Monday, January 15, 2007

After This by Alice McDermott

As we begin this new year, it seems like just the time to talk about great novels of 2006. Always a bit behind the times as a reader, Alice McDermott only came to my attention in this previous year, and I began by reading two of her earlier novels, Charming Billy and Child of My Heart. Both left deep impressions on me, so when Maureen Corrigan, the book reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air, named McDermott’s newest novel, After This, as one of her picks for novel of the year, I picked it up in spite of having to buy a hardbound copy. It was well worth it.

A reader and writer friend of mine (who also recommended this book to me) calls McDermott a quiet writer, and what an apt description that is. Although I think her books are rich in social, political commentary, she seems never to raise her voice. Always some simple story seems at the forefront, and all the commentary occurs naturally within the course of telling the story. If we are being preached to, we only rarely catch sight of the preacher. I think McDermott is also a dedicated and observant feminist, but one who wants to understand men and who understands so well how culture and economics define the roles of both men and women. Perhaps the lives of the girls and women are described with greater emotional detail that those of the boys and men, but even her criticisms are couched in compassion, and she seems always to deal with her male characters fairly and with not only kindness but love.

McDermott is a master at dealing with time. Child of My Heart contains its quiet action within the space of a few weeks of summer, although managing to give us a lot of information about the previous two decades and even some hints about a future never actually reached in the course of the novel. Charming Billy begins and ends with an Irish wake for the just deceased Billy, but spins the reader back half a century, moving from present to past again and again to illumine the events of day. Given how these two novels concentrate on the present and then bring in the past simply as background and explanation, it was quite a surprise to me to discover the linear nature of her recent novel, and her skill in taking us through a much longer period, from the fifties to almost the present in a nearly chronological fashion. In my view, novels work best when they don’t try to cover too much time, and generally writers don’t do well when they attempt to cover a lifetime. This book is the exception; we learn of the entire married lives of the two main characters, Mary and John Keane, as well as the births and maturation of their four children, but the pace seems leisurely, the story told in outline by concentrating on just a few events, and somehow inviting the reader to fill in the spaces, the months and years not described.

Instead of focusing on the lives of the rich and famous or on the adventures of exceptional men and women, McDermott focuses on ordinary people living (on the face of it) quite ordinary lives. What she shows us is just how wonderful and in some sense extraordinary such lives are. The man in the apartment next door whom we may only know as player of the piano lives a rich if to us hidden life, and his story, if only we knew it, is filled with significance, with pain and suffering and joy.

I want to concentrate on just a couple of the themes/questions McDermott raises in this little volume as a way to hopefully arouse your interest and to get you to pick up this book. First, McDermott takes up the question of why it is important to be kind to, even to love, quite unlovable people; second, in quite lovely and sympathetic ways she attempts to explore the emotional distance that seems to exist between men and women, even between men and their loved wives/partners or between fathers and their loved daughters. And although I won’t cite any passages, I (as a quite adamantly non-religious person) find McDermott’s sympathetic exploration of the effects of religion, specifically Catholicism, on the lives of her characters and the community in which they live to be enlightening; she arouses in me a sympathy for religion that I don’t often feel.

We meet the main character in the novel, Mary, on the very day that she is to meet for the first time her future husband, John. Predating that meeting and eventual marriage, Mary’s best friend is her workmate Pauline. Pauline is plain; she lives alone and does not even try to hide her loneliness, her depression, her pervasive pessimism, or her negative judgments about others. As Mary deals with Pauline, not quite wanting to, but feeling that she has no choice, she recalls again and again the counsel of a nun who taught her in the Catholic school she went to. “Feed my lambs, Jesus said. What was the cost of a little kindness toward someone who found her pleasure in being unkind? What was the good, as Sister Clare at school used to say, in loving only the loveable?” Neither John nor Mary’s children can quite understand Mary’s loyalty to Pauline, and Mary wonders sometimes herself why it is she who must care for this lonely, often bitter and uncared for woman. But just as the reader is led slowly to understand the deep love and loyalty that exists between John and Mary, despite his silences and frequent emotional opacity, so too the reader comes to see eventually the bond between these two women. At one point, after Pauline has been called to the home of John and Mary to care for the older children while the frightening and premature birth of the fourth and last child is occurring, she leaves abruptly when Mary and the new baby come home. She tears herself away from the commotion of the happy family in order to give them time to themselves, without having to entertain strangers. She returns to her apartment

… and faced the most terrible hours of any week, made worse now by the days she had spent in the busy household: the hours after sunset on a Sunday night, all her own usefulness temporarily extinguished, and the terror that good clothes, perfect stitches, the pursuit of just the right buttons usually kept at bay edging closer to the surface of things—the yellow light on the polished table, the black night through the slatted blinds, someone laughing at her out in the street. In another few years this terror would catch her by the throat, but tonight she would have another Manhatten with Ed Sullivan. Rinse out her clothes and brush down tomorrow’s suit and iron a blouse. Put on her nightgown and get into bed. There were worse things than this tinny loneliness, these last hours of a Sunday evening.
Mary, who expected in her mid-twenties to be alone forever, to care for her brother and father until the father died, and then to live a solitary life like Pauline’s, is surprised to find herself married to John, older than she, and still quite unknown in the early days of marriage, in some ways never to be known. She has thought that the actual love life, should she ever find it, of husband and wife would “…all be whispered endearments, only pleasantly breathless. She was surprised to learn that there was labor in it, pain and struggle as well as sweetness.” Indeed, even as their bodies work together, as they approach a kind of consummation,

…she glimpsed her husband’s face through half-closed eyes and saw what was quickly becoming a familiar look: a kind of determined concentration, a grimace to the lips, and a far-off gaze to his eyes that marked a consummation that she was beginning to suspect turned him in on himself far more than it would every turn him out towards her. She imagined it was akin to the look the piano player upstairs wore as he worked the keys, that kind of crazy-eyed focus on the task that could obliterate all distractions, even the very instrument under his hands. Does he even hear the music, she thought, arching toward him as he labored above her. Does he even see my face?
These are just two of many passage in the book where McDermott tries to fathom and to understand an emotional chasm between men and the women they love. That she does this so perceptively but without anger impresses and humbles me.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill

I suppose that it is common among habitual readers to fear that they may have exhausted the supply of good books, or, at least, that they are unlikely to find new, exciting authors with anything like the regularity of the past. That fear has flickered in me so often, only to be erased in a day or two by the discovery of yet another wonderful word-weaver. My discovery of the day actually had her first volume published in 1988, but because the well of wonderful writers is, in fact, so deep, it doesn’t surprise me at all that I only now discovered her. She also has helped to chip away at my not well reasoned prejudice against and avoidance of short stories. The author’s name is Mary Gaitskill, and today I want to talk about her collection of short stories published in 1997, entitled Because they wanted to; I am now half way into her initial collection, Bad Behavior, and find it to be equally exciting and disturbing. Everything I say below about the ’97 collection I would say as well of the earlier ’88 collection.

It does not surprise me at all to read descriptions on the jacket covers of her works that include words like ‘ferocious’, ‘terrifying’, ‘thrilling’, ‘breathtaking’, ‘razor-sharp’, ‘harrowing’, ‘caustic’. Indeed, her writing is all of these things. She is brutally honest in her description of relationships; her minute descriptions of sexual acts and of the mental monologues that accompany the action are shocking even to a reader not easily shocked. But if her writing is shocking, it is also beautiful and utterly convincing. As I have said many times, I am a reader who is content to be a reader; even reading the best writing seldom evokes in me the desire to write, except when I read writers who are writing about reading and readers. But Gaitskill is the exception; were I to write, I would aspire to write with the bare, sometimes almost painfully honest style that she seems to achieve effortlessly. I lack both the skill and the courage to write as she does. Her metaphors are so unexpected that they seem to jump from the page; they often seem contradictory, and yet as soon as they have been absorbed strike at least this reader as brilliant—so accurate that it seems surprising that they have not been used before.

Each of her stories is a little vignette that stands alone, and yet after reading just a few of them, it becomes quite obvious that the author is describing lived experiences. Remarkably, Gaitskill seems equally able to write with either a male or a female voice, but no one who reads a half dozen or so of the stories will doubt that the mind behind the stories is that of a woman—and one who has witnessed many of the things related in the stories. She describes both heterosexual and homosexual relationships; she understands the world of sadomasochism, and describes it in ways that help at least this reader come to some partial understanding of it, and to at least temper some of my knee-jerk rejection and revulsion of those ways of relating. Her descriptions are neither pretty nor sentimental, but the very honesty and straight-forwardness of the writing allows the reader to see the characters with what Iris Murdoch would call love and justice—to be released at least for the moment from the obfuscating veil of ones own cares and concerns and to thus to see more clearly the world being described.

Quoting a few lines from what are already sparse, understated stories cannot do justice to Gaitskill’s writing, but let me at least try to give you the flavor of her stories. One of the stories, “Orchid,” is about a chance meeting of a woman, Margot, with a man, Patrick, whom she has not seen for sixteen years, but the meeting brings back a flood of memories for Margot, and the reader gets to eavesdrop on those memories. Margot had been a non-romantic roommate of Patrick in college, along with Patrick’s sister and another student majoring in mathematics. The sister, Dolores, is eating and at the same time gluing false fingernails onto her fingers and painting them with red polish.

Donald, the math major, watched her with bemusement and, Margot thought, perverse, furtive attraction enlivened by a little hot streak of disgust. Patrick did not watch her, but Margot felt his attention sometimes touch his sister, quickly, like a traveling drop of light, as if he were checking to be sure she was still there. He sat at the table in a torpid slouch, but his hazel eyes were live and expectant. He held his limbs, especially his hands, in peculiar twists that made Margot imagine his inner muscles in secret shapes of furious discord, but his posture was light, lax, and happy. She knew that his mother sometimes sent him bottles of Valium or Xanax, because she had once been present when one of his would-be girlfriends intercepted a care package and dumped the contents in the toilet. But she didn’t think his languor was drug induced. It seemed more the product of an unusual distribution of self, as if, by some crafty manipulation of internal circuitry, he’d concentrated himself in certain key psychic posts and abandoned the vast regions he didn’t want to be in. These empty spaces had an almost electrical allure, more highly charged than his distinct presence in the areas he occupied. Men didn’t like him very much, but whenever the phone rang, it was almost always a girl for Patrick.
Margot, usually drawn both sexually and romantically to women, cannot understand her own fascination with Patrick, both in their past as roommates, and now again after their chance meeting in New York. A steady stream of attractive women has flowed into and out of Patrick’s life, with him seeming to have very little to do with either their entrances or exits. When she asks why he bothers to be with them at all, given his flatness, his apparent lack of real interest, he responds that he is with them because they choose him, because he can’t think of a good reason to say ‘No’. Her inner confusion is compounded by the fact that the few times Patrick has made sexual moves towards her, she has sensed both his lack of real interest and her own. The story plays out with the attraction-repulsion recurring again and again, and then like most of her stories, simply ends without resolution, and yet in the process one seems to discover a lot about why so many relationships fail, and perhaps a bit about what might make some go right.

Another of the stories, “The Dentist,” begins with a botched and painful tooth-extraction by a kind but seemingly inept dentist. The female patient, Doreen, has to return to the dentist for further treatment of the resultant dry socket, and finds herself increasingly drawn to him romantically, perhaps sexually. “She remembered the dentist at his office with his hands in her mouth. She was aroused, and the ridiculousness of her arousal embarrassed her.” What follows is a series of meetings between the two in which Doreen, without being able to understand her own feelings, attempts to seduce the ever-kind and seemingly interested dentist who backs clumsily away from each of her advances. And his very rejections seem to incite Doreen further; “she couldn’t believe that the dentist’s almost morbidly bland public self had nothing to do with the increasingly alarming image she had of him. She felt she was sensing some secret part of him, something that was hurting him as well as her.” She begins to regard his patients, at least the female patients, as victims, and yet she also feels that she wants to be victimized by him. She wants him to hurt her in ways that she is convinced he wants to hurt her, if only he could step away from the blandness, unleash the repressed desires. But is this really about him, or simply revealing something about her? Again, this is an odd, even troubling story, but one that seems so full of meaning.

I may have said more to discourage you from picking up this volume than I have to encourage you, but believe me when I say that Gaitskill is a stunning writer. I can hardly wait to get my hands on her new novel, Veronica, and to be shocked and informed by her once again.