoes because, despite the filth of the world, the filth even in his own house, he would be clean.

 

It is essential that the reader is locked into the Reverend's point of view as the story moves forward because he is the active character, the one who needs to find something, the one who is left with an emptiness inside after he shames his son.  The story is constructed of paired scenes that toggle between the present, when Davis and his father wait in a crowded subway station for the train that will take them to the audition at Julliard, and the past, the afternoon when the Reverend experienced "that startling sensation of seeing something that, on some level, he'd always known was true, coming to fruition"(133). 

 

It's ironic that a story about a father discovering his son's homosexuality is based on binaries: father/son and present/past, but that is merely one of the brilliant ways the author misleads us, setting us up to expect an ending that will conform with what has come before. 

 

The other misdirection happens on the subway platform where the Reverend watches Davis through the crowd, because Davis, even on this trip to New York City, avoids standing close to the father who has so humiliated him.  From the rear of the platform, the Reverend watches his son move forward closer to the tracks.  With the cherry-red cello case strapped to his back, he bends down to respond to a little girl in a group of Catholic school girls who has asked him a question.  At the same time, the Reverend is keeping track of a homeless man who is smelly and out of control, whirling, shouting, flinging off his shirt.  The author makes us realize the homeless man is volatile and we brace for something to happen.  We watch warily, and because Norris has set the scene so beautifully, we understand that chaos is about to erupt.  The crowded platform, the school girls and the nun, the deep well of the tracks, the father standing way in the back who by now deeply regrets how he treated his son and wishes he could, once again, feel his love.  But most of all, our attention is directed to the wild man who seems so out of control.

 

When I finished reading, it wasn't only the shock of the scene I cannot describe that left me breathless, rather, it was the understanding that in a stunningly oblique and non-prescriptive manner, it was a redemptive act. 
I will leave you there.  Order the issue, or find it at a library.
 
Norris II, Dennis. "Audition." American Short Fiction  23.72  (2020): 125-37.

The Mysteries by Marisa Silver

 

 

Marisa Silver's beautiful new novel, The Mysteries, achieves something that is rare in novels these days, a redemption that is found less through action than internal deliberation.  Indeed, it models the hard, rewarding work of focused, self-scrutiny.  I read an early, partial version of The Mysteries, and was surprised, and thrilled, by this shift in pacing.  In a sense, the novel mimics the rhythms of life itself: after an adrenalin-laced event there is always the more challenging period of calm.
 
The Mysteries purports to be about a friendship between two little girls who have difficulty making friends, Miggy because she's bossy and opinionated, and Ellen because she's timid.  It's a pairing of opposites that falls into the pattern of leader and follower.  And yet, in the central scene of the novel, functioning like a hinge between before and after, Ellen makes an uncharacteristically bold move, running across the street instead of waiting for Miggy's father to walk her to the front door of her house, just as a speeding car comes around the bend. 
 
The accident haunts the four parents, but especially the two who were present, Miggy's father, who had turned his head to reprimand his daughter for saying something ugly about her friend, and Ellen's mother, who was watching from an upstairs window, waving at her daughter, welcoming her home.  The other car is not visible yet because of a curve in the road, but after hitting the girl, it disappeared from sight. 
 
Because the accident is placed in the middle of the novel, we discover that the author's hidden purpose all along has been to follow the way tragedy changes lives.  And, remarkably, from within this small, dark corner, each character finds a transformative light.  We watch as each climbs out of that awful event, leaving behind its immediate shock and horror, only to confront the more difficult problem of acceptance.  But how can self-scrutiny be dramatic enough not only to hold a reader's attention, but to exert the strong momentum that propels this short novel?  That's the question I want to consider here, and I have two ideas. 
 
The accident scene, which is the central scene of the novel, is very clearly staged: we know exactly where each player in the scene is and what he or she is doing, and we can see the houses and the curve of the street. But, at the same time, it's expansive.  It contains so much complexity and ambiguity it seems to rearrange itself each time it's reviewed in a character's memory, not in terms of who was where when, that's been established, but in terms of why. When Miggy's father relives it, he discovers something new about his daughter, so that what at first seemed utterly clear, with responsibility weighing most heavily on his shoulders, he finds a new truth that will lead him, eventually, to self-forgiveness.
 
And here's the second reason for the novel's surprising momentum: empathy.  The reader knows just enough about each character's backstory to intuit the psychological significance of their actions.  She knows that when Ellen's mother waves to her daughter from across the street, that simple gesture is significant for a woman who herself suffered her own mother's abandonment as a child.  And. just before Ellen steps out of her friend's car, as Julian turns around to reprimand Miggy, when he should, instead, be opening the door to escort Ellen across, he is asserting respect and decency, striking out against not only his impulsive child, but everything else that he cannot control in his life, including the neighborhood development that is slowly destroying the hardware store he inherited from his father, and that makes it even more important to "correct" his daughter and stand up for the diminutive Ellen.
 
The accident is the hub of a wheel, with the six lives radiating out from it like spokes.  The metaphor is apt, because the wheel turns, light changes, time moves on, and things start to look different.  Silver's optimism about human behavior is evident at every turn, and what makes this novel, despite its catch-in-the-throat subject matter, such a pleasure for any reader interested in human nature, and I think that's all of us, is not only the expansiveness of a central scene rooted in unforgettable visual clarity, but the author's ability to articulate the very things that are most difficult to express.  For this writer particularly, language is the tool of discovery.  We see it at work long before the characters wrestle with it on their own.  It illuminates, always, and so Miggy declares in the exuberant opening chapter when the reader is first swept into her propulsive energy,"I am Miggy!" and the narrator tells us, "The words mother and father don't exist without the word Miggy.  She is the reason for them" (4). 
 
As each character climbs out of the hole of guilt and pain, the reader watches the process take five different forms.  Miggy concludes, towards the end of the novel, "Things will happen to her in her life.  They will happen and keep on happening" (150), her thoughts reflecting a seven-year old's attempt to grasp abstraction.  But her father, Julian, understands that "...he has inherited not only a foundering store built on his father's deceptions, but that he has also inherited the deep and abiding knowledge that irrationality is the last, exuberant gesture toward significance" (232). 
 
His realization happens towards the end of the novel, yet it is neither inappropriately simplistic nor conclusive, and the reader must turn it around in her mind before meaning arrives.  Irrationality, yes, of course, the idea that no one can completely determine the outcome of anything. Julian has found the courage he needs to forgive the error he made as one player in a five-player event that happened one summer day with time-stopping synchronicity.  It is this irrationality that every parent, knowing their imperfections, both dreads and accepts with the birth of a child.
 

Silver, Marisa. The Mysteries.  New York: Bloomsbury, 2021.

The Book of Lost Light by Ron Nyren

 

Ron Nyren's The Book of Lost Light, published in 2020 by Black Lawrence Press, is about a photographer's obsessive desire to reveal the invisible data of time.  It begins with what is probably the most enticing first line I've ever encountered:  "From the time I was three months old until I was nearly fifteen, my father photographed me every afternoon at precisely three o'clock" (1). It's the word "precisely" that hooked me, suggesting the obsessive nature of the father's desire. Nothing gets in the way of the daily photographing of his son from all possible angles.  Even when Joseph matures and the requirement of nakedness becomes problematical, his father, Arthur, is unable to adapt or revise. 
 
Arthur Kylander is a protégé and former employee of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge who was famous for photographs that revealed startling truths about animals in motion.  Kylander is a mechanical engineer who has a photographic project of his own, documenting not movement, but time.  The problem is, time moves slowly and despite his devotion and inventive engineering of cameras, he never achieves Muybridge's status and fame.
 
But, in a surprising and brilliant inside-out irony, the novel is successful where Kylander failed because it is a record, in the form of words, of the coming to manhood of Arthur Kylander's motherless son, Joseph, who is the subject of his father's project.  His growth parallels his father's diminishment as Arthur's lonely obsession eats away at his spirit.  Luckily for Joseph, there is a third person in their strange household, Kylander's niece Karelia, who arrives at age twelve to help the widower with his infant son. 
 
As long as both Karelia and Joseph are dependent upon Arthur, peace reigns in their small world, but when they mature into independent personalities, Karelia first, and then Joseph, trouble arises and Arthur's obsession reveals itself as the spiritual black hole it has always been, and both, in different ways, try to escape its hold on them though Joseph, a devoted son, struggles to recognize the necessity.
 
The beauty of this novel is that Arthur Kylander is neither predatory nor prone to violence, yet his possessiveness creates a quiet stranglehold.  This reader, of course, was wary from the beginning, and through the poignancy of Joseph's first-person retrospective narration. I watched him come into maturity until, with the help of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, he steps into independence.
 
I admired so much about this novel it is difficult to capture it here without giving too much away, so I will mention what felt outstanding: a retrospection that is subtle, yet achieves great urgency; the slow unfolding of complications in this father/son relationship; the use of an historic event to initiate change in the characters' lives; and the tender, loving portrayal of an artist's borderline madness, something many artists and writers can empathize with.  But what I found truly compelling is that the trespass on Joseph's body is not sexual or even really, physical.  That is what makes Joseph's duty to escape it so difficult.  He doesn't want to hurt his father's feelings and yet he must.  Here he is when, as a teenager, he knows he must not step into the center of the room where the camera is, that he must, finally, claim his body as his own.  Yet even though he understands it intellectually, he first reasons with himself because he doesn't want to wound his father. "I told myself it was only one moment of the day, and that it changed nothing, but I still couldn't move" (225). It is the smallness and apparent innocence of the trespass that makes it difficult for Joseph to disengage, but that's also why it's so pernicious. 

 

Nyren, Ron.  The Book of Lost Light.  Black Lawrence Press, 2020.
 
 

Abigail by Magda Szabó

 

Abigail, by the Hungarian writer, Magda Szabó, is a lighter read than her other novels.  It lacks the brilliant strangeness of The Door (my favorite Szabó novel), but it is compelling in a different way.  Written in the third person omniscient point of view, it is about a period in a young girl's life when she's sent away to the fortress of the Bishop Matula Academy, a strict religious boarding school for girls that is far away from the privileged life she knew in Budapest where she lived with her father, a general in the army, and her beloved French tutor.  It is 1943, Hungary is one of the Axis powers, and in the complex landscape of war, her father has many enemies who would not hesitate to capture and torture Gina to get her father to give away secrets.
 
Gina, who is highly emotional and impulsive, is not used to the kinds of restrictions the school imposes, nor does she understand why her father has sent her away.  Time vanishes in a strict routine of lessons and prayers and is relieved only by the secret games the girls play amongst themselves under the always watchful eye of the adults.  But for those games and the bonds they create, it is a harsh existence. 
 
At the halfway point in the novel, her father reveals the reason she's at the fortress.  Gina's attitude changes and so does the narrative.   The retrospective is introduced, and as it disrupts the present, her future life is briefly visible.  We learn what will happen to her father and we learn who at the school will come to her assistance, but in addition, our suspicions are confirmed: Gina's hasty judgements of the people around her are completely wrong, and the way things work is quite opposite to her assumptions.
 
The retrospective is invoked more and more often as the story nears its final climax and the reader welcomes these interruptions: "Later, as an adult, Gina often thought of that particular Sunday service" (143)."Towards the end of the next hour...something happened that none of those involved...would ever forget" (162).   "No one, not even Kalmar, could ever explain what happened next" (186).  As these fast-forwards into the future populate the narrative, they cast a shadow over her present circumstances.  We realize Gina will experience grief, she will know who had been helping her all along, and one day, she will reminisce with her own children about this strange and long-ago year. 
 
Contrary to what one might suppose, knowing what will happen does not interfere with the building of suspense.  Instead, it adds to the urgency.  We want her to grow out of her childishness; we want her to fully inhabit these days when her innocence is so pressured by the sadism of the war and the Bishop Matula Academy, because only with open eyes can she separate the true heroes from the false. 
 
As you might have guessed, this is a novel where the reader always knows more than the protagonist.  That's a lovely position to occupy because we are aware of all of the things she misses.  In addition, the war, and the conflict between the nationalists and resisters hovers in the background.  It is another shadow, like Gina's future, that adds importance to a story that pretends to be about a spoiled sixteen-year-old who hates her boarding school.  But it never is.  Even at the beginning, the starkness of the setting is a clue to the author's wider concerns.  Gina's story is also the story of the Hungarian resistance movement, and the routine cruelties within the academy mirror the life and death concerns without.
 
Szabó, Magda.  Abigail. 1970. Trans. Len Rix. NYRB Classics. New York: New York Review Books, 2020.
 

Postcards by Annie Proulx

 

Lately, I've been thinking about novels that have two narrative lines, one central and one peripheral.  It came to my attention while I was reading Scott Spencer's, A Ship Made of Paper, a novel about an affair between a white lawyer in a small town who is all but married to the woman and her young daughter that he shares a house with, and a very married African American woman, living in the same town, who has a child his daughter is friends with.   Of course, an illicit affair is a fairly pedestrian subject for a novel, but this one is spiced up by the unorthodox choices Spencer has been making in his recent books.  In his new novel, An Ocean Without a Shore, we are asked to believe that a white, presumably straight author can write about a closeted gay man's life-long attraction to his old college roommate.  I did believe, and furthermore, I hold that writers should give free rein to their imaginations, no matter how vigorously the publishing police try to establish rules.  In A Ship Made of Paper Spencer writes about an interracial affair, successfully inhabiting the point of view of his black characters. 
 
But that's not really what interests me here.  Rather, it's this business of two narrative lines.  The peripheral narrative in this novel is ongoing and linear like the central narrative, but it's limited to a short, italicized section at the beginning of each chapter.  These sections narrate an event that will take place much later in the novel when the lawyer and the husband of the woman he will have an affair with are wandering through the woods together during a party, looking for a blind girl who has gone missing.  It's a brazen fast-forward into the future the reader will eventually reach two hundred pages later, and what it does, is instill curiosity.  Who is this blind girl who has wandered away, why are these two men, one a local white man and the other a very elegant, well-spoken black man who spends most of his time in New York City, so uneasy with each other?
 
I admired the energy that this alternate timeline gave to the plot, creating something for the reader to look forward to.   And in the spirit of inquiry, I remembered another novel that also had what I will call "chapter tops," insertions in a different typeface at the beginning of every chapter that comment on, or sometimes contradict the central narrative.  Does anyone remember Annie Proulx's debut novel, Postcards, first published in 1992?  I read it when it first came out, and at the time, I didn't like it.  I am from that generation of fiction writers who chased epiphanies; that is, a story or novel moved me only if it showed a character struggling towards some kind of awareness or understanding that had previously eluded her.  And Loyal Blood, the protagonist of Postcards, never achieves that in his long, wandering career after secretly "offing" his girlfriend when she wouldn't have sex with him. 
 
The novel begins moments after sexual rage has consumed him. He buries her body under a falling-down stone wall that runs along the top of a field on their farm, and in an equally spontaneous burst of energy, he abruptly leaves the family and the farm he has cared for all of his life.  Loyal crosses the country, working as a miner, a fossil-digger, drinking companion and observatory builder, and agricultural laborer.  He lives a solitary life working shoulder to shoulder with the men he befriends.   The narrator tells us "his loneliness was not innocent," and as Loyal solves the challenge of finding the next job, he ignores the more difficult challenge of that long-ago murder.
 
It's an American novel in the sense that he travels the entire country, looking, listening, and writing postcards to the family back home, his father Mink, his mother Jewell, his brother Dub, and his sister Mernelle.  The backs of the postcards, containing short, handwritten messages are reproduced at the beginning of every chapter.  But the chapters are short and there are lots of them and so Loyal's postcards are mixed in with postcards to and from other members of the Blood family.  All of them, except Loyal's, reflect the passage of time and the changes it brings to the family farm.  Though decades have passed, Loyal writes to the still life of the family he left so long ago in Cream Hill, Vermont.  That is when his emotional life stopped, and even in his imagination, he cannot move it forward. 
 
As chapter-tops, the postcards are an efficient way of showing that, despite his peripatetic existence, Loyal is stuck in one place.  In addition, they initiate point of view changes as the omniscient narrator moves us into the lives of the other Blood family members.  Their lives are far more complicated than Loyal's because they are full of challenges other than mere survival: his siblings, Mernelle and Dub, find people to love and marry, and his mother, Jewell, discovers independence after years of suffering the chaos caused by her husband's rages.  
 
The postcards at the start of each chapter are a neutral force. They instill a different kind of point of view, one that is merely an objective chronicle of the passage of time.  That objectivity creates energy.  It pauses the frenetic pace of Loyal's restlessness where "he had come around so many corners they all looked the same," and renews momentum.  In both novels, the chapter tops provide relief from the tyranny of self-defeating characters. 
 
Now, almost thirty years later, I am more patient with Loyal's self-defeating impulse.  I am no longer such an innocent myself, which means I'm ready to accept the shortcomings of this flawed character, enjoying how his story is told without looking for the moment when his anger will lift.  It never does.