Alice’s Wonderland of Prose

h1 October 17th, 2006 by jules


Alert: This review includes a spoiler for, of all things, A Farewell to Arms. I’m just sayin’ . . . in case you haven’t read it and want to one day.

I confess that sometimes I wonder if our humble little blog here shouldn’t be focused on solely children’s lit (since it’s such a huge part of what Eisha and I do); we would then have a sharper (but not necessarily better) focus. However, if that were the case, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how beautiful a novel like Alice McDermott’s latest is — not to mention that, as YA author L. Lee Lowe put it so nicely in one of the comment sections of our blog, “I need to read widely across all genres, and extensively in adult lit. It’s important to know the best that literature has to offer, and to learn from it. Poetry, too, is particularly important in order to see how language is being stretched to its fullest.” For shizzle, Lee (how’s that for stretching language to its fullest?). And, though McDermott — a National Book Award winner — writes prose and not poetry, this literary stretching Lowe speaks of is what McDermott does so well.

The book I speak of is After This. When you read a McDermott title, folks, you are in the presence of a literary master, I tell you. She is a superb writer, and time slows down — way, way down — in a very good way when reading her prose (I have also read 2002’s Child of My Heart — thanks to Eisha’s recommendation) . . . I’m all ‘afeared that folks will think I like just about everything I read and/or speak in the hyperbole I joke about speaking in when I say that this is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time by an author who I think is one of the finest writers of contemporary American fiction. (Really, though, I think I’ve just been blessed lately by the literary gods and have been picking up some excellent stuff. And it could be that I simply put down the books that don’t grab me and that I only finish the ones that compel me to keep reading; there has been a recent discussion about this on other blogs).

In After This, we are privy to the lives of the Keane family — Mary and John Keane and their four children. In the book’s unforgettable opening chapter (in which everyone is moved to tears for a reason you might not suspect), it is 1940s America, and Mary — afraid she’ll never marry and on a quite forgettable lunch date with her brother’s friend — sees her future husband at the lunch counter of a diner in Long Island. We follow Mary and her children through several decades and through the Vietnam War, the sexual revolution, the turbulent ’60s, and much, much more — and without a drop of gloopy sentimentality. But, as Jane Hamilton puts it (in her excellent Washington Post review of the novel that you will really want to read if interested in the book),
“{t}he book is about what George Eliot called the great ‘home epic,’ everything that takes place in the family during the course of a lifetime: war, love, marriage, birth, more war and the occasional turn of fate that gives each person a particular story.” And, as Lisa Jennifer Selzman put it in her review, “McDermott’s writing is, as always, nuanced and gorgeous. Everything happens; little happens. The earth shudders in the movement of a hand, the lowering of an eye. Life accumulates before and after those events of resonance that define all else” (that is perhaps the best description of McDermott’s writing that I’ve read — I also suspect, for the everything-happens-little-happens reason she gives, that this is why McDermott’s book covers are always as simple and image-less as they are. I would ask the ultimate Cover Lover, the honorable Fuse #8 — O-Analyzer-Extraordinaire-of-Covers — what she thought of this if she also blogged about adult books, but alas! and alack!, she does not).

McDermott impresses in many ways, but the most striking way is in her hushed powers of observation. If I may quote Hamilton’s precise review again, McDermott is “someone who must always have been listening, waiting for a way to use her exquisite sensory recall of childhood, waiting to craft everything she knows into another beautiful and stirring novel.” She is also a compassionate writer, doling out equal parts sympathy for every character, even the ones not taking a huge role in the third-person narrative, which helps give the book the mythic quality that Hamilton speaks of, the “timeless, once-upon-a-time feel.”

The chapters in this novel could stand on their own as separate short stories. One of them — in which teenaged Annie Keane’s friend, Susan, shows up for an appointment at an abortion clinic with Annie at her side — literally took my breath away for a moment (Really. Literally. Don’t report me). McDermott writes with utter grace and mercy about Annie noticing how Susan fixed her eyes “on some distant point, some point out of the room, out of this particular ten thirty on a Tuesday morning in late August, out of this strange office building in Manhattan, and onto a place after which this would be done, gotten through, gotten over.” And then McDermott tells us,
“{l}ater, wading through the war stuff, she wondered if what Susan had shown her in that moment — trembling, looking ahead — could be called courage. And wondered why it was assumed that courage was always put to some noble end.”

Susan, after the procedure is complete, returns to the waiting room to find Annie gone. After Annie finally returns, eyes red from crying, Susan fears that Annie is beyond dissappointed in her and has given up on her; she wonders how she will survive post-abortion without her one, true friend. What had really occurred, however, is that in the waiting room Annie had been reading the assigned novel from their high school literature course, A Farewell to Arms. Annie, dreading what she and Susan consider another depressing reading assignment (what they call the sex-and-death books, assigned by their nun teachers), bolted to a bathroom, weeping:

Because it was intolerable: Catherine dead and their baby dead. Intolerable and terrible and made even more so by the fact that within the same hour of her reading, the book had convinced her (there in the softly lit waiting room of the abortion clinic) that despite war and death and pain (despite the way the girl with a woman who might have been her mother seemed to gulp air every once in a while, a handkerchief to her mouth), life was lovely, rich with small gifts: a nice hotel, a warm fire, a fine meal, love.

Ah, nice. (And my first breath to be slightly taken away, to be exact). And the girls’ discussion about said assigned reading as they have an awkward lunch after Susan’s appointment at the close of this chapter? The moment of sublime, literary perfection that really took my breath away — the chapter’s final words, to be precise.

There is another outstanding chapter about Mary Keane and her daughter’s visit to see Michelangelo’s Pieta at the New York World’s Fair, when her sensitive son, Jacob, is still a child — a chapter that adeptly foreshadows an unfortunate, understated turn of events for the family (understated but beautifully and cleverly interwoven in small details for the observant reader throughout the entire novel). Kirkus Reviews (my review is turning into a review of the reviews here) said that McDermott’s writing is “{g}enuinely moving yet amorphous, like a remembered fragrance that you can’t quite place.” Though that makes me think of a bad Calvin Klein ad, that reviewer is on to something here: McDermott so totally leaves room for us as readers, inviting us into the inner lives (what really matters to her — not so much the surface details) of these characters so that we can extrapolate them to our own lives, to the broader human condition. And she does so with a swift intelligence, with wry humor, and with great humanity, perfectly capturing a personality type in a phrase or “evoking mood and worldview in a few, quick strokes” (as Maureen Corrigan nails it in the NPR review).

One more thing, and then I’m going to shut my word-hole — eloquent, huh? (I could just talk abut this novel for all eternity). McDermott also writes with a rhythm that is intoxicating. Just perfectly intoxicating as well as inimitable. I will end on this note, an illustration of what I mean, assuming that if you’ve made it this far in my review/review of the reviews, you might want to read the novel yourself anyway. Enjoy this moment of McDermott magnificence, and read it aloud to do it the justice it deserves. This is a moment towards the novel’s exquisitely-written end, as one character enters the Catholic church that places so prominently in this novel (and that began with Mary Keane exiting one):

There were the ordinary pianists who played, no doubt, as they had been taught to play, earnest, obedient, faithful to each note (don’t even mention, Monsignor would have said, those awful folk-mass singers), and then there was a kid like this, who played in a trance, eyes closed, transformed, transported, inspired (that was the word) — not the engine for the instrument but a conduit for some music that was already there, that had always been there, in the air, some music, some pattern, sacred, profound, barely apprehensible, inscrutable, really, something just beyond the shell of earth and sky that had always been there and that needed only this boy, a boy like this, to bring it, briefly, briefly, to his untrained ear.

I am grateful to the literary gods for this author, an author like this, who brought this novel, briefly, briefly, to my untrained ear. Read this book. Read this book. Read this book.

Word-hole now shut.

6 comments to “Alice’s Wonderland of Prose”

  1. You two should go do this –
    – if you aren’t already. I’m signed up for YA!

  2. Ooh, you’ll be excellent on that committee!

    I’m in, baby! I’m on the nominating committee for Poetry – I debated about YA or Fantasy, but that’s about the time I’ll be working on the booklists for our library’s summer reading program for next year, and I’ll be knee-deep in YA already. Fight the good fight, Little Willow! Pick something really really good and deserving!

  3. i’m in, too. i immediately nominated myself for the nominating picture book category. i thought it’d fill up fast, but i think it was one of the last ones to fill up (if it’s even filled at all now). go figure.

    i love the whole idea and might do a short post about it!

  4. hey, wait! i’m really glad we’re talking about The Cybils and i always love hearing from the honorable Little Willow, but you’re not talking about the Alice McDermott book! wah. has anyone else read it?

  5. sorry! i will, i promise – you know how i love mcdermott. and you really did it up right – beautiful review!

  6. I haven’t read it. I just finished Paper Moon yesterday, then Rubber Houses this morning.

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