“Things I Could Not Say”: Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton

lucy-bartonLater, after my first book was published, I went to a doctor who is the most gracious woman I have ever met. I wrote down on a piece of paper what the student said about the person from New Hampshire named Janie Templeton. I wrote down things that had happened in my childhood home. I wrote down things I’d found out in my marriage. I wrote down things I could not say. She read them all and said, Thank you, Lucy. It will be okay.

I loved My Name Is Lucy Barton at first, and really liked it probably until about half way through — maybe even up to the point when Lucy gets feedback from novelist Sarah Payne at a writing workshop that turns out to be about My Name Is Lucy Barton:

Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.

I’m not against metafiction in principle. Some of my favorite books are metafictional — honest! But something about My Name Is Lucy Barton didn’t work for me: by the end, it felt awkwardly self-conscious, as if it were performing, rather than inhabiting, a certain fictional role, as if Strout wanted, rather than needed, to make certain moves to be clever, rather than to fulfill some idea about fiction, or about her fiction. The awkward appearance of a reading of the novel in the midst of its action didn’t create my unease, which had been building already, but it crystallized it: I was uneasy about the novel’s on-again, off-again relationship to its own story, which it sometimes tells with poignant detail and other times almost coyly conceals (“I thought of what I have — to myself — always called the Thing, the most horrifying part of my childhood”).

Payne understands the story Lucy is telling more clearly than Lucy herself, or at any rate she puts it more clearly. But there’s a lot she too doesn’t say, and I think it’s the hand-waving not-saying that ultimately distanced me from My Name Is Lucy Barton. I understand the consistency in withholding what Lucy herself finds too painful to put into words, but novels are words, ultimately, and though “spare” is widely used these days as high praise, My Name Is Lucy Barton ultimately isn’t just spare as in minimalist; it’s downright sparse, and also fragmented. Some of the fragments are individually marvelous, but they never cohered, and it felt less to me as if Strout was presenting perfected miniatures than as if she had used this dispersed form to let herself off the hook, the way some essay writers divide sections with asterisks rather than working out the transitions.hild

I know that some of this is just my own preference for novels that embrace telling: I was similarly dissatisfied, for instance, with Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, which I finished thinking she’d forgotten to actually include the novel. I love novels like Nicola Griffith’s Hild or Byatt’s The Children’s Book: novels that are immersive and luxurious, that don’t leave it up to me to do the work of story-telling, that don’t rely on my assumption that what’s in the gaps is meaningful. That’s not an absolute judgment of what is good, just a statement of what I like: as always, I invoke Henry James’s line that “nothing . . . will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it.”

haruf_coverBut in fact it’s not always true that I don’t like “spare” novels. I read three of Kent Haruf’s novels recently, and the sparest of them all, Our Souls At Night, may have been my favorite. So even as I was articulating my reasons for not, ultimately, finding My Name Is Lucy Barton more satisfactory I was trying to figure out what else might be the problem. Here’s what I came up with: Haruf does tell his stories; he just doesn’t make a big deal about them. Strout, on the other hand, makes a big deal about not telling her story. Haruf does not insist on our emotional response: it arises (or doesn’t) from his people and their actions. Strout, in contrast, openly strives for emotional effect. Sometimes it works:

Always I screamed and screamed. I cried until I could hardly breathe. In this city of New York, I see children crying from tiredness, which is real, and sometimes from just crabbiness, which is real. But once in a while I see a child crying with the deepest of desperation, and I think it is one of the truest sounds a child can make. I feel almost, then, that I can hear within me the sound of my own heart breaking . . .

She strikes some notes that are powerful precisely because they withhold so much: “I thought, Pity us. We don’t mean to be so small. Pity us — it goes through my head a lot — Pity us all.” Too many such moments, though, can end up seeming not effective but affected, which is also too easily true of metafictional gestures. Both draw attention to themselves, which is an impulse that I think contradicts the simplicity and sincerity that initially drew me into My Name Is Lucy Barton.

For some reason it seems to me that Marilynne Robinson is someone who ought to be in this conversation. I’ve never read Housekeeping: maybe it should be next.

“Talking in the Dark”: Kent Haruf, Our Souls at Night

souls-at-nightOur Souls at Night is the last of Kent Haruf’s Holt novels — he died not long before its publication. It seems fitting then, I suppose, that it is a bit bleaker than the other two I’ve read, a bit less optimistic about sustaining the kind of quiet humanity that it too holds out as our best hope of comfort in a sometimes inhospitable world.

The premise and story of Our Souls at Night is supremely simple. Addie, a widow, approaches her neighbor Louis, a widower, with an unexpected proposal: “I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.” She means it literally: she finds the nights lonely and she misses “lying warm in bed, companionably, with someone else,” having someone to talk to in the dark. Louis accepts. The first night is a bit awkward, as they get used to each other, but soon these nights together, talking and then sleeping, become welcome rituals from which a deeper friendship grows.

They live in a small town, though, and the sight of Louis leaving Addie’s house in the morning starts people gossiping. Addie and Louis decide to brazen it out — to “go downtown in the middle of broad daylight and have lunch at the Holt Cafe, and walk right down Main Street and take our time and enjoy ourselves.” As Addie says, they are too old to live in fear of other people’s foolish judgments, and they aren’t doing anything to hurt anyone, just finding some comfort and companionship when they both need it. The outing goes fine, but the town’s talk foreshadows a later complication that won’t be so easily resolved.


The next development — still so simple it hardly feels like one — is Addie’s grandson, Jamie, coming to stay with her. At first Louis stops coming at night, but as the three of them work together to make Jamie feel at home, this precaution starts to seem pointless, and soon Louis is spending the night again. They get Jamie a dog, they go camping, they go to a softball game. Haruf’s prose throughout is as understated as his plot, but he has the gift of letting the significance of these very small things shimmer across the page: it’s hard not to be moved by his quiet message about how much we can do for each other if we’re just willing to be there, together.

haruf_coverBut across this strange commonplace idyll comes a destructive shadow: Addie’s son can’t accept his mother’s new friendship, finding the idea of a man in her bed disgusting and interpreting Louis’s motives in coarsely suspicious ways. Instead of rescue or salvation, then (the promise of which dominates both Plainsong and Benediction), Our Souls at Night highlights the possibility of ruin — again, on a very small scale, but in a way that feels larger, more significant, as if Gene’s small-mindedness represents in miniature the threat to all forms of grace. Happiness is made of such fragile things — trust, tolerance, affection, moments of talk and laughter — that it’s always vulnerable to blight. And as Addie and Louis find, resisting may in itself damage the very thing you hoped to protect.

The small scale of all three of these novels is at once literal and deceptive. Haruf focuses on familiar relationships and everyday activities that hardly seem profound or philosophical. But then he shows us the effects of small changes, good and bad, and through their reverberations encourages us to think more abstractly about the human condition — which sounds pretentious in a way that these novels never do. Our Souls at Night is about two people who decide it would be nice to have someone to talk to in the dark. That seems like so little to ask — but Haruf makes it seem like a very precious thing to have.

“Where You Are”: Kent Haruf, Plainsong

plainsong1“The crib scene kills me,” Mark Athitakis said on Twitter when I remarked that I was half-way through Plainsong and loving it. At that time I hadn’t reached the crib scene yet, but when I did, I knew what he meant. It epitomizes the novel’s perfect balance of sweet and strong, tough (even, sometimes, brutal) and tender. It’s faintly comical, but also deeply touching.

The title and epigraph of Plainsong direct us to music: “plainsong,” we’re told, is “the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times” and also “any simple and unadorned melody.” I looked up “unisonous” myself to be sure I was making the right sense of that definition: it means “identical in pitch.” The implicit contrast, then, I suppose, is with harmony and counterpoint — with musical arrangements built on difference and complexity, rather than similarity and simplicity.

I find that interesting, because Plainsong itself seemed to me built on very different notes, one for each story: the little brothers, so close together in their apartness from their mother; their father the teacher, shaping life and meaning as best he can on the farm, in the school, or in the privacy of his own loneliness; the young girl, crossing too soon into the risks and responsibilities of motherhood; the old brothers, my favorites, staunch and generous in their clumsy humanity. Haruf’s genius is the blunt delicacy with which he brings out each of these elements, so seemingly singular, then creates something resonant out of their combination.

Maybe that’s what the title means: that the novel finds the commonality in these differences, showing them to belong together — to one chord, if I can keep up the musical metaphor a bit longer. Or maybe it alludes less to the stories and more to the novel’s style, which is certainly “simple and unadorned,” though eloquent in its austere precision:

Afterward, when she was calm again, after the doctor had left, she went into the air outside the Holt County Clinic next to the hospital, and the light in the street seemed sharp to her and hard-edged, definite, as if it were no longer merely a late fall afternoon in the hour before dusk, but instead as if it were the first moment of noon in the exact meridian of summer and she was standing precisely under the full illumination of the sun.

Here and throughout, Haruf’s imagery is wonderfully concrete. He’s especially good with the landscape, which is rarely hospitable but somehow feels bracingly supportive of these lives eking themselves against its wintry contours:

They set out in the cold bright day . . . driving north toward Holt, passing through town and under the new water tower and carrying on north, the country flat and whitepatched with snow and the wheat stubble and the cornstalks sticking up blackly out of the frozen ground and the winter wheat showing in the fall-planted fields as green as jewelry. Once they saw a lone coyote in the open, running, a steady distance-covering lope, its long tail floating out behind like a trail of smoke.

plainsong2Nature is not romanticized in this world: the McPheron brothers, for instance, are cattle farmers, and there’s too much birth, blood, and slaughter in their daily routine to make them sentimental. Haruf connects his characters to nature’s harsh realities, emphasizing their common cycles of life and hunger and survival. “I started thinking about it the other day,” Harold McPheron says to his brother Raymond, as they fret over Victoria’s pregnancy: “the similarities amongst em.” “I don’t appreciate you saying she’s a heifer,” says Raymond, horrified, but later, after they deliver a calf, with difficulty, from a heifer in distress, they both move seamlessly into discussing, not the heifer’s health, but Victoria’s:

You think she’s going to be all right? Raymond said.

She’s young. She’s strong and healthy. But you don’t ever know what might could happen. You can’t tell.

There’s great compassion for animals in the novel, but their care requires a pragmatic brutality that doesn’t transfer exactly to people. The crib scene shows the McPheron brothers, hardly used to human conversation, let alone more elaborate forms of interaction, first finding then expressing the grace that lifts Haruf’s simple stories into something approaching sublimity. It’s a perfectly mundane activity, of course, shopping for a crib, but it’s joyous to see these rough men discover Victoria’s needs — not for the crib, or not just, but for belonging — and act on their insight. Through their act of practical grace, they show her she is not alone, and that ultimately gives her the courage to take up the place they have offered her in their lives.

Maybe that’s really the unisonous aspect of Plainsong: each story in its own way follows this same path, from disconnection and loss to unity. I appreciated that Haruf does not make the process seem easy, or ignore how painful even love can be. He leaves us, though, with an uplifting image of community — again, something simple, just a dinner, but everyone has taken a pilgrimage of sorts to get there. “Honey,” Maggie Jones said earlier to Victoria as the girl imagines being, going, somewhere else. “Victoria. Listen to me. You’re here now. This is where you are.” Early on, for every character, to stay where they are seems like a struggle. By the end, together, through unadorned acts of kindness and principle, they have all made “this” a good place to be.

“The Precious Ordinary”: Kent Haruf, Benediction

benedictionA friend of mine highly recommended Kent Haruf’s Plainsong, but when I looked for it at the bookstore they didn’t have it, so instead I brought home his more recent novel Benediction. It seems to me to have been a happy enough substitution: Plainsong may yet turn out to be better, but I thought Benediction was very good.

Benediction is a quiet novel on a small scale, written in the kind of deliberately understated prose that sometimes makes me impatient but in this case felt just right. The sentences are short and simply structured, mostly plain statements of fact without embellishment:

She got up and went to the house. It was cool inside, the kitchen very clean and neat. there were starched curtains at the windows. The little bathroom was off the kitchen, it was clean and neat too, with a picture of a red flower framed on the wall.

It’s like that all the way through — I chose that example literally just by opening the book to a random page. That kind of absence of style of course is itself a style, a “plain” style, an anti-literary style. It’s terse in the way that Hemingway or Hammett is terse, though without the underlying tension that makes their minimal prose almost melodramatic.

There is drama in Benediction, though; it just lies in the feelings, not the words, and in the overall concept of the book, which is indicated by its title. It’s the story of a dying man, Dad Lewis, of the small cluster of people who are close to him as he dies, and of one person — his estranged son — who is and remains far away. This is a scenario devised, clearly, to prompt reflection about what makes a life meaningful, and about what we might regret or be glad of in our last days. Dad is a man who has done both harm and good: he is far from a saint, but his wife loves him faithfully and his community respects him. His situation and even his character are in some senses generic, but Haruf makes him specific enough that his failings and his efforts to atone have their own particular pathos.

benediction2Dad is at the center of Benediction, but the novel’s attention radiates out from him to the small struggles and successes of those around him. Notable among these is the town minister, Rob Lyle, who has been sent to the town of Holt after causing trouble in Denver — trouble he ends up reiterating in Holt because (as he says in his own defense) “I had to say it . . . It’s the truth.” The truth he preaches is love, which sounds common enough except that he suggests people should really mean it, not just pay lip service to it:

And what if we tried it? What if we said to our enemies: We are the most powerful nation on earth. We can destroy you. We can kill your children. We can make ruins of your cities and villages and when we’re finished you won’t even know how to look for the places where they used to be. . . .

But what if we say, Listen: Instead of any of these, we are going to give willingly and generously to you. We are going to spend the great American national treasure and the will and the human lives that we would have spent on destruction, and instead we are going to turn them all towards creation. We’ll mend your roads and highways, expand your schools, modernize your wells and water supplies, save your ancient artifacts and art and culture, preserve your temples and mosques. In fact, we are going to love you. And again we say, no matter what has gone before, no matter what you’ve done: We are going to love you . . . .

Even though his sermon begins with a passage from the Sermon on the Mount, his message is heard as radical, revolutionary, treasonous. “Are you crazy?” calls out an angry member of his congregation; he is shunned and assaulted; he is voted out of his position. “Did you actually think they’d agree with you?” demands his angry wife. “No, I didn’t think that,” Lyle says, “I had to say it anyway. . . . Because I believe it.”

Lyle’s message of love is a religious one in context, but of course it doesn’t have to be, and neither does the notion of a blessing, or of grace. In the novel, grace is found in what Lyle calls “the precious ordinary”: the novel, like the larger world, is full of people suffering, but it’s also full of “the sweet kindness of one person to another.” Benediction is composed of vignettes of either pain or kindness, moments of action or of memory strung along the connecting thread of Dad’s last few weeks. It offers no epiphany, no great revelation, just the quiet conviction that if we can manage it, forgiveness is our best option, and that forgiveness, and thus peace, is made possible by love, which is “patient and boundless and right-hearted and long-suffering.”

It’s a testament to Haruf’s skill that he manages to makes this message seem true and important, rather than trite. And it’s a sign of his underlying optimism, I think, that he ends his novel about death with the image of a lost child who “found her way home in the dark . . . and so returned to the people who loved her,” and with a reminder that death ends life, but not life itself.