Archive for January, 2010

Wallace Stegner (1987) – Crossing to Safety

Thursday, January 14th, 2010

I find this to be one of the saddest books I have ever read.  Sad, almost unbearably sad.  What’s sad is the inability of any of the characters to find serenity in life.  Charity can never find it.  Sid doesn’t seem to be looking any more.  Larry maybe has glimpses, mostly when he is writing.  Sally—I find I don’t have a sense of Sally as a real person.


Two marriages “based on addiction and dependence” (p.276).  A lifelong friendship based on … I don’t know what.  Are they having fun yet?  The tension is non-stop.  Even when it appears to have eased, it is simply lying in wait to pounce with pathological intensity.  Charity does not recognize that there is a difference between her and the external world or between her and her husband.  The world and Sid are recalcitrant incompetents to be shaped to her vision.  She reminds me of Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass. 


      “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
   “The question is, ” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
   “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”


Everyone agrees that the consequences of standing up to Charity’s nonsense are Too Horrible To Contemplate.  The agreement is tacit at first and explicit later on.  As the line in Star Wars goes, “Let the Wookie win.”  And look what happens.  The world stands up to Charity when Wisconsin lets Sid go, and Charity has a nervous breakdown.  And when it turns out that the “missing” tea was packed after all, Sid, in a spectacular act of codependence, burns the evidence that he was right all along.


One would think that a novel’s narrator would be its central character.  He certainly gets the majority of the lines, but whenever Charity appears, she bullies her way into the spotlight and will not relinquish it.  Must we believe that Sid is truly, desperately in need of career and life management as Charity assumes?  Does Larry believe it?  Sally?  Do we?  His time at Dartmouth is characterized ambiguously.  It seems he was successful enough (but not enough for Charity, for whom nothing could be enough because if something were enough, the need for her would have disappeared), but it also seems that Larry doesn’t really see it as an unalloyed triumph (I don’t have a page reference for this, you’ll have to find it). 


It would seem that Sid and Charity constitute a powerful mutual destruction society in which each becomes less and less a complete person capable of finding satisfaction and more and more crippled into what the other arguably desires (at least Freud would probably argue it, and I would, too).  It may be that Charity’s pathology runs so deep that there was never any hope for her—so she is portrayed; but Sid might have been contented to be a dilettante poet—he has enough money that he doesn’t have to work, so, why not?


Larry is the obsessive in the other couple.  It pays off for him and Sally, they manage to pay off their debts (or rather, he manages to pay of their debts), so who’s to criticize?  He seems to be borderline workaholic, but he always seems to keep on the human side of the border.  As a writer, there are no externally fixed working hours.  To write, one must decide to write and then find a way to make actions suit the decision.  There’s always something else that could be done instead of writing. 


The story is the story of my parents’ generation.  Women’s Liberation didn’t make the news until the late sixties and early seventies.  In that context, it is not strange that neither Charity nor Sally seems to have any career or work aspirations, but from our towering twenty-first century pinnacle, it’s easy enough to think that had the story begun in 1965, say, greater societal acceptance of working women would have changed considerably how the author’s characters had to behave and develop.  Of course, this is part of why the story is set when it is.  Checkmate.


To the text.  My favorite line in the whole book is Charity’s sister’s intervention (p.75) in

the argument between Sid and Charity about whether writing poetry is worthwhile:


“Charity,” Comfort said, “you argue like a corkscrew.”

Laurie Moore (2009) – A Gate at the Stairs

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs begins in December, 2001, three months after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center.  That fact doesn’t seem to color the book, though—in spite of the fact that the narrator’s boyfriend / lover turns out to be Muslim and disappears himself abruptly, protesting that whatever people may say, he is not a member of a cell.  I suppose we can believe him in retrospect.  After all, in the years up to the publication of this book there were not any successful subsequent domestic attacks.


First impressions.  The narrator, Tassie Keltjin, an eighteen or nineteen year old girl (woman?  girl?), is quirky and a tad macabre.  In the first paragraph of the book (p.4), she imagines for us “stunning heaps of dead birds,” explaining that she is uncomfortable with “a false promise of delicacy.”  Soon (p.9), she is telling us about the anger in her relationship with her mother—“my scarcely controlled rage flew from my mouth.”  This is shaping up to be one scary chick.  Three pages later, the author puts in the mouth of Sarah, the woman Tassie will work for as a nanny, the story of the sadistic German shepherd dog next door who has learned to sucker its companion, a none-too-bright terrier, into getting zapped repeatedly by the invisible electric fence that surrounds their yard.  Maybe it’s the author who’s scary.


The next gross-out moment is Tassie telling us (p.24) she saw a “squirrel hit by a car.  Its soft, scarlet guts spilled out of its mouth.”  Then (p.25) she shares with us her roommate’s view of stadiums: “stadiums were where insurgents were shot.”  It’s a laugh a minute.  Not. 


Eventually, (p.31) we get a bit of levity leavened with self-deprecation a propos the menu at Perkins’ Restaurant in Kronenkee: “ ‘Bottomless’ beverages for the greedy and thirsty—I feared I was both.” 


Tassie goes home for Christmas.  We meet (p.45) the “Hannukah hemlock,” a plastic pine from Hammacher Schlemmer (an upscale home, this), with problematical decorations.  “Possibly … this was just how all irony presented itself.”  Then she describes “the holiday card my mother sent out … an October photo” captioned “The children.  In some dead leaves.”  I laughed.  Then more self-deprecation: “the heated meat of myself” (p.48) and the not-charming tale of the puppy-poop Christmas present Tassie gave her brother one year. 


In spite of Tassie’s animus towards her mother, her mother gets some of the good lines—the author will put oddball bon mots in anyone’s mouth—“ ‘Having no dog in the race doesn’t keep people from having extremely large cats.’ ” (p.53); and, describing the bridesmaids dresses for a friend of Tassie’s wedding as, “ ‘What Scarlett O’Hara might have done with a shower curtain, if she were trying to snag a plumber.’ ” (p.65)  But apparently Christmas ain’t like it used to be, Tassie muses.  “Where was the turkey, its yankable heart in a baggie jammed up its butt?”  (p. 54)  So, I am asking myself: Is Tassie just passive aggressive or is she really psycho?


More mother-bashing, Tassie’s brother, Robert, “had always been my mother’s favorite.  Where had that gotten him?  My mother’s love was useless.”  (p.60)  On reflection, I’m not sure I think love is supposed to be useful, anyway.  Supportive, yes.  Affirming, yes.  Useful?  If it’s not useful are we supposed to be able to do without it?  Disdain it?  There’s something wrong with the implied values here, and that seems to be the author’s point about Tassie.


I’m looking for signposts here.  What does the author want to tell us?  A possible clue appears.  A standalone, one-sentence, italicized paragraph—hey, this must be important, or maybe profound (p.74):


            We stand around blankly as walls.


Anomie.  Waiting for Godot?  No, just “blankly.”  Not even waiting.  Zen without enlightenment,


Do I care about Tassie?  Would I read any further if this weren’t an Assigned Book?  The author is promising—well, broadly hinting, anyway—that Tassie will be forced to react to something that, as the author might put it, kicks her butt out of her glib and practiced disdain for and distance from life.  I read on.  Later, I was glad I did, but it was after still another hundred pages or so of stuff.  I jot down the following dialog with myself.  Q: “Am I having fun yet?”  A: “Well, I’m making lots of notes.”  Suddenly, on page 204, when Reynaldo leaves abruptly, I became engrossed, unwilling to make notes because I didn’t want to interrupt the flow of my reading.  That feeling continued pretty much unabated to the end of the novel.  So, yes, on balance, I liked the book. 


To make it to page 204, I had to make do with whatever charm and humor I could find in the intervening text.  In the metaphor department, the author produces some real clunkers, but there are some gems, too:


PhDs or unfinished dissertations on … the hegemonic hedges of Versailles (p.74)

[A variant of my favorite make-believe dissertation topic: the history of ibid.]


… my father didn’t have all that much land.  He had once stood on the porch and flung out his arms and said, ‘Someday, kids, all this will be yours.’ but his knuckles had hit the porch supports.  Even the porch wasn’t that big. (p.76)

[Another of the ways irony presents itself]


Contents may shift during the flight, we had been told.  Would that be good or bad?  And what about the discontents?  Would they please shift, too?  (p.79)

[A riff worthy of Peter Friedman]


‘This,’ [Sarah] said, ‘is why God invented the fetal position.’ … Her features had fallen but I saw her lift them again, one by one, the way one rights light porch furniture after a wind…. We waited near the men’s room.  He just wasn’t there.  I thought the men’s room should also have a big yellow sign that said HERTZ.  (p.81)

[Stood up in Green Bay by Sarah’s husband]


They were in performance.  They were performing their marriage at me. (p.98)

[Sarah and Edward snipe at one another in front of Tassie.]


…I partook of denouncing (silently, violently) all the time.  (p.124)

I lay there fretful as a Bartók quartet.  (p.125)


A restaurant was a science, [Sarah] would tell me, not a square dance.  Perhaps that was where she got it wrong.  (p.127)


I have arranged for some risotto to be FedExed to her  (p. 131)

[from Sarah’s note to Tassie about what to feed Mary-Emma]


[Mary-Emma] would grow up with love, but no sense that the people who loved her knew what they were doing—the opposite of my childhood—and so she would become suspicious of people, suspicious of love and the worth of it.  Which in the end, well, would be a lot like me.  So perhaps it didn’t matter what happened to you as a girl: you ended up the same.  (p. 134)

[Such a sad world view.  Depressing.]


I tried to imagine the very particular sadness of a vanished childhood yogurt now found only in France.  It was a very special sort of sadness, individual, and in its inability to induce sympathy, in its tuneless spark, it bypassed poetry and entered science.  (p.136)

[“tuneless spark”?  “bypassed poetry and entered science”?  This is pure gibberish!]


What punctuation as strong as aeronautic stitchery would I know to bring with me?  The apostrophe in don’t held together by our bubble gum and seeds?  It would do.  For a moment or two.  (p.308)

[Being at a loss for words does not stop the author from writing them.  I suppose this is an attempt to capture Tassie’s inchoate feelings of regret and “if only”, but it jarred me completely out of the flow of the narrative.]


One looked out the window … through pointed icicles that were like the incisors of a shark; it was as if one were living in the cold dead mouth of a very mean snowman. 

(p. 141)  [“cold dead mouth”  Brrrrrrrrr!  Yuck!]


“That’s a load of crap!”

I had once seen a load of crap.  It was carried to our house in Don Edenhaus’s truck and dumped right at our barn for composting into fertilizer.  (p.157)

[I found this amusing, but when the author uses the same rhetorical structure again on p. 196 (“a crock”), p. 199 (“a horse’s patoot”), and p. 200 (“bullshit”), it went from amusing to overdone.  The author is trying to be funny and it’s like a stand-up comic who tries too hard and gets dead silence from the audience.]


“Did you teach the children a song about eating live animals?”  (p. 159)

[Sarah’s mock-reprimand to Tassie for entertaining the children with “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly”]


The Wednesday evening parents-of-children-of-color support group makes me want to press the fast-forward button.  It’s like being lectured with sound bites.  Okay.  Racism is a problem, but I’m not finding any deep insights here.


On the other hand, the concrete encounters in the narrative—the name calling, the unspoken disapproval, the condescension, the drive-bys with an aggressively racist song booming—make the point just fine.  Better, in fact.


I saw again and again what it was simply to walk into a store for a doughnut and have a wordless racial experience.  (p.168)


‘Do you think they could get together for a playdate someday? … Maddie doesn’t have any African-American friends, and I think it would be good for her to have one.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said to the woman, ‘but Mary-Emma already has a lot of white friends.’ (p.229)


Sarah’s husband Edward is certainly a piece of work.  Take his reaction to Tassie’s concern about her brother possibly joining the military:


‘What does not kill him will make him stronger,’ he added prosaically, needlepoint Nietzsche.

‘Yes, but what if it does kill him?’ (p.180)


And while we’re on the subject of dieing, consider the Woody Allen spin the author puts on Tassie’s fantasy about Reynaldo.


If he had loved me, or even if he’d just said so, I would have died of happiness.  But that didn’t happen.  So I didn’t die of happiness.  Words for a tombstone: SHE DIDN’T DIE OF HAPPINESS. (p.194)


Nice.  But the people who do die are Gabriel (Sarah/Susan and Edward/John’s son) and Robert (Tassie’s brother).  Two innocents.  About Gabriel, we know next to nothing.  About Robert, we know that he is even more lost than Tassie.  After his high school graduation, Tassie observes that, “He was working hard to sound upbeat and had landed on bizarrely merry  (p.266).  Tassie understands Robert, but doesn’t quite understand that it is to her that he is looking for some way through his confusion.  “I could see he was desperate for the knowledge and reasoning behind anything.  I could see he felt shorthanded, underequipped, factually and otherwise.”  (p.266)  Only after Robert has died does Tassie discover, from reading his last email to her, that she missed an opportunity to try at least to help—to be of use to him, if you will.  Maybe love is useful, after all.


Loss, loss, loss, loss: Gabriel, Reynaldo, Mary-Emma, Robert.  Not to mention Sarah’s poisonous tapenade that almost does in Murph, the effective disappearance of Sarah, and the demise of Le Petit Moulin.  By the time the book ends, Tassie has encountered loss in many forms.  She didn’t die, so maybe Nietzsche was right, it made her stronger.  That’s what happens in a Bildungsroman.


In the finale, “Ed” Thornwood calls (p.316) to hit on Tassie—it was clear all along that she was on his hit list—he, whom Sarah describes as the “punishing, faithless father whose idea of racial equality is to bring a rainbow coalition into his bed.”  As I said, a real piece of work.  Would Tassie “like to go to dinner” with him sometime?  The mind boggles.  So does Tassie.  And the book ends (p. 321) with Tassie the narrator addressing us directly for the first and only time.


Reader, I did not even have coffee with him.

That much I learned in college.     


A most satisfying conclusion.


So, age has come upon Tassie.  She has had her fingers pressed, as Tennessee Williams put it, on the “fiery Braille of reality.”  Is she a different person for it?  I don’t think so.  Does she discover that she is a different person from the person she had assumed (and presented) herself to be?  Yes.  She has faced some of the devastating events that just happen in life and she didn’t explode into murderous mayhem nor did she retreat into feelingless isolation.  She learns that Life Goes On … as, indeed, it does; and that’s better than the alternative.  Fun, even.  Sometimes.