Adele goes West

Mark Lambert

  • Anywhere but here by Mona Simpson
    Bloomsbury, 406 pp, £11.95, June 1987, ISBN 0 7475 0017 7
  • Herself in Love by Marianne Wiggins
    Collins, 184 pp, £9.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 00 223147 6
  • Journey of the Wolf by Douglas Day
    Bodley Head, 235 pp, £10.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 370 31064 0
  • Spanking the maid by Robert Coover
    Heinemann, 102 pp, £8.95, February 1987, ISBN 0 434 14289 1
  • A Night at the Movies, or, You must remember this by Robert Coover
    Heinemann, 187 pp, £12.95, August 1987, ISBN 0 434 14390 1

Mona Simpson’s Anywhere but here might seem in one respect a common sort of first novel: it is a book about an intelligent child growing up with a troublesome parent. In fact, though, it is evident almost from the beginning that this is a book which does not aim merely to tell a personal story well. One senses the ambitiousness of this book, a wish to matter, to take an interesting part in the ongoing conversation of American Literature, and this is exhilarating.

The child and troublesome parent of Anywhere but here, Ann and her mother Adele, combine their struggle between generations with that classic American experience of migration westward to the better land: in this case, a move from the Midwest to California, where Adele hopes to turn Ann into a child star – a great American ambition, at least according to modern popular culture and folklore, where the interesting figure is not the child, but the stage mother, a grotesque but energetic monster, now best-known, perhaps, through the softened version of the type in the film Gypsy. Simpson also moves beyond the usual young-person-misunderstood story by not allowing us to forget that distant wars as well as exasperating relatives affect lives, and by returning us frequently to the people (centrally, the women), and the common culture, left behind: sections of the novel are narrated by Ann, her grandmother Lillian, and her aunt Carol, with Adele herself being held in reserve, to be given Molly Bloom’s privilege of speaking last.

Anywhere but here occupies 406 large pages, and tacitly insists that it is considerably more than a lyric presentation of adolescence. But more deeply than in its use of a resonant, comparison-inviting narrative scheme, or its insistence on history as context for individual lives, or its sense that the story of American women is not all one story, the ambition of Anywhere but here lies in its presentation of Adele, the heroine’s mother. Every American woman may have her own story, but all children who read can use the myth of a mother both vital and wrong. As with her use of the movement to the West, one feels that Mona Simpson’s drawing of Adele, her giving her lines like ‘I’m part of all that went before and all that went after me’ (curiously related to ‘I am a part of all that I have met’), can be taken to mean that Anywhere but here wishes to be read as more than an accomplished and moving first book.

Adele is adventurous, wilful and funny, and most of the time her language does not have that Tennysonian ring. She leaves Bay City, Wisconsin to go to college, marries a foreigner, lives for a time with his family in Egypt. Her first husband leaves her and she leaves her second husband. On the day of her sister’s wedding, she decides to take a shower and locks the bathroom door for an hour or more, forcing full-bladdered wedding guests to leave the reception early. Driving to California with her daughter, she settles their various quarrels by abandoning Ann by the side of the road, then coming back for her and suggesting an ice-cream cone. She disregards parking-tickets until she is jailed for doing so; her notions of a sound diet are eccentric, her choices of men ill-advised. Threatening to commit suicide because her daughter doesn’t seem to love her, she explains that her insurance policy can be found wrapped in tinfoil at the bottom of the freezer, underneath the plastic bag of dates. She buys a car with money that should have been spent on a house. She prides herself on having taste.

Most of this is very enjoyable, but the fun is basically of the kind we have (or are supposed to have) with such decidedly unimportant American presentations of the zany, vital woman as Auntie Mame and I love Lucy. By this I don’t mean that Adele’s ideas about what is worth doing are no more interesting as evidence of the state of the common culture than are Lucy Ricardo’s, but rather that her ideas and actions are finally no more disturbing than Lucy’s. One problem is that, as a character, Ann is not interesting enough to make one judge the mother by how her daughter is affected. The more important point is that once the reader has learned – and this lesson is taught on the first page of the novel – that Adele can be liked even though she frightens her daughter by pretending to abandon her, we never have to work at liking her again, or at continuing to like her: the opening incident turns out to be the equivalent of a PG rating on a film – it prepares us too well, tells us more than we ought to know for sure about the range of things to follow. This is too nice a book to be quite what, as I understand her, the author intended it to be.

The energy and ambition of Herself in Love, a collection of 13 stories by Marianne Wiggins, are most strikingly exhibited in the book’s variety of styles and situations. A waitress in one story convinces an obnoxious customer that he has eaten a meal which he hasn’t. Another one is about an amphora from Cairo with God’s voice recorded on it. In a parable called ‘Pleasure’, a woman urges a beached whale to return to the sea; ‘Kafkas’ presents Fran, who late at night makes long-distance phone-calls to men named Kafka, hoping to marry one of them and change her own name to Fran Kafka. And then there are the styles. The amphora-from-Cairo story displays comic-tradition Brooklyn speech:

  ‘It’s an amphora! You don’t know what an amphora is? Dummy! It’s a clay pot! ... Run a needle right through here. Listen. Here that? God’s Voice! Is That a Voice?! What a Voice He had!’

Wiggins also works the possibilities of dialogue literally translated from the French, and of a Southern poor-white narrative style: ‘There’s this European painter that paints people with big holes in them, holes as big as windows where you see the clear blue sky and white clouds through their thoracic regions, though Marl couldn’t begin to tell you this ol’ painter’s name.’

Not all the stories in Herself in Love work with situations which are Clever Ideas, and not all of Wiggins’s styles entertain with dialect, but it is the gimmicky and the jokey which one most notices in this book: the author’s basic concern, one feels, is not really with what the dust-jacket describes as the ‘average passions’, and yet she does not seem to have a very sophisticated interest in the formal qualities of fiction either. One has the sense, perhaps, that this book’s ambitions, broader than they are deep, appear mostly as a naive virtuosity. Nevertheless, it also contains one story which seems to me quite beautiful. This piece, ‘Stonewall Jackson’s Wife’, has to do with the death of, and the mourning of, General Thomas J. Jackson, the Confederate general who has had a sort of quiet following over the years among men and boys (I was one of these boys myself in the Fifties, in New York). He was a dignified and shadowed figure. We knew him to be a bravely religious man who – which seemed part of the same thing – was to be fatally and accidentally shot by his own men. He could not be moved when he came to hold a position: the exclamation ‘There stands Jackson like a stonewall!’ gave him his sobriquet. He refreshed himself in battle by sucking on lemons. Admiration for Jackson was, I suppose, a male thing. His reported last words gave Hemingway the title Across the River and into the Trees, and ‘stonewall’ became a verb in the macho vocabulary of the Watergate conspirators. With all this as background, it is not surprising that a story of the 1980s finds Stonewall Jackson a decidedly imperfect hero. The narrator of the story, which takes as its main focus, not the general himself, but his family and servants, encourages a slave to strike back at her mistress, and encourages volunteers to desert: she sees Jackson himself as crazy, Nothing surprising about that for a story written in our time, and when one adds that the narrator is, as we eventually figure out, the spirit of Jackson’s dead but still loved first wife, we might seem to have a story primed with the right sentiments and with one more dubious gimmick. All the same, it works, and to my mind splendidly. What Wiggins has done here is to combine two ideas from high romance: the dying hero, and the great undying love of lovers who are at once a single self and complementary parts of a whole. This combination of ideas allows us to feel both a wrongness in Jackson himself and a goodness around him (female – located in this first wife, and then in the baby daughter towards whom love for Jackson is shifted). In other words, the story finds a way to make mythical sense of our admiration for dangerously archaic virtues.

One day in 1973, the hero of Douglas Day’s Journey of the Wolf, Sebastian Rosales, a simple Andalusian who fought with the Republican forces in the Spanish Civil War, finds himself tired of the life of an exile, tired of France, of his fat wife, his daughters, his despised French sons-in-law and his grandchildren of bad milk, and sets off on the long, difficult journey to his native pueblo, where simple men have dignity, and say things like ‘grandchildren of bad milk’. Sebastian’s journey back, with, on the one hand, its experiences of the Spain of the 1970s – tourism, urbanisation, and the impact of Spaniards working for excessively high wages abroad, as well as much of the old, good style of life – and, on the other, the frequent occasions it offers for Sebastian to recall just how it was in the war, provides the structure of Day’s celebration of Spain and courage.

Journey of the Wolf is an attentively written book: one never feels the author has ceased to choose his words, measure his effects, think about the rhythms of chapters. When we are amused rather than impressed by the simple eloquence of Spanglish –

  ‘Welcome, our old sergeant,’ said one of his privates. ‘How goes your arm?’

  ‘It hangs onto my shoulder, as always, ‘el Lobo answered –

it is not because we have a better ear than the author, but because our tastes are different. Many readers may indeed find their tastes very different from the author’s, for whom the correct approach to life is sober, dignified macho. Day may know Spain well (I assume that he does), and he may read Hemingway regularly and discriminatingly. But the real journey of Journey of the Wolf is not Sebastian’s back to Andalusia, but the author’s back to Hemingway as Hemingway seemed when we first read him in adolescence.

Robert Coover is a marvellous craftsman, and sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, his two new books delight. Who would not enjoy, for example, this efficient, observant passage from the rendition of a Charlie Chaplin comedy in A Night at the Movies?

The policeman strokes his burly jaw thoughtfully, then squares his shoulders, slaps his billy-club in one big hand, and gazing past Charlie toward the challenge beyond the doorway, strides manfully forward. He steps on a bar of soap, his feet fly up in the air, and he falls – splat! – to his backside on the bathroom floor. He looks around in puzzlement, gets slowly to his feet, steps on the bar of soap, and falls – splat! – to his backside on the bathroom floor. He scowls, glances from side to side suspiciously, leaps quickly to his feet, steps on the bar of soap, and falls – splat! – to his backside on the bathroom floor. Charlie tries to help him up, but the policeman belts him with his billy, a blow that sends Charlie reeling and wheezing across the room. The policeman rises cautiously, steps on the soap, and falls – spalt! – to his backside on the bathroom floor. Charlie, still doubled over by the policeman’s blow, is staggering back and forth from door to policeman to door to policeman, tearing out his hair and trying to keep his pants up. The policeman stands, steps on the soap, and falls – splat! – to his backside on the bathroom floor. Charlie is weeping, banging on the wall with his fist. The policeman is standing, slipping, falling – splat! splat! – over and over again. Charlie turns and stumbles despairingly out of the bathroom, face buried in his sleeve.

The falling rhythms catch nicely the comedy of the falling to the floor; and the rhythms are characteristic in the way that the stressed verbs, the crispness and energy and the repeated tough, unliterary splat! suggest a great strength and absolute self-assurance in the author. That sense of the author’s strength and control seems to me a very important part of, and starting-point for the experience of reading Coover’s works: however strange the happenings in the fictions, the quality of the unnuanced, hard-edge prose keeps us aware of an efficient intelligence presenting those events.

The Chaplin passage is of course a pastiche, and that too makes it characteristic of Coover. His radically ironic work presents us, not with visions of reality, but with visions of our visions of reality: pastiche and parody. Our awareness of his artistry and of a strong presiding intelligence in his fictions always works (as do all the elements in Coover’s fiction when it is at its best) to disconcert rather than reassure. Thus, for instance, the splendid procession-of-one opening of Spanking the maid: ‘she enters, deliberately, gravely, without affectation, circumspect in her motions (as she’s been taught), not stamping too loud, nor dragging her legs after her, but advancing sedately, discreetly, glancing briefly at the empty rumpled bed, and cast-off nightclothes.’

We react to the movement of that sentence (and to the movements and inflections of many other Coover sentences) in a way we do to the work of all the greatest writers of parody and pastiche: we hanker sheepishly for more of the thing presented as silly or outmoded or vicious. But our sense of sheepishness is greater here than it is in classic parodies because Robert Coover has so many other ways of adding to our feeling that all is not quite as it should be in our experience of a given piece of writing.

Spanking the maid produces this unease in a simple but quite effective way. The book is imitation pornography – specifically, imitation sadistic pornography. A classic situation occurs again and again: an unnamed maid comes into the master’s chamber to clean; the master discovers some fault; the master spanks the maid. Of course the book contains more than that and from the moment we picked it up we knew it was not really pornographic: the dust-wrapper provided us not only with a naughty title and suggestive illustration, but with the name of the author, his academic affiliation, and statements suggesting his seriousness and eminence as an artist. In reading a volume by this important Post-Modernist we would, we knew, be doing something certainly respectable and probably difficult. But then as we read along and quite genuinely take delight in the book’s intelligence, and in the elegance with which its themes are displayed, we sheepishly and disconcertingly find that we are also taking in Spanking the maid whatever pleasure we might take in the object being parodied, an artless smutty book.

Imitation of now impossible styles, imitations of dubious genres: with these and similar devices Coover makes the reader feel he is not responding to the work quite worthily, quite as he should. Even more interesting is the way in which a steady, low-intensity distrust of the author – that intelligent, adroit writer we admire for sentence after sentence – becomes part of our experience in reading these books. This disconcerting effect is doubtless produced by a good many different causes, but one or two of them in particular are worth mentioning.

The first of these is once again a feature of style. That repeated splat! in the Chaplin passage quoted from A Night at the Movies suggests, as I said, the author’s strength and assurance, a certain toughness. It also strikes one as odd that the noises seem to represent sound in a silent film. It is an example of a device which is always at least a minor trademark of Coover’s narrative prose, and which occurs with particular frequency in the two works being reviewed here: comic-book onomatopoeia, often grotesquely inventive markings of the interruption of human discourse by the mechanical or purely somatic. A Night at the Movies brings us pop! flash! whirr! whoosh! ... p-tang! kthwump! ... splush! whoosh! splush whoosh! ... p-tang! ... ruckety-tackety-tuckety-tack! ... whumpf! The spanking in Spanking the maid inspires Swish-SNAP! ... Whish-SLASH! ... THWOCK! ... Hiss-WHAP! ... Whisp-CRACK! ... hiss-Snap! ... Whirr-SMACK! ... Whizz-SWACK! ... swish-THWOCK! ... Ker-WHACK! ... WHAP! SLAP! ... SWOCK! ... hiss-WHAP! Locally, as in the Chaplin passage, these noises are sometimes amusing. But as one reads more and more of Coover, one begins to think he ought not to remain so fond of this device, that there really is something too easy, something preadolescent and ultimately sentimental, about his way of feeling the absurdity of our pretentions to dignity, meaning and good order.

The repeated comic-book noises help keep the experienced reader of Coover from approving or altogether trusting the maker we imagine behind these books; so does, in a rather more spectacular way, the spanking motif in Spanking the maid, a book in which the reader may feel at least as uneasy about the author’s impurity of purpose in writing as he is about his own in reading. Robert Coover is the American avant-garde writer most regardful of the derrière. Even ten years ago critics were commenting on humiliation by the dropping of pants, punishment through the buttocks, as a favourite Coover motif, and no reader of Coover’s most ambitious work, A Public Burning, will forget how in that vision of Cold War America Richard Nixon finds himself bare-bottomed in front of an immense audience, and is subsequently buggered by Uncle Sam; those who have read Gerald’s Party (1985 – in fact, a later work than Spanking the maid, 1982) may well recall the cleaning of Naomi. The point to be made here is not really about the nature of Robert Coover’s pre- or extra-literary interests in themselves but about the difficulty a reader of Coover’s other works has in not wondering about such things as he reads Spanking the maid. Our disconcerting difficulty in ignoring such low, gossipy questions and attending to the order of art created by a master is part of the meaning of Spanking the maid, and is reflected in the difficulty the maid of that book has in ignoring the nasty things she keeps finding in her master’s bed: ‘a dried bull’s pizzle ... a dead mouse in a trap’.

Part of the meaning: but what else is there in these two books? The two characters in Spanking the maid think about teaching, hope, religion. Spanking, on one level, represents the writer’s work. (The maid’s bottom must be ‘a clean sheet of paper’; the master, ‘when the riddles and paradoxes of his calling overtake him ... takes refuge in the purity of technique. The proper stretching of a bull’s pizzle, for example, this can occupy him for hours.’) Above all, there are the central, recurring themes of all Robert Coover’s works: ritual, order, meaning; the human will for them to be, their creation, their inadequacy. The concern with order, kind and meaning is central in A Night at the Movies also. That book presents, as part of a long evening’s programme at an old movie palace, pastiches of different sorts of films, and Coover is particularly interested in the interference of one sort of work with another. In the evening’s cartoon, for instance, humans and animated drawings are disconcertingly mixed. The ‘Preview’ to Coover’s Night gives us a projectionist in the now disused theatre who begins to superimpose movie on movie, kind on kind (‘he’ll select a favorite ingenue and assault her with a thick impasto of pirates, sailors, bandits, gypsies, mummies, Nazis, vampires, Martians and college boys’); during the ‘Intermission’ a teenage patron of the show goes into the lobby and (presumably) imagines a set of rapidly-changing, generically-promiscuous movie-based adventures for herself. In the final piece, ‘You must remember this’, where Coover is giving us the evening’s romance, Casablanca suddenly becomes, if not a pornographic film, then at least an explicit romance of the Seventies rather than a work following the conventions of the Forties. Large, important concerns, and a lively mind playing complexly with them: but one does feel that Coover’s ideas and embodiments of ideas are not quite original enough, commanding enough, not first-rate in the way his sentences are first-rate. The irreplaceable thing Coover gives us is not an idea or parable of the imperfection of order and authority, but the sensations produced by such imperfection – the sense we have as we read him of confidence spotted with mistrust.