Monday, December 19, 2022

A Tribute to Novelist Sue Miller

Although this happened more when I was younger, I occasionally run into an author who so impresses me that I know I will read all of her work as soon as I can get hold of it. Sue Miller is just such an author.  I have now read all but one of her long list of excellent novels including her memoir of her father, The Story of My Father

The recurring themes in her novels had already convinced me that much of her fiction is autobiographical, and her memoir of her father solidified that conviction. It is as if she has stirred together a cauldron of her memories of her several marriages and her life as a parent, and then spills them out in the pages of her novels. The Arsonist, one of her latest novels, is as usual, a close description of the everyday life of her characters. While the title suggests it is a novel about arson, turns out that the arsons and the arsonist are of minor importance to Miller while the major theme is how relationships go wrong and occasionally go right. 

The Boston Globe says of this late novel, “Entertaining…Fantastic sizzle both sexual and spiritual.” While sexual sizzle is no longer an issue for me, the spiritual sizzle of her work hits me hard and stays with me. 

Many years ago I read and reviewed her first, and most famous novel, The Good Mother. And then, only this past summer did I pick up an early novel, While I Was Gone. Having just traveled to my home for a final visit with my last living sibling, and while there involved in an intense discussion with my oldest male friend about choosing death while still mobile and cognizant, I found myself arguing for life and possibility. My brother died while I was on the train coming home, and his death added to the impact the novel had on me. The heroine of the novel is married when she has kind of mystical experience in which she feels outside her life, indeed, outside her body. She then goes through a series of reflections on her life regarding her marriage and family. She wonders if she has chosen well, and begins a flirtation with an old lover which very nearly derails her marriage. What occurs is that she begins to think about alternate lives she might have lived and alternate relationships she might have pursued. In short, she considers all that seems bland and repetitive in her present life, and only at the last moment begins to realize all that is good about her family life and her life with her husband. It takes a shock and a crisis to jolt her into this new appraisal.

Another of the recurring themes in her books is Alzheimer’s or other debilitating diseases. In The Story of My Father, she recounts the slow dissolution of her father as he struggles with and finally succumbs to the disease.  While the book is sad, Miller is brutally honest about her own feelings, her resentments mixed with fear and deep loyalty to her once brilliant, academic father.

Although there are plots and story-lines, it is what happens in the interior life that really interests Miller and creates the spiritual sizzle of her words. While she has immense respect and admiration for her father’s intellectual pursuits, she also comes to realize how his intense interests in many ways distanced him from his wife and children.
There was an impartiality, and therefore a distance, in even my father’s closest and most loving attention…I certainly knew him to be capable of forgetfulness of what to him seemed mundane or unimportant, and this occasionally included obligations he’d undertaken to one of us or to my mother…the nightmare side of living with someone whose first allegiance is elsewhere, is other worldly. You are left, you are abandoned. You have no real importance in the great scheme of things.
So far I have said nothing about Miller’s conflicted relationship with her mother, and her self-doubts being a mother, who, like her father, needs huge amounts of time to write and reflect, too often to the detriment of her children.

There is so much more to say about the complex emotional reflections of this brilliant author. I will content myself with a final comment about Miller’s unabashed love of men. Of course she is critical of the non-domesticity of many/most men, but her descriptions of her father and of the husbands in her novels leave no doubt that she admires so much about good men, good fathers.  Perhaps there is a book, The Good Father, in her future.

Monday, November 21, 2022

Horse by Geraldine Brooks

I know next to nothing about horses and am, at best, a sloppy historian. Geraldine Brooks knows tons about horses and is a superb historian. Her 2022 book, Horse, fascinated me from the first page to the last. Her character Jess, in 2019, is an articulator, i.e. a combination artist and zoologist who puts together skeletons. She is hired by the Smithsonian Museum to dis-articulate and then re-articulate a famous horse skeleton. Dr. Catherine Morgan is a scientific researcher whom Jess has been assigned to assist. 

Says Catherine:

One of my areas of interest is the effect of conformation on the locomotor biomechanics of the horse. Basically, I’m trying to determine what bone structure allows them to run fast while avoiding injury. To do that, I’m measuring and describing all the great racehorses whose skeletons are still available.

Catherine stepped up to the exhibit label on the plinth and drew out her reading glasses. “Horse!” She read. “I can’t believe it. I don’t suppose you people have the Mona Lisa stashed somewhere, labeled Smiling Girl?”

“Not just Horse,” she said. THE horse. What you have here is the greatest racing stallion in American turf history.

Jess’ story is just one of the threads in this magnificent historical novel.  Warfield’s Jarret is a slave on the farm of a famous horse breeder, not given a last name, but identified by his owner’s name. Thomas Scott is a not well known artist who is commissioned to paint a portrait of Darley, a racehorse who has been given to Jarret’s father, Harry, who has bought his own freedom. The horse is given to him in lieu of a year’s wages, and yet it is against the law for a negro to own a racehorse, let alone to race him in stakes races. So, the horse must be officially registered in  Warfield’s name. 

It is Jarret who raises and trains the horse, and in a manner that differs in  important ways from tradition. Unlike today’s thoroughbreds who are raced as two year olds. Darley is not even ridden until he is much older. 

“When can we ride him? She asked.”

“Long time yet, miss Clay. His bones got to grow. Best let that happen in its own good time. Harry, “didn’t hold with the newfangled idea of racing two-year-olds.”

Instead the horses are not raced until they are four or older, and they are trained to run four mile heats, sometimes three such heats in a single day.

Alongside the story of Darley the racehorse, there is in this carefully researched novel another more serious  strain regarding slavery and the perilous lives of slaves who can be bought and sold on the whim of the owner. Jarret’s father intends to buy his son out of slavery, but he has already depleted his funds in buying the freedom of his wife, and is counting on the purses from races to buy Jarret’s freedom.

Jarret is close to horses from his infancy. “Look at him…He’s half colt himself.”

The first bed he could remember was in a horse stall. He shared straw with the two geldings in the carriage house while his mother slept in the mansion, nursemaid to the mistress’s infant. Jarret hardly saw her. His first language had been the subtle gestures and sounds of horses. He’d been slow to master human speech, but he could interpret the horses: their moods, their alliances, their simple wants and many fears. He came to believe that horses lived with a world of fear, and when you grasped that, you had a clear idea of how to be with them.

Much of this novel is about the mounting sense of rebellion among the slaves, wanting to run and to be free, but so aware of the consequences if caught. Theo, the Englishman horse painter is well aware of how negroes are depicted by artists, and is writing  a dissertation on the depictions of Africans in British art. 

He planned to write of Coon caricatures, Oriental fantasies, the decorative enslaved servant in ornate livery, proffering fruit or waving peacock-feathered fans for a White master. His thesis argued that these paintings were never meant to be viewed as portraits of individuals, merely status signifiers of the privilege, wealth, and power of the White sitters. The reality of quotidian Black life didn’t merit depiction…

This is a superb novel on so many levels, and the journalist, historian Brooks juggles the various stories with the same craftsmanship that won her the Pulitzer prize for her earlier book March.


Monday, September 05, 2022

Monogamy by Sue Miller

He’s been much more careful in his marriage to Annie. More careful and more faithful.
    Yet not entirely faithful.
    Which is partly what’s making him remember the end with Frieda. 
Because he’s done it again.

Sue Miller has done it again: written an astounding novel about family life and all of its complexities. 

In her newest novel, Monogamy, published in 2020, Miller undertakes to describe in meticulous detail the marriage of Graham and Annie. I will not be spoiling the novel for you readers by telling you that the anatomy of this marriage is described after Graham dies in his sleep of a heart attack. Viewed as an ideal couple by those who know them, Miller shows us the underside of the marriage as Annie begins to deal with her grief.

Both Annie and Graham have been married before. During the 70s Graham and Frieda had decided to experiment with an open marriage.

An open marriage. They’d agreed on it at first. It had been that era—the world was shifting and changing rapidly around them, and Graham had stepped into this altered universe eagerly, along with what seemed like half of Cambridge, compelled by all the things it seemed to promise—among them a different meaning for marriage, for sex.

The problems was that Graham had been happy in this new world, and Frieda hadn’t. She tired, she dutifully had a few lovers in the first year or so. But then she got pregnant with Lucas and realized that she’d really never wanted any of it.

As was so often the case, men jumped at this new freedom while so many women simply went along with it, or pretended to, in order to preserve their marriages. It is Frieda who steps away from the marriage, taking Lucas with her. Eventually, Graham and Frieda become friends and share custody of their young son. Frieda also, though not by choice, assumes the role of confessor for Graham, and he confesses to her his infidelity with a recently divorced woman in their circle of friends, Her name is Rosemary, and he also tells his oldest male friend about his new ‘slip’. 

The problem is that Rosemary—Rosemary Gregory, the woman he’s slept with maybe four maybe five times—has started to behave as if there’s some kind of commitment between them, as though she has a claim on him...He needs to end it, but that’s something he’s never been good at—disappointing people. At being, as he sees it,  unkind.

After his death, Annie discovers that both his best friend and Frieda knew of the infidelity, and it seems as if perhaps everyone knows but Annie.  

What is most amazing about Miller’s writing is how completely she develops her characters and how thoroughly she describes their lives. Although describing only an incident here and there, a memory of the past, an anticipation of the future, it feels to the reader that they are being told everything in detail.  Philosophers who called themselves phenomenologists argued that philosophy should be a description of lived life, and as Iris Murdoch has pointed out, if this is, indeed, the task of the philosopher, then novelists are the very best at doing this. And Sue Miller is of the first rank in this description of the lived inner lives of her characters. 

In the past couple of months I have read four of Miller’s novels, all close descriptions of marriages and family life. The Senator’s Wife equals the exquisitely detailed description of the slow dissolution of a marriage. While I Was Gone also displays the immense emotional intelligence of Sue Miller.  

It is hard to do justice to her novels by reviewing them, since their greatness is in the magnificent description of the relationships. She does not preach, and tells us that she has no great insights about monogamy or marriage. But I think you will disagree with the author’ own assessment of her work if you swim into her wonderfully articulated stories.