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


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?