Monday, June 01, 2015

Intrusions by Ursula Hegi

Like many writers and authors before her, Ursula Hegi wonders whether a woman can be both a good mother and a good writer. In her 1981 novel, Intrusions, she spends an entire novel examining this question, and though she finds many women who say you must choose between your art and your children, she disagrees. 
You can’t have both. You must make a choice.I don’t want to believe that. It’s too easy a solution, an excuse for anyone who doesn’t want to try. I don’t want to make that choice. I want both. Dammit, I do.
Given that she has published seven novels, to collections of short stories as well as children’s literature and non-fiction books, we must conclude that she has succeeded in doing both. Intrusions (her first published novel) came out in 1981, and there has been a steady steam of work since. 

This novel is about a writer who not only has to live with the intrusions of two small children and her husband, but eventually with the intrusions of the characters in her novel as well. The book skips back and forth between the story of Megan Stone, writing madly whenever she can wrest a few minutes from her busy day, and the author, herself, who like her heroine has a husband and two children. The idea of a novel within a novel is not a new one, but Hegi is so clever in the ways in which she argues with her own lead character, Megan, and with Megan’s husband Nick. Hegi deals with intrusions on so many levels.

Megan says that were she to be asked by a reporter to define what was most important to her, “Megan would quite likely have replied: solitude, to be completely alone without even the slightest possibility of an interruption, without even the slightest possibility of the possibility of an interruption.” 
This was the year when Megan’s children were two and four, when she always felt surrounded by their needs even when she was not with them (which was very seldom), when ninety percent of her conversations hovered on the level of a two-or four-year-old, when she began to doubt if she had ever possessed any intelligence and, if so, worried that it was evaporating like fumes from an open can of cleaning fluid.
And when she does find a few moments to write, she feels guilty over what she perceives as neglect of her children. Having lost both of her parents and her brother at the age of six, killed in a plane crash, and raised by an aunt who is both prudishly strict as well as quite distant and cold, Megan is intent on being really there for her children, and yet she also feels compelled to write. Every stolen moment of writing brings guilt in its wake, and yet she must write.

Megan says she can feel the silent presence of her son just outside her study door, his very silence a weight she can hardly bear. And then even the characters in her novel begin to intrude, questioning her motives, her love of her husband and children. “The characters have moved in. They follow me around, even crowd my family at the dinner table. There isn’t enough room for all of us. I can barely move. Nobody but me is aware of them.”

While the problems raised and faced by both Megan and the author, herself, are serious and heart-wrenching, Hegi displays the dilemmas with a humor and lightness of hand that makes the novel easy and fun to read. 

I started this novel many years ago, right after reading Hegi’s most famous novel, Stones from the River. But, adhering to my own conviction that readers ought not stick with books that do not thoroughly engage them, I let Intrusions  fall to the side. I was surprised when I recently picked up the novel again (searching my ‘started but not finished bookshelf’) and found that I had read two hundred pages of this 270 page novel before moving on to other things. This time, I breezed through the novel in just a day or two, and was so intrigued that  it was hard to understand why I had given up on it earlier. No matter; such things have happened to me before, but I remain committed to finishing only books that hold my attention throughout. Too many good books to do otherwise.

What I think Hegi shows her readers in this novel is that one can be both a good, committed artist and a good parent, and that relationships between men and women can be good despite sometimes requiring balancing acts. Speaking of her book club, Megan says:
But the fiction we discuss tells us that to be a woman is to be a victim, that all men are villains. Why? It doesn’t have to be that way. There are good relationships between men and women, between men and their children. Aren’t there? I won’t let you be victimized by your husband, your children, your house, Megan, and I won’t let you keep a card file of rooms to be cleaned and silver to be polished. 
I found  this book to be wonderfully insightful and humorous, and Hegi has in her own life shown clearly that women need not decide between their art and their families; they can have both.

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