When Elisa suddenly slips into a parallel world where her teenage son has not died ten years previously and is now an adult who is estranged from her,When Elisa suddenly slips into a parallel world where her teenage son has not died ten years previously and is now an adult who is estranged from her, you might think, as I did at first, that this is going to be a book like The Intuitionist or The City and the City, where the world of the novel is at a slight angle to our own, and the rules governing our reality are ever so gently bent, a kind of suburban magical realism.
But Elisa spends the entire story trying to figure out the rules of her new parallel world, where she must pretend that she hasn't just arrived and that she has been living here all along. This makes Lennon's book very different from those other novels, where it is the reader, not the protagonist, who must figure out the rules while the characters casually go about their business. Elisa's story is very explicitly about the principles governing world-building. Our puzzlement is hers.
Lennon largely resists the temptation to make this a meta-fictional novel that comments on itself, and there is no authorial hand reaching in from above (though a book called Familiar does briefly appear at the end). Instead, Elisa goes searching for a paradigm to help explain what has happened to her. She considers video-game design (her not-dead son's profession), talk therapy, science fiction, and physics with its theory of the multiverse. Elisa is herself a scientist, a plant biologist who has become a university administrator. Her mind is orderly and rational, and she is determined to find a true explanation for the impossibility--the fictionality--that has just erupted in her life.
Marco Roth in the journal n+1 has written about the recent trend in contemporary literary fiction for protagonists with faulty brains. He calls them "neuronovels," and sees them as the 21st-century heirs to early 20th-century modernist "stream of consciousness" novels, in which neuroscience has been given all the explanatory power for altered perception and heightened language. Roth deplores this turn to the materialist and wonders why novelists have ceded so much ground to science.
Lennon's book happens to rebut Roth quite neatly. Something is gravely wrong with Elisa--either in her mind with her perception of reality or with the quantum particles of her entire world--but she is not otherwise different from us. Perhaps if Roth had written this book, Elisa would run right to the library to read "The Metamorphosis." But applying science rather than, say, literature to her problem proliferates Lennon's story, instead of neatly reducing and resolving it as Roth fears. Science happens to contain exactly as many stories as psychology (i.e. an infinite amount).
Lest I leave you with the impression that this is a cold exercise in problem-solving, I hasten to add that the book contains a beating heart as well as a faulty brain. Elisa must figure out how to relate to her family in this new world, her husband and surviving son, as well as the son that died in her old world but has reappeared to her. And he is not okay. It is affecting and haunting.
If you like Tom McCarthy's Remainder, read this book. I suspect John Fowles' The Magus is somewhere in this book's ancestry. Right now I'm reading The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, which J. Robert Lennon recommended at his book reading here in Ithaca....more
Alice Fulton had me just twelve pages into her collection, when Mamie, a rural housewife in 1908 who is pregnant with her fifth child, begins to feelAlice Fulton had me just twelve pages into her collection, when Mamie, a rural housewife in 1908 who is pregnant with her fifth child, begins to feel labor pains. “I stopped scrubbing the floor,” she says, “and began scouring buckets and bowls. I pumped water for boiling and placed torn strips of cloth in the oven to bake clean. A woman in labor should have plenty fixed for others to eat, yet I was caught short. I could only put a big plate of bread and butter on the table.” She ties towels to the bedposts to pull against, and later in the day, she employs them with vigor, and baby Anne is born.
This collection of linked short stories chronicles the women of a family in upstate New York as they think their private thoughts while performing endless female labor, which Fulton beautifully renders. Mamie’s mother Peg puts it this way: “Thank the Lord for faces to cover what you felt.” To a woman, they seem at an acute angle to their own times, even as they outwardly represent the lifestyles of each of the decades of the twentieth century. A surprising proportion of them have accidental experiences with drugs, which I take to be Fulton’s way of underscoring her characters’ interior differences and freedoms.
I liked the earlier stories best, because here Fulton’s dialogue shines. Listen to Jarvis, a widower, propose to Peg in her sixty-fifth year: “Peg, we understand each other. You’re a bold woman, and I like that. As for myself, I don’t spit or wipe my mouth on my sleeve.” It would be an honor and a pleasure—” Peg interrupts him: “Not to come before you in your speech, but can I fetch you a cup of cold milk? I’m sure that’s what you’re after asking.” Jarvis continues: “Like I said, you are a woman full of sport, and I get a fit on my heart when I think of you.” Peg accepts, quite begrudgingly. I bet Fulton would appreciate novelist David Mitchell’s phrase “Bygonese,” a historical dialect which is “inaccurate but plausible.”
Fulton’s later stories were less resonant with me, perhaps because the nearness of the decades made her characters' strangeness, the subtle uncanniness, stand out less. But even in those pages, I relished her descriptions of the most everyday minutiae (Fulton is a poet by trade). Here’s a cat: “Bartleby crouched on top of the bookcase, his eyes open yet focused inward, as if he had swallowed a riveting puzzle.” Or this one, the physical gone metaphysical: “Ruth stopped coloring her hair, and her part turned silver, as if her head were unzipping.”
I will say that I’m not generally a fan of short stories, and “linked” short stories do not bridge the difference between stories and the novel. I would have fallen for the book had Fulton chosen to follow any of her women through her life. But if you like short stories, this collection will gratify....more