Monday, December 27, 2004

While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

I want to talk to you this morning about a book by Sue Miller entitled While I Was Gone. I happened on to Miller quite a few years ago when she wrote her first novel, The Good Mother. Although very impressed at the time, a not very good movie version of that book had the effect, I think, of causing to me to rethink how good the book had been. I wonder how often bad movies affect us in this way? My recollection is that the movie version distorted or made ambiguous a moral message in Miller's book, a message involved in worrying over a very delicate and complex issue.

At any rate, I think While I Was Gone is such a good and wise book that I mean to go back to the first novel again. I won't be telling you much about the plot in saying that a major existential theme arises in a number of ways in this book. Suppose you wake up one morning (or more realistically, morning after morning) feeling that you are the person you set out to be, the person others expect you to be, but that this 'success' is not only unsatisfying, but feels false. You know in some deep sense that you don't want to be that person. Perhaps it is only a person you thought you wanted to be. Perhaps even one that the they-self said you should be. No matter, however it has come to pass, there is this sense both of falseness and of wanting to be someone else. Not at all an easy matter when those around you admire you, and expect you to be the person they have come to admire. Change is always difficult, but so much more difficult when surrounded by people who think they know just who you are, and in many ways refuse to allow you to be the new self you feel emerging. Add a good but not very interesting marriage, which only compounds the feeling of falseness-not knowing who you want to be, but quite sure it is not the person you have become.

What Jo, the woman lead-character in this book does is run. The escape takes a few steps; first, she quits her hard-won teaching job. Step two is taking the first part-time, meaningless job she can find as a waitress in a seedy bar, surprised to find how attracted she is to the life that she finds there. “The attraction was that none of the rules from my old world applied. With everything I saw, everything I did, I felt that doors were opening. My life had been so orderly, such a careful, responsible progression, one polite step leading logically to the next. In this crummy, second-rate world, I had a sense of liberation, of possibility, and I embraced even its most tawdry aspects.” And if just that much change makes her feel so much better, so much more on the right track, the next step is obvious. Telling one lie to her husband and another to her mother, she simply disappears. And when she reappears in Cambridge, Mass. she changes her name (ironically to Felicia), and moves into a kind of city commune. The year is 1968, and what awaits her is, indeed, a new life, a new identity. In the frenetic freedom of those times, she is reborn.

Of course many of us were 'finding' ourselves in the sixties and seventies, and usually without quite the great escape performed by Jo. What impresses me is how Miller gets at so much of what was good about that time, the ways in which people were, in fact, allowed to cast of convention, cast off they-self images, and fashion new selves. Or so it seemed, so it felt.

But this is not simply a novel about the seventies. Indeed, it is only in a rather lengthy retrospective that we are treated to her insights on those times at all. The novel begins with Jo at about mid-life, three daughters grown and gone, a neat and successful life. She is a veterinarian, married to a liberal New England preacher, and again behaving as she is expected to, and as she expects herself to. A chance encounter reminds her of that earlier life and of how it ended, and a new kind of existential itch launches her into another period of wondering and worrying. When she tries to tell her husband how this accidental reunion with her past has disturbed her equilibrium, he is so busy with his own life, with the 'real' problems of his parishioners, that he simply cannot hear her. Instead, he passes of her angst as simply a fleeting crush on this man, Eli, who has reappeared from her past, and while he is not all wrong, he certainly misses the deeper issues.
But here's what I thought: that if I had a crush, it was on an earlier Eli, one who didn't exist anymore, and the real Eli was just a vehicle for it. Or, perhaps even more complicated, that the crush-if you could call something so psychologically distorted by such a playful name-was on myself. The middle-aged Eli contained for me, of course, his youthful self, yes. But he contained me also. The self that had known him then. Myself-when-young. And that was what made him attractive to me. You read or hear every now and then of a romance starting up between middle-aged or even elderly people who knew each other years earlier. People who throw over long-established marriages or sensible lives for the chance to love again in a particular way-a way that connects them with who they used to be, with how it felt to be that person. And now, with Eli's arrival in my life, I could understand the potency of that connection. The self-intoxication you pass of to yourself as intoxication with someone else.
And it is this theme that controls the rest of the novel, although there are plenty of insights about being a parent, about how sex ebbs and flows in long-term relationships, about the constant struggle that occurs even in successful marriages. In search of some lost self, or some new self that very much needs to emerge, Jo begins to drift from her husband, begins to entertain other possibilities, to think of herself as someone capable of infidelity, of intrigue. And this leads to other questions, both abstract and personal. What constitutes fidelity? What does it really mean to break faith? Is wanting but not doing already a kind of disloyalty? Is telling on yourself at the stage of imagination a kind of loyalty? Suppose you try to act on an impulse, but fail-is this, itself, an act of infidelity? These are the sorts of questions that Jo asks herself, and ones that Sue Miller asks her reader. I think she does an excellent job of probing a kind of innocent existential restlessness that is not confined to the middle aged (or any age), but that certainly arises often enough when lives seem for the most part settled. One of the wonderful aspects of this novel is that Miller does not presume to answer her own questions; she is perplexed by them, and I think wants her readers to be perplexed, to be shocked out of any easy and offhand answers.

There is also a mystery that plays behind the scenes in this book-one that I have no intention at all of giving away. But while the jacket cover makes much of the mystery, and while it does play a pivotal role in the novel, I'm certain that for Miller it is simply a vehicle for raising larger and more important questions. I loved this book from the very moment I picked it up; the writing is superb, the psychological insights plentiful. And she leaves us with intricate, wonderful questions. Her summation:
But perhaps this is all to the good. Perhaps it's best to live with the possibility that around any corner, at any time, may come the person who reminds you of your own capacity to surprise yourself, to put at risk everything that's dear to you. Who reminds you of the distances we have to bridge to begin to know anything about one another. Who reminds you that what seems to be-even about yourself-may not be.

No comments:

Post a Comment