A Warm-Hearted Reading Update

strout-againAfter I finished Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms, I commented on Twitter that I was finding cold, meticulous novels wearing and asked for recommendations of good, recent warm-hearted fiction. Along with the understandable and spot-on nods to writers I already know well (such as Barbara Pym and Anne Tyler), I got a lot of good tips, which I am still working through. Here are the ones I have read so far. I have to say that while they have all been fine, none of them really got much traction with me: I don’t think it is necessarily the case that “warm-hearted” means lightweight, but that’s how these mostly felt. I don’t think I will remember much about them. The exception so far is Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, which I found very moving; that’s why it got its own post!

Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again. I read Olive Kitteridge years ago – long enough that I didn’t write it up here, that I can find. I remember enjoying it, but it seemed dispensable, so after a while I put it in my “donate” pile. I didn’t like My Name is Lucy Barton much, and that seemed like the end of my relationship with Strout. Still, she’s much beloved, and so I picked up Olive, Again to see if I’d underestimated her. My conclusion is “not really.” I liked it fine, but it felt incidental, meandering. The ‘linked short story’ effect irritates the novel reader in me: it feels lazy, as if the author couldn’t be bothered to do the work of actually integrating the characters and events into one more substantial and meaningful whole. I’m a lover of Victorian multi-plot novels, which I consider, at their best, a high form of art. If the whole is supposed to be more than the sum of its parts, I’d like the author to be the one who does the work of building that up. Don’t just give us the pieces and assume we’ll believe there’s more to it than that.onan

Stewart O’Nan, Emily Alone. I read this right after Olive, Again, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still reading the same book. There was nothing (to my ear, anyway) to distinguish the voice or tone or prose of one author from the other; Emily’s story could easily have been one of the chapters in Strout’s book (see, I’m reluctant to call it a “novel”!) – except, of course, for being book-length itself. I liked Emily herself just fine, and “older woman living alone” is one of my favorite tropes (see Plant Dreaming Deep, for a cherished example) but the novel recounted day to day events in tedious detail. I like exposition, but I like it to be more than an accumulation of (fictional) facts.

mccrackenElizabeth McCracken, The Hero of This Book. I liked this one quite a lot except for the uneasiness it created in me about what kind of book it is, exactly. I realize that is one of the main points of the book, to destabilize assumptions about what constitutes a memoir or a novel or autofiction or whatever. I understood this because McCracken makes rather a lot of noise about it: “What’s the difference between a novel and a memoir?” she asks; “I couldn’t tell you. Permission to lie; permission to cast aside worries about plausibility.” “It’s not a made-up place,” she says about a trip she and her mother make to the theater (or do they?),

though this is a novel, and the theater might be fictional, and my insistence fictional, and my mother the only real thing, though this version of her is also fictional.

OK, whatever. I found these intrusions distracting. If I wanted to explore theoretical differences between genres in that kind of explicit way, I’d read critical writing; if you want to play with genre, you can do it without so much handwaving about it. And yet as a book about love and mourning, The Hero of This Book was sometimes quite powerful:

Was this grief? I could feel my mother’s joy on the London Eye, her love of heights and good views. That streak of daredevilry and thrill-seeking. I had once taken her on a helicopter tour of downtown Miami, after she’d seen somebody parasailing and had guessed aloud that she couldn’t do that. My mother laughed as the helicopter wove through skyscrapers; I believed that I would fall to the ground at any moment and thought, I’ve had nightmares like this. That was actual joy; the joy I could apprehend now had not occurred, was counterfeit, made of regret and set in regret. osman

Richard Osman, The Thursday Murder Club. When Levi Stahl recommended this, he prefaced it by asking if I read or liked “cozies.” I don’t, much, but this one sounded really charming – which it is, or at least the cast of characters is. By about half way through, however, I had completely lost interest in the actual murder case. (I also got irritated at the repeated device of revealing some key bit of evidence to the characters but withholding it from us: I get that it’s a provocation for us to figure out what it might be on our own, but IMHO it’s a bit of a cheap trick.) This had some ripple effects on the quality of attention I paid to the rest of the novel: I read just closely enough to find out what happened to the people I liked, but overall I wasn’t very invested, and I don’t think I’ll read on in the series.

“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.