Friday, March 05, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore-- Part One

What is "A Gate at the Stairs" anyway? The cover of the book helpfully informs us it is "A Novel." I take this somewhat skeptically, because the picture on the cover isn't "A Gate at the Stairs;" it is "The Stairs at the Gate." In my mind, a gate at the stairs is more like this:

It's what you put up to keep babies and toddlers from falling down stairs that they are too young to manage on their own. So, as the narrator Tassie starts out the book looking for a babysitting job, the title made sense to me. There is even a gate to the yard of the home where Tassie gets hired as a babysitter, a gate that has lost some screws and has to be juggled into true before it can be latched.

Am I on the right track? I don't know--I am finding this novel to be interminable: directionless, overly invested in its own liguistic cleverness. I am not enjoying it much.

The Plot Thus Far: twenty-year old college sophmore Tassie is on break at a vaguely metropolitan midwestern college. Looking for a part time job to augment her income, she is hired by Sarah Blink to care for a child that Sarah has not yet adopted. She goes home to her small Wisconsin farming town, where her father has retired (at age 45) from growing artisinal potates--the kind served by Sarah Blink in her expensive restaurant. Tassie's mother is Jewish and seems to be going blind, her brother is failing high school, and Tassie spends a week lying around her bedroom reading books and being superior.

I have just finished listening to chapter 2, which is mostly taken up by Tassie's obnoxious condescension about the town where she has lived her whole life. And frankly, Moore has lost me here. Sure, she has bitingly witty things to say about how the city used to be nearly a theme park of fake Indian attractions, until the city council renamed the town "Delacrosse" and invented a UFO mythology that failed to last. She is as funny as one can be about idiosyncratic grammar of Wisconsin small towns--but seriously? Does Moore really believe that a 20 year old who spent her entire life in this town would actually consider it odd to say things like "on accident" or "bored of?" This is how they speak, and realistically, this is how Tassie herself would have grown up speaking. And it's not like she went so very far away to go to college either--she might have crossed the border into Illinois, it's hard to tell because Moore isn't specific--that she could suddenly be articulate about the use of the past perfect verb tense as a mode of storytelling by the rubes back home.

I am listening to this from, and the narration is dripping with bored condecension about everything and everyone. I am finding it wearying. Moore is famous for her use of language, and she is apparently in fine form here. However the writerliness of the language is clearly all Moore's--it doesn't properly belong to the character, and it doesn't advance the story either. Tassie hates her small town, and feels superior to it, but doesn't seem to have any basis for that feeling--she's hasn't demonstrated any basis for that sense of superiority. She fails to connect with her parents, she's unable to talk with her brother, she's been abandoned by her college roommate who has all but moved in with a new boyfriend, she is uncomfortable with her new employer. She's mean spirited and aimless, and all of Moore's signiture linguistic gymnastics aren't distracting enough from the nasty tone of this story.

What is a reader to do? The reviews of this have been uniformly fantastic, and it's been listed as one of the best books of last year. Books so rarely live up to their hype, but what is the point of trying to find a good book to read if reviews that recommend "good books" oversell them and make them disappointing? It's hardly worth trying to read everything in hopes of stumbling on something good; there's just too many books out there.

I've got to put this one away for a while, for a time when I'm more willing to put up with an unpleasant character in the hopes that she will lead me somewhere worth going.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Becoming Jane Eyre, by Sheila Kohler

This book starts out so promisingly, but sadly Kohler overreaches her initial premise and loses the tight focus that made the first third of the book so effective.

Pretty much anyone who picks up this book is going to be someone who knows at least something about the Bronte's story. Patrick Bronte (nee "Brunty") was born in Ireland, married Maria Branwell of Penzance, and moved his young family to Haworth in Yorkshire where he was given a lifetime curacy. His wife died young, and his two oldest daughters died at ages 10 and 11 from tuberculosis contracted while at a boarding school for parsons' daughters. The remaining four children (Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne) were schooled at home and spent much time writing epic tales of imaginary lands.

Adulthood was not easy for them: the girls had to earn their own livings, but were unhappy in the roles of teacher and governess, all that were available to them. Branwell was the darling of the family, but after a failed romance, he turned to alcohol and opium and died a squalid death. Emily and Anne both died within a year of Branwell, from tuberculosis and probably from the unhealthy conditions in Haworth. Charlotte lived only about another six years, and died nine months after her marriage to her father's curate. Poor Patrick Bronte went blind, and outlived them all, cared for to the end by Charlotte's husband.

This much is pretty well known, or certainly knowable--hello Wikipedia!--by anybody who has read more than one Bronte novel. It's part of the hagiography, and isn't THAT a fun word for the day? Insanely bright and repressed Victorian sisters stuck in a tiny parsonage in the middle of nowhere write deathless prose and become immortal members of the literary pantheon. Which doesn't actually make them immortal, and they all die. The End.

What Kohler's novel does at the beginning is to give us Charlotte Bronte before she wrote Jane Eyre and looks into her soul to show us what made that novel possible, and what it might have felt like to be Charlotte Bronte as she wrote the book that made her famous. So the novel opens in a small dark room in Manchester. Patrick Bronte is recovering from cataract surgery, and must lie motionless in a dark room as his eyes heal. Charlotte has traveled with him, and passes the time writing: Patrick can hear the scratching of the pencil against the paper.

Kohler matches up the incidents in Charlotte's life with the plot of Jane Eyre--an exercise that runs the risk of flattening the Bronte novel into thinly disguised autobiography, and runs the risk of turning Kohler's own novel into an undergraduate English paper. Charlotte loved her oldest sister Elizabeth, therefore Helen Burns is Charlotte's doomed sister. However, Kohler narrowly escapes this reductionism by showing how Charlotte transformed the mere facts of her life by injecting her passionate nature into her writing. Kohler juxtaposes the oppressive scene: dark and cold room, poor food, the need to stay near her father; with the freedom Charlotte feels in writing.

Kohler gives us entry into Patrick's thoughts as well. I have my own image of Patrick Bronte, of a man who managed to raise such exceptional daughters in such unpromising circumstances, and so I was deeply offended by the picture Kohler painted of him. Kohler depicts him as an unremittingly lusty man, who all but murdered his fragile wife by insisting she perform her "duty." She begs him to spare her, to allow her to recover from her many pregnancies, afraid that another one will kill her, but he orders her to submit, finding a special excitement in having her as she audibly prays for God to spare her. Give Kohler her due, this is unforgettable stuff.

However, once back at Haworth, Kohler widens her view and loses her focus. Apparently she could not resist telling the Whole Story. So we have to go back and see the four children writing their juvenalia, the stories of Angria and Gondal. We have to watch as the sisters send out their novels and have them rejected over and over. We get snippets of Anne's Great Passion for one of her father's curates, a boy who never spoke of love and who died young (what else?). We get a curiously abbreviated history of Branwell's affair with his employer, a woman who rejected him after her own husband died--weirdly told from Anne's point of view. We see Emily venture out at night to fetch her inebriated brother home. We see a sort of "movie montage" of life at the parsonage, while failing to see how these happenings influenced the girls' writings. Sure, there are lots of allusions to, for example, how Anne's miserable experience as a governess is detailed in Agnes Grey, but that's all they are--references, glancing nods in the direction of the novels.

In the first third of the book, Kohler actually gets down to the details of how an writer can make art out of mere events; in the second third of the book, she fails to apply her own lessons and gives us mere event. And really, the Bronte's aren't famous because they lived such miserable lives, they are famous in spite of having lived miserable and circumscribed lives, and the reason those lives are interesting is because of how they manipulated them and made them universal.

By the final portion of the book, Kohler has even lost this level of attention--we meed Charlotte after she is famous, after she has made a great deal of money from Jane Eyre and even has presumably published Shirley. Branwell, Emily and Anne have all died off-stage, and their deaths don't seem to have changed Charlotte much at all. More important to Kohler is to breeze through what might have been Charlotte's imagined romance with her publisher, George Smith--who might have married her, if it hadn't been for his meddling mother. Then a final chapter that completely abandons the pretense of limited p.o.v., where Charlotte marries Arthur Bell Nichols while the narrator tells us she had no way of knowing that she would be dead nine months later. And then a tacked on epilogue to show us Patrick Bronte, who outlived his entire family, blind and alone, listening for the sounds of his dead family and imagining he hears the scratch of pencil on paper.

After such wonderful imaginative rendering of the characters in the first third of the book, the rest of the book is disappointingly sloppy and pointless. If Kohler really intended to present the Bronte's lives, then there is really no reason she should have skipped over so many important moments. For example, Kohler does not describe Branwell's death, or Emily's refusal to get medical help and her death in the family parlor only a few months later. She should not have implied, as she does, that Anne is buried in Haworth--Anne died trying to get to Scarborough, where she hoped the sea air would cure her lungs, and Charlotte chose to have her buried there rather than bring the body home to Haworth--also a scene that Kohler skips. She gives us nothing about Charlotte's life in Haworth alone with her father, almost nothing about her courtship or life with Arthur Bell Nichols, very little about the writing and publication of three more novels.

There is a nicely dramatized scene where the three sisters receive their much delivered package of novels: this publisher wants to publish Anne's book Agnes Grey, he would like Wuthering Heights to be expanded to three volumes, and he declines to publish Charlotte's book The Professor. The terms are not good either--they have to pay publishing costs up front, and will only be repaid after costs are recouped by sales. Charlotte urges her sisters to accept the offer, while believing that they would never publish without her novel's acceptance. Emily and Anne agree, leaving Charlotte angry and wounded and unable to protest. Besides, Emily says, she has the new one almost finished, and that one might get accepted. Kohler gets inside Charlotte's head and vividly depicts her chaotic emotions about being "left out," and then brilliantly gives us Emily's internal monologue about the failings of Charlotte's novel.

That is a scene that captures an emotional strain of being both sisters and artists, the tensions of different levels of achievement made rockier by living in such close quarters. It is a scene that shows how bonds of affection are strained by the fierce need for expression, and Kohler also captures the very different personalities of the three sisters as a bonus.

But this economical and effective storytelling gets lost as Kohler tries her tricks on an increasingly larger scale. Charlotte and Anne head off to London to confront the shady publisher who is claiming that Emily and Anne's novels are written "by the author of Jane Eyre." So why do they go visit Charlotte's publisher? And why do we get treated to an internal monologue by the publisher's mother? By this point, Kohler has fallen into the trap she successfully avoided earlier--at this point, she is pairing up the characters of Charlotte's novels with their "Real Life Counterparts." Kohler has stopped trying to demonstrate Charlotte's character and thinking with these match-ups, and so we are in roman a clef territory, where "Dr. John Graham Bretton" is "really" her publisher George Smith. And thus Villette is reduced to a revenge novel against a man who jilted her, rather than the complex novel that many critics think is Charlotte's best.

I was also unimpressed with the artificial division of this short book into three "volumes" in the Victorian fashion. It doesn't serve any artistic function and smacks of pastiche. I really thought there were some wonderful and meaty sections of writing, and if Kohler had stuck with a smaller canvas--maybe a close examination of Charlotte's writing of Jane Eyre and its influences, as well as seeing the process through the eyes of those closest to her--she could have delivered a powerful work of imagination that examined the work of creating art. If she had ended the story at the moment that Charlotte sent the book out and thus stopped writing it, she would have had a tightly focused and powerful tale.

Instead, she got seduced by the melodrama of the Bronte story, and failed to give it either the weight it was due, or to nail it down with such specificity that it ceased to be melodramatic. So it's a nice try, and not a bad read, but frustrating because it so clearly could have been so much more.