Posts Tagged ‘The writer’s craft’

Naked with Nunez

Posted: December 31, 2013 by Jollymore in On Books
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Have I ever been so happy to have caught a cold? Well, let’s not go too far in the pursuit of good writing, but I will say that had I not worn myself thin with Stewart’s graduation and slaved over cake and pie making for the celebration, I might not have finished The Naked Sleeper, Sigrid Nunez’s second and most satisfying novel. Perhaps Nona, the story’s protagonist, would attest to the stress piled on by brief interactions with “the ex,” but like Nona’s various places d’angst, it was suppression of interior torment not the difficulties themselves that brought on my disease.

 

Howsoever, I was glad, forty pages in to fall ill, to wrap my legs and torso in a fleecy blanket and to settle into my big leather chair – the one I have sat in maybe six hours total in ten years – to spend healing time with Nona, her latently gay, cross-country lover, Loren, and, Roy, her all-to-decent husband. No Nunez novel, though, would be complete without the odd-ball mother, Rosalind in this incarnation, and stories of absent, failed fathers, in Sleeper an in-the-closet, misunderstood, tormented painter. For over a week prior, I had been stuck on Rosalind and didn’t want to know more. Viruses pushed me over the edge of page 40, and I glided home that week on what Time had called “some impressively elegant writing.”(By way of complaint: All my writing buddies tell me to drop most adjectives and to forget about adverbs altogether. That rule obviously does not append itself to critics, especially the impressively elegant ones).

 

What drew me in to this second novel? Why is it Nunez’s best? Characters. I liked the characters, though not always. These were different in that they grew – perhaps out of sight of the reader much of the time – and eventually came to terms with the life they chose.

 

First, why isn’t this true of the character’s in A Feather on the Breath of God and The Last of Her Kind? Now, both these stories are first person, told by the female protagonist. Though both women progress in their New York lives, each carries with her an emptiness at her core, especially notable in George’s final words of The Last, “Choose me,” which echo the sentiments of each of the three protagonists (adding Nona to the pair). Each depends on being wanted by a man. Nothing strange there except being a push-over always violates the woman’s self-worth and often courts or brings about disaster as well as love’s agony.

Note: In Feather the narrator’s affair with her Russian-émigré student brings an otherwise innocent teacher within a criminal orbit. Like most affairs it is wrong: The immigrant wife objects. The liason violates student/teacher protocol. His practice and history as a pimp denigrates her character – it is a straw finally discovered and piled atop an already lugubrious (and obvious) load of wrong.

In The Last of Her Kind, George(tte) has little use for a man other than rut and procreation until she falls in love. It is an affair only because it is hidden. The lovers are both single, but the potential for damage, as sister-in-law, Edie rightly points out to George’s lover, is enormous.

Now, Nona in Sleeper is no different (She is, though, the subject of a third person narrative and that is different). She complains about being easy and being love-obsessed. She is both, but oh how she struggles. She works against her obsession with Loren. Finally, she breaks. Then she really suffers because she will not, like her mother, Rosalind, did, run from her husband. She fights to right her life. She entertains options. (At one point I wondered if she would make a lover of Tim, her father’s original conquest years before). Her decision, coming on the wings of catastrophe, differentiates Nona from her sister protagonists. Alone, she chooses her course; she changes her course. It seems to me that she fills the void that plagued her life (perhaps presaged by the completion of her father’s biography).

 

So, Sleeper’s heroine, Nona, transforms, or promises to transform. That I liked. I also liked the other characters both women, who were intriguing portraits, Rosalind whom I suspected at first among them, and men, the ever patient Roy and long-suffering Tim. Loren? No, he is a self-deluded shit, plain and simple.  Among the main characters, unlike those in The Last and Feather, there is change and a deepening of relationship. Note: Dooley Ann Drayton (The Last) never wavers. Georgette fulfills her prescription for a better life (a boy and a girl, a successful and close sister, and a home in New York) but to the end is haunted.  The husbands and lover are nobodies, part of the set. The sister, Solange, remains damaged but does transform outwardly (a successful poetry collection). The deeper relationship with family is implied. But where will it lead Georgette?  In similar fashion in Feather, mother and father change not at all. I admire the mother’s talents and sympathize with her strictures. But Rosalind in Sleeper turns a corner that the earlier mother character cannot manage.

 

It is fascinating to see Ms. Nunez develop and examine her themes in these three books. Even if New York is not your favorite town, you can love the city Nunez paints – its streets and buildings, its arts, its restaurants and waiters, its people and the affairs they conduct.  Nunez tells the story of damaged childhood leading into and surviving the whirling life of New York in ways of which I have not tired.  That I approve more of the characters in Sleeper does not mean The Last of Her Kind is not a bigger, fuller, more complex book. It certainly is. Still, Nona, her family and friends are people I might like to meet again.

 

 

 

 

 

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I will go from memory here, memory of the Picaresque: a story told, more or less, while traveling. Tom Jones is one. As the hero, and perhaps heroine, travel along, they meet folk who tell them their life stories. What is learned from these folk by the hero might be less important than the entertainment they provide, but the stories are usually linked thematically at least.

If one accepts my loose definition, she might begin to think of Sigrid Nunez as a picaresque novelist. What is different here, though, is that a central narrator – in the two books I have read, The Last of Her Kind and A Feather on the Breath of God – relates the stories to her reader. Usually, they do not speak much for themselves except through the narrator’s retelling. The sources are varied and believable:

Solange’s story is told mostly from her sister’s perspective: her longings for her sister, her worries, her suppositions (many of them true), the stories (of Solange’s travels, loves, and delusions), and what the reader “overhears” Solange saying to her sister. Occassionally, we get to directly see Solange in action, during the acid trip for instance.

Turner’s story is notable in that we learn much from daughter Ann, who is certainly not an objective source, then later from his own words/actions related by the narrator, and words shared with Edie, his sister-in-law (some of which were memorized by the waiter – see “Indulgence” or the post, “Marries”). This last piece leads to what is less of a criticism than a characterization. It starts with a question: How can that conversation between Turner and Edie be known to the reader? Easy. Magic.

The magic comes through Nunez’s picaresque point of view. Most the The Last of Her Kind is told from the first person, in Georgette George’s voice. Within this narrative Georgette speculates, for instance about what Solange is up to, whether or not she went to Woodstock, then later confirms what she has wondered as fact. Sometime she varies the speculation to fit later revealed facts. It is a wonderful way to weave what she cannot see or know with what she can. Nunez keeps narrative control in that way.

But what about that which she cannot know? Like the luncheon of Edie and Turner?

She prepares us for this revelation by switching to third person: “Trial and error has shown that I cannot accomplish this difficult thing – the trick is to be cold about the hottest thing there is: love – unless ‘I’ becomes ‘she.’ “ And with that she ends Part Four and begins to relate the love between Georgette and Turner. Now in the third person the narrative can become omniscient enough to tell us what happened between Edie and Turner (and to have the fun of the waiter noting parts of the conversation). Nunez returns briefly to first person in Part Six, but her foray into third person prepares us for another story, Orphan Annie and the Hand of God.

It is possible to form objections about some of this, but it is hard not to accept it and like it too.  Objection: the lapse into third person means Georgette is going to reveal something, but it isn’t going to be as intimate as we would like.  In some ways, Georgette’s readers are treated like her children, “I lie about the symptoms . . . I keep the pills out of sight.” The reader, even within the first person narrative, does not experience that which Georgette does, but is told about it much in the same way we are told about Ann, about Turner, about Solange. Keep us at a distance, like a stranger walking down Fifth Avenue. It feels New Yorky.

How will Nunez tell us what we want to know – or do not want to know – about Ann after she disappears behind the walls of Marysville State Prison? Since George is not one to really be the friend she could have been, we won’t be going up there to visit Ann.  Instead of doing this George is busy doing other things she never shares with Ann (thanks heaven). So, how to tell the reader? Enter Olympia Underwood.

Here is a first person narrative feeling like a third person narrative.  The resemblance in feeling if not style of this narration to the story George tells promotes the suspicion that this is not another voice but simply a narrative-rouse. Would the reader prefer a firsthand account – replete with emotive sentiment and honest feeling – to this supposed prison-story that gives us a window into Ann’s life after Kwame? Would George’s children be better to know of their mother’s illness? It is difficult not to be thankful for a peek through the prison wall – perhaps a shorter one – but it is equally hard not to wish for a more intimate and extended account from our main narrator. To be kept at a distance feels incomplete, like we will wake the next morning finding our Picaresque story-teller already beyond the crest of the next hill.

 

 

Let’s allow the writer, Sigrid Nunez, some slack. After all, we’re on the same side, and she is that good. When the payoff is big enough, much can be forgiven.

Take the scene at Edie’s and Turner’s lunch meeting. Edie is there to caution her brother-in-law about his affair. Turner is there to announce his intention to marry said affair. Here it comes: waiter “hovers” taking mental notes on what he considers a great line to use in a screenplay, “Marrying each other won’t do what . . . you may be subconsciously wishing. She can’t replace your daughter, and you can’t replace the father who abandoned her.” It is a writer’s (intentional) faux pas, but one you have to love it.  We forgive the author having a little fun because it tickles us and it fits with the Manhattan we all know, whether or not we live there. The City is the human drama publicly playing out before strangers’ eyes.

Sometimes, Nunez too heavily taps the 1960’s and ‘70’s. It is all there: Manson, the SDS, Weathermen, Mick Jagger, John Lennon, the pantheon of drugs, Altamont and Woodstock, the Black Panthers, on and on. It’s review for a child of the ‘60’s, perhaps tutelage for the later born. Sometimes it warms, sometimes makes one turn away. It was convincing though just for support of the story there was too much. For instance, Nunez appropriates the de rigueur acid trip George and her sister Solange take to establish George’s deep desire to have a child. Well, apparently, all acid trips are not equal. That one, I am not buying.

It is as clear as it is daring that Nunez invites comparison of one main character, Ann, with Jay Gatsby, yes, of The Great. Early in the book George(tte), the narrator,  gasses up on speed to write her pan of Fitzgerald’s novel. That scene along with her paper’s reappearance in her daughter Zoe’s hands at several points notably at the end of the novel, elevate this book as literature rather than just story.

That’s not saying Nunez is a Fitzgerald, though why shouldn’t she be? Rather like Manhattan itself – and the many sites of George’s life in the city – the connection builds upon what had been there before. If Jay Gatsby was the great American idealist of the 20’s, Dooley Ann Drayton is the same for the 60’s. Both rejected their upbringing. Both failed. Both were too inflexible. Both were culpable and tragic. And each has a narrator that is none of the above.

If Ann is Gatsby, George is Nick Carraway. The class switcheroo should not be a bother. Ann is monied, Jay Gatz poor. George is as “rural class” as Nick is “well-to-do.” But otherwise, the comparison instructs.  For all George’s misadventures in the book (spoilers: dropping out of school, suffering rape, escaping rape, drugging, marrying the unloved, loving the unmarriageable and on) she is nearly as priggish as Carraway. Nor, like old Nick, does she change. Forever the observer – even in her great love affair, she may well have stayed on the side lines as the “she” of that part of her story – George seems to float along, bumbling her way to what she hoped would come: family.  Over on Ann’s side of the dorm room, she is feverishly working for the betterment of the races, while George lets come what may. And the result?  Ann gets less than nothing (like Gatsby). Of course, George gets the girl and the boy as well as reclaiming the prodigal sister. Well, I always liked Nick Carraway, but I have to say, he didn’t accomplish much either. At least, thank God, George didn’t tell Ann about her affair. Such self-indulgence, even for her, would be damnable. But Nunez doesn’t let her off the hook even to the end where she has George meeting Nick in an imagined Fifth Avenue saying to him “Pick me, pick me.”

All things George and Zoe say about The Great Gatsby feed our understanding of of The Last of Her Kind:  Mencken’s critique: “‘No more than a glorified anecdote;’” George’s recapitulation of Fitzgerald’s worry: “‘I guess I just like my love stories to include some important woman character’” compared to her love story which included herself as a deluded, ungracious, and reckless woman, hardly an important one; and Zoe’s new-generation take one the book: “How can you not see that it’s a great love story?”

Nunez includes in that final section on Gatsby the schoolteacher’s assignments, inviting the comparison: “Compare and contrast: East Egg / West Egg. Jay Gatsby / Tom Buchanan. New York / The Middle West.” We could add “the 60’s / the 00’s” and say “speculate” to go even further.

I have been thinking about Lars and Trond, the neighbors in Out Stealing Horses. Do we get to see enough of their relationship to think about what might happen later, after the book ends? Maybe.  Here is what I think is so:

The two have common history rooted in the same place.

They enjoy the physical work of life.

They have lost a huge part of that they once thought their lives included: a father for Trond, a farm for Lars.

Neither went back.

They are over sixty and live within sight of each other.

I think this is a recipe for friendship, at least I would like to think so. Lars seems, to me and to Trond, like a decent fellow, careful, deliberate, thoughtful.

Each could use the other’s companionship even though neither moved there to be near. So, each could use the other’s forbearance too. On that, I think, they could count. I can see them doing some fishing together, working projects that are too hard for one man, keeping an eye out for each other. Cooking for two might be something Trond is willing to do, maybe even twice a week and on special occasions.

Well, we don’t get to see much of that. So, I wonder, what is Lars doing in that story? He intensifies Trond’s loss of a father. Yes, it is a greater loss when your dad fathers another man’s son even if just for a while. It raises our curiosity about the father’s life after Trond returns to Oslo.  If Jon had returned to find Trond’s father still there (his mother was, we know), I don’t think it would make sense for him to demand the farm. Are we, then, to think that he had died? Left? Or was he just living up stream still? (In that case, would he have been a father to Lars? Lars calls him “my stepfather” during the account of the dog shooting). I am not sure which is most likely.  We don’t really have to know.

But Lars is doing something else here. If it were just Trond who was suffering a loss – even though he was the boy in the golden trousers and lived a full live, albeit not without tragedy – alone, the story would be about an individual. More about him, less about us.

But there Lars is. He lived a life parallel to Trond in loss and suffering. He was booted out, young. He did not return. He also lost a father and, like Trond, a sibling (twice).  This makes the book more a tale of two men whose lives intertwined briefly but significantly.

If this is so, would Trond be the Sydney Carton who loses a father that another man might have one? The allusion strengthens the argument that Lars’ presence adds a universal scope to the theme. We have to see life as loss. How much it hurts will be up to us.

 

 

I reread Out Stealing Horses for some tutelage, to discover more of what made it so good, why it moved me.  Mostly, during the second reading, it just blew me away again. Instead of taking it apart to inspect it, the story was invading me, yet again, and carrying me down its river to foreign parts. I suppose that is what wonderful writing does.

I said I wasn’t going to catalog the instances of irony in the book, but I just have to add one more:

Dad and Trond are out riding horses.  It is their last outing together (perhaps for the summer, perhaps forever). For Trond it is the chance to be with his father, to see him in the glow of the embers of their campfire. What the trip is for the father is a little more complicated.  He is tracking his lumber shipment which we know went down a low level river to the Swedish sawmill.  If the lumber makes it down river, father’s plan for his future will work.  If it doesn’t, well, he might complete his plan anyway, but it seems much less certain.  Why would he otherwise be so tense about it?

The man has scruples that demand or at least lead him to do the right thing if it can be done. (I am dancing around here surpressing “spoilers” but if you have finished the book – which means you have started it – you will likely recognize clearly what I mean.  If you haven’t finished the book – which means you don’t have a copy yet – you should get an inkling about this irony). In any case, they come upon a huge log jam.  If they are able to release the jam, father will begin a new life; if the jam holds, it is more likely that father will return to Oslo to his, and Trond’s, family life.

The irony? Trond leaps at the chance to break the jam. He plies the water and tangled tree trunks like a skilled lumberjack and works a solution – what, to the jam, to the father’s dilemma, to living life? – to the problem.  Will it work? If it does, he loses his father, though he does not know it. If it does not, he fails in front of dad and gains, perhaps, a forever unhappy parent. This ironic knot is tied tighter than the logs are jammed into the rocks in the middle of the river, and despite the fact that the book continues into Part III, this is really the climax of the story, the supreme irony.

After reading through twice, I still wonder how the reader, or Trond, can forgive what has to happen in this story.  How can a father even think of leaving a son he so clearly loves? How can a son continue on if he is abandoned by that father? And why?

I suppose the answers are found in the imprints of war, in the accidents of love, in the strength of filial affection. The antidote to the pain of any life is the resonance of father’s wisdom gained by careful thought and experience: “We decide for ourselves when it will hurt.”

tj