The Last of Her Kind: Women Authors and the Novel of Ideas

This guest post comes to us Sana Krasikov. Sana is the author of the short story collection One More Year.Recently, in response to the launch of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers, the literary critic Germaine Greer posed the question of why women don't write more books about "Big Ideas." Reaching back in time to examine Big Idea books by women, Greer wondered if women had the "necessary audacity" required to sell a hypothesis. To be fair, Greer was referring mostly to non-fiction books, but her question could just as easily be asked of fiction. Could it be true that women authors were "more interested in understanding than explaining, in describing rather than accounting for?" And does this keep them from garnering the kind of attention given to their more declarative and "audacious" male counterparts?Considering these questions, I thought about a book I had read recently - Sigrid Nunez's novel The Last of Her Kind - a book that, in addition to being beautifully written, was as much about ideas as it was about characters. Set at the tail end of the sixties, it follows the lives of two Barnard roommates - Georgette, who is from a small town in upstate New York where people drink "to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb... a world of everyday brutality," and Ann, an earnest overachiever from Connecticut, whose family is so wealthy that her mother doesn't carry a wallet when she goes shopping, having expense accounts at the major department stores.Years after a bitter falling out, Georgette sees Ann's name in the newspaper under the headline "Cop Killer." She can hardly believe how a woman as idealistic and intelligent as Ann is capable of such violence. Though the press paints Ann as another Patty Hearst, a spoiled girl playing at Revolution, Georgette is convinced her ex-roommate's story has a more complicated side.Delivered in a warmly sardonic but unaffected voice, the prose doesn't draw attention to its own genius in the way of a Mailer, or to its vigor in the way of a Thomas Wolfe. For long stretches of the book, turning the pages feels less like reading and more like listening to the sane voice of an old friend. And yet as much as it's a story of two women, The Last of Her Kind is really an extended essay - a sober examination of the darker rhetoric of the sixties.Here is a scene: Many years after she is raped, Georgette is invited by a professor who is a friend to discuss the experience with a group of college girls in the professor's Women's Studies class. Too uncomfortable to turn down her friend's request, Georgette tells the young women that, looking back on life, she could point to many things that happened later which were worse than the rape, and which even made it seem like a minor event in her life. The students respond by telling her that she is "in denial" and "intellectualizing," and in need of "emotional work" to understand the extent of her repression. The present-day framework of "trauma and recovery" makes it impossible for girls who came of age in the nineties to comprehend how, in the highly-politicized sixties, rape might have been viewed as an "insurrectionary act," or how in some fringes of the sexual revolution, women might have thought it rude to sleep with only one man if there were two men in the room.Rather than recalling the late-sixties and early-seventies as a progressive or enlightened moment, Nunez paints an age that left many casualties in its wake: a time when someone like Charles Manson could be hailed as a hero, a time when college professors received death-threats from radical students, a time when sex could be "not just a casual, but a meaningless act." Describing her sister's boyfriend, Georgette observes, "Roach looked like what he was, a survivor of an era that had tipped over into madness."The Last of Her Kind has been compared to Roth's American Pastoral But a more apt comparison might be to Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook. Georgette's disappointment with the mythic sixties reminds one of Lessing's narrator's disillusionment with the "glorious adventure" of socialism and the British Communist Party in the 1950s. Both novels are nods to George Elliot's Middlemarch, which concerns itself not only with the souls of its characters but also with a larger, and more sweeping project of recording social history. All these books, written by women who explored politics and morality as two sides of one phenomenon, gain their effect not from proclamations, but from a kind of layering affect where ideas about class, altruism, and gender-relations are asserted, knocked down and revised at different stages of their character's lives.In the last pages of the book, a grown-up Georgette rants against that sacrosanct American novel, The Great Gatsby, which her teenage children are studying in school.I think it is significant that The Great Gatsby's reputation as the greatest masterpiece of the twentieth-century American literature did not blossom until the fifties, and that those most responsible for that reputation have been schoolteachers. It is such an easy book to teach. Short, clear, safe. What makes Gatsby "great"? How does Gatsby represent the American dream? What does the green light symbolize? What does the valley of ashes symbolize? What do the eyes of Dr. Eckleburg symbolize? Compare and contrast: East Egg/West Egg. Jay Gatsby/Tom Buchanan. New York/The Middle West.In many ways, The Last of Her Kind attempts to be precisely the kind of novel that is not Gatsby - a book with ideas that resists being summarized into one Big Idea - in other words a book for adults.

A Year in Reading: Sana Krasikov

Sana Krasikov is the author of the short story collection One More YearSea of Poppies by Ami-tav Ghosh. I was reading my nephew The Neverending Story when I picked up Sea of Poppies. In some ways it's exactly that sort of adventure book for adults. It opens on the eve of the British "Opium War" with China and moves on to Calcutta, Bengal, various colonial Asian ports and villages where poppies are cultivated and processed into opium. It's the first book in what's going to be a trilogy.Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (This book will be out in April 2009). I'm reading a galley of Tower's stories after a self-imposed moratorium on short stories. There's just something about the way Tower throws you smack in the middle of his characters' lives that I love. No preliminaries. The wonderful bluntness of it reminds me a bit of another totally irreverent collection I read and enjoyed a few years ago, Josh Furst's Short People.The Last of Her Kind by Sigrid Nunez. One of the smartest and most thoughtful books I read this year - as much social history as novel. About two Barnard Roommates coming into their own at the tail end of the sixties. Don't be misled by the "young adult" looking cover - Nunez's book is anything but. It should be required reading for anybody trying to understand the mixed and complex legacy of feminism in America.More from A Year in Reading 2008

Reading Andre Dubus in Iowa

This guest post comes to us from Sana Krasikov. Krasikov is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and the author of the debut short story collection, One More Year, which the New York Times calls, "a sensitive book about the economics of relationships: how they can become subtle transactions by people trying to pull off the trick of occupying more than one place and more than one time." Khaled Hosseini has declared her "a brave new writer." Her stories have previously appeared in The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and Zoetrope.My first January in Iowa City, I rented a house from an elderly artist couple who were spending the winter in Spain. I'd been looking for a cheap place to live, and they needed someone to keep their house heated so its hundred-year-old pipes didn't freeze up and burst. A few days after meeting with them, I moved into an antique, three-story Folk Victorian with a painting of a human-sized demonic cat in the entry hall. The house was a writer's paradise - its wide windowsills were crowded with giant spider plants and birdcages. The rooms were divided with sliding wooden doors which disappeared inside the walls. Canvases of psychedelic dreamscapes lay piled in the corners. Upstairs, I found a studio that still smelled of turpentine, with a drafting table perfect for setting up a laptop. In the kitchen, cords of red Christmas lamps shaped like jalapeño peppers hung from the ceiling. The first few weeks, I awoke every morning to the light from the giant bay window, still not believing my luck. I invited friends and cooked dishes with herbs the artists had planted in their window-boxes. Then the first hail storm hit and the sewage pipe in the storage room froze and burst, flooding the whole basement. Because the house's ancient heating system was also in the basement, it became impossible to warm the rooms without drawing up the smell of rot through the iron vents. In the end, I found myself relegated to a single room of my giant mansion -- the kitchen, which I could heat by turning on the stove and opening the oven door. And so, I spent most of the winter at a round breakfast table with my back to an oven, reading. On the artists' shelves, I had found the Selected Stories of Andre Dubus, whom I'd never read before. The first story I turned to was titled, "The Fat Girl." "Her name was Louise," it began. "Once when she was sixteen a boy kissed her at a barbecue; he was drunk and he jammed his tongue into her mouth and ran his hands up and down her hips. Her father kissed her often. He was thin and kind and she could see in his eyes when he looked at her the lights of love and pity."The pleasure of discovering a new writer can quicken your senses. My feet were cold and my back was hot and I had never read anything like this. The prose was practically weightless but as direct as a lance. Here was Louise - a girl who couldn't escape seeing herself as men saw her: the object of a boy's careless, drunken lust and of her father's love and pity. Between these two extremes, one already sensed the gaping chasm, the romantic love for which Louise secretly yearns and which she believes she'll never have.I read on. Louise's high school years are spent going on and off diets. "When she was out of the house," Dubus writes, "she truly believed she was dieting; she forgot about the candy, as a man speaking into his office dictaphone may forget the lewd photographs hidden in an old she in his closet." She chooses a girls' school in Massachusetts for college and when her parents discuss it, "everyone so carefully avoided the word boys that sometimes the conversations seemed to be about nothing but boys." When her roommate, Carrie, discovers Louise's midnight snacking, she tells her in the dark that should eat chocolates in front of her, whenever she feels like it, and Louise, initially mortified that her "insular and destructive" vice has been exposed, finally agrees. The moment of intimacy between the two friends in the darkness of their dorm room is as poignant as any you'll read in literature. When Carrie finds a boyfriend and Louise grows depressed, her friend decides to help. "I want you to be loved the way I love you, Louise," she tells her, and begins cooking all of Louise's meals on a small stove in their room, serving her black coffee and scrambled eggs every morning, and documenting her weight loss in a journal. Surrendering to her friend's help, Louise begins to see the world in a new way. "The campus was pretty, on its lawns grew at least one of every tree native to New England, and in the warm morning sun Louise felt a new hope." So complete is Dubus' empathy for Louise that a reader senses that he loves her the way God might love mortals - for all the vices that cause them shame, and all the flaws they try to eradicate in themselves. But there is another side to her journey. From then on, Dubus tells us, "Louise entered a period of her life she would remember always, the way some people remember having endured poverty." There's a moment when as a reader you pause and discover that the author has brought you much farther into his vision than you imagined. Louise's ritualistic relationship to food, her battles with her urges, her vowing to set herself along a more abstemious path are like the struggles of a person grappling with her faith, trying to be good in the face of being human. Dubus never resorts to the pseudo-medical language of "dysfunction" and "disorder," never turns to the too familiar vocabulary of "recovery." Instead, the territory he charts is a distinctly religious one. For Dubus, a lifelong Catholic, fiction was first and foremost a moral form. In an interview, he'd once said he didn't know how somebody without a religious or philosophical background could exist in the world without despair. His isn't the sort of writing you can compliment by calling it "impressive" in that it doesn't try to impress on the readers its author's own intelligence. It offers something better than that: a spiritual inquiry into being human that's free of sanctimony. In one of Dubus's most famous stories, "Killings," Frank, the son of a small-town doctor and a music teacher comes home from college to spend the summer working on the boats of their fishing-village and falls in love with an older woman whose ex-husband eventually shoots him. When the local authorities declare the murder an accident, Frank's father, Matt, decides to kill his son's killer to spare his wife the pain of seeing the man walk free. He knows that what he does is both wrong and necessary. He carries out his plans quietly, while his wife Ruth sleeps. When he returns to their bedroom the next morning, Ruth is up, waiting for him. She asks simply, "Did you do it?"If there was ever a story that's evidence to what the short story form can accomplish, "Killings" ought to be one. What novels can't always make immediate, the compression intrinsic to the short story does. The intensity of reading a great story is a little bit, I think, like sitting with your back to an open stove in a cold kitchen, feeling its heat grow hotter against you as you sit still. It's something almost physical, an act of intimacy between you and the writer's words. Dubus reminds me of why I can't bear to be in a room where thirty other people are reclining on folding chairs, listening to a writer read out loud from his work. When reading becomes a communal activity, it's too tempting to treat prose as spectacle, to set people up for punchlines or to feel a need to deliver the kind of redemptive moment we've become so used to from watching TV and the movies.The impact of great fiction is delivered slowly and cumulatively. Of all the arts, fiction concerns itself the most not with what is visible, but what is invisible. It raises the question of who we are underneath the complex mess of our observable qualities: age, IQ, sex and social position. After Louise becomes skinny, she marries a young associate from her father's firm, a man who takes her on foreign vacations and holds her hand on the plane, where she thinks herself "cunning," as if the life she is living isn't really hers. When she tries to recount for him her youth as a fat girl, he gets bored as though she were telling him about a childhood illness. Louise believes that if she can only "command the language" to tell the story of her inner life, her husband "would know and love all of her and she would feel complete." When she begins to gain weight after the birth of their child, her husband treats her with uncomprehending contempt. In turn, she tests the limits of his frustration by getting bigger. Beneath their arguments, Dubus writes, "lay the question of who Richard was." Her husband, Louise knows, can see her only as the slender girl he courted at the wheel of his boat. He cannot love her the way her friend did, and his efforts to help Louise do not approach the "compassion and determination and love," that she remembers on Carrie's face. And so, shedding her disguise as a skinny girl, Louise drives the wedge in further. It is often amusing for me to hear interviewers asking an author about his background or personal life. Readers naturally want to draw connections between the art and the artist and the fascination personal detail is understandable. But reading Andre Dubus, a middle-aged war veteran who was able, with such clarity and compassion, to convey the girlish longing and the steely single-mindedness of an overweight teenager, also reminds you that an author's personal history is possibly the least interesting thing about him. Artists create from a far deeper place than their personal selves, something Dubus probably understood better than anybody.