I love references, how they operate like conversational shorthand. When I describe the main character of The Invitation as “a store-brand Chris Stapleton,” I feel clever and efficient. If brevity is the soul of wit, then references are the bees of conversation, pollinating subjects by imbuing them with meaning from someplace else. Of course, the trouble with references is how they rely on a shared cultural vocabulary, and what’s double is that often my most apt referents are obscure. For better and more often worse, I forge ahead. (Oh, to hell with universality!) I watch Raising Arizona and ask my wife, “is that John C. Reilly on a motorcycle?” She thinks I’m serious. I say my 4-month-old daughter’s flailing arms remind me of Joe Cocker and my friend humors me with a closed lip smile, but I doubt his familiarity with “Space Captain.” After reading a profile in the New Yorker, I tell my coworker that Poo-Pourri’s founder seems like “a cross between Tony Robbins and Aldous Huxley,” and from her expression I know I’ve failed.
“Sick reference, bro,” says Jonah Hill in This Is the End, just before high-fiving Jay Baruchel. “Your references are out of control; everyone knows that.” (Oh, to always hit the mark!) Yet how deceptively difficult: to connect two far-flung details takes skill, but to correctly guess beforehand that both details are known by your peers…Reader, that’s genius. All year, I’ve drawn parallels and blasted them out like buckshot, unsure if most will stick. I’ve bridged gaps ignorant of whether people know what lies on the other side. I say things like, “Tolstoy is to Sunset Boulevard as Dostoevsky is to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane,” and I want people to understand not only the antic madness of the latter, but also that I obviously prefer Dostoevsky. Alas, when I’ve done so in person, I’ve mostly misfired. When I’ve done so on Twitter, I’ve earned modest faves. Maybe here I’ll do better.
In the recognition of patterns, the world is enriched. In the recognition of too many, things get weird. One of my neighborhood’s dividing lines is Falls Road. To the east lies a hip neighborhood filled with artists and yuppies. To the west is what my realtor calls “little West Virginia.” Farther outside of Baltimore is a place called Dundalk, which some say is lousy with “waterbillies.” How uncanny, then, to sit on my porch reading Patrick Radden Keefe’s superb Say Nothing, in which Falls Road bisects the Catholic and Protestant sides of Belfast, and in which gun runners go on the lam in nearby Dundalk, County Louth.
Native Baltimorean Adrienne Rich wrote of “that estranged intensity / where [man’s] mind forages alone,” and I think of that when my references don’t work. I also thought of it when, midway through her Selected Poems: 1950-2012, I read “An Atlas of the Difficult World,” set in the American southwest—chiefly because it reminded me of another book, the best one I read all year. “This is the desert where missiles are planted like corns,” Rich wrote of an area near New Mexico, and voila, there I was, foraging alone in my recollection of Joshua Wheeler’s Acid West.
Maybe I like Wheeler’s essays so much because they, too, are stuffed with references. His essays position New Mexico as the spoke of the weirdest wheel on earth, just as Sam Anderson’s Boom Town positioned Oklahoma City as the country’s microcosmic center. Both books demonstrate there’s no such thing as insignificant detail; all seeds blossom in time. “When you encounter something seemingly meaningless, you can accept the numbness of it or ache for profundity,” Wheeler wrote. “I tend toward the ache.” (Hear hear.) Wheeler’s book has the additional allure of dwelling on one of my fascinations: maudlin drinking. (His acknowledgements page shouts out four different dive bars.) “I don’t want her money,” Wheeler wrote about his grandmother, who tried to offer him some. “I’d only waste it at the bar, trying to drink myself into the future.” That line sounds straight out of The Big Clock, Kenneth Fearing’s spectacular noir novel, which like Wheeler’s book punctuates many of its drunken asides with the phrase, “Well, all right.”
Speaking of alcohol, Hamm’s had a big year with me. There it was in Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism, which I wish the Coen Brothers would adapt. There it was again in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, being sold cheaper in an Arizona bar than at the Crest Cafe from A Woman Under the Influence. While watching the latter film I thought, I’ve read Lucia Berlin before.
Frank Bidart wrote, “there is a beast within you // that can drink till it is // sick, but cannot drink till it is satisfied.” In Turtle Diary, Russell Hoban’s protagonist says, “I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself.” To thirst endlessly and to flirt with oblivion: these are the impulses pulling men together in Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special, the second-best book I read this year. (Those themes also power Lindsay Hunter’s Eat Only When You’re Hungry, which I read last year but need to shout out again.)
Sometimes I observe superficial patterns, and other times I observe something deeper. Reading Jia Tolentino’s “Ecstasy” essay in Trick Mirror, which is about church, that eponymous drug, Houston, and DJ Screw, I wished I was back in school so I could write about it being “in conversation with” the first story in Jennine Capó Crucet’s How to Leave Hialeah, which is about church, that same drug again, Miami, and Celia Cruz. Reading Franny Choi’s Soft Science, which was sublime, I thought a lot about the android personae in Janelle Monae’s first album, which was as well. Reading Karen Russell’s “Tornado Auction” in Orange World, the third-best book I read this year, I thought not only of its inspiration, a photograph by Andrew Moore, but also of how that fondness for twisters is echoed by lines in “Tornado Season” from Bruce Snider’s Paradise, Indiana: “I wanted to be carried— / green sky, sudden hail—with everything / I knew: blue spruce, white pine, the grey- / shingled bars of Whitley County, face / of the barber and his sharpened razor, / Marie at the Waffle House, Beau / Tucker over mufflers in his shop.” Come to think of it, 80% of the reason I bought Colette Arrand’s chapbook The Future is Here and Everything Must be Destroyed was because its cover referenced Waffle House. I’m glad I did it, and you should do the same.
Other times I observe patterns that are thematic. I think the moss hunter in Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory belongs in the canon of workplace weirdos alongside the levitating accountant in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, the psychotic closet-dwelling scientist in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, the dude with the “bee-beard” in that story from Ryan Boudinot’s The Littlest Hitler, the obvious scammers skulking about Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void, and frankly everybody in Helen Dewitt’s Lightning Rods. From now on, when I mention this specific sub-canon, you’ll get the reference.
Elsewhere constellations were mapped by sheer happenstance. It was serendipity that my daughter, born about a week ahead of schedule, arrived one day after I watched Eraserhead, the world’s worst movie to view in those circumstances. Not two weeks prior, I’d finished Ironweed, which bears the same mantle among books. Fortunately, before both I’d read three books that, in their open dealings with its associated anxiousness, actually braced me for the realities of parenthood. Many reviewers have remarked on the titular story in Karen Russell’s Orange World being a parable of motherhood, but similar themes actually coarse through the entire book. In fact, the most affecting treatment of fatherhood I’ve ever read was in the tornado story I just referenced above. Also, while I enjoyed Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State and Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything enormously when I read them months before, it was not until those first weeks home with my new daughter that their powers were revealed. This is why I tell people now: whether you’re expecting or not, these books are outstanding. They will whisper to you down the road.
Most of the references that occur to me elude easy explanation, making them impossible to drop in casual conversation. Suffice it to say that, in one story in particular, Taeko Kōno’s Toddler-Hunting gives off big Takashi Miike vibes. Suffice it to say that the best sections of James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men would rival the best sections of John McPhee’s Coming Into the Country were it not for Agee’s leering horniness. Suffice it to say that the narrator in Ryan Chapman’s Riots I Have Known reminds me of Sideshow Bob in a good way. (Writing to Selma Bouvier from prison: “Your latest letter caused a riot in the maximum security wing of my heart.”). Suffice it to say that when I read Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, I was struck by the line, “A bore at home, he transformed in the city. // What’s yours at home is a wolf in my city” because it made me think about how in life most men are Kevin Finnerty while in their minds most men are Tony Soprano in Las Vegas. Suffice it to say, suffice it to say, suffice it to say…
“No one ever came to my door in searching – / for you, no one, except for you -,” wrote Canisia Lubrin in Voodoo Hypothesis. There’s a recursive desire to move inward, to burrow, to coil like the Guggenheim in Bilbao. When I tell you this line haunts me as much as the one on the second page of Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers, I mean it, and I want you to know them both automatically; I don’t want to explain them further. “Some people say history moves in a spiral,” wrote Ocean Vuong in On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, a novel which deliberately lacks conflict. Of all these forms, Jane Alison’s Meander Spiral Explode has much to say, because Alison’s book is one that identifies patterns, that draws upon references to do so. It was the fourth-best book I read this year. In college, she read us a story about the Guggenheim in Bilbao.
Every day I wonder about the threshold of commonality required to make casual references, because every day I read references to supposedly canonical things I fail to grasp. These can be low-brow: if you’ve ever referred to Saved by the Bell, you’ve lost me, because I’ve never seen it. Ditto pro wrestling. These can also be high-brow: Few allusions to Greek philosophers work on me; I don’t know enough Shakespeare to get most mentions of him. Still, I possess references you cannot possibly know. Before beating USC, Vince Young said he warmed up to a chopped and screwed version of T.I.’s “Tha King.” That’s stuck with me since tenth grade. It’s been my warm-up song since—for everything, even pumpkin picking. There are some things we never lose. You might say Twitter is a project of crowdsourced reference-making: the most basic and universal observations go viral because they are the most widely understood, while deeper cultural in-jokes amuse only niche audiences—if that—even when their connections work much better. All of us are in our own orbits with the world, each viewing but one face of the cultural sphere. The one I see will always be different from yours, but damned if I won’t try to show it to you.
At the local brewery some months ago, I sat next to a guy in a Mississippi State quarter-zip while he waited to fill his Mississippi State-branded growler. (We were nowhere near Mississippi.) The speakers played Vampire Weekend. I put down The Last Whalers because I got distracted by reality: my coworker is the sister of Mississippi State’s basketball coach, and Ezra Koenig quoted my stepbrother in our high school yearbook. (Life’s rich pageant!) Who could read about Lamalerans at a time like that? As always, who can think of anything but that line from Brian Phillips’s outstanding collection Impossible Owls, the fifth-best book of my year: “What overwhelms is not the meaninglessness of the universe but the coexistence of an apparent meaninglessness with the astonishing interconnectedness of everything.”
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John Cheever may be the most misunderstood and miscategorized important American author of the 20th century. On three separate recent occasions, and many more times over recent years, I have read articles/interviews that group him stylistically with Raymond Carver. This is mystifying: one would be hard-pressed to think of a body of work more antithetical to Carver’s spare, working-class realism than Cheever’s elegant, upper-class fabulism, where nymphs come to life and families vacation in Italian seaside villages. I can only guess this very bad comparison stems from people not actually having read Cheever, while knowing that 1) he and Carver were drinking buddies at Iowa, and 2) both of their names begin with C and end with VER.
He is often also (mis)paired with Richard Yates, a more understandable comparison. Both men served in the Second World War and chronicled the roiling fault lines beneath the tranquility of New York’s far suburbs. Both men were impeccable stylists, although Yates tended toward a rhetorical stylishness powered by limpid prose, while Cheever was, like John Updike, an extravagant sensualist, both in subject matter and descriptive tendency. Both men enjoyed their greatest success with novels, while exerting their greatest artistic mastery in the short story form.
But Yates’s world, however dated it may be in 2017, is the world we live in. Cheever’s is not our world and never was. I have no way to verify this, but I suspect in the ’50s he was misread as well, though misread more widely. He seems to be writing about the Westchester suburbs — Shady Lawn and Bullet Park, with their sloping lawns and cocktail parties populated by characters recognizable as ur-Don Drapers, ur-Roger Sterlings. Except as we read, the landscape distorts, the familiar becomes strange. Cheever’s stories are, to put it simply, strange, and in them, the Mad Men may really be mad.
Take “The Swimmer,” his most famous and familiar. Neddy Merrill, half-cocked on gin and tonics during a restorative summer brunch at the house of some friends, decides to return home through several miles of Connecticut exurb by swimming the lengths of contiguous pools. Thus begins a minor odyssey during which we watch as Neddy makes his way, first in drunken delight, but then through rainstorms, colder weather, and the hostility of former friends, gradually growing old and infirm, finally arriving home to find it deserted.
What is going on here? In fiction, when unreal elements appear, usually one of two things is happening. In the first case, the unreal actually is real. This describes much of genre fiction, in which the reader expects vampires and aliens to appear — would, in fact, be disappointed if they didn’t. In literary fiction, too, the unreal may be introduced with a straight face, for effect. Magical realism depends on the introduction of a fantastic element into otherwise grim reality, for instance in Gabriel García Márquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.” The appearance of an angel in a poor Colombian village creates a host of consequences, though a crucial difference between magical realism and, say, fantasy, is that in magical realism the narrative is primarily interested in the village, while in fantasy the author would focus primarily on the old man, his wings, how he got them, and what his home world is like.
More typically, in literary fiction, the fantastic occurs as a manifestation of the main character’s disordered psychology. In close third person, the narrative is so intimately linked to a protagonist’s point of view that the world appears in subjective terms, and if the main character is sufficiently disoriented — drunk, delusional, or simply experiencing very heightened emotion — aspects of their immediate surroundings may become distorted in a way that reveals their mental state. In William Kennedy’s Ironweed, Francis Phelan, an itinerant, guilt-wracked alcoholic sees the ghosts of dead people he’s known, some of whom he killed. Although the narrative never states that they are apparitions deriving from his fear and shame, it doesn’t need to: we are able to read them as having a kind of immediate corporeality, at least to Francis, while still being utterly unreal, figments.
So which of the two is happening in “The Swimmer?” Well, neither, really. On the one hand, it is impossible to read “The Swimmer” and think that the main events of the story are happening as described — that, in the course of a single afternoon, a man ages 30 years while becoming increasing destitute and reviled — unless we believe Neddy Merrill has entered some horrific parallel universe. On the other hand, it is equally impossible to read the events of the story as merely a manifestation of Neddy’s mental state. He’s been drinking as the story starts, but not that much. He is happy, overwhelmingly content in his life, really. Even if we were to read the story as a projection of Neddy’s subsumed life anxieties, it is impossible to imagine him projecting a vision of the world this entirely altered.
Neddy finds himself in a third situation, a Cheeverian zone of strangeness between the actual and imagined, crucially of both and neither. Although Cheever makes frequent use of mythical tropes and creatures, it is not myth, not purely figurative. It is not magical realism because the strangeness is not intended to be taken literally — strangeness in magical realism is almost always encountered and acknowledged by multiple characters, and is, in fact, a device meant to comment on the interlaced relationships that form a society. Strangeness in Cheever performs the opposite function: it is personal, particular, atomizing.
In another well-known Cheever story, “The Enormous Radio,” a Manhattan couple buy a radio, and enjoy it until it begins picking up the conversations of neighbors throughout their building. The wife becomes obsessive, the husband guilt-ridden. It threatens to destroy their marriage and is returned. As with “The Swimmer” — because the other elements in the story are so prosaic, so local and identifiable — it is very hard to read the story as intending the reader to believe in a magical radio. But also like “The Swimmer,” the events of the story are too sharply defined and internally consistent to be written off as mistake or delusion.
The closest available description is dreaming — Cheever’s protagonists often feel as though they’ve slipped into a dream, their own or someone else’s. And yet this doesn’t seem exactly right, either. The fantastic does seem to be happening, but in an intensely subjective sense, as characters’ fears and desires warp the sturdy fabric of their previously staid realities. Cheever’s preferred locales — Manhattan, Ossining, Italy — deform like wax effigies, exposed to the heat of a character’s sudden lusts.
This deformation is grotesque and startling in stories like “The Swimmer” and “The Enormous Radio,” and in less famous pieces like “The Chimera” and “Metamorphoses.” But many of Cheever’s less fantastic works operate in the same mode, if quieter. “The Country Husband” begins with Francis Weed nearly dying in a plane crash. He returns to Shady Hill to find everything subtly altered — more vivid, shot through with erotic feeling, uncomfortably alive. This reads as standard narrative strangeness, i.e. a man has undergone trauma and found his perspective changed. But the next evening, Francis and his wife attend a neighborhood cocktail party, and we find ourselves in a zone of distorted reality. Francis suddenly recognizes the neighbors’ maid: when he was serving in France during the war, a French woman who’d been having relations with a German officer was forced to march naked through the town square. The maid is that woman.
Normally, we would ascribe such an unlikelihood as a misperception on Francis’s part, but Francis asks after the maid and the hostess confirms she was hired from the same small town in Normandy — Trénon — where Francis had been stationed. Misperception is eliminated as an explanation — it is, we are reassured, the same woman. But this seems wildly improbable, especially given that Francis has just had a paradigm-shifting experience, one that has tilted him toward the mysterious and sensual. A woman is sexually humiliated during the war; years later she reappears in a Westchester suburb, pouring brandy and coffee and serving as an emblem of the main character’s thwarted sexual energy, which later manifests itself in clichéd lust for the babysitter.
While many writers could write the near-crash and subsequent vivification of their protagonist’s senses, it is uniquely Cheever to present the maid as a new fact of the landscape and leave the reader to deal with it. What is she doing there? She is real and she is impossible, or so improbable as to amount to the same. Again, like a heavy ball bearing rolling across a piece of tautened cloth, the weight of a protagonist’s anxious desire seems to have distorted the physical reality of his surroundings. In the end, Francis visits a psychiatrist and addresses himself to basement woodworking, a wholesome pastime that also sees him sequestered from the outside world — not in self-protection, but rather, one senses, protecting Shady Hill from himself in a kind of erotic quarantine.
The cumulative effect of these individual fantasias is, paradoxically, a strengthening of the apparatus of social realism in Cheever’s work. As in “The Chimera,” when a dream woman emerges from the woods surrounding the home of an unhappily married man, these events are oppositional in nature to the backdrop of reality and routine. The plots of many Cheever stories are, in effect, aberrations, and they do not last. The maid vanishes into the unnoticed shadows of suburban domestic life, and the radio is returned to the store. The fantastic in Cheever is intense, but it is not durable. In the end of most Cheever stories, the force of social expectation tends to smooth these abnormalities over, though it is not always clear how we’re meant to feel about this. At times we sense an opportunity lost; at times the story itself seems to breathe a sigh of relief as the normal rhythms of life reassert themselves.
As a social critic, Cheever can be read, therefore, as simultaneously transgressive and conservative. On the one hand, the twin treadmills of suburban family life and postwar American consumerism stifle the human spirit. These visions represent a reaching beyond the borders of societal expectation for something rare and ineffable: sexual, religious, often both. The implication being that there is no adequate means for people to fulfill themselves within the boundaries of their normal life. Once a Cheever protagonist deviates, they deviate wholly, as in “The Housebreaker of Shady Hill,” in which Johnny Hake is fired and begins plundering the homes of his neighbors for cash. A corollary implication here would be how thin the line is between normal and the freakishly abnormal, how little occupiable space exists between the two.
But this view of life, with the forces of madness held at bay only by an adherence to work and marriage is, itself, inherently conservative, in both its diagnosis of disease and prescription for cure. After all, given a binary choice between dull routine and utter chaos, most people will chose the former, and this mostly holds true in Cheever’s stories. Johnny Hake is wracked with guilt and, reinstalled in his previous position, returns the money he’s stolen. Francis Weed takes up penitent basement carpentry as a dull corrective while outside, dryads caper in the moonlit shadows of his garden. In a similar backyard, the Chimera, Olga, emerges a last time from the edge of darkened woods, staggering and bleeding, seemingly battered by her imaginer’s self-judgment.
It is the tension between these two countervailing urges — the urge for freedom and the urge for safety — that lends Cheever’s work much of its enduring power. Though social norms have changed dramatically in the 50 years since his heyday, we still negotiate this axis of desire in our lives. We still veer wildly into chaos and overcorrect back into predictable routine. To survive the mundane crush, we daily create little fantasies that must be destroyed by nightfall.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
When I write fiction, at least a first draft of something, I try not to think too much. Or maybe it’s that I try to keep my thoughts small: words, images, rhythms, a character’s particular way of holding a key. I try not to think about the symbolic meaning of said key—if keys keep showing up, I try not to think about why. In revision, sure. The keys will have to go. But for the first draft I willfully maintain a half-state of ignorance. This is how I was able to write basically the same short story twice. (I like to think the second “version,” published years later, is better.) It’s how I build parallels and thematic arcs into my work before I recognize them as such and risk overdoing them. It’s how I got many drafts into my first novel, The Little Bride, before I realized—when my editor brought it up, as a simple matter of fact—that the two central mother figures in the book leave their husbands and children. They don’t say goodbye, or leave notes, or send word of where they’ve gone. They just disappear, and don’t come back.
Initially, I was drawn to Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, by its premise: the book tells the story of the Lees, a multiracial family in 1970s Ohio reeling from the mysterious death of their middle child, Lydia. I found myself reading late into the night, fascinated by Ng’s imperfect characters working their way—imperfectly—through grief, moved by her restrained yet startlingly emotive prose, in awe of her masterful use of an omniscient narrator who switches points-of-view mid-scene as soundlessly as Marilyn Lee opens the door to her daughter’s empty bedroom. Then, mid-book, I found myself holding my breath as the narrative flashed back to one summer, years ago, when Marilyn cooked her family’s favorite meals, dug out her textbooks from her long-abandoned college career, and without a word moved an hour away to Toledo, where she rented an efficiency apartment and attempted to start again as a student.
Eventually, Marilyn returned. The family moved on, not speaking of her disappearance—when we meet them at the beginning of the book, we hear nothing of it. Marilyn’s great defection has been silenced. But of course it hangs over them, as it hung over me. Ng’s portrait of ambivalence is heart-breaking: “often, when she opened her books, Marilyn’s mind whirled. Equations jumbled and rejumbled, hidden messages jumping out at her. NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful…” Marilyn begins calling the house to listen silently to her family’s voices, to get just enough of them to shore herself up—not to face a lover or a boss, but herself.
Literature is full of disappearing mothers. Many of them die—think of all the orphans. A significant number commit suicide, including Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier, and Helen in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Others are forced away by war (Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Amy Bloom’s Away), or oppressive governments (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Other mothers only imagine killing themselves, or leave for a couple hours (Laura Brown in The Hours does both) only to pretend neither happened. Less common are the women who are neither psychically wrecked nor physically threatened but simply and unbearably torn between motherhood and selfhood, tormented by their feeling that the two can’t coexist. These are characters like Marilyn Lee, or the narrator in Alice Munro’s story “Nettles,” whose separation from her husband costs her her daughters, or Leda in Elana Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, whose explanation for her three-year abandonment of her young daughters speaks to the central, wrenching paradox all these authors explore: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.”
Why so much motherly abandonment? It makes for good conflict, of course. It can help define characters and set plots in motion. Most importantly, it’s an act that even in 2014 remains, in many ways, the ultimate taboo.
Granted, plenty of literary fathers leave, too. But when Rabbit goes running, when Francis Phelan tragically drops—and kills—his newborn son and leaves town in William Kennedy’s Ironweed, a reader (at least this reader) feels sorrow, disappointment, grief, a certain amount of anger, but not shock. Their leaving, it seems, in these and countless other stories, is part of their condition. Whereas when a mother leaves, we assume she must defy her very nature.
Celeste Ng –– who was kind enough to correspond with me, via email –– wonders if this assumption lies partly in our—limited—notions of what’s “natural.” She points out: “Plenty of animal mothers leave their offspring as a matter of routine. Harp seals abandon their pups early on. Cuckoos notoriously lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and abandon them—tricking other birds into raising a chick that isn’t theirs. Even cute, cuddly, pandas often have twins and then abandon the one that seems weaker. And many animals, when stressed or starved, abandon their young—or eat them.”
Our tendency to forget this, Ng says, shows up in the first stories we’re told. “Look at the classic children’s book Are You My Mother? The baby bird goes looking for his mother, and because he’s never seen her, he thinks a cat, a dog, a cow, a hen, a plane, a car, and even a boat might be his mother. So from a very early age, we get the idea that without a mother, you have no real sense of self—you have zero idea who you are or what you’re supposed to do in your life. I’m being a bit facetious here—and I’m not saying that we’re wrong about how important mothers are, either—just that mothers hold a very revered place in our culture and our psyche. Maybe that’s why this plotline appears so often in literature. Losing the one person who’s supposed to nurture and protect you in your most vulnerable years—what a fundamental fear.”
This fear belongs primarily—and primally—to children. Which may be why telling the story of a mother’s leaving not from a child’s point-of-view (Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but from the mother’s can feel risky. Writers are all too aware—however hard we may try to ignore it—of the reading public’s impatience with “unsympathetic” characters, and it can be tempting to put sympathy before truth. Ng says that in an earlier, “melodramatic” draft of Everything I Never Told You, Marilyn’s frustrations with her life led to a breakdown and visit to a mental hospital, until Ng took the leap and rewrote her as “a stronger character, with particular desires, who made the choice to leave her family.”
It’s striking, too, that Marilyn bolsters her resolve to leave by thinking of her mother’s old, spine-cracked Betty Crocker cookbook, while in The Hours, Laura Brown urges herself on—and ultimately comforts herself—with Mrs. Dalloway. Emma Bovary, of course, chain-reads romance novels. It’s as if the authors of these books, knowing the challenges they face in portraying mothers who call it quits, brought in iconic texts as units of cultural precedent, backsplashes for the mothers to fling themselves against, asking what they want, and facing what they are.
A mother abandoning her children is an inversion of the orphan tale. It may even feel to some readers like a perversion. It’s a story that’s easy to read and say, without thinking, “I can’t imagine.”
And yet, most of us can. What parent hasn’t at some point longed to flee, even for a day? Parents who are passionate about their work perhaps experience this more acutely. I know I’m guilty of frequent mental abandonment, whether I’m wrestling with a plot problem as my daughter performs “Let it Go” or jotting notes in magic marker for the novel I’m now revising though I’ve promised to draw a tree. I’ve come to accept this as part of the deal, part of my commitment to being both a mother and a writer: I go away in my mind so that I can stay.
I should mention. That novel I’m revising? It begins with a teenage mother leaving her baby in a pear orchard. Don’t ask if I was thinking, when I first wrote this opening scene, about its resonance with my first novel, or all the other novels in which mothers disappear. I wasn’t. But I am now. And I’m thinking about how maybe my cultivated first-draft obliviousness is a little like the trips I take in my mind as a mother: a benign and necessary neglect. If you read the latest woo-woo about parenting, you know that “they” are now recommending we leave our kids alone more, not alone alone, but with enough space that they can figure things out, take risks, make mistakes. Maybe I’ve just known, all along, that my work needs space, too. In any case, I intend to keep up my willed inattention, and let all of us—the kids, and the books, and me (me!)—grow strong, and a little wild.
Image Credit: Irina.