Waving the Past Goodbye

Lorna Sage

  • A Regular Guy by Mona Simpson
    Faber, 372 pp, £15.99, February 1997, ISBN 0 571 19079 0
  • The Keepsake by Kirsty Gunn
    Granta, 224 pp, £14.99, March 1997, ISBN 1 86207 013 X

Mona Simpson’s novels are long and loose, and make compulsive reading. She not only writes about obsession, but she passes on the effect with extraordinary directness, almost as though there’s no separate authorial presence in her books at all – art concealing art with a vengeance. A Regular Guy is her third novel, and in it she celebrates her first ten years in the business by surrendering her addiction to ‘I’, and edging just a little further over into fictionality with the invention of self-made hero Tom Owens, the multi-millionaire founder of a West Coast biotech company he christens ‘Genesis’: ‘He thought of himself as a guy in jeans, barefoot in the boardroom.’ But the story’s focus, the person whose point of view we share, even if she is in the third person, is Owens’s illegitimate and disowned daughter Jane. She is ten years old at the beginning, the questing girl in search of Dad whom Simpson always needs to get the show on the road.

This is another plot in which parents have failed to grow up, to stay together, to make a home, or even to concoct a shared story that makes sense. Again, the adults have no alibi and there’s no end in sight for the broken-family romance which casts the child as father of the man, let alone the woman. (Simpson’s mothers are worse disasters, but usually only because they stay around more, and are at least there to be despaired of.) She has a way of taking this point of origin for granted: it is how we live now, a personal variation on an ineluctable theme. Anywhere but Here (1986) and The Lost Father (1991) shared some of the same characters and touched on the same story from different angles. This story has elements of exoticism: ‘My mother was pregnant with me in Egypt when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal. When I asked her why she flew home ... she said it was so that I could have the very best medical care ... in Wisconsin ... My grandmother said anyway she couldn’t eat the food.’ But mainly it’s an all-American story of rootlessness and guiding dreams: ‘My father left us in 1961 ... The summer of 1970 ... my mother and I took the biggest chance of our lives and drove to California in a Lincoln Continental we didn’t own so I could become a child star on television.’ Simpson’s first book told the part of the story about failing to be a child star, her second focused on finding father. Both are fuelled by a colossal want, expressed in terms of the gravitational pull of the West Coast (which is where father went, not ‘home’ to Egypt). The people are just ordinarily strange – very much the kind described by Raymond Carver in the introductory essay he wrote for his 1986 selection of Best American Short Stories (which featured a story by Simpson):

‘Real people’ in the guise of fictional characters inhabit the stories ... The characters ... are people you’re likely to be familiar with. If they’re not kin, or your immediate neighbours, they live on a nearby street, or else in a neighbouring town, or maybe even the next state over ... Or ... in New York, or Berkeley ... not such exotic places finally when all is said and done ... We’ve seen them in the cities, towns and countrysides ... or else on TV.

One thing that marks these characters as related is the way they seem to be forever camping out in their lives, living insecurely and provisionally. Simpson’s focus on the child who has to take custody of the parent is distinctively hers, however.

A Regular Guy moves on a generation, and leaves the usual cast behind – but it keeps their narrative DNA. Owens is given the half-Arab lost parent, but it’s his mother and she died when he was born and troubles him hardly at all. It’s as though this hero, whose life is ‘easy and cluttered with luck’, and his beautiful girlfriend Olivia – who was the child star of a famously successful commercial, and supported her whole family when she was four – are the dream-offspring of those earlier Simpson characters. Ann in The Lost Father says: ‘My mother and I ... both believed that the greatest career a man could have on the earth was to be something royal or a genius or the President. For woman, it was to be a beauty.’ This new man, Tom Owens, is a genius of sorts, and flirts with politics. He is also ‘royal’ enough to have a court, as Ann and her mother Adele had imagined: ‘It made me want to be a politician, run the world. Oh, I believed in power the way poor people do ... My mother and I had been small people ... The powerful could keep themselves invisible, if they chose, while the rest of us lived waiting to be conjured or not at someone else’s will and time.’

This is a good description of the condition Owens’s illegitimate daughter Jane and her mother Mary de Natali find themselves in at the beginning of A Regular Guy. ‘Mary had been pregnant at 19 with the bewilderment she still carried like a halo of bees.’ Owens – who’s hardly any older, but full of plans and visions that don’t include her – rejects Mary with ease and conviction. An anecdote about his childhood (the sort told later of geniuses) recounts that he learned magic tricks as a boy, and would threaten his half-sister when she wouldn’t do his bidding: ‘I can make you disappear.’ He makes Mary disappear. She leaves Auburn to drift for ten years through communes and camps, while he makes his fortune and becomes famous. She leaves messages he doesn’t play back, and sends him annual snapshots of the daughter he pretends to think isn’t his. And then one day, her casual despair coalesces into a crazy plan, her one stroke of genius – to teach ten-year-old Jane to drive, and send her on her own over the mountains to claim kin.

So we start with the child in the driver’s seat, an image of the great West-bound adventure skewed with all sorts of ironies. Nothing horrible happens to Jane; she arrives undetected and in one piece, her father isn’t home, and indeed never really takes in how she got there. But for the child herself it’s the rite of passage into precocious adulthood and real life. An earlier Simpson girl explains what cars should mean, and hence the heady combination of power and loss involved in Jane’s drive: ‘I closed my eyes and thought about driving all night on a dark road, the car moving smoothly, my mother and father sitting in front ... They would wake me up when we came to California, before, so I could see us crossing over, riding in.’ Jane, we’re told, always fastens her seat-belt when she becomes a passenger again, danger has no charm for her. She’ll spend the rest of her youth wanting to be a child dozing in the back seat, but instead having to stay always on her guard, and fight for her position in her father’s world, competing with girlfriends, work and any other yet unborn children he may father. With mother it’s easier: when Mary finds herself pregnant by a sweet but useless hippy boyfriend, Jane (12 by now) announces that she doesn’t want a little brother, and Mary obediently has an abortion. We’re told Jane cherishes her guilt, years later, when friends try to reassure her that she wasn’t responsible. She knows better – greedy and needy, she didn’t want a rival. It’s part of realising herself as her father’s daughter, this ruthlessness, this conviction that she is truly the only child.

In fact, she wants and gets more than one father, for the first person she meets after her epic journey is her father’s friend Noah Kasky, a scientist and researcher, who acts as her advocate with Owens. Noah is in a wheelchair thanks to brittle bones, and so becomes an innocent and benevolent version of the adult who doesn’t grow up. As a ‘pure’ scientist, who can’t be bribed by business, he’s a foil to the entrepreneurial Owens – he, too, has the courage of his convictions. And, oddly enough, though he’s an almost Dickensian ‘invented’ character, Kasky is prefigured in Simpson’s earlier, more naturalistic books. For instance, in The Lost Father we’re told: ‘In science there’s a kind of confidence you either did or did not have. They called it hands. Whether you had good hands ... I thought confidence in love came from knowing you were wanted on the earth. Could you be wanted by something other than your parents?’ Noah has ‘good hands’. He’s a surrogate parent for Jane, someone who’s been let down by heredity, but still makes a life.

The message is obvious, but – as so often with Simpson – the power of the writing comes from the grotesque tangle of want and revulsion behind the creation of a monster of goodness like Noah. ‘We all own many existences besides the material one we are occupying now. But what I am talking about is not reincarnation. Because each version of ourselves, each possible manifestation, lives around us, like a circle of our own children, apparent to those who know us best.’ Simpson’s new people, in A Regular Guy, are mutations of her old characters. And she’s right that the sense of repetition – recognising the family profile in that one, the eyes in another, in another the twitching lip – is a source of tension and life-likeness. Her people form one extended family, even those, like Owens, who fancy themselves self-made and free.

What happens in the seven or so years of the Eighties covered by the plot (perhaps we cross into the Nineties, the time-scale is hard to pin down) is that Jane becomes the acknowledged daughter and Owens is ousted from the company, having failed to pull off a second time his original trick by putting together a team to ‘breed’ a new gene commercially. This leaves him merely super-rich and without a vocation, having to start the world again, rather as she has to. His emotional barbarities and eccentricities now stand out in relief: his cranky vegetarianism, based on a fear of animal food, including milk (he’s self-made, he had no mother); his refusal to accept that death can’t be cheated by fasting or a diet of cherries; the extravagant discomfort of his domestic life (‘he inhabited his mansion as if it were a one-bedroom apartment’); his compulsive promiscuity, and his puritan incomprehension of pleasure – ‘He often said, Enjoy, as if he truly couldn’t.’ His energy and self-belief are boundless, and so is his deafness to dissent: he can only accept a world he rules, and once the company he created has gone, that means the people around him. He’s exiled to the politics of the personal – and by the time he realises it, he has lost the beautiful Olivia, and has to make do with a clever new model wife called Eve. He’s even allowed to have more children, because Jane has come of age and understood that the father found is no big deal, that you can put it all – the passionate jealousy and longing – down to education.

Simpson is a mistress of narrative let-downs. Even Jane herself, we’re told, loses her specialness:

For those who had known her earlier in her life, what had become of Jane was amazing though also a sorrow, not because she was lost to them for ever, but because she had ceased to engage their deepest interest ... she had not only survived but was thriving ... Her odd clarity, her frangibility ... had not long survived her drive over the mountains. That soft-fingered child was somewhere buried, another victim of the frontier.

There are a whole series of happy endings, all opening out into the ironic reflection that want was the narrative fuel, and fulfilment kills the story: ‘Roses bloomed outside the windows, and you could smell them. There were insects, too. Good insects, crickets and lady-bugs. Owens had purchased ten thousand and released them into the yard.’ This is the dream squared: though Owens is not a media mogul, he has something of the absurd hubris of the great days of Hollywood, the world of colossal, innocent artifice. He keeps by his bed a videotape of Olivia’s childhood commercial. The jingle goes: ‘What do you want when you’ve got to have something, and it’s got to be a lot, and you’ve got to have it now?’ There’s a child in charge of Owens’s imagination, too, so he’s not judged: ‘We all own many existences.’

It’s striking how little Simpson’s ‘second generation’ story seems pathological, given its penchant for regression. By contrast Kirsty Gunn, whose first slim and lyrical novel, Rain, was published three years ago and much praised, plunges with The Keepsake into a romance of repetition that is as familiar and fetishistic as a velvet-lined boudoir: ‘Mother, daughter. Father, lover ... Perhaps this man is the same man my mother married.’ This story tells itself, very nearly. Beautiful, deserted and desperate mother, sunk into addiction, bewitches her daughter, who has to ignore the lovers and call the doctors, and (after her death) finds herself pulled into the same compulsive pattern. ‘Isn’t it the way all family stories turn, the same wheel bringing death to one another from love, brokenness from need?’ Questions are merely rhetorical in this tradition. ‘Doesn’t all emotion happen that way – thoughts going out first, to touch, then bodies?’ When mother dies the daughter takes up her role: ‘humiliation and desire ... it seemed I would continue the line.’ She meets a dark stranger in the café where she ate sweet cakes with her mother on the good days, ‘his accent was thick with Russian or Turkish inflections but American too.’ He’s not very plausible, but then he doesn’t have to be, since he’s there to take her by the hand, in his grey gloves, and lead her to his Bluebeard’s Castle just around the corner. ‘It took only minutes, seconds to reach the front steps that led to his heavy door.’ And now time turns viscous and very slow, like wading through the treacle of dreams. There are books in this house, but they all have ‘pictures of whips, cords ... hanging chains, clamps, masks of silk’, unless they are diaries with blank pages. One room is full of doll-like and desiccated old ladies whose viscera have turned to sawdust and their hair to clouds of cobweb.

It is shocking to realise from an aside referring to the period of mother’s marriage to her cruel dark stranger – ‘faded jeans, her hair tied up with string’ – that we are in the present world, and mother was a casualty of the Sixties. The book’s decor belongs so entirely to the idea of decadence that it seems located in the 1890s, if anywhere. But this is Gunn’s point: ‘tonight will be when another time takes her.’ The vortex of the family romance sucks you into these ‘airless rooms, motionless and still gardens’ where you dress up in your skin to play the part. Everything ‘belongs to some other generation’. Her first book, Rain, looked at the parents’ awful readiness to simply pass things on, instead of living out and containing the vampire past. Beautiful, boozed and promiscuous mother and weak, enchanted father, were swingers of their moment. ‘She was alone, too. Scared of how life turns out and with nothing left to do about it. The future wasted and only the past now, rolling up behind.’ Gunn is enthralled by the time-honoured and perverse pleasures of the text. She has the sort of sensibility that repeats to itself that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.

In theory The Keepsake is an escape story, about how to save your own life and slough off the family curse:

Already it belongs to some other generation. The skin on my mother’s sofa will be gone, and all the keepsakes, the little gloves and handkerchiefs and scraps of paper, all of these things have gone already into dust, settling into patterns somewhere, forming tiny poles and ridges in empty rooms, on suitcases and boxes in empty halls, dust instead of the things that once really did exist.

But actually it’s in love with its inheritance, its lipstick and bruises, its litany of addictive stories. Waving the past goodbye (things just happen, then they’re gone, that’s all there is to it) is something you have to do, cunningly, over and over again.

That’s the challenge: how to cheat the feeling of déjà vu, and make use of its charm. Kirsty Gunn goes the Gothic route; Mona Simpson’s strategy is expansive and forgetful, she cultivates a kind of absent-mindedness or authorial amnesia to protect her innocence and fake it new. Though she may have begun in Raymond Carver’s good books, her avoidance of narrative control and economy would have distressed him. In A Regular Guy she sometimes sounds selfconscious. There are jokey nods to Jane Austen (‘It is a little acknowledged fact that in couples ...’); parodic gestures confiding in the reader (‘But do not be too hard on him. It is why movie stars marry movie stars’) and handy signposts – ‘I feel like someone at a Gatsby party.’ But these are merely various voices she tries on, as she sheds and distributes the authorial role. This makes for some puzzles. For instance, the novel’s first lines inform us, with an assaulting intimacy, that Owens doesn’t bother to flush toilets: he’s too busy and anyway cannot imagine his healthy body excreting anything offensive. Towards the end, when he’s a man with nothing else to do, he goes along to vote in a local election, and uses the public lavatory, carefully lining the seat and turning back ‘to flush out not only his own, but all the others’. This passage follows a whimsical reverie on democracy, where for the first time, it seems, Owens sees ordinary people who believe in their own modest power: ‘several gardeners, one of whom actually carried a hoe. A fat woman had her hair in pink foam curlers. Owens was amazed at the variety of humanity.’ Are we supposed, then, to see his reformed toilet habits as a sign that he has understood that he is subject to mortality like the rest, whom he has treated all his life like shit? Or is it an example of circumstantial detail that makes the moment real, for now? It’s probably undecidable. Simpson is a narrative natural, an opportunist tale-teller in the mould not of Austen but someone like Defoe, who cannot decide, for instance, whether or not Robinson Crusoe has a dog on his desert island. Artlessness becomes a way of survival, and the book has as a result a curious kinship with Shere Hite’s huge anthologies of sad interviews or Oprah Winfrey’s shows. The sense of being out on the open road is less liberating than it sounds, if we’re all helplessly telling it like it is, forever the children of our times. You could almost say that Kirsty Gunn’s plush prison of a book is more honest with the reader, less of a mystification.