Monday, January 07, 2008

At Weddings and Wakes by Alice McDermott

I spent quite a lot of time last year reading (and reviewing) what I have come to call quiet novels. All are quite intentionally about ‘ordinary’ people, and contain very little dramatic plot. No battles, no victories, no murders. Carol Shields and Alice Munro are masters of these quiet novels, and just this last year I (with my usual tardiness) discovered Alice McDermott and added her to the list of greats. I quickly read up everything of hers I could find. Today, I am going to talk about one of her early novels, published in ’92, entitled At Weddings and Wakes.

Most (though not all) great authors stick pretty closely to what they know, what they have lived, the people in the families and communities around them. For the most part, you can write convincingly only about what you know. Alice McDermott never even pretends to stray from the Irish-American-Catholic family-community she grew up in; indeed, she narrows even further to New York, Brooklyn, Long Island. Rarely is there much time that passes in the immediate tale—a wedding, a wake, a few days or months in the lives of a few closely connected people. But, of course, word-weaver that McDermott is, she manages to ripple back, and back, wider and wider as well as out into the wider world. The story of the wake or the wedding is the story of a life, of many lives.

The narration of this book is incredibly clever. We are told the story through the eyes of three children, two girls and a boy, but we are never really told which of the three is the center-vision, exactly who is telling the story. It might seem a too-clever device in some writers, but it seems natural, even inevitable as McDermott spins out this story. Except for “their father,” (as he is almost always referred to), and an older suitor of one of the aunts, this is a story about a family of women. Most of these women live together in a large New York flat. The matriarch, Momma, is actually an aunt to the other women who live there, but an aunt who ‘rescued’ them when their own mother died in childbirth (the child, Veronica, surviving). And who subsequently married their father, giving birth herself to one more child, a boy. The father, himself, dies soon after, suddenly, unexpectedly, leaving the women to care for themselves and for their new baby brother. It seems only natural to these children that the world is peopled mainly with women.

But, of course, it takes us a whole book to discover these things. McDermott writes with intense detail, unhurried description of a single event, and it is only in the close phenomenological description of (a perhaps) mundane experience that the strands of the story introduce themselves, only eventually to be woven into a whole. I find this way of writing so tantalizing, so engrossing. I won’t say much more about this now, but if you read her, you will quickly see what I am at getting regarding her attention to detail.

While this novel is, in fact, many stories, the story of Aunt May gives the book its focal point, its coherence and flow. Aunt May became a nun early in her life, and left her habit behind fifteen years later not because she did not like the life, but because she liked it too much. She understood that what her orders demanded was abnegation, negation of self, losing herself in the love of God. But she loved her life, loved the earth. Like Sisyphus, she chose earthly life to the promises of immortal glory. She loves the order of the life, loves the faces of the children she teaches, but understands her very love-of-life to be vanity.

Six years ago when she’d left the convent she had understood fully that it was not because she’d lost her vocation, only settled into it too perfectly. She understood it was because she had come to love too dearly the life she was leading, the early Masses and the simple meals and, in those years she taught, the small faces of her students. She’d loved her habit, the elegant long sleeves and the starched wimple, the skirts that brushed her heels and the great, extravagant pair of rosary beads that had swung from her belt. She’d loved her deep pockets and her small leather breviary and the way men on the street would touch their hats and call her Sister. She had entered the convent thinking she would give her life to God but found when she was there that her life grew more and more dear to her, that she had given it to no one but herself. She confessed this time and time again, and was finally advised to give up the teaching and request instead to train as a nurse, which she did. And then recognized in her patients, the old priests and nuns no less than the others, her own tenacious desire to live forever. She fasted and went without sleep and took on the household’s humblest tasks and still she knew she guarded her daily life, each of her own breaths and the very beat of her heart. Still she knew she no longer desired heaven, the sight of her dead parents or the face of the living God held no appeal, and even the torment this caused her, the hours of prayer and confession and counsel, seemed part of a rich and complex life; a life impossible to part with.

Since I am unashamedly an evangelical atheist, it always surprises me when I find someone who writes so well about lived-religious-lives, what gets called the phenomenology of religion. McDermott understands the bad things that Catholicism does to people, to women, to families, but she also understands the ways in which religious rituals bind together communities. In her books, Irish-Catholicism is more a backdrop than a set of beliefs; it is a kind of canvas on which lives get lived out. I find myself both surprised and oddly humbled by McDermott’s understanding of religious life.

Aunt May leaves the convent after fifteen years to return to Momma and her sisters, to live an ordered and somehow austere life. And then through some miracle of chance, she finds herself with a suitor. The mailman, whom she has seen and chatted with over much of a lifetime, suddenly sees her in a different light; he is transformed for her as well. And thus begins a sweet and simple and utterly believable courtship. Only once, again by happenstance, do the children catch a glimpse of Momma’s real reaction to her niece-daughter’s upcoming marriage, her sense of betrayal, even infidelity.

It takes McDermott fifteen pages to describe how “their mother,” the only one of the sisters who does not live with Momma, gathers together the three children for the walk, bus, subway trip into Brooklyn, where Momma and her sisters will gather first over tea, and only later over Manhattans. The children will be directed to play quietly, occupy themselves as they wait through interminable, imprisoned afternoons waiting for their father to rescue them. This event happens twice a week in every week of summer, save the last in July and the first in August when their father takes them all to Long Island, “… to the farthest, greenest reaches of the Island, to the very tip of the two long fingers that would seem to direct their eyes, as he himself would do each evening, to the wide expanse of the sea.”

Three children, three pairs of eyes, describing for us the lives of these women, and then backwards in time, outwards into a community. Such an extraordinary tale of such ordinary people.

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