When Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade came out in 1976, it was a Book of the Month Club selection, alongside Judith Guest’s Ordinary People. Yates—who’d achieved career-making acclaim with his first novel, Revolutionary Road, but less success with subsequent ones—was excited about his expanded readership. But he also called up his editor Sam Lawrence to express his worry that Delacorte planned to market the novel, which follows two sisters from the 1930s to the 1970s, as a “woman’s book.”
Yates was not the first or last male novelist (see also: Franzen) to worry that his work would be diminished by its association with women. Even today, women’s fiction remains a category in publishing—my own books are sometimes labeled that way—and I often wonder what it means. Is it a book that features women? Is it anything I write, because I’m a woman?
I was working on my new “woman’s book,” Dual Citizens, about two sisters and their complicated, life-long bond, when a friend suggested I read The Easter Parade. Like most people, the only Yates I’d read was Revolutionary Road. In the decades since his death in 1992, Revolutionary Road has kept Yates’s reputation alive; according to NPD BookScan, it has sold 483,000 copies in paperback since 2004, with over half of that coming after the release of the film version in 2008. The Easter Parade, by contrast, has sold just more than 10,000 copies in paperback since 2004.
It deserves more readers. I fell in love with it from the dark, once-upon-a-time cadence of its opening sentence: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” If this is a woman’s book, Yates is clear that it won’t be a light-hearted one. Emily and Sarah Grimes grow up with their alcoholic, self-deluding mother, Pookie, in a series of rental homes they can’t afford. Their father, who lives in New York City, is well-intentioned but distant, a copy-man at a newspaper who didn’t amount to much and knows it. The three women form an awkward triad, often struggling to find anything to talk about, yet forever implicated in each other’s lives.
Things look promising when Sarah meets a handsome, genteel neighbor, Tony Wilson. At the start of their courtship, he and Sarah dress up in their finest clothes, walk in the Easter Parade, and are photographed for the rotogravure section of the New York Times. But after this brief high point, the relationship goes precipitously downhill: Tony and Sarah have three children and descend into dysfunctional family life. They drink to excess; Sarah is isolated, her occasional attempts at writing going nowhere; Tony beats her.
Marriage is no happily-ever-after conclusion—it’s a prison that the prisoner has to pretend to enjoy. Little wonder that Emily mistrusts it. When Sarah tells Emily to marry one of her boyfriends, Emily snaps, “‘You’re always telling me to marry people, Sarah. You say that about every man I bring out here. Is marriage supposed to be the answer to everything?’ Sarah looked hurt. ‘It’s the answer to an awful lot of things.’”
They’re both wrong. Emily takes a different path from her sister; smart and studious, she attends Barnard, later working at magazines and in advertising. She has affairs with a number of men, most of them awful. (While I wouldn’t exactly call Yates a comic writer, Emily’s boyfriends star in a number of bleakly hilarious scenes.) Yates narrates Emily’s sexual experiences with frankness, her desire acknowledged without prudishness, and the issues that come along—one of her lovers is impotent, another is bisexual—are treated as matters of fact. She has two abortions, which Yates, again, presents without judgment. For a while she works on an essay about her experiences, and when she puts it away, it’s not because she’s traumatized or fearful of writing about abortion but because she can see, with her editor’s “gelid eye,” that the writing isn’t very good.
Yates based Emily in part on Natalie Bowen, a friend/girlfriend who worked as an editor at Putnam’s, and in part on himself. His own mother, Dookie, shared Pookie’s artistic ambitions and alcoholism, and he and his sister Ruth grew up in an environment that exactly tracks Sarah and Emily’s. The novel remains autobiographical throughout, from Sarah’s move to an under-maintained family estate on Long Island to Pookie’s eventual institutionalization.
In middle-age Emily, Yates’s stand-in, meets Jack Flanders, a poet who also seems a stand-in for Yates, animating a love affair between two versions of the same person. Flanders asks her to accompany him to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he’s been invited to teach for two years. As Jack struggles to work and teach—evoking Yates’s own experience at Iowa, when experimental writers like the Chilean novelist José Donoso competed with traditional realists like himself—he traps Emily in the web of his narcissism and despair. Insisting on writing in the main room of the house, he tells her, “I like being able to look up and see you. Moving in and out of the kitchen, hauling the vacuum cleaner.”
Emily tries to write too, but can’t, and Yates’s portrait of a woman stifled by male ego is so acute here. When she turns down Jack’s proposal of marriage and family and goes back to New York alone, it seems an excellent choice, no matter what the consequences might be.
Of course the consequences, Yates being a poet of life’s everyday brutality, are not good. Emily suffers just as much as Sarah does; her independent life is every bit as poisonous as Sarah’s housebound one. When her nephew Peter tells her admiringly, “You’ve always struck me as the original liberated woman,” the observation lands grimly and without solace.
The Easter Parade covers 40 years of massive social changes in the lives of women, but it offers almost no lengthy descriptions of the era or deliberations on what these changes mean. Instead Yates presents a compressed montage of brisk, vivid scenes, each one a masterpiece of gesture and detail. Late in life Sarah and Emily meet in a coffee shop to discuss the possibility of Sarah leaving Tony. In the middle of the scene, the narrative gaze travels to a booth across the aisle, where “a couple of young lovers were murmuring, side by side, the girl’s fingers tracing little elliptical patterns on the inner thigh of the boy’s tight, well-faded blue jeans.” It’s a tiny but electric shock of youthful sensuality that contrasts sharply with the sisters’ tense conversation. Sarah and Emily are alone together, while sex and pleasure sit nearby, almost close enough to touch.
The Easter Parade may be harsh in the fates it hands to Sarah and Emily, but it’s also even-handed in its treatment of them, two women who straddle the radical shifts of the twentieth century and discover that any path they might take is vexed with difficulty. And though neither of them makes good on their desire to write, Yates never treats their aspirations as foolish. Like the Grimes sisters, the characters in my novel have artistic ambitions that are hard to realize, and in The Easter Parade’s troubled women I found both historical connection and timeless resonance.
Yates himself was hardly a feminist. As Blake Bailey outlines in his well-wrought and wildly depressing biography, A Tragic Honesty, Yates was old-fashioned in his aesthetic and political values, and he was a pretty bad husband too. Yet he also lived his life among women—first his mother and sister, then his two wives and three daughters and assorted girlfriends—and from the evidence he understood a great deal about their lives. I think The Easter Parade is an inadvertent feminist classic, a woman’s book in the best possible meaning of that fraught term.
This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.
Image credit: ASTERISK.
I divide this year’s shortlist into three categories: Tales Well Told, Fun Stuff, and Miracles of Voice.
Tales Well Told includes books with stories that captivated. In some cases I wasn’t sure why I liked the book, but I just wanted to keep reading. More, more! These were the books I left parties early to go home to read (or for which, more likely, I skipped the party), the ones that might have caused me to miss my subway stop had I read them on the subway, but I usually didn’t because I had already read them through the night before. Gripping stories, unexpected turns of plot, I have to know what happens next! More, more, more! Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, which I picked up having been entranced by her reading at last year’s Brooklyn Book Festival; Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, every bit as wonderful as Wolf Hall; two impressive and chilling debut novels: The Kept by James Scott and Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You; Robin Black’s Life Drawing, which I read in one sitting; Elizabeth Kadetsky’s transporting The Poison that Purifies You; Jay Cantor’s Forgiving the Angel: Four Stories for Franz Kafka, hand-sold to me by a very smart bookseller; and Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade, recommended to me by some wise person on Facebook when I said I was looking for something sad — what that man does with dialogue!
I tend to read a lot of Fun Stuff — by which I mean lively work that makes me laugh, enjoyable books, playful books, entertaining and absurd books. Among the best I read this year were Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi; Jeremy Bushnell’s The Weirdness; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; and the brilliant, moving, and otherwise-perfect-in-every-way How to Live Safely in a Science Fiction Universe by Charles Yu.
The largest group of loved books this year and probably every year are Miracles of Voice, almost all of which, perhaps because of their eccentricities, are small press books: Alissa Nutting’s riveting collection Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls; Lore Segal’s witty and sad Half the Kingdom; Jeff Jackson’s startling Mira Corpora; Submergence, J.M. Ledgard’s gorgeous tour de force; Catherine Lacey’s stunning Nobody Is Ever Missing; Kevin Barry’s captivating City of Bohane; and, perhaps above all, Patrick McCabe’s heartbreaking The Butcher Boy, the voice of which stayed in my head for many inconvenient days when I was trying to write my own original pages.
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Old School, by Tobias Wolff:
This limpid novel offers up a vivid anatomy of the adolescent sensibility. The challenge in writing about high-school age kids — particularly the sort of generally well-off and healthy kids that populate this book — is that the whole world lies before them, and even if they fail, they have years to recover. The stakes always feel high to adolescents, but adults tend to look back on all but the worst dramas from that period with the wistfulness of veterans who have stared down life’s real problems. Wolff, though, manages to make the stakes inOld School feel high even to an adult reader by never condescending to his characters. He gives them baroque angsts and passionate urges, but he also gives them a sense of proportion and an innate understanding of their own moral failings. Wolff takes seriously the predicament of a narrator, at any age, who wants more than he has and is willing to sink into a morass of moral turpitude to get it. He allows his narrator to fail and to know that he’s failing. After visits by Robert Frost and Ayn Rand (both personalities are dramatized unforgettably here), some gamesmanship around a chance to meet Ernest Hemingway provides the narrator an opportunity to enact the sort of calamitous bad judgment that can lead to profound regret and tip one over into adulthood. Adulthood, the book seems to argue (and this is where Wolff’s lack of condescension to his teenage characters comes through most beautifully) is just childhood with greater responsibilities and without the benefit of an apparently limitless future. The stakes, we feel at the end of this book, were really as high as they felt all along. The child is father to the man. Our regrets stay with us. Dean Makepeace set up the visit with Hemingway and hinted at knowing him personally, but he had no acquaintance with him. The dean put himself into a mental prison as a result of that bit of dissembling, but how much different is that prison from the tortures of adolescence? We may run from ourselves, Wolff seems to say, but we’ll never get very far — which sounds like a curse, but looks like a blessing at the end of this affecting book.
The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes:
What’s chilling in this book, beyond the dramatization of the way memories are corrupted by time, is the notion that it’s possible to see one’s present self in a positive light and not realize how much one’s own past actions have negatively affected others. The selves we take pride in, the parts of us we’re willing to be readily identified by, this book reminds us, are filtered versions of ourselves. Over the course of the novel, the narrator strips away the layers of his own illusion — or rather, he has them stripped away from him by force. And that is probably what is most disturbing about this beveled gem of a book. We cherish the progressive notion that if there is a moral imbalance in our lives, we will address it, but how can we address what we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the existence of entirely? We bury our mistakes so successfully that we no longer feel accountable for atoning for them. Much of life is a détente between whom we want to think we are and whom we are. This book is a draught of cold air, a slap in the face, a wakeup call.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid:
The way the second-person narration functions in this novel is a thrill to behold. Hamid keeps things tense by keeping them indeterminate. Part of that tension springs from the extraordinary politeness and deliberateness of Changez’s overtures to his unheard interlocutor (“if you will permit me”) which read as sinister somehow — something more out of the register of “The Cask of Amontillado” than any book of etiquette. The very fact that that politeness scans as sinister is part of the driving engine of this book. The frisson one feels in reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist comes from the way Hamid implicates the reader in the narrator’s disillusionment. One is forced to interrogate one’s own assumption — the title leads us to it, archly — that the narrator has chosen the path of jihad. Could he not simply harbor non-violent objections to a way of life he’s come to disagree with? And his interlocutor, about whom we know so little — is he a regular civilian or an intelligence agent of some sort? I was spellbound by the artistry of a book that succeeds at the challenging task of making possible two diametrically opposed interpretations — that Changez is a jihadist, and that he is an ordinary man in an intense conversation who may be being radically misunderstood. As the book approaches its climactic final moment, the pitch of emotions rises subtly, inexorably, and one feels like a lobster in a slow-boiling pot. The book is a triumph of form, but it’s also an opportunity for an extended self-analysis on the reader’s part, and an argument for a more empathetic understanding of the lives of people on the margins.
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell:
So much has been said about this extraordinary book that one wonders what one might add to the conversation. Still, it ought to be observed that in another writer’s hands, this material might have yielded a series of bloodless experiments. Instead, what we have is a full-blooded, big-hearted, human story. Mitchell’s triumph is to make every leap in time, every technological novelty feel utterly necessary, and to wring an astounding amount of emotion out of settings that could easily have felt cold and clinical. By scrupulously rendering the everyday reality of his characters’ lives, Mitchell earns the right to go to outlandish places in his telling. There is no ironic distance from the more conceptual material, no winking at the reader. He’s taking it all seriously, even the oddball stuff. We relax in the hands of a storyteller who will see to every detail and think through the larger implications of every choice. We settle in for the ride. And what a ride it is. One of the under-remarked aspects of this book is what a page-turner it turns out to be, how thoroughly engrossing. Mitchell’s talents seem to know no bounds.
The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates:
A book whose astringent worldview makes Revolutionary Road seem at times almost cheerful. These characters fail each other over and over, and fail themselves. I felt a keen sympathy for the divorced Walter Grimes when he’s visited by his young daughters at work. He’s not a reporter, the way they think he is; instead, he works at the copy desk. He’s not ashamed, just a little embarrassed, but their disappointment is palpable, and it sets the stage for this story of disillusionment on a grand scale. These sisters are estranged early and spend their lives running on parallel paths toward disappointment in men, in marriage, in careers, in life itself. They fail to meet, even when they’re in each other’s presence. There aren’t a lot of people to “like” in this book, but The Easter Parade provides the greatest antidote I can think of to the assertion that a book has to be populated with likable characters for it to be enjoyable. The impossible beauty in Yates’s sentences would be balm enough by itself, but when you combine it with the extraordinary perception about humanity on every page, one is left feeling less alone on the planet knowing that someone like Yates once walked around taking things in and caring enough about people in their flawed humanity to attempt to reproduce them convincingly on the page, however odious they could be at a given moment. He somehow loves everyone, even when he’s skewering them. The gorgeousness of Yates’s prose and the heartbreaking accuracy of his insight into our sometimes-dark hearts provide enormous emotional sustenance. The care he takes in getting his sentences right, in staring accurately into a moment, is its own kind of embrace. One need not get the milk of human kindness from Yates’s characters to get it from his books.
10:04, by Ben Lerner:
Among the many pleasures in reading this astonishingly nimble book is watching to see where this consciousness will take you. There are so many surprises here, so many things seen afresh with that particular sort of attention that Ezra Pound calls for in ABC of Reading, wherein to know a fish really well is to know it back and forth, to study it for weeks until it is a moldering pile of bones, but one has learned something about it. The thing that’s known in this case is the way the mind works, the tortuous byways one’s thoughts can wend on the path to an ever-receding but tantalizing total understanding of the workings of the universe for a fleeting moment. Lerner gives his narrator extreme perceptiveness, hyper-articulacy, great curiosity, and a laconic voice that suggests more emotional exposure at any given moment than he is prepared to handle. The triumph of this book — with its impacted sentences that involute on themselves and interrogate the meanings of words and pack as much signification as possible into each unit of cognition — is to present observations of such freshness, originality, and vivacity that they instantly feel like old wisdom one has had access to for years. Everything in this book one hadn’t seen before Lerner wrote it suddenly becomes an article of longstanding faith, a core principle one has lived by. I was particularly captivated by his discussion of the numinous power in “totaled” art, damaged works that have been declared valueless by an insurance company. Lerner spins the word “totaled” into a captivating riff that extends in several meditative directions. Seeing that art for what it was was just one of many new ways of perceiving the world that this book gave me as gifts. But the greatest gift this book gives is its willingness to slow everything down, to stop time for long enough to get everything thought and everything said that can be thought and said in a given moment. This preoccupation with accuracy and comprehensiveness makes the narrator a prison of his perceptions at times, because he sees with a fly’s eyes, taking in every stimulus around him and folding it into whatever thesis he is constructing in his mind at a given moment. In a culture that insists on speed and thoughtless consumption, Lerner’s willingness to parse a moment down to its component parts is a welcome corrective.
My Sunshine Away, by M.O. Walsh:
This gutsy book (coming in 2015) examines the effects of a rape on both the victim and the community she grows up in in Louisiana. The identity of her attacker is unknown. The narrator is a classmate of hers who also happens to have had an obsessive crush on her for years. Right away, we know we’re in complicated territory. Like Lolita and The Stranger before it, My Sunshine Away understands that every confession is also an attempt to convert listeners to the speaker’s worldview. We’re not sure whether this confession will end in a revelation of evil or renew our faith in humanity, but the deft structural control, artful prose, and extraordinary psychological acuity on display mean we’re riveted either way. As we parse the narrator’s words to determine what he’s capable of, we conspire with him to direct attention away from the person who needs it the most, namely the victim. Walsh captures how the fear of discovery in untidy urges can turn ordinary people into monsters of pragmatism. The last third snaps with a tautness of a thriller, and Walsh keeps the reader guessing until the very end, as the best mystery writers do, but this is literature of the highest order, an elegy for lost youth everywhere and an argument for empathy at all costs. This book asks the essential questions: How much responsibility do we have to each other? Can we reassemble the pieces of broken lives? Walsh hints at answers, but none is more potent than the fact that he’s engaging such profound questions in the first place.
Small Mercies, by Eddie Joyce:
Small Mercies, also coming in 2015, is the Staten Island novel you didn’t know you were waiting to read. It’s also the best novel yet at capturing the human suffering that resulted from the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Rather than writing a safe-remove “systems” novel about the roots and impacts of the attacks, Joyce takes on the more ambitious task of bringing vividly into focus one of the 3,000 people who died that day and the family members and friends who pressed on in the wake of their unspeakable loss. In telling the story of the demise of beloved Bobby Amendola — son, brother, husband, friend, lover of life, Staten Islander, firefighter — and the divergent ways his loved ones responded to it, Joyce tells the story of all New York during that heartbroken, haunted period. Joyce understands the role one’s native place plays in the development of one’s character, and he has a gift for choosing resonant details and peeling back the layers of emotion in ordinary moments. He builds his story around the negative space created by Billy’s absence, alternating perspectives throughout to provide a kaleidoscopic portrait of a people in grief. Small Mercies effortlessly tackles weighty subjects — the value of the bonds of family in changing times, what debts we owe the dead and ourselves, what to make of the American Dream of prosperity in an era when America’s influence is on the wane — without being weighed down by its own seriousness of purpose. The high-spirited characters in this book have such a good time even when grieving that it’s easy to fall in love not only with Billy’s memory, but with most of the flawed-but-human people who will carry that memory around in them for the rest of their days.
Redeployment, by Phil Klay:
Klay does outstanding work to make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar. We think we know war stories, and he makes us see that we don’t know these war stories. Whatever our preconceptions about war are, Klay estranges us from them. The bewildering array of technologies, the arcane system of acronyms, the rules of procedure in the contemporary theater of war, with military contractors, ubiquitous improvised explosive devices, and a direct engagement with civilians that dwarfs even that in Vietnam — all these are, for the reader who has never seen them personally, deeply unfamiliar, and Klay makes that unfamiliarity palpable.
In the end, though, war stories or not, these are stories about people in different states of crisis on either side of a divide, American or Iraqi, and Klay makes their experiences feel familiar enough to allow an enormous transference of empathy. The way the soldiers eat cobbler at the end of “Frago” stands in for so much about the way they try to preserve their humanity in the midst of inhuman psychological challenges. And the end of the title story, “Redeployment,” is a heartbreaker, with the narrator’s mind fuzzy as he tries to remember what he was going to do with the body of the beloved dog he has killed. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the mental disturbance he is going to have to deal with going forward, as he tries to live a normal life.
When the narrator of “After Action Report” says, “It was another three weeks before I got home and everybody thanked me for my service. Nobody seemed to know exactly what they were thanking me for,” it captures the predicament of civilians dealing with veterans in an era when there isn’t pervasive military service, and wars are fought on distant shores for reasons that remain abstract or inscrutable to ordinary people, and the experience of war, in part due to the technological advances, departs so radically from the one described in history books or movies. Part of this book’s argument is that the story of the senselessness of war needs to be told afresh in every generation for it to be heard at all.
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Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade (1976) is a great book by a great writer; on this many agree. Having just read it, I’ll join the chorus. But the experience of reading Yates’s novel was both unsettling and a bit mysterious for me, and as I tried to formulate for myself what the book is, and how it is what it is, I found myself reading the back-cover copy — something I often like to do after finishing a book rather than before, to see how publishers articulate a book’s raison d’etre relative to my own reading experience.
Having myself gone through the process of boiling down a novel to three-and-five-sentence summaries for various purposes, I do recognize that crackle-and-pop and heartstrings will sometimes trump accuracy in crafting these summaries. But in the case of The Easter Parade, these blurby declarations struck me as so off-pitch, that they in fact helped me to clarify for myself just what I think The Easter Parade is, and isn’t.
From the Picador paperback:
“Children of divorced parents, sisters Sarah and Emily Grimes are observed over four decades and grow into two very different women […] Yates’s acclaimed novel is about how both women struggle to overcome their tarnished past, and how both finally reach for some semblance of renewal.”
There are a number of things about this description that bother me.
1. “Children of divorced parents…”
As the introductory clause of the introductory sentence, this phrase implies cause and effect; implies the primacy of their parents’ divorce in determining who Sarah and Emily are, what happens to them, and who they become. But one of the masterful tricks of The Easter Parade is the way in which Yates starts the novel –
“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce”
– then proceeds to tell a story that is anything but the story of children fated by something as singular and abstract as “divorce.” That their restless mother asks them to call her “Pookie” and is obsessed with “flair” and moves them to a new town every year, that their father was a failed writer, unambitious, and died young, that they are coming of age at a time when female independence is exhilaratingly new and frighteningly untested – these are perhaps more accurate starting points for the Grimes sisters’ unhappy fates; and yet still neither do they comprise, in Yates’s novelistic vision, a reductive cause-and-effect universe.
There are many ways in which The Easter Parade could lapse into cautionary tale – divorce screws up your children; don’t drink too much; don’t marry when you’re young; don’t stay single too long; beware of tortured poets and men who obsess over their ex-wives – but Yates is a storyteller, not a moralist, in classic “show don’t tell” style. That bold first line demonstrates his great talent for the roving point-of-view, that is, opening and closing the distance between narration and characters. Who is “looking back”? “Always seemed” to whom? Never in the novel do Sarah and Emily themselves “look back” and say, or think, “it all started with that darned divorce.” (More accurately, the characters and the reader might say that it all started with the Grimes’s doomed marriage – a much more complicated truth for children who realize that they exist only as a result of that doomed marriage). Yates begins the novel with a kind of anonymous, village-chorus narration. For the rest of the novel, as he moves in closer to his characters, we see the difference between the simplicity of distanced, static perception – “it always seemed” – and the complexity of direct experience over time.
2. “[S]isters Sarah and Emily Grimes are observed over four decades…”
This gives an impression of a narratively symmetrical story about two sisters on diverging paths. In fact, The Easter Parade is Emily’s story. When the narration zooms in, it gives us Emily’s point-of-view; we are privy to her thoughts primarily. Sarah’s life is seen by the reader through Emily’s life, and in comparison to it. In other words, Yates’s subject is in part this radically new world for (unmarried) women; thus it is Emily’s experiences and vantage point that he gives us in detail.
At the same time “observed” is an interesting way of describing the novel’s style. Excerpts from reviews (also from the back cover) that capture this style well include “spare yet wrenching” (New York Times) “astonishing sweep and weight” (Stewart O’Nan), “force and simplicity” (SF Sunday Examiner & Chronicle). That their lives are “observed” speaks to the novel’s pacing – the way Yates “sweeps” over the characters’ lives, and the passage of time, in brush strokes that are somehow both broad and intricate, light and dark. And even as The Easter Parade is largely Emily’s story, Yates often narrates her experiences as a close, over-the-shoulder observer rather than from within her mind or emotions, and at a brisk pace. In high-tension scenes where another author might delve into interiority, Yates opts for unembellished dialogue:
“Oh,” he said. “Oh, Emily, I love you.”
“No, no; don’t say that.”
“But it’s true; I have to say it. I love you.”
He lay mouthing and sucking one of her nipples for a long while, stroking her with his hands, then his mouth went to the other one. After a long time he rolled partly away from her and said “Emily?”
“I’m sorry, it’s – I can’t. This happens to me sometimes. I can’t.”
“I can’t tell you how sorry I am; it’s just one of those – Does it make you hate me?”
“No, of course not, Andrew.”
With a great deflating sigh he heaved himself up and sat on the edge of the bed, and he looked so dejected that she put her arms around him from behind.
“Good,” he said. “That’s nice. I like to have you hold me that way. And it’s true; I do love you. You’re delightful. You’re sweet and healthy and kind and I love you. It’s just that I can’t seem to – demonstrate it tonight.”
“Sh-sh. It’s all right.”
“Tell me the truth. Has this ever happened to you before? Has a man ever failed you this way before?”
“You’d say that even if it wasn’t true. Ah, God, you’re a nice girl. Listen, though, Emily: it’s a thing that only happens to me sometimes. Do you believe that?”
Emily has several love affairs throughout the novel; each one features a few scenes like this, in which Emily’s speech and actions are minimal, her thoughts barely expressed. And yet the weight and depth of sadness are unmistakable – even more so as she grows older and we become familiar with the patterns Yates establishes for her affairs: like Tolstoy’s families, each one of them unhappy after its own fashion.
3. “… how both women struggle to overcome their tarnished past, and how both finally reach for some semblance of renewal.”
This is perhaps the most egregious part of the summary, the part that smacks most obviously (and comically) of advertising-speak. For the Grimes sisters, it is not so much their past that is tarnished or that needs to be overcome, but rather their present; and in Emily’s case – as the only surviving Grimes by the novel’s end – her future. Tao Lin has brought to our attention that the novel’s title refers to an event that occurs in the beginning, when Sarah and Emily are young, when Sarah and her soon-to-be husband Tony are beautiful and perfect and in love; when their lives are in fact as yet untarnished, by alcohol, brutality, unrealized ambitions.
As for “reaching for renewal,” this phrase feels especially cheap. The Easter Parade is a book that you fly through on wings, at Yates’s swift, fluid pace, with a sense of barely skimming the surfaces; often you feel something like the “ease” of reading that is associated with chick lit, that flitty propulsion that keeps one turning the pages (I read The Easter Parade in two afternoons). But all the way through, and with greater force once you’ve closed the book, you feel a relentless, penetrating sadness breaching those surfaces. This is not a book about renewal, but about hard reality – “shown” unflinchingly, not “told” with commentary, and decidedly not reaching for much more than a recounting of lives just as they are.
In the end, Sarah dies an ugly, unredeeming death, shrouded in the possibility of domestic violence as its cause. Pookie dies alone in a state institution, out of her mind, as far from realizing her dreams of “flair” and sophistication as one could imagine. Walter Grimes is long dead, having lived an unremarkable “workaday” life, failing to either finish college or advance past ”only a copy-desk man.” Emily finds herself bitter, vulnerable, utterly alone, verging on madness, as she nears the age of 50. “I’ve never understood anything in my whole life,” she says to her nephew, a kindly and seemingly well-adjusted Episcopalian priest, after hurling a heap of irrational accusations at him.
Is Emily’s admission in the last lines of the book a “reaching for some semblance of renewal”? Perhaps. To me it reads more like a resignation, or a surrender. I see Emily ceasing to fight, or strive, or to find meaning or cause in things. I see her accepting her nephew’s kindness, but not his religion nor his vocabulary of spiritual hope. I see her living not much longer, passing from this world with only one certainty, which is her lack of understanding.
And yet strangely, somewhat magically, for all its non-overcoming, non-reaching bleakness, The Easter Parade leaves me with that feeling of flight, of lightness – doubtless Yates’s intention in choosing his title. For it is the very feeling that I imagine Emily will suddenly have, and just as quickly lose, when she opens her nephew’s old copy of the NY Times, the one that features a photo of young Sarah and Tony at the Easter Parade, all those years ago, “smiling at each other like the very soul of romance in the April sunshine.”
Tao Lin’s new novella, Shoplifting from American Apparel, is about a young writer named Sam who, for mysterious reasons, steals from American Apparel repeatedly and unsuccessfully, and lands himself in jail. The story is told a spare, unemotional voice that is, at turns, funny and strange and yet somehow casts a melancholy light over the characters. Here, I ask Lin about his choices in crafting the book. Lin is also the author of four other books including a novel, Eeeee Eee Eeee, and a story-collection, Bed. He has a blog and a Twitter account.
Deb Olin Unferth: In Shoplifting from American Apparel I notice you give as much narrative weight to the episodes where Sam is in jail as you do to the places where Sam is doing more mundane activities, such as going to Gainesville or chatting online with a friend. Why is that?
Tao Lin: I wanted to try to write from a more distant and inclusive perspective, and to the most inclusive perspective (the universe itself) everything has the same value. I think I wanted to do that, in part, because it’s a way of viewing things that is consoling to me, because it makes it so how one feels, in whatever situation, is determined by how one wants to feel or decides to feel, or how one decides to view the situation, not by what the situation is. So when conventionally bad things happen one can view it neutrally and not feel bad.
DOU: Was your interest in the title you chose due to the sound and meaning of the phrase, the catchiness and humor of it, or did you choose it to direct our reading of the story, as in, to call our attention to certain parts of the book—the shoplifting and jail parts—and point to them as significant in a plot that is otherwise unhierarchical?
TL: I sort of modeled Shoplifting from American Apparel’s title on Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade’s title. The Easter Parade’s title references an event about 20% into itself, in which the two main characters (who from that moment forward have, from certain perspectives, very depressing lives), I think, are at an Easter parade and happy, or at least content and calm, and, it seems, looking forward to the rest of their lives with some degree of optimism. The Easter Parade’s title therefore directs the reader, after they have finished the book, or whenever they think about the book, to the idea that the climax of the main characters’ lives occurs 20% into the book, when they are around 18 I think, in a book that ends with the main character at age 50, which to me is affecting, both in terms of me thinking about the characters’ lives and that Richard Yates’ wanted to direct the reader to that.
Shoplifting from American Apparel’s title also references an event that is about 20% into itself. But due to the nature of the novella, that it treats events the same, with the same amount of attention, and without any sentences about the characters’ thoughts or feelings, so you don’t know if they’re happy or sad, it is less referencing a time of happiness in the past than just neutrally referencing a time in the past.
Shoplifting from American Apparel’s title is me saying “time is passing, which is affecting, to me,” whereas, in my view, The Easter Parade’s title is Richard Yates saying “the climax of these characters lives occurred early in their lives, and time is passing, which is affecting, to me.”
DOU: In Shoplifting from American Apparel time shifts unexpectedly. A paragraph may open with “Four months later…” and it feels strange because we had thought we were in the middle of a scene or a situation. The choice seems almost random, not as if it is random, but as if you may have meant it to seem random, to give the suggestion of randomness. Do you mean to do that? Or what effect do you hope to achieve?
TL: When I work on a book such as this one, where the sentences are simple and literal and concrete, and not a lot of time is spent on the words within the sentences, the work I do is mostly on trying to achieve a level of non sequitur (or “randomness”) from sentence to sentence and scene to scene that is consistently “not normal.” I try to make the entire book exhibit a consistent level of non sequitur, ideally the same level of non sequitur from sentence to sentence as scene to scene. I hope to achieve, by doing this, a quality of rereadability due to the book seeming weird or aberrant, to some degree, like it has its own rules that seem to make sense to itself. In a fantasy book, one would create weirdness or uniqueness by changing the physical rules of the universe or changing the concrete details of the universe. In Shoplifting from American Apparel I wanted to create uniqueness by changing the “experience” of the universe, by making it consistently jarring or illogical from sentence to sentence and scene to scene and therefore, if I’m successful, and if one acquiesces while reading to the “rules” of the book, not jarring or illogical (due to it being consistently jarring and illogical), just different.
DOU: What can you say about the ending? Why did you choose to end where you did?
TL: To me, the book, in its lack of rhetoric, and lack of focus on anything else but what I’m about to type, has a kind of theme maybe: that I’m aware of the passage of time and it is affecting to me. The ending is affecting to me because it references childhood in a non-rhetorical and almost “accidental” way. After reading the last line I think about the past but also about the present as the future’s past. The question at the end of the book sort of implies to me another question that would be something like “what did you want to be when you were 25?” which Sam’s age at the end of the book.
DOU: How, to you, is Shoplifting from American Apparel different from your other books?
TL: It has a more consistent and extreme and sustained prose style. It has a more consistent tone. It doesn’t have any sentences about characters’ thoughts or feelings. It has little or no sentences that I feel embarrassed to read aloud. It has no em-dashes and I think no semi-colons.
But overall I think I still view it as the same kind of book as my other books because to me it is conveying the same philosophies and thoughts and feelings about life as my other books, just using different strategies to do so.