Sedentary Mascots: The Turner House, and My Houses

flournoy

Humans haunt more houses than ghosts do. Men and women assign value to bricks and mortar, link their identities to mortgages paid on time. . . . We live and die in houses, dream of getting back to houses, take great care in considering who will inherit houses when we’re gone. Cha-Cha knew his family was no different. The house on Yarrow Street was their sedentary mascot, its crumbling façade the Turner coat of arms.

Despite NPR’s bold proclamation on the cover of my edition, I’m pretty sure The Turner House does not deserve to be “described as the Great American Novel.” I think it’s a pretty good American novel. But it did not sweep me away, confound me, inspire me, or otherwise thrill me. For about the first 150 pages, it didn’t even really interest me that much, though I ended up curious about how its strands would come together, and about what would happen to the house on Yarrow Street. It struck me as a competent contemporary family saga, touching on a range of timely themes across its large cast of characters, full of nice particulars about its setting. It is also well constructed, though cutting back and forth across time and generations is not an especially original device and didn’t seem to me to provide any great revelations. Sure, a good novel. But “Great”?

I did like the premise — exploring ways a family home can be its center of gravity, both for the family members themselves and for the family’s sense of its own identity. My favorite part of the novel was the set piece I quoted from for my epigraph that is clearly meant to be the key-note of the novel (so clearly meant that it felt a bit thumpingly obvious by the time we got to it, near the end of the book). Cha-Cha’s newer suburban bungalow has to some extent taken over that centripetal role for the Turners, but its very different structure makes it mean something different, and then of course it does not embody the family’s history in the same way that the house on Yarrow Street does.

Iflournoy2 think that for me, The Turner House would actually have come closer to being a (if not the) “Great American Novel” if it had really embraced its potential capaciousness. How can a novel about a family with thirteen children (and assorted grandchildren and great-grandchildren) be under 35o pages? Imagine if every one of them — and Francis and Viola, too — had a separate section, full of contexts and choices and rich, textured details about their characters and their lives. This (missed) opportunity really struck me near the end of the novel, when we got a crisp précis of the account Lelah gives Brianne of her marriage to Vernon:

Lelah filled the stories with details she hadn’t thought about in decades, like his first car, a 1980 Cutlass Supreme, and what she’d worn to their courthouse marriage (a baby-pink knee-length dress with aggressive shoulder pads). She took her time, because she never wanted to repeat these stories again.

When I read this, I immediately thought “I’d like to hear those stories” — and then I imagined the book opening up, like a flower unfurling, and telling us all of the stories it just touches on in its current more minimalist form. What sweep it would have had! And also, what courage, because 350 pages is a nice, safe length. Some more conspicuous ambition of that kind would have made the book stand out to me more than it did. It certainly didn’t stand out for stylish writing: in fact, several times I was tripped up in my reading by basic grammatical errors.

The Turner House got me thinking about the family homes in my own life. My parents have lived in their current house since 1973, and it is still the focus of much family activity (not so much for me, of course, since I moved away, but for everyone else — sniff!). That’s certainly the house my own childhood memories are bound up in, but at the same time, it isn’t, quite, because when their children had all moved out my parents did a (much-needed) renovation that rendered the house unrecognizable from the inside — and nearly so from the outside, even though there weren’t many structural changes. My old bedroom is completely gone; the kitchen switched sides of the house; even the door to the basement is on the opposite wall from where it used to be, which still causes some of us a moment of confusion when we’re heading up or down. The only part of the house that’s really the same is the basement rec room, which served many functions over the years, perhaps most unusually as the site of a long-running weekly gathering of folk dancers who had great fun (and wrecked many knees) pounding out advanced step patterns from Bulgaria or Macedonia on the concrete floor. The house is much nicer now — but it’s odd to come in the front door and not see what still lives in my memory as “our house.”

scan0022The house I live in now will be the setting of my own children’s family memories, as we moved in when they were still too young to remember anything else. My most vivid memories of their infant years, though, are all from our first two Halifax homes. One was a traditional old house with bow windows up and down and lots of character inside — meaning, of course, lots of things that weren’t in very good condition. The walls, for example, were paint over wallpaper over aged plaster, and not altogether as solid as you’d like! That’s where we set up Owen’s nursery, where he took his first steps, where he used to astonish me with words, math, and music with his magnetic fridge letters, and where he played his first notes on the piano. I remember sitting up many, many nights that first hot summer after he was born, rocking and nursing and idly watching TV (usually Law & Order, which was always on somewhere) so I wouldn’t fall asleep and drop him — that’s where I was when the news broke of Princess Diana’s death.

Our next house was a less quaint but more solid 60s bungalow: that’s where we brought Maddie home to from the hospital during another long hot summer. As it happens, I was nursing Maddie when the planes flew into the World Trade Center: I remember calling out to my husband when the story popped up about the first one, and we were watching the news waiting for updates about what seemed, at first, sure to be an accident, and then seeing what we only later clearly understood to be the second one — it seemed to happen so fast, and to make so little sense. What odd juxtapositions both of those moments were of private and public life: neither newsworthy event had anything to do with me personally (though 9/11 certainly had repercussions that have affected all of us one way or another), and yet for me both are bound up in my most deeply personal recollections. I have many other memories of that house too, of course, including hours and hours playing with Owen and Maddie in its wonderful vintage basement (complete with real wood paneling on the walls and a salmon pink bathroom).

We’ve been in our current house since 2003. It lacks the charm of our first one but makes up for it (for us, anyway) in modern conveniences, and, more important yet, in being nestled in a quiet, tree-lined neighborhood. Many of our friends have cottages they retreat to in the summer, but we like to stay put and enjoy how lovely it is here when the weather finally turns nice! I wonder how Owen and Maddie will feel or think about this house in later years. It’s hard to know what kinds of memories you’re creating when you are still in the middle of the action, as it were. Because we’re cut off from our extended families on both sides, the memories that have built up here are nothing like the chaotic, inclusive ones described in The Turner House, and also nothing like the ones I have of my parents’ home, so often full of other people eating, talking, laughing, and making music. But we’ve done our best to develop family traditions that suit our eccentric little group! And there’s only so much you can do: for better and for worse, your space is bound to represent who you are. It’s not just literally that you can’t live in someone else’s house, or can’t simply move out of your own whenever you want to.

 

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9 Responses to Sedentary Mascots: The Turner House, and My Houses

  1. George says:

    Even as you have me trekking through memories of my past homes — good, bad, and ugly they were — you also have me wondering again about the “great American novel” label. I have a few nominees, although my subjective criteria would make my nominations a singular list, but I wonder about what you think are “great American novels.” Perhaps the label is too easy to throw around and too hard to apply. Let me know.
    v/r
    George
    God and American Writers

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      It has always seemed to me that there’s something particularly American about the desire to identify The Great American Novel — do you agree? Though periodically surveys and things try to declare the best English novel, I don’t think there’s the same sense that there should be One Novel to Rule Them All. As for “great American novels,” I should issue a disclaimer first, which is that I am not as widely read in American literature as in British. But I have read some American novels I thought were pretty great, including mostly the obvious suspects: Huckleberry Finn, Moby-Dick (half way through, it seems clear to me why it’s lauded), The House of Mirth, Little Women — and a few perhaps less epic or renowned but still very worthy, such as Angle of Repose .

      • George says:

        I will suspect the GAN label comes out of a lingering early 18th c. inferiority complex when British and European critics were noting that nothing worthwhile had come from American authors. As for the debate about how to define and label the GAN, I think it is still a seductive and subjective quagmire not worth entering. However, I somewhat agree with you about the merits of your selections/nominees. _Angle of Repose- in particular is I think neglected and deserves to be read more widely. I remain conflicted about _Huck Finn_, though. A deceased acquaintance, D. G. Myers, lobbied strongly and persuasively for _Lolita_ as being #1, but I could not agree with him.

        • Rohan Maitzen says:

          “A seductive and subjective quagmire not worth entering”: doesn’t that apply to so many such debates! I saw a headline go by on Twitter yesterday about an upcoming debate about whether Jane Eyre or Villette was Charlotte Bronte’s “masterpiece.” Who cares, really? It’s not as if we have to vote the loser off the island. Having said that, though, artificial as ranking always seems to be, sometimes the discussion itself yields real insight into literary values.

    • Bill from PA says:

      Just commenting to note that coinage of the term “Great American Novel” is generally credited to novelist John William De Forest (Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty) in an 1868 article with that title in which he evaluated his candidates, which did not include any works by Melville. There’s a good essay about De Forest in Edmund Wilson’s Patriotic Gore, where he discusses the article at some length. Forest considered Uncle Tom’s Cabin the “most likely” candidate, but felt it had flaws which prevented an unqualified awarding of the title.

      • Rohan Maitzen says:

        I didn’t know that — very interesting. I don’t know if this is right but it has always seemed to me that one (perhaps tacit) assumption is that the “Great American Novel” will be about America, not just written by an American. I thought Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son was a great novel, but it would not be a contender, if that’s true.

        • Bill from PA says:

          De Forest said the GAN is a “picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence” and suggests it would present a “tableau of American society” resembling those created by Thackeray and Trollope for England or Balzac and George Sand for France. He feels the difficulty, if not impossibility, of the task is due to American sectionalism (“We are a nation of provinces, and each province claims to be the court.”) and the rapid pace of change (“Fifteen years ago it was morality to return fugitive slave to their owner – and now? Five years ago everybody swore to pay the national debt in specie – and now?”).
          I always felt Moby Dick a good early candidate except for its exclusively male cast, though Wilson says, “But the allegories and fancies of Melville were not at all the kind of thing that would have answered De Forest’s ideal of the American novel. In the first place, what De Forest wanted was realism.”
          I think the closest thing I’ve read to a GAN is John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy.

  2. Kerry says:

    Love this post! I loved The Turner House too—perhaps not The Great American Novel—but one of the most spectacular debuts I’ve ever encountered. I really enjoyed it and even got swept.

  3. The Dos Passos trilogy is certainly a deliberate attempt at creating such a thing as a Great American Novel.

    D. G. Myers did not argue that Lolita was the or a Great American Novel, but rather that it was the greatest novel in English. “The expression is difficult to take seriously” was his judgment on the GAN.

    I wonder what the NPR blurbist was thinking. I wonder who it was. The prose, based on library browsing, seemed passable.

    The way you turned the review of the book into a review of your homes was thoughtful.

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