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.

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