Though Elizabeth Crane’s All This Heavenly Glory is billed as a collection of stories, after just a few, I shifted into novel mode, which was easy to do, seeing as the whole collection is about one character viewed in many snapshots from the age of 6 to 40, Charlotte Anne Byers. Those who who have read Crane before will be familiar with her rambunctious, elbows-flailing prose, in which the dependent clauses become so laden that they at times break free into outlines and lists. The effect of this stylistic departure from standard convention is, miraculously, not at all gimmicky, because a) Crane manages to keep those piled up words from toppling over, and b) it is in keeping with the persona of the character that she has created to inhabit this book. Because All This Heavenly Glory, necessarily, touches upon many trials and tribulations of girlhood and womanhood, it seems likely that it will have the “chick lit” moniker attached to it at some point. So be it. But what this book really is is an unflinching character study of a complicated person. Charlotte Anne is raised on the Upper West Side, comes of age in the 1970s in a family branched by divorce and remarriage, and endures a decade of being lost in her 20’s – both geographically and spiritually. She is both foolish and clever, endearing and infuriating, hopelessly falling apart and really good at “having it together.” Not all at the same time, of course. Crane tells Byers’ story episodically, filled with details and discursions, and though the book threatens to come apart under the pressure of Crane’s furiously frantic stylings, she manages to pull together an overarching narrative that is telling and poignant, less – and therefore more meaningful – than the sum of its frenetic parts.
“Dostoevsky was a sick man. He was spiteful, intolerant, and irritable. Turgenev once described him as the nastiest Christian he had ever met.” – Andrew R. MacAndrew, Translator of Notes from Underground.I’d like to think that, 200 years from now, I’ll be immortalized with a Penguin Classics edition of my life’s work – a 700-page tome spanning my early blogging career to my brilliance in advertising copy to my eventual Great American Whatever. I see it bound in something collectible – my skin, perhaps, or threads of wallpaper from the basement where all of the magic happened.It will have an introduction, of course. The introduction will be written by someone incredibly talented and well-thought-of. I imagine a design by Chris Ware (okay, he’ll be dead, so a design by Chris Ware’s great grandchildren or something. Humor me here.)Some things that might be included in my introduction:Corey Vilhauer started his career in the trenches of the Sioux Falls School District, working as an embattled troll in the substitute teaching pool.Vilhauer worked his way up, gaining employment as a writer through sheer will and ruthless determination (not to mention rugged good looks and undeniable charm.)Until mid-January, 2007, Vilhauer usually skipped the introductions to classic and modern novels, preferring to get right to the story.It’s true. I did. Until this month, I never took time to read introductions and appendixes. I just flipped to the point where the page numbers stopped looking so Roman and started looking more Arabic. I wanted to read the novel, not the author’s life story. Who has time for introductions?And then – Dostoevsky. Fyodor Dostoevsky. More specifically, Notes from Underground (and other stories) – this months Corey Vilhauer Book of the Month.I’m going to assume that most of you have dabbled in Dostoevsky’s mire. You’ve drudged your way through some of the most depressing and thought-provoking personal reflection ever written. Most of you probably even read the introduction. However, some of you probably didn’t. I’m here for you. I know what that’s like. I’ve been there.Notes from Underground, for those who have yet to read it, was written a few years after Dostoevsky was sentenced to death. To death! Why? Because he spoke out. Because he was a dissident in Mother Russia and needed to be stopped.He wasn’t killed. No – of course he wasn’t. He had three more monstrous, billion-page novels to write before he was ready to expire. But he was tortured, mentally, by the powers-that-be. From Andrew R. MacAndrew’s Afterword:On December 21, 1849, the prisoners were taken to a city square for public execution. The death sentence was read to them, they were given the cross to kiss, a sword was symbolically broken over their heads, and they were ordered to don special white shirts. They were to be shot three by three. The first three were bound to the execution posts. Dostoevsky was the sixth in line – that is, he was to be executed in the second batch.Suddenly the tsar’s messenger appeared on a foaming horse and announced that the tsar was graciously making them a present of their lives. There was a beating of drums. The retreat was sounded. The men already tied to the posts were untied and sent back to rejoin the others. Some prisoners fainted. Two went permanently insane. The effect on Dostoevsky, too, was shattering. The epileptic fits to which he had been subject since his childhood became incomparably worse.He was nearly killed. Then, the tsar came riding up, saying, “never mind, dude – imprisonment for eight years (four, with the tsar’s blessing, of course) will be fine.” The people around him went crazy. He was a changed man from then on.And, by reading the Introduction, and in finishing with the Afterword, I discovered the aforementioned history. I learned something about Dostoevsky that is far more interesting than anything I could have imagined.Notes from Underground follows the insecure wanderings of a man so depressed – so annoyed with life and dragged down by its horrible tentacles – that he can’t do anything but complain. He tags along with some “friends” to feel included, but ends up berating them for hours. He searches for them later (to duel, of course) and instead ends up berating a whore in much the same way.He hates himself and seeks relief, but whenever that relief shows up, he shuns it. He’s miserable – both in feeling and in action. He’s nothing. He talks symbolically of the mouse hole that he’s lived in for 20 years, and in reading, you figure it’s not just symbolic. It is necessary.Notes from Underground is written by someone who had been driven mad – maybe not certifiably, but at least minimally enough to devise a hateful character as the narrator. Dostoevsky ended up a grizzled, horrible person – hard to be around, yet amazingly talented. Some say he ended up too sentimental. Others say he was too hard. I found him to be brilliant, if not a little misunderstood. I also found him to be just as miserable as his protagonist.In writing a story like Notes from Underground, talent can only take you so far. Dostoevsky didn’t just create a character from scratch, taking pen and placing it on paper and writing from the creative depths of his mind. He was writing from his heart – shaping a character that was actively driving himself mad, just as those who he had been sentenced to death with were driven mad – little by little, through deception and mind control.Notes from Underground is quite a task – it’s short, but it drives one to annoyed rage. “Just be nice, for once!” you might yell. But in yelling that, you’re directing it as Dostoevsky himself. This is all internalized. No wonder he’s so hateful. After all, look at what he went through.And to think I used to skip those “life story” sections.Corey Vilhauer – Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan.
A good psychoanalyst does two things: she listens, and she dissects.
In Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of her advice columns, Cheryl Strayed does both adeptly. The thing is, she’s never met the people she’s scrutinizing, and she’s far from a trained psychoanalyst. In fact, Strayed writes, “I’ve only seen a therapist a handful of times in my life.” It’s a shocking revelation.
The columns in the book were originally written for The Rumpus under the pen name Sugar, and Strayed’s identity was concealed until February. In the book, the pieces are presented in five groups, interspersed with short Q&As with Strayed.
Like every advice column, each piece here is in two parts: the letter someone sent in and the reply Sugar wrote back. Only here, the letters are long affairs — usually paragraphs, sometimes pages. If you want to read Sugar’s words, you must read her advisee’s story first.
But the real listening is in Sugar’s replies. Most people who write in use an alias — Stuck, Mourning and Raging, Wanting — which Strayed repeats throughout her letters, a reminder that she’s writing a column, yes, but she’s also writing it to you, letter-writer. It’s the affection of a mother, or a lover, saying your name over and over again. But it’s charged with an undercurrent: this isn’t, in fact, your name. It’s the question or lack that drives your existence.
“I could put most of the letters I receive into two piles: those from people who are afraid to do what they know in their hearts they need to do, and those from people who have genuinely lost their way,” Strayed writes in one letter. It’s the former that yield the most interesting and thoughtful responses. Strayed finds the worm buried at the bottom of a pile of dirt, pulls it out like a thread, and slices it open. The innards of the innards: that’s where she starts. As Sugar puts it, “This is where we must dig.”
Often, she quotes letters back at her advisees, showing them what they’ve already told her. One young woman, about to lose her job, asks Sugar whether she should take a prostitution gig in order to pay the bills. “You don’t need me to tell you whether you should accept this offer. You need me only to show you to yourself,” Strayed writes. “Every time I think about him touching me I want to cry, you say. Do you hear that?” Or, in another letter: “The sad but strong and true answer is the one you already told yourself.”
Sugar forces us to swallow sometimes painful realizations about what we want, who we are, and what we therefore must do — or, if not that, the choices we must make. She also lays bare the impossibility of controlling what isn’t ours to control. To a woman contemplating inviting her abusive father to her wedding in the hopes that he’ll be different, Sugar writes, “Oh, but baby girl, your father is not going to do anything you want him to do because you want him to do it. Not one damn motherloving thing! You simply didn’t get that kind of dad.” You simply didn’t get that kind of dad: this is a slap. Some things you don’t get to pick.
The honesty is far more comforting than shallow promises would be. Sugar can handle what’s real in us. Psychoanalysts are meant to act as containers for their patients’ emotions and subconscious thoughts, modifying frustrations so patients can handle them — the type of thing a detached or emotionally fragile mother can’t do. Sugar has this capacity, if (obviously) not the knowledge of her letter-writers that analysts have of their patients. If she can handle our treacherous secrets without disintegrating, maybe others will accept us in our entirety, too. Maybe we can even accept ourselves.
Strayed’s letters were written anonymously, but this doesn’t prevent her from divulging incredibly personal details. We learn that her father was a “destructive force,” that her mother died young, that her grandfather sexually abused her. Her past has included theft, heroin, an abortion, a divorce. We learn that she now is married with two children, that she’s content, that her husband cheated on her, but that they transcended that horror. And we know that, by now, she knows herself pretty damn well.
Sigmund Freud wrote: “The doctor should be opaque to his patients and, like a mirror, should show them nothing but what is shown to him.” Sugar? No. Aside from the anonymity, she’s anything but opaque.
Well, sort of. Sugar seems to have had more experiences than any human we’ve ever met, like some sort of omniscient goddess. This is its own form of opacity. But on a literal level, yes, she’s sharing heaps of personal information. How do we reconcile her analyst-like aura with her revelatory tendencies? More to the point, how does she come across as listening to readers with her entire being if her response often features herself?
These stories are not written for their own sake, but as a way to explain human complexity. The details of her past theft comes out as a means of empathizing with a writer ashamed of the same. Sugar describes her husband’s infidelity to help a fiancée with a stark, black-and-white view of marriage consider nuance. This is the type of meaning-making any personal essayist or memoirist should aim for, of course — and, notably, Strayed is both — but it’s all the more explicit and obvious in an advice column. Strayed’s story is, in its way, a mirror.
One of Strayed’s most vital messages — which her revelations of past lapses are meant to show — is that being a real, whole person means being imperfect. Sugar models this not only in her history, but in her letters, too. Once in a while, she doesn’t offer the empathy we so seek. She falters.
One woman writes in, distraught that her parents will no longer be helping with her student loans. She writes that she is angry, but that she feels selfish about it; more importantly, she writes, “My relationship with my parents has always been rocky to the point that I’ve come to realize I’ll never get any emotional support from them,” and “I wish my parents would see me for the vibrant woman I am.”
Strayed replies by describing the 16 jobs she’d had by the time she graduated from college. She writes, “You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself.” Her letter focuses on the woman’s responsibility for her own (financial) life.
This is valid. But perhaps Strayed’s own complexes about her financial history are clouding her judgment here, because her focus is misplaced. This letter isn’t, at root, about the money. It’s about emotional neglect — the woman has literally written that she wishes her parents could really understand her. The monetary support was just a feeble stand-in, and now it’s gone.
Sugar’s error here — her rare failure to unearth the nugget at the center — in fact helps us better understand her point. Sugar is good enough, but not perfect, as a person or an advisor. Which is exactly what she’s been trying to tell us all along.
Andrew McGahan’s The White Earth was a big deal when it came out in Australia in 2004. His previous novels had given him a following, but The White Earth was the winner of the Miles Franklin Prize, Australia’s richest literary award, catapulting him to a new level of recognition. The book is a multigenerational tale in which the generations collide. Young William and his mother are cast from their homestead in Queensland when William’s father burns to death in a farming accident. They are taken in by William’s cranky great uncle, John McIvor, who lives holed up in a decrepit mansion on what’s left of what was once a great homestead called Kuran Station. There is still enough land left at the Station to lust after though, and William’s sickly but greedy mother sets out to make sure that William will be the heir to his hermit uncle. The main action of the book takes place in 1992 and is filled with what I understand to be the political questions of that time, mostly having to do with compensating aborigines for the ancestral land that was taken from him. All of this makes old John McIvor something of a crank, obsessed with protecting his land and leader of a fringe organization whose membership has racist tendencies fueled by fears that cityfolk will allow their farms to be taken away. Luckily McGahan provides flashbacks to the life of young John McIvor so we can see how Kuran Station, taken from him when he was young and regained after middle age, became his life’s obsession. Though not as masterful as other books in this same mold and a bit heavyhanded in the use of certain images (men on fire), The White Earth is an enjoyable epic of the struggle for land Down Under.
In the fiction-writing course I took my junior year of college, a professor assigned a story by Deborah Eisenberg, a writer of whom I’d never heard. We’d been studying the art of dialogue, and I knew enough to admire the characters’ hesitations and evasions, but somehow the story didn’t quite ignite for me. This is a polite way of saying that I was impatient and stupid, and a bad student to boot – I think I must have skimmed the reading in the half-hour before class, still hung over from the previous night. Later, in graduate school, I had a chance to hear Eisenberg read a newer story, and the sound of her voice – surprised and surprising, hilarious and human – made me regret everything my undergraduate arrogance had hidden from me. Well, I’ve spent the years since making up for lost time. After ripping through 2006’s Twilight of the Superheroes, twice, and then All Around Atlantis (1997), I managed to track down a $32 print-on-demand paperback of The Stories (So Far) of Deborah Eisenberg, which combines her first two collections, Transactions in a Foreign Currency (1986) and Under the 82nd Airborne (1992). (Surely it’s time for these to be reissued separately. Paging FSG Classics!) As I started in on Under the 82nd Airborne – the last remaining unread stories – I found myself slowing down, like a kid conserving candy. This gave me some time to think about why Eisenberg’s work affected me so strongly, and why she had vaulted, during that 2005 reading, directly to the head of my list of favorite writers.Eisenberg writes slowly – 28 stories in about as many years – but her body of work hardly feels insubstantial. Rather, each of her unhurried narratives attains the philosophical and psychological depth of a novel. Where a more conventional writer persuades the reader through the accumulation of realistic detail, Eisenberg pays minute, almost Proustian attention to the phenomenal space in which those details occur. She understands that to be human is to be continually “thrown into” the present, and so her characters seem as surprised to find themselves caught up in stories as we are to find them there. Visual features – animals, faces, furniture – list and loom out of defamiliarized landscapes. The characteristic mood is a kind of beguiling bewilderment.In “A Cautionary Tale,” for example, a protagonist named Patty is subletting a studio in an apartment building full of mildly deranged New Yorkers.When she went back down the hall, there was no sign on the floor of Mrs. Jorgenson or her blanket, but as she passed the spot where they’d lain a psychic net seemed to be cast over Patty, and later, trying to sleep, she flopped about, struggling, unable to disengage her mind from the phantom form of supine Mrs. Jorgenson. How tender Mrs. Jorgenson’s puffy ankle had looked, where it was exposed by her rolled-down stocking.There is a kind of deadpan comedy here, the clash of linguistic registers (“flopped” vs. “supine”) undercut by the rhythmic banality of “Mrs. Jorgenson,” but there’s also a great compassion, both for Mrs. Jorgenson and for tender, mixed-up Patty. The imprecisions – “a psychic net” “phantom form” “puffy ankle” – are echt Eisenberg: not loose writing, but an attempt to capture on the page the looseness of consciousness. That is, we can see Patty’s world only as clearly as Patty can herself.The sum of Eisenberg’s comedy and her compassion is a rich and old-fashioned irony, which seem part of her authorial birthright, as natural to her as breathing. Two other legacies carried over into Under the 82nd Airborne are an ear for the eccentricities of speech (interjections like “well” and “obviously” leaven even third-person narration) and a gift for audacious, dreamlike metaphors. The two align neatly in a later scene from “A Cautionary Tale.” Patty’s new roommate, a dilettante named Stuart, has decided that they should have intercourse. She rebuffs him in a passage I can’t resist quoting at length:”I’m not attracted to you, Stuart””You would become attracted to me if you were to sleep with me,” he argued affably.”But I’m not going to sleep with you,” she said.”Don’t you see the beauty of it, Patty? It’s sound in every way – politically, economically, aesthetically. You and I would be an entire ecology, generating and utilizing our own energies.””I’m not here to…to provide physiological release for you,” she said.”Why not? I’m here to provide it for you. Listen, you’re going to start suffering from pelvic distress one of these days. There could even be colonic or arterial consequences, you know.”It wasn’t fair, Patty thought – Stuart obviously felt entitled to win every argument just because he knew more words than she did. She could only repeat herself stubbornly while he continued to whine and orate, disguising his little project in various rationales, until it seemed that one wolf, in different silly bonnets, was peeping out at her from behind a circle of trees.As wonderful as this is – his “little project!” “silly bonnets!” – Under the 82nd Airborne might represent merely a refinement of the technique of Transactions in a Foreign Currency, were Eisenberg not such an ambitious writer. Where the earlier collection plumbed the emotional depths of doomed romances and urban anomie, Under the 82nd Airborne strikes out for thematic territory the feckless Stuart can only gesture at: the political, the economic, and the aesthetic. As “A Cautionary Tale” unfolds, the dialogue will open up to admit long, idea-rich speeches from Stuart and from several intellectual foils. And in the stories that follow, Eisenberg will throw her urban characters into settings that force them to confront cultural difference and the ugliness of privilege.The most haunting of these, the title story and “Holy Week,” draw on the time Eisenberg spent abroad in the 1980s. Throughout Central America, the Reagan administration was funding a series of proxy wars against Soviet-backed revolutions, and Eisenberg and her partner, the playwright and actor Wallace Shawn, spent time touring the affected countries. Shawn wrote directly and wrenchingly about his experience in a one-man drama called The Fever. In fiction, however, such directness can easily give way to didacticism. The method of Under the 82nd Airborne allows Eisenberg to avoid this trap. As in “A Cautionary Tale,” we stay rooted in the consciousness of the protagonists, with little authorial intrusion. Characters can speak directly about politics, but Eisenberg refuses to privilege or denigrate their positions. Her wayward Norteamericanos are no more mixed-up than Patty, and she extends them no less of her sympathy and humor.Absent any clear “message,” the chief effect is a radical raising of emotional stakes. When Patty makes a mess of her life in New York, she is the one who suffers. When Dennis, the peripatetic food journalist of “Holy Week,” fails to challenge the system that has put him in Honduras (or anyway, I think it’s Honduras), a whole country suffers with him. In each case, Eisenberg does not pretend to have solutions. “All right,” Dennis thinks at the end of “Holy Week.”Yes, the planet is littered with bodies…But will it improve, the world, if Sarah and I stay in and subsist on a diet of microwaved potatoes? Because I really don’t think – and this is something I’ll say to Sarah when she’s herself again, I suppose – that by the standards of any sane person it could be considered a crime to go to a restaurant.Nested within massive geopolitical conflicts, the tensions between men and women like Dennis and Sarah start to seem very much like dirty wars, the collisions of irresistible forces and immovable objects.Under the 82nd Airborne’s dialectic of power and powerlessness anticipates the themes and settings of subsequent Eisenberg productions including “The Lake” and “Flaw in the Design,” and, in its diary-like arrangement, a story like “Holy Week” presages the formal adventurousness of “Twilight of the Superheroes.” But, even as it consolidates its strengths, Eisenberg’s fiction continues to leave room for “enormous changes at the last minute” (in the formulation of Grace Paley, a writer Eisenberg sometimes resembles). The most wonderful thing about her short stories – the thing I wish were true of my own – is that it’s impossible to guess, from sentence to sentence, what might come next. As a kind of salute, then, I’ll close with a semi-non sequitur: The Friday after Thanksgiving last year, my wife and I found ourselves gridlocked on the New Jersey Turnpike. Our rented car and the tens of thousands stretching ahead and behind us were probably sputtering out enough greenhouse gases to kill several dozen polar bears and maybe a rare species of cancer-curing Arctic flower. Patience continued – well, continues – not to be among my virtues. I was halfway through Under the 82nd Airborne, so I took it out and began to read aloud, and there, in the failing light at the heart of the Eastern Seaboard, we finished the book. I can’t say the world changed, obviously. But for as long as those stories lasted, there was nowhere else I wanted to be.