Friday, April 26, 2013

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

“She had given up her right to keep her place as the children's most beloved. The small, daily offices of love that had connected her to the children before—the shoe tying, the hair combing, the nightly storytelling—were no longer hers to claim.” (255) 

                                                            Just Mother (cinema 1914), NYPL Film Archives

Nancy Horan's Loving Frank is a novel I'm surprised to be posting about. I almost didn't keep reading it after the first few chapters. In many ways, this novel didn't, and still doesn't, strike me as a very good piece of fiction. Horan is a journalist by training, and she's writing an extremely historical novel that closely follows everything she was able to discover about Frank Lloyd Wright's affair with a married mother of two, Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Much of the detail Horan includes seems included only because it's something she discovered. Little of it goes to theme or helps to unify the story as a whole. As a result, there are red-herrings all over the place for a reader who's looking for a writer of fiction to develop these things. I spent half the book waiting for the youngest daughter to die of typhoid or something because we get so much detail about how sick she feels on the train. I kept waiting for Horan to do something with the fact that this woman named Mamah abandons her children. I kept waiting for her to use space as a metaphor. None of this happened... and yet...

I kept reading. In part, I kept reading because a friend told me something terrible happens. This is undoubtedly part of the reason I continued flipping pages (don't google the names if you want to have the same experience), but I found myself actually moved by the identity crisis Horan imagines for Mamah as she tries to reconcile her love of her children with the irresistible pull she feels toward her own projects, mostly translations of feminist author Ellen Key. A lot of what she says feels very contemporary, so even though I think it may be Horan's voice I'm hearing, I like it. 

The other thing the book brought home was that even when fiction isn't "great," even when it doesn't consider unifying themes or execute them particularly beautifully, there is something powerful about simply telling things as we know they happened and imagining how people felt in those circumstances. It was like a guided tour in a museum by a very creative guide, and that act on its own can be powerful. 

Mostly though, I can't wait to read T.C. Boyle's The Women.


Monday, April 8, 2013

"When She Is Old and I Am Famous" by Julie Orringer, Plus "Misery" by Anton Chekhov

"But perhaps by then we will love ourselves less fiercely." (Orringer, 45)

     "Iona looks at his fare and moves his lips... Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes out but a sniff. 
     "What?" inquires the officer. 
     "Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: "My son..., er... my son died this week, sir."  (Chekhov)

These two stories don't go together. It's just that I read them at the same time. Also, I'm feeling erudite and studious enough to attempt a connection

Guys, I had an insight. Who knows how long it will last, but it feels monumental.

I have been thinking intently about truth as a motivation for writing, and as a source of conflict. In my own writing, I always struggle with figuring out what has to happen to a character over the course of a story to bring that character, or the reader, some deeper understanding. It feels like a plotting problem. When I re-plot, when I think I've got something figured out because it makes sense the way the plot of an episode of Law & Order makes sense, I'm so proud of myself for a minute. Then I try to write it, and half way through, it fails. I'm not saying what I mean to say. 

It occurred to me this week, as the plot problem happened again, and I thought I'd solved it, that it is not a plot problem I have at all. I have a vision problem. I have a problem understanding what I think the ultimate stake is in any conflict and in knowing what, for me, starts the fires of tension and conflict raging in the first place. 

As soon as I knew I had the problem, I had the answer, too. To me, it's always a character's inability to say what she really means to say, always his inability to hold onto the little kernel of truth he knows, that sets any conflict going. 

And it is our inability to tell and believe any static truth, the encounter with knowing that as soon as we put words to something it's bullshit, it's never the whole picture, that is the reason I write. All we have are different changeable versions of stories, but having to change them all the time, having to admit their truth and their falsity, their inevitable inadequacy and their inevitable beauty all at the same time-- that is the most dramatic thing in the world. 

"When She Is Old and I Am Famous" and "Misery" were the first two stories I read after my realization. They are test cases for the questions, "Is this really how I see all stories?" and "Is this the most helpful, clarifying, propulsive way of seeing my own stories?" I think it is, for my own stories at least, and I think, even if I am reading things into other stories by applying my theory, that the activity will teach me more about craft than will going in with the same stale set of tools I'm carrying now. 

I am so excited to have something fresh. (Can you tell?)

I was re-reading Orringer's story because I'm teaching it in class, and it's perfect and engaging for high-school seniors. I was surprised at how much I still like the story, and pleased that my ideas about truth being the source of conflict helped me understand the events of the story in a new way. 

 Mira, the twenty-year-old art student who tells the story, is caught firmly in a static and opposing vision of herself-- fat, smug, never good enough-- and her younger cousin, Aïda-- thin, beautiful, miraculous. Her problems, her perceived conflicts and tensions, all stem from this problematic, but comfortable vision of herself and who she is in the world. It's opposed to her vision of Aïda, sure. There's enough conflict around this version of truth to keep things interesting before Mira's version of the truth breaks down. Everything that happens confirms Mira's vision of things until she is literally injured by her cousin's lies. After she breaks her ankle, her vision of Aïda breaks, too. In a moment when they're both vulnerable, Aïda is able to say what she is afraid of, and Mira is able to believe her.

This isn't where it ends though. There's true connection here, some kind of new understanding, but even when it gets good for Mira at the end, when she's sold a painting and her cousin is gone, there's never the empty promise that she and Aïda will understand each other for good now. It's only that the possibility is there, where at the beginning the only possibility for Mira was to stick with the same old story, the one version of truth it's safe to believe because everyone confirms it. 
After I read Orringer, I read Chekhov because I was thinking last night about the encroachment of the body and nature, and because the Big Daddy of the short story, the one who makes me cry in just a few pages, seemed like an important test. The first Chekhov I came across in my classroom, a Constance Garnett translation in a textbook, was “Misery,” not my favorite, but I at least like all of his stories, so I read it.

Misery” exemplifies another way that truth and our inability to tell it is at the root of conflict. Here, Iona, the cab driver, doesn't have a version of truth that is de-stabilized in the action of the story itself. It's been de-stabilized before we meet him; his son has died quickly and senselessly after three days in the hospital. His struggle is how to say the new truth and how impossible it is to say at all, let alone to an inhospitable world that won't listen. “He feels it is no good to appeal to people,” Chekhov writes. And it is no absolute, permanent, completely fulfilling good. It will be imperfect and go away. But telling stories, sharing that incompleteness is all we have.
He cannot think about his son when he is alone... To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish...”


"The Member of the Wedding" by Carson McCullers

"'And we will meet them. Everybody. We will just walk up to people and know them right away. We will be walking down a dark road and see a lighted house and knock on the door and strangers will rush to meet us and say: Come in! Come in! We will know decorated aviators and New York people and movie stars. We will have thousands of friends, thousands and thousands and thousands of friends. We will belong to so many clubs that we can't even keep track of all of them. We will be members of the whole world. Boyoman! Manoboy!'" (356)

Back to the weddings, and back to the blog. Returning for Spring, (I've been hesitant to take time for this project when time's scarce, privileging my own writing instead) I'm surprised to see this is my third wedding-related post in not so much time. I am getting married in July, but I didn't pick this title, I swear.

I had never actually read McCullers (of course, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter is on my list) before Fai, SBC, and Gurms told me I ought to read "The Member of the Wedding" with them, both because it's written from the point-of-view of an early adolescent girl-- a point-of-view I'm still trying to "make work"--and because I really ought to get back to the blogging thing, too.  So, of course, I said yes, and here I sit, a few weeks after meeting over biscuits and tea to discuss, sharing the most adorable picture of flower-girls I've come across in all my months of wedding planning.

The photo is misleading, though. It pre-dates the story of Frankie Addams by at least ten years (she is eager to go to the Front in WWII), and "The Member of the Wedding" takes place in the American South, not Ireland. Still, I like to think that the photo above is the kind of thing Frankie imagines when she develops a deep "crush" on her older brother's wedding, which is to take place a few days after the short novel begins.

For Frankie, her brother's wedding represents the chance to escape a town and a life to which she no longer seems to belong: "This was the summer "when Frankie was sick and tired of being Frankie. She  hated herself, and had become a loafer and a big no-good who hung around the summer kitchen: dirty and greedy and mean and sad" (274).

In one sense, Frankie's summer after the seventh grade seems entirely normal. Those pre-teenage and teenage years are heightened for us all, and when we get over them and look back it's easy to dismiss our longings and confusions as hormones. But whether or not they are true in some sense, it is more interesting to engage those memories of high emotions, and certainly, it is engaging to witness McCullers sit with Frankie's.

What seems to disturb Frankie most is recognizing her individuality, her almost irreparable separateness from the world. Here she is on WWII: "She was not afraid of Germans or bombs or Japanese. She was afraid because in the war they would not include her, and because the world seemed somehow separate from herself" (275).

To me this seems quite an adult worry, a first encounter with the truth we all live to learn with and to ignore most of the time: the world spins without us, and we are encased as much as we are connected. Frankie's recognition is all the more moving because of the fantastic way she imagines she can fix it (the wedding, and subsequent travel with her brother and his new wife will transfigure her, she thinks) and because no one around her, not her small friend John Henry, not her father, not the maid and nanny Berenice, can confirm that her longing is true.

         This short novel was a Broadway play!
         ...and TWO movies!  1952 and 1997