Dropping In for a While

Thomas Jones

  • Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy
    Canongate, 219 pp, £7.99, ISBN 1 84767 416 X

Maile Meloy’s first novel, Liars and Saints (2003), told the story of five generations of the Santerre family, Catholic French Canadians displaced to Southern California, and later dispersed more widely across the United States and the rest of the world. The book – chosen as a Richard and Judy Summer Read, though that shouldn’t be held against it – begins with Teddy and Yvette’s wedding in Santa Barbara during the Second World War, and ends with Yvette’s funeral at the turn of the millennium. A narrative spanning nearly 60 years and more than 8000 miles (the distance from Rome to Hawaii), with half a dozen major characters whose various points of view are given more or less equal weight, all told in a mere 260 comfortably spaced pages: it could easily have been rushed, or cramped, with too much being told too quickly or too few sentences being forced to do too much work. And yet, almost miraculously, it isn’t either of those things, because Meloy (unlike, say, Jonathan Franzen) has such a sure handle on what to leave out. Her style is impressively unshowy: it’s not even showily unshowy, not seeing the need to draw attention to its pared-down restraint. The New Yorker left her off its fanfare-y list this summer of the 20 American writers under the age of 40 ‘who we believe are, or will be, key to their generation’ – but then who’d want to be that, and what does it even mean?

Constructed as a series of very short stories, Liars and Saints jumps from one significant event in the characters’ lives to the next, in roughly chronological order, sometimes leapfrogging over a gap of many years, sometimes picking up the morning after the previous chapter’s night before. Because the Santerres are a more or less ordinary family, the significant events in their lives are the more or less ordinary ones to do with sex, childbirth and death, though they bring with them slightly more than ordinary amounts of deceit, jealousy and guilt. While Teddy is flying planes in Korea, Yvette fights off the advances of a photographer who comes to the house to take a picture of her and the children to send to her husband. When Teddy comes home she tells him what happened, sending him into a jealous rage. Telling the truth, she realises, isn’t always the best course of action.

So several years later, when their elder daughter, Margot, gets pregnant by her high-school dancing teacher, Yvette sends the girl to a trustworthy and liberal-minded family of distant relatives in France (‘Everyone at home thought Margot was just having her junior year abroad, working on her French. It made perfect sense’), tells Teddy she’s pregnant herself and goes on retreat to a convent for her bogus confinement. When the time comes she finds a pretext to fly out to France to see Margot, and comes home with her baby boy, Jamie, whom everyone accepts without question as Yvette’s son. It’s all told so straightforwardly, and in such cool, unfussed prose, that you almost don’t notice (it makes perfect sense), and certainly don’t mind, how unlikely it all is, in some ways closer to medieval romance than suburban California realism, or even suburban California gothic. But if parts of Liars and Saints have the quality of fable, it’s because they are the stories of their lives as the characters tell them to themselves.

Meloy’s interest in the mechanics of storytelling is made more explicit in her second novel, A Family Daughter (2006), which at first sight promises to be a fairly straightforward sequel, further adventures in the lives of the Santerres: one of the many impressive aspects of Liars and Saints is the strength of the illusion it conjures that the characters exist beyond the bounds of the novel. But a few pages in, anyone who’s read Liars and Saints is likely to stumble over the announcement that Margot ‘had devoted her life to raising her two boys’. In the first novel, Margot isn’t able to have any more children after the baby she gives up to her mother. So what’s going on?

The characters who appear in both novels have the same names, same birthdays and (with one notable exception) are related to each other in the same ways. But the stories diverge in sometimes violent and unsettling directions. In both novels, for example, Margot’s sister, Clarissa, and her husband, Henry, get divorced. In Liars and Saints Henry goes off to Sacramento to be a state senator; in A Family Daughter he’s killed in a car crash. Having written the story of the Santerres one way, Meloy seems to have been unable to resist unpicking it and restitching it differently – wanting, as the title of her recent collection of stories puts it, to have things both ways. Plenty of novelists do this, of course; but most are decent enough, or sly enough, to give their old characters new names and put them in new situations, to pretend that they’re not really the same people. Meloy’s approach in A Family Daughter, if nothing else, is refreshingly brazen. It can be hard at times to remember what happened in which book, though that is, presumably, her intention.

The differences between the two versions of the Santerres’ lives seem to be accounted for in the second book when Henry and Clarissa’s daughter, Abby, starts writing a novel based, more loosely in some areas than others, on her family history: a novel that’s very similar, if not quite identical, to Liars and Saints. According to A Family Daughter, then, Abby’s father’s remote but continued existence in Liars and Saints is a form of wish-fulfilment on her part. Fiction is a way of bringing people back to life; only not really, and perhaps it only works if they were never really alive in the first place – Meloy can reanimate her dead characters, but Abby can only write about bringing her father back.

Making Abby a novelist in A Family Daughter isn’t just a way to explain away the differences between the two books, a cute metafictional equivalent of ‘she woke up and it was all a dream.’ It’s also a way of openly exploring the relationship between fiction and autobiography. When Abby has lunch with her editor in New York, the editor seems most interested in ‘where you were in the book’ (though, as it happens, the characters and elements she likes best are the ones that draw least directly on Abby’s own life). There is a notion, which A Family Daughter appears to buy into but actually undermines, that fiction is primarily a form of therapy. Liars and Saints isn’t a thinly veiled autobiography written for therapeutic purposes, but if it were, A Family Daughter says, here’s the person who might have written it. (Meloy’s brother Colin, the frontman of a band called The Decemberists, is playing a similarly ironic game when he sings: ‘I am a writer, a writer of fictions … I’ve written pages upon pages trying to rid you from my bones.’ Is he teasing his sister? He’s certainly teasing his listeners, since he writes decidedly unautobiographical, earnestly tongue-in-cheek and surprisingly catchy songs about suicidal barrow boys, teenage runaway prostitutes and sailors bent on avenging their mothers’ deaths.)

Unsurprisingly, the other Santerres in A Family Daughter have great difficulty seeing Abby’s novel dispassionately as fiction. Yvette thinks: ‘There were many things that simply weren’t true at all, and she found herself saying, aloud at the kitchen table: “That didn’t happen!”’ Jamie reminds her that ‘it’s fiction … it’s all made up,’ which she ought to find reassuring, but doesn’t. She’s horrified at the idea that it’s ‘going to be in bookstores’, that strangers will read it: ‘it’s private,’ she says. She knows things in the novel aren’t true because she knows what really happened; she seems to be worried that other people will believe those things are true, as if they too won’t be able to read it as fiction. What’s so unsettling, however, isn’t just that Abby is showing a distorted portrait of their family to the world: it’s also that her novel challenges Yvette’s idea of what really happened, shakes her faith in the stories she’s been telling herself for so long about her life and her family.

Jamie has his own urgent reason for insisting that Abby’s novel is ‘all made up’: its depiction of uncle-niece incest between the characters based on Jamie and Abby. This, however, really happened, if not quite in the way that Abby describes it. In Liars and Saints, and therefore in Abby’s novel, it’s a strictly for-one-night-only deal, and starts – romantically, unreally, yet matter-of-factly – on the beach: ‘She had looked up at him, and he was looking at her, and it was dark, and then there was the kiss. And it was warm and sweet, with the ocean smell and the sand between her toes, and she felt better than she had all day.’ It helps, too, that Jamie is secretly Margot’s son, not Yvette’s, and therefore Abby’s cousin rather than her uncle.

In A Family Daughter, the incest is a lot less OK: it happens more than once; it’s less romantic (they kiss for the first time in the hallway outside the bathroom of her student flat in San Diego); it’s more exploitative (she’s emotionally vulnerable, grieving for her father); and it’s more incestuous – there are no hidden pregnancies or forged birth certificates to let Jamie and Abby off the hook this time. ‘Jamie, I’ve always loved you,’ Abby says halfway through the book, ‘since I was seven. That’s my problem.’ He’s known this for longer than she has: ‘He had taken care of Abby when she was a kid,’ he thinks early on. ‘That was what made lying here in bed with her so unforgiveable, more than whatever blood relation they had. When she was asleep, she looked like she did at seven, sleeping on Yvette’s couch.’ But knowing that it’s wrong, and why it’s wrong, of course doesn’t stop them doing it.

Abby and Jamie’s incestuous relationship – the fact of it, if not the way it’s conducted – is one of the very few things that’s consistent across both novels. Variations on it, more or less queasy relationships between uncles and nieces, crop up in a few of the stories in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It. At the queasier end, in ‘Red from Green’, a 15-year-old girl called Sam goes rafting with her father, her uncle and a client from her uncle’s law firm, a ‘key plaintiff’ in a class action who’d ‘had to be cajoled into joining the lawsuit … Sam guessed the river trip was part of the cajoling.’ One evening, as they’re sitting round the campfire, Layton (the client) asks Sam to walk on his back to massage it into shape for the next day’s rowing. Her father retires to his tent. Layton gropes her, and it seems for a moment as if he may be going to rape her, but he lets her go. In the morning everyone behaves as if nothing has happened.

Almost the worst thing about it is the uncertainty as to how far Sam’s father and uncle were complicit. Pimping Sam to ensure Layton’s co-operation in the lawsuit can’t, surely, have been their plan from the beginning – can it? – but once he starts showing an interest in her, they both have a complex of reasons for turning a blind eye. The compromising, compromised lives of the adults are all the murkier for being refracted through the prism of Sam’s clear but only half-comprehending point of view: she can see that the corruption’s there, even if she can’t quite see the form it takes. ‘Red from Green’ may not be What Maisie Knew, exactly, but it comes close to Eudora Welty’s ‘Ladies in Spring’.

Less queasily, in ‘Spy vs. Spy’, a ski instructor, George, invites his older brother’s family to the mountains for the weekend. George and Aaron don’t get on, haven’t spoken for months, but George’s new girlfriend has insisted he make the invitation. Aaron’s daughter Claire has always been close to her uncle; their friendship gives her father ‘a twinge of jealousy’. When she was small they used to play a game called Fire, which involved George chasing her round the house and garden, never quite catching her; now a ‘sophomore in college’, she tells her uncle about boyfriends her father doesn’t know about. On the face of it, there’s nothing untoward going on – in many ways Claire and George’s relationship is the happiest and most straightforward in the story – but with Aaron’s discomfort, the extent of George’s interest in Claire’s sex life (‘Do you think she’s a virgin?’ he asks her father; as a wind-up, sure, but still …), and the context of the rest of Meloy’s fiction, you can’t help wondering.

‘Red from Green’, ‘Spy vs. Spy’ and most of the other stories in the collection are set in Montana, where Meloy grew up. She’s less sure-footed when she strays further from her home turf: there’s a section of Liars and Saints set in a thinly imagined Rome, all coffee bars and ice-cream shops, where murderous locals armed with stilettos lurk under the colonnade in St Peter’s Square. A Family Daughter loses its way a little when the action moves from Southern California to an estancia in Argentina, also the setting for ‘Agustín’, one of the weaker stories in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It: its protagonist is too obviously fictional, lacking the liveliness of most of Meloy’s characters. The only story to take place in the Santerres’ neighbourhood is ‘Liliana’, in which Meloy also plays her old trick of bringing people back from the dead. The narrator answers the door of his house in Los Angeles ‘to find my grandmother, two months dead, standing on the stoop’. ‘Do you know what they’re saying?’ he asks her. ‘It’s all a mistake,’ she says. She left her money to the RSPCA, and now they won’t give it back. She takes his children shopping, buys them a dog, stays one night and sweeps out again (taking the dog with her; the children are allergic to it) as suddenly as she appeared.

Short stories can often seem unduly coercive of both their characters and their readers, forcing them to jump through too many hoops in too little time. Annie Proulx, for example, to whose Wyoming tales some of Meloy’s Montana stories bear a superficial resemblance, can take too much relish in whipping her characters down unlikely paths of misfortune and humiliation. (Pressganging them into happy endings wouldn’t be any better.) But Meloy, for the most part, avoids this problem: her stories are pleasingly unrestrictive. It’s almost as if the characters have just dropped in on the stories, like Liliana arriving unannounced on her grandson’s doorstep, or as if the reader has just dropped in for a while on the characters’ lives. In ‘Two-Step’, a woman tells a friend that she thinks her husband is having an affair. He is, as it happens, with the person she is confiding in. (Infidelity, both real and imagined, two different ways of having it both ways, provides the dramatic impetus for a number of the stories.) ‘Two-Step’ doesn’t tell you how these two women came to be in the kitchen together, having this conversation, how they came to be friends in the first place, or what will happen next. Many of Meloy’s stories, in other words, read like fragments of novels, while at the same time being complete in themselves – which is yet another way of having it both ways.