“A Question of Vision”: Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies

groff

He offered not only his whole laughing self . . . but also the torch he carried before him in the dark, his understanding, dazzling, instant, that there was goodness at her core. With the gift came the bitter seed of regret, the unbridgeable gap between the Mathilde she was and the Mathilde he had seen her to be. A question, in the end, of vision.

Fates and Furies ends with a paean to the unheralded rituals a long marriage, and a long life, is made of:

Because it’s true: more than the highlights, the bright events, it was in the small and the daily where she’d found life. The hundreds of times she’d dug in the soil of her garden . . . Or this: every day they woke in the same place, her husband waking her with a cup of coffee, the cream still swirling into the black. Almost unremarked upon, this kindness. he would kiss her on the crown of her head before leaving, and she’d feel something in her rising through her body to meet him. These silent intimacies made their marriage, not the ceremonies or parties or opening nights or occasions or spectacular fucks.

If the rest of the novel, leading up to this passage, were about those things, and written in that same pensive, tender register, I would have liked it a lot — loved it, maybe. But instead it’s a novel of extremes. It’s a theatrical book — not just literally, as is appropriate to its playwright hero and his milieu, including his artfully role-playing wife, but also in its big gestures and its melodramatic flourishes and its poses, its self-consciously uttered lines. It’s not a novel about “silent intimacies” between ordinary people: it’s about extraordinary people with implausibly twisted backstories, whose presents are haunted by their pasts, and whose gifts are underwritten by their secrets.

The result is an intriguing spectacle but not, for me, an engaging human story. I realize that the title is a clue that it is not (or, not just) a human story but a story that aspires to something larger, grander, more mythical. I don’t think I really got what that other thing was: the intricate details of Groff’s people and their lives, together and apart, perhaps distracted me from ways she has woven something else out of them. But at any rate for me, that element of grandiosity, whatever its intent, came at a cost: it kept me apart from the novel, so that I felt the whole time that I was watching it, rather than reading it. It’s an operatic novel, full of people driven by passion, structured around a convoluted revenge tragedy. I couldn’t reconcile that hyperbolic dimension of the novel with its more earthbound attention to the strange dynamics of marriage. It turned marriage itself into a kind of opera — but then it all seemed so exaggerated. Who actually lives at such a pitch of intensity? Who hides so much, or needs so much, or plots so much? And you certainly wouldn’t know from the bulk of the novel that “spectacular fucks” weren’t the most important part of Lotto and Mathilde’s marriage.

Aspects of Groff’s prose contributed to my alienation. A lot of it is very written. I don’t necessarily mind that, and I didn’t always here, where I was frequently impressed by her phrasing, with its unexpected diction and interesting rhythms:

Look at them together. The height of them, the shine on them. Her pale and wounded face, a face that had watched and never smiled now never stopped smiling. It was as if she’d lived all her life in the chilly shadows and someone had led her out into the sun. And look at him. All his restless energy focused tightly on her. She sharpened something that threatened to go diffuse in him.

But I hated the bracketed interruptions: I couldn’t understand their purpose, which did not seem consistent. Sometimes they offered choric commentary, as if from outside the story, but at other times they simply seemed like an awkward device to shift the point of view or the time frame. Here, for instance: “Chollie saw the man whispering in her ear, saw his hand disappear in the darkness between her legs. She let it, passive. [On the surface; beneath, the controlled burn.]” Why not integrate that observation? Whose is it, anyway? Not Chollie’s, presumably, but if it’s the narrator’s, why set it off? To me, many of these interjections felt like notes left over from a draft stage of the novel. If you need it, if it’s important, incorporate it. Do you want an intrusive narrator or don’t you? These comments felt like afterthoughts, like a tic or a mannerism rather than a style.

groff2I can tell I sound peevish, and I suspect, too, that I’m not doing the novel justice — that I was reading it wrong, that I am hung up (as we can all get) in wondering why it isn’t a different kind of book, my kind of book, instead of the book it is. But I am also trying to put my finger on what about it turned me off, especially because it took a while for me to start chafing against it. Perhaps it is telling that my irritation began more or less when it switched from his story to hers, and she’s the one with the malignant capacity for deceit, she’s the angry one, she’s the one who may not, in spite of what Lotto thought, have “goodness at her core.” We’re supposed to be uncomfortable with her, I’m sure — but in her beautiful duplicity does she turn out to be just a sexist cliché, a kind of modern-day Duessa? Or is my vision of her as wrong as Lotto’s?

Don’t get me wrong: I read Fates and Furies with unflagging attention and much admiration. In the end it left me cold, though: it had me thinking back on, say, Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins, which, for all its narrative trickery, is rich with appreciation and sympathy for “the small and the daily,” as well as for their vexed place in a world full of events that are anything but quotidian. If I said the quality I felt was missing from Groff’s novel was heart, would that sound too earnest or sentimental? Would it be fair?

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8 Responses to “A Question of Vision”: Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies

  1. lawless says:

    All I can say is I’d be more interested in reading True Grit than this. And if I want to read about spectacular fucks, there’s always erotic romance. 🙂

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I had a lot of reservations, or at least questions, about the role of sex in their marriage – but I couldn’t figure out how to address them in any detail in my post without its starting to sound (however unintentionally) weirdly personal…

  2. Kerry says:

    Lauren Groff is one of my favourite authors. I’ve loved all her books, and been so impressed with how much she reaches in a different direction with every one. And so as I read Fates and Furies, I was confident in her hands, though also a bit confused as to what she was up to. Truthfully, I might have shut the book if it had been written by anybody else, but I know there would be payoff (and, as you say, it’s a book one reads with admiration and attention) and I thought there was. Though, as with your Atkinson reviews as well, I think your criticisms are entirely valid. I do so love the way you pick apart the books I love best—which I don’t think I can say about any other critic.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I appreciate how open-minded you! I really don’t go looking for things to pick apart. And there are certainly books that I feel the same way about as you do about Groff’s. I was recently accused (offline) of being too staid in my realism (I’m paraphrasing, but I think that was the gist) — and I suppose it’s a good thing to have it pointed out that my taste may seem to coalesce around a certain kind of book or a certain aesthetic. I may not challenge that as much as I could — something for me to think about. I feel like I was challenging myself with my recent reading of True Grit — and, even more recently, Elmore Leonard’s “Three-Ten to Yuma.” At any rate, those aren’t “historical dramas with a strong female lead” (which might be Netflix-style label for the books I tend to like the best).

  3. Ali says:

    I only read the first chapter, and then I put it down. I didn’t like it, but I wonder if part of that is my adoration of older, classic fiction, I always feel like every modern work of literary fiction pales in comparison. Of course, each year I find a few great modern books, but the majority of my reading these days is 19th and early 20th century fiction. You have read a lot of the classics because of your job–and I envy you that. I feel like I am making up lost time for books I never read

    Your review reminded me of James Wood’s review in the New Yorker. You might want to check it out online if you haven’t. I don’t always agree with him, but I do like to read his reviews.

  4. Stefanie says:

    I just finished the book on Saturday so have been holding off reading your post. I didn’t love the book but I liked it quite a lot and was even surprised to tear up at the end. I didn’t care much for the narrative intrusions but I enjoyed the different perspectives of the marriage. I haven’t worked out all my thoughts on it yet.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I look forward to your post – I didn’t dislike the book exactly. I think it just wasn’t for me, somehow.

  5. Billy says:

    Absolutely and completely agree. I expressed some similar sentiments and frustrations (although not as well) on my own blog recently, but your comments reminded me that, if I really want to celebrate and swim in the odd dance of joy and misery that creates a long-lasting marriage, I just listen to Lori McKenna. The singer-songwriter packs more authentic emotional punch to deliver this message, over and over in her music, than Groff ever manages in her expertly-written, but cold, novel.

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