Original Sins is a big, fat novel that looks as though it should be sold by weight – ‘a couple of pounds of fiction, today, please.’ It has the air of the novel as commodity, of an item designed to be sold, a programmed bestseller. Amateur Passions is a slender, almost anorexic collection of short stories, each one pared down to the glittering bone, fiction produced by authentic internal compulsion. Although carving on ivory is not the easiest thing in the world, it is possible to maintain a very high degree of quality control over short runs, and Lorna Tracy’s quality control is so stringent that there is not one flabby sentence or second-hand image in the whole book. The same cannot be said for Alther, who is often reduced to stylistic tics such as ‘“I don’t hate men,” said Emily with hatred,’ and, like many American writers, believes it is possible to summon up an entire social ambience by the judicious use of brand names, such as Bass Wejuns and L.L. Bean down vests.
Nevertheless, both writers share a dominant theme – that of, in Paul Goodman’s phrase, ‘growing up absurd’ in the US: growing up under Male Anglo-Saxon Protestant hegemony in a world where the minorities, defined either by sex or race, considerably outnumber the alleged majority. Lorna Tracy approaches the matter like the most elegant of subversives, palming her razor blades. Lisa Alther has tackled it head-on, and it seems to have reduced her to a numbed cynicism.
It is of considerable sociological interest that Original Sins, which describes political radicalism digging its own grave, should swoop up the US best-seller lists at this point in time. The novel sets itself a wide scope, recent American history from the mid-Fifties to the mid-Seventies, taking in the divergences between North and South, black and white, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, Commie-hating, voter registration and the sex war. It is five and a half hundred pages long. It is no mean feat to write such a long novel whilst maintaining a fixed sneer. Such is Lisa Alther’s achievement.
Apart from a certain tempered nostalgia for the landscape of rural Tennessee and Kentucky, and an enthusiasm, albeit tinged with irony, for Women’s Liberation, Alther’s sardonic tone is so all-embracing that one could even suspect the dedication, ‘For my friends and family, who have given me so much help with this book and so much joy in life,’ might be a wry joke. Alther’s antic and mannered narrative style diminishes the exceedingly important issues about which she writes to sets of grotesque attitudinisings. Here is no magnificent failure of an epic panorama, but a mean-spirited disaster – in sum, no more than yet another trashing of radical chic. This might be more gripping had she herself not trashed radical chic already (in Kinflicks), and if the wholesale shift to trendy neo-conservatism, and worse, had not made radical chic seem, with hindsight, positively benign.
The novel takes the form of a family saga. The Prince girls, Emily and Sally, are rich; Raymond and Jed, the Tatro boys, are sons of a loyal employee in the local mill. Donny Tatro is descended from slaves held by the Tatro clan in pre-Emancipation prosperity. All live in a small industrial town in Tennessee. One of the refreshing things about Original Sins is that it makes the Northern states seem a different country to these great-grandchildren of the Confederacy. Alther herself was born in Tennessee.
Innocently colour-blind children of the segregated Fifties, these five are inseparable. But Emily goes north, to college, discovers she is a cracker, compensates via political activism and at last finds herself as a lesbian. Raymond, too, goes to New York, is similarly politicised, returns home to attempt to unionise the mill, and, when that fails, becomes an embittered backwoods recluse. The beer-swilling redneck, Jed, and Sally the prom queen, do marry and stay at home, where they turn from a parodic pair of heavy-petting teens into a parodic Middle American couple. Alther’s avowed sympathy for women appears to evaporate if they put their hair in rollers. Donny also goes to New York, where circumstances transform him from Mr Junior Church Usher into a black militant. The survivors and their children meet uneasily at Jed’s funeral. The children, black and white, make friends at once. The ending is ambivalent; either the children will be able to break the patterns of racism and sexism that have shaped the lives of their parents – or they won’t. But by now the narrative is so limp, jaundiced and exhausted that one has the feeling that Alther doesn’t care what happens to any of them as long as she can get the whole thing done with.
Most of the characters are figures of fun, especially Jed and Sally. ‘Ever since Jed said making love to her was like screwing a corpse, she’d tried to think of ways to make herself more exciting.’ Emily and, to some extent, Raymond are treated less baldly: Alther has bothered to give them both good hearts as well as ample delusions. She considerably modifies her customary facetiousness when she is describing the vicissitudes of Donny and his family, although Donny’s characterisation, most of it done from inside his head, seems to owe a great deal to the white Southerners’ conviction that they, of all Americans, truly understand black folks. Al Jolson’s picture turns up on the wall of the black high school, between those of Booker T. Washington and Joe Louis. What is this? Some kind of a joke? Or, rather shockingly, a genuine slip? Possibly the second – in a novel where lapses of chronological continuity undermine the imaginative coherence of the whole.
Alther’s comic-strip two-dimensionality is not a style that can effectively encompass either strike-busting or rage and despair. Distressingly enough, the final effect of the novel is of exactly the callous indifference that voted in Reagan. She does allow herself to warm a little towards a conspicuous lack of aspiration: towards Donny’s wife, who won’t stop straightening her hair; towards the stubborn hillbillies, who refuse to be told by Raymond what to do with their lives. But she appears to regard with approval only those who acknowledge that their individual actions cannot modify either external events or their own fates. She does make some exceptions for radical feminists, although, given her givens, I can’t think why.
Lorna Tracy’s characters are also locked in frustrated action but the concentrated intensity with which she writes accommodates rage and despair almost too well. ‘ “Surely it was a dog,” thought Mama, “chained to a stake, running in snow, who made the first perfect circle on earth.”’ This is from a sequence, ‘The Mama Stories’, which takes a motto from Henry Miller: ‘there is no salvation in becoming adapted to a world which is crazy.’ Mama is certainly not saved, although Tracy’s ability to salvage ammo from Miller is proof of the resilience of the unregenerate. Recuperating from a sour affair in the company of a couple of imaginary friends, she waits ‘for a fitting with her fashionable little shroud-maker, Ghool’. She is working on her book, The Prevention of Sex, of which the first sentence is: ‘Eros spelled backwards is sore.’ Mama wonders whether she has gone too far. Of course she has: but, as the old song says, when you ain’t got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose. Mama is amazed at how rich her store of nothing is. She explains to her imaginary companions how she always eats the leftover cookie on the plate, to spare its feelings. Mama is now succinctly, eloquently loony, having ascended into the higher absurd.
Tracy is a startling writer because her prose simply won’t lie down on the page but keeps on getting up and drawing attention to itself, socking you in the eye, almost, changing direction and intention at the will of a formidably controlled intelligence. It’s simply not possible to write about new things in old ways, which is an idea Alther is fumbling about with but not getting very far, whereas Tracy seems to be rearranging kinds of narrative in different ways to see what new thing will come out. She wilfully juxtaposes modes. A lyrical evocation of place, of an animal, a bird – a herring-gull with its ‘ivy leaf feet fastidiously tucked up under its ass’ – is judiciously placed next to a piece of surgically precise observation: ‘They hadn’t been lovers very long and the property settlement was uncomplicated ... She mailed the box to Chicago with insufficient postage.’ She then resolves the chord on a joke: ‘Once or twice when it struck her as excessively melodramatic she reminded herself that a woman has to do something of this kind at least once in her life unless she has really exceptional luck.’ And there are wilder jokes, like the shroud-maker, above.
She is an American who has lived in England for years, and distance has not lent enchantment to her vision of the homeland – so much as a furious detachment. The settings of her stories, Manhattan, New Jersey shore, the Mid-West, have the vivid economy of the remembered, pared of inessentials. Her prose is clean as a whistle and has a desperate kind of Baudelairean dandyism – that of someone deliberately buttoning a glove on the brink of the abyss.
Her young women are clever, seductive and financially independent, if in lousy jobs – laboratory technician, librarian. ‘A well-stocked mind in a well-stacked body,’ thinks one of Mama’s admirers, on seeing her with a book. As if on purpose, programmed by some dark cultural necessity, these women involve themselves with dreadful men. ‘The Professor of Civilisation and its Discontents’ in ‘The Spoilers’ has ‘always loved to watch women putting on make-up. The contorted features excited him – the drawn noses, the twisted mouths.’ Another of these cads likes ‘small breasts. If they were bite-sized, he said, they were big enough.’ Her women respond to these indignities with genuine bewilderment and, sometimes, self-treachery, self-deceit. ‘Nobility was the attribute Kathleen invented for Cade.’ Sometimes they finally summon up indignation. ‘I’m free, Doctor. I’m not loose. I am free. Can you perceive, Doctor, that there is a difference?’ Of course he can’t. Besides, he’s already left the room.
They are all terribly lonely, of course, all of them, women and men, an icy solitude of the spirit not at all assuaged by sex. In ‘The Holy Act of Water Contemplation’, two single beds pushed together to improvise a double slide inexorably apart beneath the lovers. Cade, whose lover has invented nobility as his attribute, lies on another hotel bed in his boxer shorts and elastic bandages, verbally raping her. ‘Once she had called him tender, gentle, considerate. Now he gloried to show her how mistaken she had been.’ Does she tell him to go screw himself? Does she hell.
The Lorna Tracy woman is like the child in ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ – except that the more she says, ‘But the emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!’ the less she is apt to be believed, until she starts to doubt the evidence of her own eyes. And, quite simply, this is what it feels like to be on the underside of Male White Anglo-Saxon hegemony. You don’t even feel oppressed, most of the time. You just feel bewildered. Like when the Moral Majority says that it wants to ban abortion to prevent the birth of illegitimate babies, that if you stop unemployment benefit, people will go back to work.
This quality of the wise and totally discredited child is demonstrated most graphically in ‘While Nancy listened on the bed’, a Paris Review-style interview between ‘the English novelist, Asa Huntley’, and a brace of sycophantic American academics. Mrs Nancy Huntley sits on the motel bed while the men discuss intellectual things. Her interior monologue weaves in and out of the showing-off. ‘Ace said to me: we’ll share our lives. You cook and I eat.’ She never speaks, out loud, nor is she invited to speak. ‘Asa, at the beginning of our discussion, you accepted my suggestion that your style could be described as Eclectic Fragmentationalism.’ ‘The ability to endure monotony,’ thinks Nancy, ‘is said to be a feminine characteristic.’ ‘Asa,’ twitters a fan, ‘I keep returning to your fundamental affirmativeness ...’ ‘The emptiness,’ thinks Nancy, ‘I sense sometimes just the other side of all these words.’
The story is a tour de force, although a rather specialised one: perhaps one needs to have spent some time in university literature departments to savour it fully. Nevertheless, its core is a diamond-hard nugget of nihilism. The child can no longer so much as be bothered to point out that the emperor is naked. Nobody listens, or has ever listened: all the same, the child knows.
It is the mineral intransigence of this lonely integrity that makes Amateur Passions so extraordinary, so exhilarating, so comfortless. Tracy seems to be saying, not ‘There is no hope for us,’ nor even ‘There may be hope somewhere, but not for us,’ but ‘Only when we’ve lost hope altogether can we begin.’ Begin what? That’s another question.