Works of Love in Nebraska

Wayne Booth

  • Plains Song: For Female Voices by Wright Morris
    Harper and Row, 229 pp, $9.95, January 1980, ISBN 0 06 013047 4

One of America’s three most important living novelists – I’ll let you name the other two – has just published one of the best of his novels. Unlike any other first-class novel we’re likely to see this year, Plains Song sings of life on the American plains. To sing, in the 1980s, about life on the American plains does not exactly put one into the mainstream of American letters. But the pun in Morris’s title is profoundly right: there is, after all, a ‘mainstream’ more enduring than fashions, and this plainsong laments and celebrates lives which in their frequent losses and occasional joys are far less provincial – well, than whatever novel is busting blocks in the week when this review appears. Because Wright Morris accompanies his characters’ beautiful, spare descants with his own loving reminders of why each transient life embodies permanent meaning, we always know that this is not a ‘regional novel’, just as it is not a satiric rejection, like Flaubert’s, of the customs of the provinces.

It is often difficult, in fact, to know whether we are to weep or laugh or groan; all readers of Morris’s novels report that their emotions shift from reading to reading. But nobody claims that these emotions are not powerful. Morris is as far removed as a modern novelist could conceivably be from ‘metafictional’ ploys based on theories that repudiate ‘character’ and ‘story’ and ‘referentiality’. We take his characters seriously, even when we laugh at what they do and say. Both the old-timers and the new-mods are characters, people we care about in the special way that theories of fiction have never been able fully to explain.

Often they are seen for only a moment – for long enough to hint at some hidden message to one of the more important characters. Toward the end of Plains Song, as Morris draws past and present together, Sharon Rose, returning to the plains after a lifetime of trying to escape ‘back east’, struggling to come to terms with the ‘half-submerged’ lives back home, encounters two strangers on the stairs of a horribly plausible convention motel in Kearney, Nebraska.

At the intersection of two hallways, a man and a woman sat on the stairs, the woman sobbing. Her head rested on his shoulder, as he patted her arm. Sharon saw that her clasped hands were trembling ‘Can I help?’ she asked.

The woman shuddered like a cold child. It moved Sharon to take a step closer. The man said, ‘you got any Valium? She’s off it. She’s got the withdrawals.’ Hearing these words, the woman whimpered.

‘What can I do?’ Sharon pleaded.

‘Ma’am,’ he replied, in a gentle voice, ‘what can we do to be saved?’

This astonishing statement startled Sharon, like a sign of life in something believed dead. Much that had happened on this endless day relieved her of a burden she had long carried but had been reluctant to acknowledge.

That’s the last we see of these two lost souls and their mystery. They are here for what they can teach us, by teaching Sharon Rose. ‘She’s got the withdrawals.’ ‘What can we do to be saved?’ The mixture is pure Morris: an eye and ear attentive to the way we look and talk, without ever lapsing into the self-indulgent journalism or sociology that makes up our best-seller lists; a heart and mind determined to face the deepest questions, without ever lapsing into existentialist clichés or easy religious formulae. It is a mixture that has naturally led critics to call him an ‘existentialist’ or a ‘religious’ writer. What other terms do we have for a man who wants us to see every moment, and every detail in every moment – every phrase, every worn shoe or frayed tablecloth or rusted milk pail – as charged with a meaning that nobody, not even the artist himself, can quite articulate? it is not that the characters, whether central or glimpsed only for a moment, are unable to answer questions that their very existence raises. It is that he makes us see why only this kind of narrative can provide a response to such questions without grossly oversimplifying. Like our abiding scriptural narratives, Morris’s novels show us how it is that ‘meaningless’ lives can ‘mean’.

All of the central characters in Plains Song are women. Their menfolk stumble through confused lives on the periphery, while at the centre we overhear, in love and wonder, the women’s voices: haunting, melancholy voices often lamenting, sometimes half-consciously celebrating, life on the American plains. Like Sharon Rose at the end, we are moved steadily to wonder about the spectacle of lives wearing out on the plains.

What there is to lament is clear, as we caves-drop first on the thoughts of Cora, a lonely silent old woman remembering on her deathbed the one thing in her life that could be called an event: her marriage to stolid, decent distant Emerson – remembering her horror on their wedding night, the one and only time he penetrated her six-foot, board-flat frame, bringing them their only child. What happened to her hand, that night? ‘Horse bit her,’ Emerson tells the doctor, ‘tobacco juice oozing at the corner of his mouth.’ Emerson’s lie – in fact, she had bitten her own hand in horror and anguish – had appalled her, but she did not take it as a personal betrayal. He was a man, and spoke this way to other men. As other women had hinted, the time would come when her eyes would be opened and she would be tested. She is to be tested throughout, as life’s losses flow past her.

There is as much to lament in the lives of the other two central women. Madge, Cora’s only child, falls blindly into marriage and child-bearing with a man less taciturn than Emerson, but also less competent and at least as uncomprehending. She moves through another half-submerged life, neither understood nor understanding. Sharon Rose, raised with Madge as a cousin, almost a sister, uses her talent as a musician to escape to higher things: Chicago, Boston, culture. But the escape from the plains – and from the men of the plains – proves illusory. Her song of lament is even bleaker than Cora’s, full of inchoate nostalgic memories of a past that seems blurred, as if it had not quite happened.

The life congenial to Sharon, however melancholy, is the world of phantoms, more alluring than dreams, that impinges on her dreaming. The pervasive tone is a sweet sadness, a pleasurable longing, suffused with drug-like strains of music. Longing for what? Signs are visible. A child is sometimes seen wearing a blindfold, groping about as if for companions. A voice says ‘It is not your longing, but part of the world’s longing.’

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[1] The Man Who Was There (1945), The Inhabitants (1946), The Home Place (1948), The World in the Attic(1949), The Works of Love (1952), The Field of Vision (1956), Ceremony in Lone Tree (I960), Flee Sermon (1971), A Life (1973), and now, Plains Song. Most of these works are available only in second editions, from the University of Nebraska Press. Some are photo-texts – embodying pictures.

[2] Real Losses, Imaginary Gains (collected short stories, 1976). The title does not mean that the gains are illusory.

[3] His other books of critical essays are The Territory Ahead (1958), A Bill of Rites, A Bill of Wrongs, A Bill of Goods (1968) and About Fiction (1975).