Leaving Brooklyn is hands down my favourite reading of the summer, maybe even of the year so far. It’s also the only book I’ve read in a while that has sent me, immediately on finishing it, straight to the computer because I wanted to blog about it. Having said that, I realize that immediately after finishing a book is not necessarily the best time to write about it, as it allows no time for reflection. But Leaving Brooklyn excited the reader in me, and that’s a great feeling.
It’s an especially good feeling because I’ve been feeling a kind of mild, prickly annoyance at the whole conversation buzzing about the literary / lit-blogging / book-tweeting arena to do with men’s writing and women’s writing prompted by the fuss about Jonathan Franzen’s new novel. There was the shallow piece at the Atlantic, for instance, in which the writer realized he didn’t read books by women and set himself the noble project of “consciously trying to read at least one piece of fiction by a woman for every one I read by a man.” “This sounds stupid, I know,” he continues–yes, it does, because “fiction by a woman” is not a genre, and while it’s all very nice and inclusive to advocate reading “books outside of the reader’s direct experience as a way of understanding the world,” the very way the problem and its putative solution are framed here is impossibly reductive. Plus, of course, it’s impossible to imagine a woman reader seeking out a “piece of fiction by a man” as if that’s a coherent and potentially illuminating category–which of course proves the problem that men’s writing is more easily taken as universal, including by women–who have centuries of experience accommodating themselves, provisionally, to a more-or-less masculine point of view in order to enter into fictional worlds. I sympathize, though not entirely, with the reaction of Linda Holmes at NPR’s ‘Monkey See’ blog, who noted that the discussion would be improved by abandoning the term ‘chick lit,’ which is now far too casually flung around as if it embraces all “books that are understood to be aimed at women, written by women, and not important” (that “not important,” of course, is not Holmes’s view of books aimed at, written by, or about women). I’ve intemperately expressed my own impatience with what I take to be exemplary chick lit titles here a couple of times, and I’m not nearly as impressed with Jennifer Weiner as Holmes is, though I certainly consider Weiner’s books (including In Her Shoes) a big step up from, say, Confessions of a Shopaholic. But I do think that there’s something to the complaint that assumptions about literary significance still skew towards the masculine.
Anyway, I don’t want to set Leaving Brooklyn up as a case study in the gendering of literary standards, but it struck me so forceably as being a breathtakingly good novel that I am puzzled about why it’s not (to put it bluntly) more famous than it is. Why, just for instance, is The Catcher in the Rye a modern classic, and not this wonderfully pungent, self-reflective, intelligently emotional and erotic story? Now, to be fair, I’m not an expert on contemporary American fiction, and perhaps Leaving Brooklyn is considered precisely a modern classic. Or perhaps, as it was published only in 1989, it will grow into that status. Or perhaps it will shrink into the somewhat more marginal status hinted at by the odd qualifier in Russell Banks’s cover blurb: “The blend of lyricism and history, of memory and the imagination–all shot through with the female erotic–is wonderful,” he writes (my emphasis). Well, it is wonderful, and it is shot through with eroticism, sort of. But just as courses I teach with ‘Woman’ in the title consistently attract very few male students, how likely is it that this particular endorsement of the novel will be taken as indicating that it’s one of those books “aimed at women, written by women, and not important”?
But never mind all that, really, because the reason that whole discussion annoys me is precisely that it directs our attention to the writer and not the book. There’s a reason Charlotte Bronte and Marian Evans chose to publish under pseudonyms. Gender makes a difference, to be sure, but it’s when that difference becomes the measure that writers want to evade it.
Leaving Brooklyn is a novel that is intensely about a particular place and time: Brooklyn, obviously, in the post-war years. Street names, subway stops, card parties, news stories all evoke that era and the peculiar aura it has, especially for the protagonist, Audrey. “The air was suspended on a discrepancy,” she recalls:
something like the discrepancy between my mother’s use of the words ‘To thine own self be true’ and their true meaning. It was a presumption of state-of-nature innocence, an imaginative amnesia, and a disregard of evidence such as photographs of skeletal figures in striped pyjamas clawing at barbed wire, of mushroom clouds and skinned bodies groping in ashes.
The disjuncture between what is known and what is said is given oddly literal metaphoric form in the opposition between Audrey’s two eyes (“This is the story of an eye,” the novel enticingly, obliquely, begins, “and how it came into its own”)–one, her left, is perfect, but her right eye wanders, due (or so her mother believes) to an unspecified injury just after Audrey’s birth. So Audrey sees straight on, with perfect clarity, but also sees everything askew. She can see around corners, or so she feels; she can see through the discrepancies, the surfaces and half-truths. How is it possible–is it even desirable–to unite these perspectives? Not then, or at least not in Brooklyn, Audrey realizes. Brooklyn demands an end to wandering, as represented by the hard contact lens Audrey is prescribed to control the errant movements of her eye: “Conscientious parents pursued standardization as Calvinists performed good works,” she reflects. Difference was not to be borne but confronted.
But of course Audrey never does see as everyone else does. She learns to compensate for her lack of binary vision (just incidentally, so apparently did I, before an eye operation in my early childhood that repaired a problem with my depth perception): she navigates stairs and corridors, street crossings and subway stations, with precision and accuracy. She also learns to navigate the intangible complexities revealed by her intelligence and imagination, those qualities fed by her imperfect physical sight. She’s a reader and a thinker, sharp, unsentimental, feeling Brooklyn as a constricting force she must leave emotionally as well as literally. She can’t leave, of course, because Brooklyn is her past, part of her identity, who she was before she became who she is: “no matter how much I leave, it doesn’t leave me.”
Leaving Brooklyn is not just about leaving Brooklyn, though. It’s about, among other things, precisely that inextricable tie we have to our past and our early selves, but also about how we reconstruct that self, looking back and trying to recognize ourselves in the child we once were. “I am confused about who I was,” she reflects:
why else would I need to tell this story about my eye? The confusion is that I seem to have grown up into someone who could not have been me as a child. Yet in the telling the girl grows to sound more and more like the woman I became. The voice overcomes her. The real girl with her layers concealing me becomes more elusive the more I tell. She has been superseded, but I am sure she existed. As I try to find her in me, I keep finding me in her.
At one point she feels the convergence of her selves:
She was me, at that moment. She already knew what I know. This is so startling to come upon that I have to stop and contemplate it. And her. Oh yes, I see myself plainly, right there, bearing the seeds of all I would come to know.
This is metafiction without pretense or flamboyance; Schwartz integrates crucial insights about the inevitable inauthenticity of memoir as a genre with the dramatic urgency of personal discovery.
It’s not accidental that this moment of identification occurs while Audrey is having sex with the Park Avenue eye doctor who prescribed the contact lens. Their affair is not, initially, revelatory to Audrey, but as its erotic possibilities unfold for her, her perception of the world around her becomes less bifurcated: her mind and her body begin to feel equally present to her, though what she sees in Brooklyn is that a woman “could choose the life of the mind or the life of the body, but she could not have both.” Though the doctor eventually expresses his somewhat pathetic (and certainly inappropriate) passion for her, he’s a catalyst for her development: he’s its occasion, not its object. The affair prompts her to see that there might be “another way to live,”
some free and unhampered way I could recover from those years before I stood waiting in the ration lines gripping my mother’s hand, before I began school and was assigned a place in the ranks.
It’s not desire that liberates her, not erotic freedom that she seeks. It’s not love, either–it’s the risk of “caving in” to the doctor’s love that scares her away, the risk of having to be true to him, or to them, rather than to herself. It’s something more like space–mental space, room to decide for herself, to identify herself. Walking through Manhattan after ending the affair, she experiments with an eye patch she has taken from the doctor’s office. But which should she cover, the good eye or the bad? She covers the left eye first, and the world becomes “a huge amorphous mass, its fine points and articulations lost in blur and darkness.” That’s not right: “I needed to find my life, not lose it.” Heading home from the subway, in Brooklyn again, she covers her right eye and “saw clearly the usual sights,” then switches it again. But that’s no real test, she thinks, as she knows the route “so well I could have walked it blindfold.” And yet as she goes along, everything around her indistinct, she is filled with “limitless buoyancy”:
It seemed I might leave the earth and sail up unimpeded, as the snow around me was sailing down, and float right over Brooklyn up to where the stars drifted. . . I didn’t want to float away, though; I was so enraptured that I wanted to remain here on earth, or maybe just a few inches above, and dance. Everything seemed perfect and right; the world, glistening and abundant, unfurled its rightness and perfection–how come I hadn’t noticed it before? Of course I would have everything I wanted, my life would be all I dreamed.
Her ecstasy is inexplicable: “it came from nothing that had happened to me today or ever, beyond circumstance, out of nowhere, a gift that wouldn’t last.” But what she feels is the spaciousness of human possibility, liberated momentarily from the specificities of history. Of course it can’t last, but at that moment she feels that her “entire past barely existed, could be rolled up into a mote in the eye and winked away.” Eventually her own life will begin, she thinks, and then “oh how freely I would float.” It’s the bad eye, the wandering eye, that sees her home that night, and with it she looks through and then past Brooklyn with the hopeful, naive, ambitious exaltation of youth. It’s an intensely personal but also profoundly commonplace experience, movingly represented in a book by a woman, about a woman, that I think deserves to be called “important.”
“Leaving Brooklyn” is indeed a masterpiece, but Linda Holmes is being just a tad disingenuous: we still need the label “chicklit,” and readers like her are a big part of the reason why. Diane Meier has much to answer for here: her wide-eyed “Who Me?” complaint that her novel “The Season of Second Chances” was tarred with the ‘chicklit’ brush despite containing many scenes from the Battle of Borodino is an old tactic, but she’s given it a jolt of new life. If that book – and its hundreds of counterparts – wasn’t written with one cold eye fixed on the lucative ‘chicklit’ market, I’m the Czar of all the Russias. It has three dark hallmarks of the sub-genre: a) it’s lazily written (for easy book group accessibility), b) it has no significant male characters, and c) it wraps any unpleasant plot developments in a gauzy soft focus (and these elements are usually just simply missing – I think the main character in Meier’s book gets a flat tire at one point). To put it mildly, Lynne Sharon Schwartz would never DREAM of writing a novel with those hallmarks; the women who do dream those dreams and then turn around and complain about the results are trying to have their cake and eat it too. Jonathan Franzen may be odious, but give the man his due: he started out writing long, convoluted novels that had no sales potential, whereas chicklit books practically come with Sandra Bullock query letters.
Fair points, Steve! And there’s the “Eye on Oprah” phenomenon, too, which is how the Picoult crisis-of-the-month tactic strikes me. It makes me uncomfortable to imply that the only serious kind of writing has “no sales potential” (cue Dickens…) but writing primarily to make it in a lucrative market does seem likely to work against sincerity or artistic integrity.
Ah, but what about my OTHER point (geez, you Canadians! What’s it take to start an honest-to-gosh argument with you?) – that a vast, teaming stadium full of female writers are both coldly crafting their sugary confections for the chicklit market and crying foul when they’re called on it? That there’s a great hissy multitude of authors and author wannabes out there – all of them women! – who are not only counting on the existence of a double standard but ADVOCATING one? The authors of Tom Clancy-style action-thrillers never go on NPR and bemoan the fact that they’re excluded from book-clubs by unfair labelling! And this double standard is only reinforced by academia, which bends over backwards to accomodate young students – all of them women! – who are constantly searching for the faintest tremor of discrimination, and who’ll cry ‘sexism’ and ‘oppressive patriarchy’ in their writing workshops but won’t stop to consider for a moment that their prose might just be BAD (you know, like the prose of their male co-students). The result? Young (female!) writers who’ve driven acclaim-by-chromosome all the way to book contracts – only to find that what they really want is what their less attractive (female!) classmates – like Eudora Welty or Flannery O’Connor – got through hard work and discipline: respect. But instead of then stopping everything and re-learning their craft, these spoiled authors simply declare that the swill they’re writing WARRANTS respect. And so we get this recent wash of bilge-water about how there’s no such thing as ‘chicklit’ – how it’s just ‘stories about relationships and the importance of family’ etc. Surely there’s something in that whole picture that BUGS you? Or surely there’s something in my summary that BUGS you? What’s an instigator to DO around here, anyway? Sing “O Canada” off-key? Hee.
But Steve! Why would I ever want to have an honest-to-gosh argument with you? Well, except maybe about editorial principles…
I don’t feel like I watch the general publishing scene closely enough to debate the finer (?) details of your summary here, though I do know that Ian Rankin (for one) has been vocal about the shunning of detective fiction by literary prize committees, so it’s not entirely fair to say that it’s only writers of (let’s call it) highly commercial women’s genre fiction (to avoid that ‘chick lit’ label) who feel shut out of the big games because of labelling. I also think it’s trickier than we sometimes think to define “BAD” prose (there’s a famous essay related to this problem called “But is it any good?”). Sure, you and I might be confident we know it when we see it, but as soon as we start specifying our criteria, we are either going to have to stay pretty vague and abstract so as not to accidentally rule out any of our own favorite authors, or to try to fix as enduring universal standards of excellence qualities that have, over time, been both praised and derided. I have talked about Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Aurora Floyd in this context once–not that I think my observations then were definitive. Anyway, as I said in my post, I do think standards of greatness ‘skew towards the masculine,’ which is not to say that any “sugary confection” deserves equal consideration with Jonathan Franzen (or Eudora Welty), but just, to use my main example, that a book like Leaving Brooklyn seems less likely to be tagged as universally significant than Catcher in the Rye because the coming of age story it tells is a girl’s.
My own students (not creative writing students, mind you) are far more likely to reject words like “feminism” and “patriarchy” aas irrelevant to their lives and to equate empowerment with sexual license, not politics, than they are to search for faint tremors of discrimination. In its own way, their reflexive antipathy to a politicized view of the world they live in is just as inappropriate as reflexively crying “sexism” whenever you feel criticized–worse, perhaps, because it signals their historical ignorance. And just because some privileged women are paranoid doesn’t mean there is no “oppressive patriarchy” anywhere to contend with.