Joan Didion once said that writing is a hostile act. An imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space.
Play It As It Lays,Joan Didion once said that writing is a hostile act. An imposition of the writer's sensibility on the reader's most private space.
Play It As It Lays, published in 1970, slaps down at your soul's kitchen table and announces itself, not loudly, but in a voice that crawls under your skin, not really caring whether or not you want to see anyone, and lights a cigarette. In between noxious exhales, it tells you some version of the truth.
Maria Wyeth's story, told in shifting first and close third person, is a 20th century existential tragedy, a sort of American The Stranger, in which Maria is Meursault and Los Angeles, Algiers; a psychiatric hospital stands in for a prison; there is a Nevada desert instead of a North African beach.
At thirty-one, Maria is an actress of fading relevance with an impending divorce and a beloved four-year-old daughter in a care facility for the developmentally disabled (oh, my heart stuttered at the term 'retarded' used throughout the book). No one at the institution combs Kate's hair and the sad tangles Maria tries to smooth out during her visits are somehow emblematic of the chaos in her own life.
The chaos isn't a busy one. It isn't an overflow of demands. It is the chaos of nothingness. “By the end of the week she was thinking constantly about where her body stopped and the air began, about the exact point in space and time that was the difference between Maria and other.” Maria has become paralyzed by life, by the emptiness of her career and her relationships, where friends exchange each other as lovers as often as they exchange yesterday's soiled underwear for today's clean pair. She has had her insides scraped clean of a child conceived not in love, but in desperate boredom, and that act—the back alley abortion so terribly, graphically evoked here, remember, this is the late 1960s—is the ultimate creation of empty chaos.
Maria finds solace traveling the freeways that criss-cross this City of Angels. Cruising the nothingness of the tarmac is the only time she feels safe and in control.
Yes, this is a wrenching read. But so brilliant. The multiple points-of-view are deftly handled, the lightest touch bringing in this character or that. Didion's writing, with its echoes of Hemingway and McCullers, is spare and unflinching. The chapters are short and white space is left on the page, reflecting the white space in Maria's life that she tries to fill with alcohol, sex, acting, driving.
Few novels have taken me so deeply inside one character, injecting me into her bloodstream, so that I breathe with her, see through her eyes. I love Maria, I hate her, I want to protect her, I want her out of my life.
Time has done nothing to diminish the power of Maria's story, yet Play It As It Lays is a fascinating time capsule of feminist literature. Highly recommended. ...more
Each time a new novel set in the European theatre of WWII emerges, the chorus of “Do we need another WWII novel? Haven’t all the stories already beenEach time a new novel set in the European theatre of WWII emerges, the chorus of “Do we need another WWII novel? Haven’t all the stories already been told?” follows. And then we go on to devour the likes of The Narrow Road to the Deep North and All The Light We Cannot See. Good story is good story. If the setting or theme seems tired to you, move along, please.
So, too, could we lament the novel of the dysfunctional Irish family. From James Joyce to Edna O’Brien, Colm Tóibín to John Banville, we’ve read destitute, down-and-out, drunk. And then there’s Mammy. But we never tire of great story. And I personally never tire of Ireland.
And then there’s Anne Enright, who specializes in the particular misery of the contemporary Irish family. But you noticed that I gave this five stars, didn’t you? That’s because it’s damn near impossible to be tired of reading transcendent writing.
Her latest novel, The Green Road contains echoes of her 2007 Man Booker Award winner, The Gathering: it features a disjointed Irish family dispersed into a diaspora prior to the Celtic Tiger boom, reunites at a moment of familial crisis. In The Gathering, it is to mourn the suicide of a brother. The narrative is told through the perspective of a sister, one of twelve siblings, living in the rarefied suburbia of 21st century Dublin.
Yet even with similar themes, The Green Road is something else entirely. Set not only in Enright’s verdant, damp Co. Clare, on Ireland’s west coast, but in Dublin, New York, Toronto, and Mali, it shifts between the perspectives of the four Madigan children: Dan, Emmet, Constance, and Hanna, as they lean away from the west of Ireland and the emotional machinations of their mother, Rosaleen.
From the opening salvo, when Dan declares he is joining the priesthood and Rosaleen commences to weep on the Sunday dinner apple tart, the story sends us scattering across decades and borders. In 1991, eleven years after Dan breaks his mother’s heart, he is no longer an acolyte of the Catholic church. Engaged to his Irish childhood sweetheart, he descends to New York while she completes her studies in Boston. There he begins to admit to and explore his homosexuality, at a time when AIDS is decimating the city’s gay men. Enright immerses us in this world, but she circles around Dan, showing us instead the men he becomes involved with. Dan is more shadow than character. It is brilliantly done, for Dan is not yet fully realized as a man, not while he is still in denial, living half-truths.
Constance then enters the scene. It is 1997 and Constance waits in a hospital lobby in Co. Limerick to learn if the lump in her breast is cancer. She is the only Madigan child not to have strayed far from home. Her life is solidly middle class; in a few years, she will become part of the new wealth only just beginning to take hold in the Republic. With three children, a Lexus, an expanding waistline, Constance is the dependable one, the one who looks after Rosaleen. She too went to New York City once, but it was “the place you went to get a whole new life, and all she got was a couple of Eileen Fisher cardigans in lilac and grey.”
Perhaps deserving of a novel all his own is Emmet, the son and brother who becomes an ironically self-absorbed aid worker in West Africa. We meet Emmet in Mali, circa 2002, in a story about wasted love and a stray dog. Enright’s descriptions and characterizations capture all that is surreal about white, privileged expats trying to make a difference in a world that has little use for their clumsy, unreliable services.
Hanna, always the little sister, is rapidly aging out of usefulness as a Dublin-based actress. She has “the wrong face for a grown-up woman, even if there were parts for grown-up women. The detective inspector. The mistress. No, Hanna had a girlfriend face, pretty, winsome and sad. And she was thirty-seven. She had run out of time.” Hanna is barely holding on as the mother of a toddler. She’s drinking, Hanna is, but look, it’s 2005 and Ireland is abloom with wealth and possibility: surely it has room for her . . .
Curiously, the novel ends before the recession cuts Ireland off at the knees. But not before Rosaleen decides she will sell the family home, a threat that brings all four Madigan children back to Co. Clare and “The Green Road” of their childhood for Christmas.
This is a mannered novel, perhaps the most conventional that Enright has written, but it is so rich and full. Each chapter, each change in character perspective, could be a brilliant stand-alone short story. Enright polishes to a sharp gleam the details of setting and character, the ripe dialogue, the emotional ebbs and flows; her skill is breathtaking. There are times when her prose is lyrical and poetic: “The slope of raw clay had been ablaze, when her father passed along that way, with red poppies and with those yellow flowers that love broken ground.”; others when it is raw with reality: Dan was a year younger than Constance, fifteen months. His growing up struck her as daft, in a way. So she was not bothered by her brother’s gayness—except, perhaps, in a social sense—because she had not believed in his straightness, either. In the place where Constance loved Dan, he was eight years old.
The Green Road is a slow burn of familial love and disappointments, a purely Irish story that resonates beyond place and time, somehow both starkly rendered and lushly realized. Gorgeous, heart-tearing, highly-recommended....more
The Gathering bears witness to a modern Ireland—which at the time of its publication in 2007 was the shiny, bright, roaring Celtic Tiger, an economicThe Gathering bears witness to a modern Ireland—which at the time of its publication in 2007 was the shiny, bright, roaring Celtic Tiger, an economic miracle—that cannot escape its past. It is told in a looping, troubling first-person by Veronica Hegarty, who lives an aimless existence in a detached five-bedroom home in the Dublin suburbs with her two lovely daughters and financier husband Tom. Veronica and Tom, who “moves money around, electronically. Every time he does this, a tiny bit sticks to him. Day by day. Hour by hour. Minute by minute. Quite a lot of it, in the long run”, are the new Ireland: privileged, polished, distant, secluded.
But Veronica has come to share something of the past, a dark and dirty secret that her brother Liam’s suicide has only now brought to the light of her memory.
I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen. I need to bear witness to an uncertain event. I feel it roaring inside me – this thing that may not have taken place. I don’t even know what name to put on it. I think you might call it a crime of the flesh, but the flesh is long fallen away and I am not sure what hurt may linger in the bones.
From this ominous beginning, Veronica meanders back to the time of her grandmother, constructing a narrative that is part family history, part “Dear Diary”—a public confessional in which you can imagine Veronica tearing at the pages with the sharp tip of her pen. Enright presents us with an articulate, reflective narrator, but one of the book’s most brilliant aspects is the instability of Veronica’s testimony – highlighting the unreliability of memory.
Veronica’s clan, the Hegarty’s, is symbolic of the old Ireland Veronica is trying to redeem. She is one of twelve siblings, the daughter of a woman who has virtually lost her mind to the physical and emotional ravages of childbearing and rearing.
My mother had twelve children and— as she told me one hard day–seven miscarriages. The holes in her head are not her fault. Even so, I have never forgiven her any of it. I just can’t.
This tells us so much about the soul of the woman who leads us into her family’s past, the volumes of sorrow and anger and shame that swell in her heart like pages of a book left out in the rain. Perhaps it is her mother’s carelessness, or reverence to a religion which treated women like brood sows that Veronica cannot forgive; but no, as she tells us, “I do not forgive her the sex. The stupidity of so much humping. Open and blind. Consequences, Mammy. Consequences.”
The consequences of which Veronica writes were borne not only by her mother but by all her siblings. Some of the Hegarty twelve passed on before Liam: Margaret, recently, of cancer; Stevie, as an angelic little boy; and the nine who remain are scattered, as if seeking roots far from the mother tree. The eponymous ‘Gathering’ is Liam’s wake and funeral, bringing them all back home again. The theme of family is at the broken heart of this novel—how our families shape and betray us—the facts of our emotional inheritances that we can never escape. But the family of Enright’s creation is so wholly Irish, without the superficial sentimentality that we would perhaps rather see, absent of the soft-focus of times past. Enright’s Irish family is flawed and brutal:
There is always a drunk. There is always someone who has been interfered with, as a child. There is always a colossal success, with several houses in various countries to which no one is ever invited. There is a mysterious sister. These are just trends, of course, and, like trends, they shift. Because our families contain everything and, late at night, everything makes sense. We pity our mothers, what they had to put up with in bed or in the kitchen, and we hate them or we worship them, but we always cry for them.
For some readers, The Gathering may have a frustrating lack of action; it is a novel of character and feelings, of reflection and observation. For me, it roared with life. Enright’s prose is sometimes alluring and gentle, sometimes a slap in the face, but it is always original, precise, the fine point of a calligraphy pen that seduces the brain.
Like Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment before her and Jill Alexander Essbaum’s recent Hausfrau, Anne Enright’s The Gathering gives voice to a woman’s anger and shows the inner workings of a mind set loose by tragedy and obsession. It is an unflinching look at sex as a weapon to be wielded and feared. A measure of redemption is offered, for even though Liam’s life was interrupted so unfairly and Veronica must live on in her uncertain world, there is hope in a new life: Liam’s son.
A brilliant novel of Ireland, of family, of memory.
Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
Is it strange that I want to f
Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.
Is it strange that I want to fist bump Virginia Woolf whenever I read this iconic line from A Room of One's Own?
Woolf wrote this essay in October 1928 for an Oxbridge lecture on the topic of Women and Fiction. It was published a year later, as the Jazz Age came to a skidding halt and the Great Depression fell like a heavy curtain across the world's stage. But on this glorious mid-autumn day, suspended in thought, she wanders the grounds of an Oxford college that has curious rules about where women can walk and sit. Woolf contemplates what it means to be addressing women's intellectual and creative pursuits in a place that won't let her walk through gardens or enter a chapel because of her sex. She contrasts the opulent luncheon of sole "spread with a counterpane of the whitest cream" and partridge and an ethereal "pudding" she enjoys in the men's hall with the meagre dinner at a women's college later that evening.
Meanwhile the wineglasses had flushed yellow and flushed crimson; had been emptied; had been filled. And thus by degrees was lit, half-way down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard little electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse.
and later, a far more modest affair at the women’s college:
What force is behind that plain china off which we dined, and (here it popped out of my mouth before I could stop it) the beef, the custard and the prunes?
The difference in the meals serves as a starting metaphor for the opportunities afforded a female scholar of the literary arts. With belly sated and senses enlivened by the romance of this beautiful October day, wandering the hallowed, golden grounds of Oxford, Woolf lays out the central premise of her essay:
All I could do was to offer you an opinion upon one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.
She imagines Shakespeare's twin sister Judith, a woman possessing curiosity, ambition and talent at least equal to that of her celebrated brother but because of cultural and political oppression of women, her voice and eventually her life are wasted. And then Woolf goes on to show us how all women are related to Shakespeare's sister.
Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.
The central tenet of Virginia Woolf’s essay is to counter the notion that women’s writing is inferior to men’s. She offers up, in language at once accessible and divine, proof of history’s disavowal of women’s promise. What seems obvious today was radical feminist thinking at the time.
The history of men's opposition to women's emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.
And what is to be done to right history’s wrongs?
Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.
Woolf examines the women writers who did break through, despite the walls and ceilings holding them in. I’m new enough to Woolf’s writings that I did not know she held such affection for Jane Austen. This fills me with shivery delight and makes me want to hug the world.
Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote.
Here we are, ninety-five years after Virginia Woolf wrote her essay. How things have changed. How they have not.
Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Have you any notion how many are written by men? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?
I am sure, were Virginia alive today, she would be involved with VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, which does an annual count to tally the gender disparity in major literary publications and book reviews. Woolf imagined that in a hundred years’ time, women’s writing would be on par with men’s in terms of acceptance, publication, readership, and critical review and respect. Alas, although things have improved immensely, there is still work to be done.
Now my belief is that this poet who never wrote a word and was buried at the cross-roads still lives. She lives in you and in me, and in many other women who are not here to-night, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed.
Judith Shakespeare is present among us. She may have found her way from middle-class America and Europe into universities and be earning an income and enjoying a room of her own, but she is still waiting to be lifted from poverty elsewhere, into education and independence, to use the full-throated power of her own voice.
But I maintain that she would come if we worked for her, and that so to work, even in poverty and obscurity, is worth while.
A call to action, if ever there was one. An astonishing work of literary criticism, of feminist thought, that is as vital, powerful, and important today as it was on that golden October afternoon in 1928. I am moved beyond words.