Tiny Shudders: On Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Anything Is Possible’

Elizabeth Strout’s new novel in stories, Anything Is Possible, is in conversation with her much-lauded novel My Name Is Lucy Barton. Lucy Barton’s hometown -- Amgash, Ill., -- is the setting of several of these stories, and in “Sister,” Lucy returns to Amgash to visit the siblings with whom she survived an impoverished and abusive upbringing. In 2016’s novel, Lucy -- lying in a hospital bed, worried about her children, ecstatic over her mother’s brief, unexpected visit -- indulges in casual gossip about the people of Amgash and the Bartons’ extended family. These conversations, unsurprisingly, are aligned with the themes Strout explores compulsively in her work: strained love between mothers and daughters; once-vivid, now-faded marriages; dangerous men; the beauty of the natural world and the possible presence of God. Anything is Possible puts pressure on some of these elements, allowing a closer, more concrete study than My Name Is Lucy Barton’s elegant stream of understated hearsay and reluctant recollection. Here, bodies are bruised; here, people recall acts of cruelty with specificity, both the ones they have endured and the ones they have enacted. In “Dottie’s Bed & Breakfast,” Dottie, feeling slighted, spits in the breakfast jam. In “Mississippi Mary,” Mary admits to herself that she favors one of her daughters. Wars -- primarily the Second World War and Vietnam -- are inescapable to the men who fought in them long after they’ve ended. In “Cracked,” Linda Peterson-Cornell, a patron of the arts, uses a camera to spy on houseguests alongside her husband, Jay, who is eventually accused of raping one of those guests. Strout, who writes with astonishing control, is unafraid of repetition. Many of her characters declare, “it [he, she] makes me sick” -- a bold acknowledgement of visceral feeling. Far more typical in this book is the perspective of Tommy Guptill, a man who loses his farm to a fire and becomes a school janitor in “The Sign.” Thinking of the way the fire changed his family’s life, Tommy concludes, “Well. They had all lived through it.” This tone -- matter-of-fact, uninterested in sympathy -- is reminiscent of the titular character in Strout’s Olive Kittredge. In “A Different Road,” Olive sits in a hospital room, waiting to be seen by a doctor: “[S]he folded her hands and realized how every single time she went by this hospital, the same two thoughts occurred to her: that she’d been born here and that her father’s body had been brought here after his suicide. She’d been through some things, but never mind. She straightened her back. Other people had been through things, too.” In My Name Is Lucy Barton, Lucy asks her mother, Lydia, about her own anguished childhood: “‘Mom, why didn’t you feel safe?’ My mother closed her eyes as though the very question might drop her into a nap, but I did not think for one minute she had gone to sleep.” Lydia never answers. Like Lucy, readers are left to wonder, or to imagine the worst. Strout’s genius is her ability to wring deeply moving stories from such ungenerous sources; to reveal, through hurried gestures and single syllables, the welter of feeling the Lydias and Olives of the world are trying to conceal. When Strout gives us the same images again and again, in one story after the next -- “fields of green soybeans,” for instance -- she’s shifting our attention to the familiar and the bearable, to the things her characters would prefer to talk about. In the best of these stories, such reticence is balanced by outburst -- whether silent realization or, better yet, actual confrontation. “Sister” is one of the strongest pieces here, largely because Strout -- whose buttoned-up characters tend to fear nothing so much as seeming tenderhearted, whose unpleasant memories are shrouded in euphemism and denial, whose “I love yous,” if uttered at all, are rarely directed at their children -- allows Lucy and her siblings, Vicky and Pete, a good, loud, old-fashioned family argument. For the occasion of Lucy’s visit -- an addendum to the book tour that brings her to Chicago -- her siblings make efforts to please her that push them beyond the boundaries of their daily lives. Pete scrubs the house and goes into town for a haircut, a task he usually completes himself; for the remainder of the story, he agonizes over the fact that he didn’t know to tip the barber. Vicky -- overweight, underappreciated -- approaches the reunion with resentment, richly complicated by a desire to please, or to defend herself, or both. “But then [Pete] saw: Vicky had on lipstick. Across her mouth, curving on her upper lip and across her plump bottom lip, was an orangey-red coating of lipstick. Pete could not remember seeing Vicky wear any lipstick before. When Pete looked at Lucy, he saw that she had no lipstick on, and he felt a tiny shudder go through him, as though his soul had a toothache.” That tiny shudder -- a perfect depiction of compassion -- is an example of how much work Strout demands from even the slightest gesture. In their childhood home, Vicky wastes little time. "You know why I came over here today? To tell you -- and I know you give me money, and you never have to give me another cent, I wouldn’t take another cent, but I came over here to see you today to tell you: You make me sick." Though not the only one to make this claim in this novel, Vicky is far more direct than others about this “sickness.” She continues: "Every time I see you online, every time I see you, you are acting so nice, and it makes me sick." The problem is named -- niceness, perhaps incredible -- and Lucy concedes: "Well, it makes me sick too." For a moment, as Pete interjects with surprise, it seems that Vicky has said enough; but moments later, she accuses Lucy of being "Mommy’s favorite," to which Lucy reacts with astonishment. Strout is bold to enter this territory with the Bartons. Readers of My Name Is Lucy Barton will not recall Lucy believing that she is Lydia’s “favorite,” but we do know that Lydia took a plane, for the first time in her life, to spend several days sitting at the foot of Lucy’s hospital bed. We know that Lydia referred to Lucy as “Wizzle,” an affectionate nickname. We know that Lucy -- sick, and missing her husband and daughters -- feels waves of unsurpassable happiness in Lydia’s company: “I dozed on and off listening to my mother’s voice. I thought: All I want is this.” Could Vicky have made such a claim, had she been in the hospital bed in New York? It seems unlikely. Lucy makes her living telling stories, but it is Vicky who abandons the evasive language of My Name Is Lucy Barton (“the Thing, meaning an incident of my father becoming very anxious and not in control of himself.")  Vicky defines the Thing in language as vulgar as she can muster. Vicky illustrates the pain and humiliation of being a Barton child. She recounts, for example, trying to hide a serving of liver in the toilet, then being forced to eat it anyway; she remembers Lucy and Pete having to eat from the garbage when they dared to throw food away. She notes that they “were never supposed to cry,” recalling that once, when she cried, her mother cut her clothing into pieces. Lucy -- the wealthy one, the ostensible favorite, the one who made it out of Amgash and all the way to New York -- eventually interrupts her siblings’ speculation that their mother wasn’t “made right.” Her defense is feeble in the face of Vicky’s liver-from-the-toilet story: "She could have left us," Lucy says, scrambling for a hold on gratitude. "She’d have made money with her sewing. Just for herself. But she didn’t." Later, Lucy truly reveals herself by insisting, "It was not that bad." Vicky responds, "It was exactly that bad, Lucy." Lucy proceeds to have a literal panic attack. Repeating the phrase “I can’t,” she asks her siblings to drive her back to Chicago (Strout makes a point of naming the luxurious Drake Hotel). She does not have to stay, and so she does not. To see her frantically saying “I can’t,” to watch Vicky and Pete begin the long drive to the city -- tiny shudders all around. But something else is happening here: Strout is inviting her readers to contrast Lucy’s perspective, as presented in My Name Is Lucy Barton, with Vicky’s testimony. “Sister” invites questions, suspicions, doubt; in short, it makes our relationship with Lucy Barton as complicated and frustrating as real relationships are. Other people in Anything Is Possible seem to corroborate Vicky’s version. In “The Sign,” Tommy Guptill refers to “those poor, sad [Barton] children.” He recalls that “[Lucy] and her sister, Vicky, and her brother, Pete, had been viciously scorned by the other kids, and by some of the teachers too.” Regarding Lucy, “there were days he saw what seemed to be a bruise, yellow or bluish, on her neck or her arms.” It is one thing to catalogue the sorrows of this family; it is another entirely, Strout suggests, for Tommy to make these observations, to share them with his wife, and for the couple to “[decide] they would do nothing.” There is a not-too-subtle comparison between the slow-to-act Guptills -- who are classic Strout characters, earnest and hard-working, striving to do right and to be kind -- and Tommy’s brother’s experience in World War II: [H]e and the others had the job of taking the townspeople through [the camps]. They had somehow taken a group of women from the town through the camps to show them what had been right there, and Tommy’s brother said that although some of the women wept, some of them put their chins up, and looked angry, as if they refused to be made to feel bad. Compassion, that tiny shudder -- when is it too tiny, or too late? Tommy Guptill winds up visiting the adult Pete Barton under the guise of “neighbor to neighbor” friendliness, many years after he first harbors concerns. Pete -- a nervous, solitary man -- feels compelled to defend his father, Ken: "My father was a decent man, Tommy." He attributes Ken’s troubles to the war. The Vietnam war haunts Charlie Macauley in “The Hit-Thumb Theory,” a story that stands out for its rather dramatic stakes. Charlie, a veteran, is having an affair with Tracy, a prostitute (and the only clearly identified woman of color in the book). Tracy is desperate to borrow money for her son, who’s “in trouble with drugs.” Though compassion emerges -- after initial refusal, Charlie gives her the cash -- it is charged with anger and threats: “‘If I hear from you again, I’ll track you down and kill you myself,’ he said calmly.” He ends on an even more menacing note: "Because you will need more." Strout captures Charlie’s rage well, though his “love” for Tracy isn’t as convincing as his fury at her request.  It would be foolish to suggest that Strout limit herself to small town quibbles and nuclear families -- nonetheless, these are the settings in which her strengths flourish. “Snow-Blind,” which features famous actress Annie Appleby, never quite finds its center, perhaps because the story becomes distracted by Annie’s fame. “Cracked” devotes a lot of time to the salty, knowing dialogue among three artist friends, though Linda’s marriage to Jay is far more interesting. In “Windmills,” Vicky’s daughter, Lila Lane, unleashes a stunning verbal assault at guidance counselor Patty Nicely (Linda’s sister), calling her “Fatty Patty” and demanding to know why Patty doesn’t have children. "[Y]ou never did it with your husband?" Lila asks. The audacity is jarring. Later, “Windmills” confirms that Lila is right -- Patty and her husband never consummate their marriage -- but using Lila to introduce the topic feels over-the-top somehow, a way to create yet another connection among all these characters. The book concludes with “Gift,” a story that draws Strout back within the extended Barton family orbit. Abel Blaine -- Lucy’s cousin, and so hungry as a child he rooted through Dumpsters for food -- has made a small fortune and lives a comfortable life. Abel is so earnest as to be almost unbelievable. One night, having missed dinner because he was late home from work, he undertakes the errand of retrieving his granddaughter’s plastic pony from the last place she’d held it -- a local production of A Christmas Carol. In the darkened theater he encounters the man who played Scrooge, yet another Strout character to proclaim, "It has made me sick." In the actor’s case, he’s sickened by his job “teaching […] devil-brats.” More importantly, Abel -- hungry, tired, and just looking for a plastic pony -- agrees to be the listener this man so badly wants. The scene begins tensely, in a cramped space, with the actor serving almost as captor, demanding that Abel become a private audience. Abel does, his compassion less a “tiny shudder” than a full-body response: “a sudden pain moved through his chest,” and the actor can be heard saying “"Hurry," presumably to EMTs on the phone. Strout leaves us here, with the need for compassion as great as ever, with Abel possibly having given too much.  The actor tells Abel, “‘I want you to sit […] I’d like to say some things, you see.”  A less elegant plea, perhaps, than the one Lucy makes from her writing desk, or Dottie’s loquacious guest at the B&B, or Patty on the phone with her sister, Linda, though the meaning is always the same: listen to me.

Stealing from the Library: On April Ayers Lawson’s ‘Virgin and Other Stories’

April Ayers Lawson’s debut, Virgin and Other Stories, arrives under the dazzling mantle of the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize (2011). The prize-winning story -- the titular “Virgin” -- has much in common with its four bedfellows, exploring themes of sex, religion, and art. For these characters, questions of faith tend to be secondary and faint -- not overwhelming, just inevitable -- while their artistic and sexual ambitions are firmly in the foreground. The result is refreshing territory with unexpected crossover: Lawson’s work makes casual reference to Bob Jones University and to Damien Hirst with equal authority. Miss May Grant, the histrionic piano teacher in “The Way You Must Play Always,” is trapped in a house with her ill brother, stressing the importance of tempo to bored teenagers. Conner, narrator of “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling,” masturbates to Andrew Wyeth’s Helga images. In “Vulnerability,” the narrator -- who insists that her guest room is a “studio” -- describes an affair with her art dealer. In “Virgin,” Sheila, a musician, is the child of “devout fundamentalists.” Miss Grant is no joke: she went to Juilliard. Conner’s appreciation of Wyeth’s paintings, even for masturbatory purposes, is articulated more clearly than anything the art dealer says about art. The painter with the guest room studio in Georgia finds representation in New York, and Sheila plays first viola in an orchestra. So which art is the good art? Who are the real artists? Who cares? Lawson’s stories seem to ask, rather gleefully. You paint and you play to distract yourself from pain. You are whatever you say you are. This project of asserting identity -- I am an artist! I am a Christian! -- drives the finest of Lawson’s work. In “Virgin,” Jake marries Sheila, a virgin, who declines to have sex with him until well into their marriage. The story is crammed with flashback (in fact, dominated by it), but takes place over the course of a party Jake must attend for work. Soon enough, the reader inhabits Jake’s wary, possessive gaze: Sheila is “always...stretching lately, especially in public.” On another occasion, she “look[s] especially nice for her [orchestra] practice.” Sheila “ha[s], with her pouty lips, what [Jake] and his friends, as teenagers, would have happily referred to as ‘a slutty face.’” At the party, he worries about his ability to “mind” her. To put these thoughts in perspective, here are the story’s opening lines, in which Jake is gazing at someone other than his wife: “Jake hadn’t meant to stare at her breasts, but there they were, absurdly beautiful, almost glowing above the plunging neckline of the faded blue dress.” A-ha, we think: this is a story about hypocrisy, and marital jealousy, and double standards, and sex. “Virgin” is all of those things, but what lifts it beyond the familiar is the way Lawson guides her readers to join Jake in his ugliness. Like Jake, we wonder why a person comes home from orchestra practice at “close to two in the morning.” Like Jake, we wonder if Sheila’s missed therapy appointments are really due to “roadwork.” Lawson, splicing Jake’s first impressions of his wife with the woman beside him, makes us wonder if the initial version of Sheila was authentic. “I hate flirting,” she announces upon meeting him, then explains the reason people like high heels: “Lordosis. You know: the arch of a woman’s back during copulation?” It’s a brilliant moment -- a suggested knowingness combined with the awkwardness of choosing the word “copulation.” Sheila sounds as if she’s reciting an entry from the dictionary: it isn’t exactly sexy, but it’s very much about sex. This is smart dialogue, spoken by eager, hungry, embarrassing, believable human beings. (“I respect that very much,” Jake says when Sheila tells him she’s a virgin; reading that, it is hard not to roll your eyes at him). The way Lawson uses backstory is less impressive. Sheila is a survivor of sexual abuse, and Jake is the son of a woman who falls in love too easily. Though these histories are not unworthy of her attention, Lawson uses them to provide traumas that explain everything. Using the device of a therapist’s office, Lawson gives Sheila several pages to speak, without interruption, about her uncle’s advances. The best of Sheila’s revelation are the moments where compassion and irrelevancy surge onto the page: for instance, her aunt Miri vomits upon discovering what her husband has been doing to his niece. “I remember how she leaned over to throw up on the hardwood floor instead of the rug,” Sheila says. A heartbreaking detail, and one that tells us more about Sheila than much of the exposition she delivers. The explanatory traumas surface in other stories, too: in “Vulnerability,” the narrator, like Sheila, is a survivor of sexual abuse. In “The Way You Must Play Always,” 13-year-old Gretchen is found “alone with her cousin Jamie in the basement of her grandma’s house.” Though Gretchen ventures there willingly, after “several times,” Gretchen “did not want to do that again.” Jamie, who is three years older, “bit[es] her ear too hard in passionate moments.” Gretchen doesn’t want this, exactly, though, “she couldn’t remember if he’d touched her first.” Later -- prescribed Christian school and piano lessons by her anxious, conservative parents -- she “craves” her cousin. In spite of Jamie’s hard bite, Gretchen wants the thrill of male attention. She develops a swift infatuation with her piano teacher’s brother, Wesley, who suffers from a brain tumor and spends his days smoking in his bedroom. During their first encounter, Wesley touches Gretchen’s shoulder. “Something in her belly stirred, this due not to his touch but to his smell. He did not smell good. But something in his musk, part dirt like the joint he smoked, part winey and sweet, made her want to put her face to his neck, the way she had with Jamie.” What follows are the antics of a bold, infatuated adolescent. There are small rebellions: Gretchen wears a silk dress to Miss Grant’s house “for him.” Then she wears it again, even though her mother forbids it, even though it is dirty, because she likes the way it feels. Gretchen’s longing for Wesley consumes her, though he can be grotesque in his illness -- “he was the first person whom she wanted simultaneously to stare at and look away from.” Eventually, during Miss Grant’s too-convenient emergency absence, Wesley shares pot with Gretchen and “guid[es] her hand between the folds of the robe.” Miss Grant returns (another convenience) to interrupt this liaison shortly after it begins. Lawson writes teenagers well -- the few lines of dialogue from Fiona, Miss Grant’s other piano student, are hilarious and true -- but here, as in “Virgin,” certain details feel contrived just to make the story work. The piano lessons exist as a direct response to Gretchen’s encounters with Jamie, a thread that gets dropped and abandoned early on. The lessons, Lawson writes, are meant to “ground” Gretchen. Alas, they do not succeed. Though Gretchen never meets the narrator of a different story, I’m certain they’d get along splendidly. In “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling,” Conner, like Gretchen, is the child of watchful, religious parents. Like Gretchen, Conner is curious about sex, and much of the story documents his tedious, unsurprising pursuit of a girl at church named Ally Kapawski. Less convincing, though slightly more interesting, is Conner’s obsession with his mother’s friend Charlene, a transgender woman whom he finds intensely discomfiting. (“How did I figure out Charlene was a man? It just hit me -- that’s the funny thing.”) Charlene’s death is rather ineffectual -- it mostly serves as a way to launch Conner’s memories of her. The story’s most poignant moments occur when he is moved by the music in Charlene’s church: “When the organ started up I felt the vibrations of its notes through my feet...A shiver went up my spine and I felt all spiritual and corny.” And later: “The organ paused and started up again. The sound went up inside of me and I tried to push it out but I couldn’t.” This is a delightful and unexpected contrast to the loss-of-faith narrative (Conner’s father, for instance, mourns the weakness of his faith: “I don’t feel anything.”) Conner, a great appreciator of Andrew Wyeth’s Helga paintings, confesses to stealing an art book from the library. In “Vulnerability,” the unnamed narrator also steals from the library -- in this case, an issue of Art Forum featuring a painter she likes. In a collection of only five stories, two of them include people who feel the urge to steal something they could have borrowed freely. Or maybe they couldn’t. Lawson is sensitive to the consumer habits of children raised in conservative homes, where the morality of every song lyric, every page of a book, may be under scrutiny. In Gretchen’s case, her mother objects to John Lennon’s “Imagine,” claiming that its reference to heaven is “sacrilegious.” There are escapes from these strictures, especially for men. In “The Way You Must Play Always,” Gretchen’s father occasionally drinks in the shed. In “Vulnerability,” the narrator’s husband also drinks in the shed -- one of the few clues Lawson offers to shape the character. In fact, the husband’s primary function seems to be a way to explain why the narrator doesn’t have a job. Instead, she paints, develops fixations on other artists, and makes her way to New York to meet an art dealer. Most of the story focuses on her pursuit of the artist, H., and the art dealer. The prose is frequently flat and repetitive, as it is in the weakest story in the collection, “Three Friends in a Hammock.” In “Vulnerability,” the narration can be painfully introspective, as when the narrator -- who is both a painter and a writer -- reflects on a conversation with her dealer: “But I wouldn’t have known how to write about him then because he didn’t make sense to me, everything he said seeming to have double or hidden or artfully implied meaning. But then again, possibly it didn’t mean as much as I thought it did. And when I think back on the whole conversation, a lot of what we both said did and didn’t make sense in a way.” When the story breaks from dull summary, it’s often in the service of a shift in point of view. This can feel like a gimmick -- we move from first-person to second to third -- but, gimmick or not, it is something of a relief. The sections in third-person give the formerly first-person narrator confidence. Here she is just “the painter,” not an aspiring artist. Instead of sentences like “Complication radiated off of him in a way that I’d up until that time been unfamiliar with,” we get this: “Her skin appeared scaly in places...The odd white flecks of skin caught in the light like the pills on a thinning, overwashed sweater.” Third-person narration also frees the story to give a chilling depiction of the abuse she suffered: “[H]e would’ve reclined onto the bed from which he’d cleared the extra pillows and stuffed animals, exposing the bare flat surface of the bed that when she was alone frightened her so that she’d crowd the animals with whom she conversed when alone around on either side.” This portrait -- of a person who mitigates her fear with the presence of stuffed animals -- is far stronger than the first-person allusions to “the thing that had happened to me.” The pained evasiveness rings true, but the prose begins to default to that mode, to its own detriment. When Lawson reaches for the concrete, the detailed, and the immediate, we get the best of what she can do: the “carnival grass” colors of a dirty silk dress, “a pale pink sliver of trout f[alling] from [a] fork.” We see meals of “clonazepam and wine and french fries.” We watch Conner, eager to protect his mother, attack a stranger until he feels “our bones collide.” When she avoids abstraction and resists exposition, Lawson’s prose grows sturdy, rich, irrepressible.