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Alison Lurie

Alison Lurie Essay - Critical Essays

Alison Lurie American Literature Analysis

Lurie has been compared to Jane Austen, Henry James, and Mary McCarthy (another satiric novelist who finds comic material in the American university), and to contemporaries such as Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, Norman Mailer, and Philip Roth. Like Austen, she can be viewed as a novelist of “manners,” a writer concerned primarily with the follies of highly sophisticated people who are often emotionally self-indulgent and insecure, caught between sense and sensibility, pride and prejudice. In fact, one of Austen’s juvenile works is titled Love and Freindship (sic; wr. 1790), almost the same title that Lurie used for her own first novel, Love and Friendship.

Like James, Lurie is concerned not only with the manners and customs of Americans but also with their moral and psychological problems, with the “felt life” of the imagination as well as the realistic terrain of the social world. James was concerned with American character and often placed his Americans in European settings (or Europeans in American settings) to show them in stark contrast. In Foreign Affairs, Lurie employs James’s “international theme” by sending her two principal Americans, Vinnie Miner and Fred Turner, to London, where American naïveté encounters European sophistication. Lurie’s similarities to her contemporaries are more obvious. Like McCarthy in novels such as The Groves of Academe, Lurie finds comedy in academe; like Vonnegut, Roth, and others, her basic mode is satire.

Like many satirists throughout the history of literature, Lurie chooses sex, class, and religion as her targets. Adultery and sexual intrigues are common in her novels, and while such behavior always creates human complication, it is not at all clear that Lurie condemns it. In fact, she refuses to judge sexual behavior at all. In The Nowhere City, Katherine Cattleman’s affair with Dr. Isidore Einsam strengthens her, making her more self-assured as a woman, while in The War Between the Tates, Danielle Zimmern’s affair with Dr. Bernard Kotelchuk weakens her, making her more dependent and turning her from an independent, intelligent woman into a frumpy housewife. Wendy Gahaghan and Cecile O’Connor, two of Lurie’s younger women, both emerge from their sexual affairs with little emotional damage.

On the other hand, few of Lurie’s men fare well from their sexual escapades. Paul Cattleman, after flings with a youthful hippie and an aging Hollywood starlet, slinks back East to a safe teaching job, a defeated man. Brian Tate, publicly humiliated by a group of radical feminists, is a victim of self-deceit, hypocrisy, and vanity. Einsam and Kotelchuk are little better than rapists, both forcing themselves on the women they want, but each ends up condemned to a lifetime of timid devotion to their women. Roger Zimmern, the narrator of Imaginary Friends, longs for Verena Roberts but flees from her when she becomes sexually aggressive; even worse, Sandy Finkelstein, the pathetic mystic who has worshiped Erica Tate for years, is unable to get an erection when she offers herself to him. In sum, Lurie’s view of sex (and its concomitants, marriage and adultery) is essentially that of a social scientist. She is more concerned with its effects on individual lives than on its moral significance.

Lurie’s characters are usually well-educated, upper-middle-class adults who are respectable, responsible, and conservative—just those Americans that one would expect to uphold virtues of family, marriage, and society. The power of sexual passion, ennui, or simply contradictory human nature proves too much for them, however, propelling them headlong into strange alliances and complicated sexual games. At their best, sexual encounters change the individuals involved by giving them self-knowledge they otherwise would not have gained.

Complicating matters further is Lurie’s distinctly feminist view of marriage, children, and men. Her suburban, intelligent, middle-aged housewives have been left for younger women, have fallen victim to graying hair and sagging breasts, have been uprooted from friends and comfortable surroundings to follow their husbands’ careers, or have witnessed their children grow from cherubic babyhood to monstrous adolescence. They have made their choices, chosen their men and their lives long ago (when they were inexperienced), and now that they have knowledge of themselves and their world, they have no choices to make. Their husbands are sexually bored, professionally frustrated, and emotionally restless. Such marriages as these stay together for the sake of what Lurie calls The Children.

Typical of such children are the Tates’ two teenagers, Jeffrey and Matilda, once known as “Jeffo” and “Muffy.” Now growing into adulthood, they have become rude, abusive, profane, lazy, and selfish. They fight constantly, and both Erica and Brian Tate have come to despise them; to Erica, they are aliens who have taken over the bodies of the children she once loved. Lurie continually undermines the romantic notions of marriage and family that keep women from becoming fully developed, independent human beings. Women who spend their lives raising children, she insists, might find those children growing into hateful monsters. Wives who devote their lives to the careers of their husbands might be left with no lives of their own if the husband leaves them for another woman, and women without men are subjected to the mindless stereotypes of society. Divorced women who take lovers, such as Danielle Zimmern of The War Between the Tates, are categorized as sluts by society, while professional women who do not marry, such as Vinnie Miner of Foreign Affairs, are thought to be sexless spinsters.

Vinnie, in fact, is a good example of the realistic way that Lurie portrays women. A woman in her fifties who is not pretty by traditional American standards, Vinnie is juxtaposed to her English department colleague Fred Turner, a Hollywood-handsome young man. In London to do academic research, both have “foreign affairs,” Vinnie with a somewhat loutish American tourist, Chuck Mumpson, and Turner with a famous British beauty and television actress, Lady Rosemary Radley. That Vinnie should have any affair whatsoever may seem surprising, for, as Lurie points out, society does not seem to expect physically unattractive women over fifty to have any sex life at all. Vinnie, however, though far from promiscuous, has been sexually active all her life, usually with male friends she has known for a long time. Sex, as she ponders at one point, has never been hard to attain, though love has been. (Sex, in fact, is not hard for any woman to attain, she concludes, if she sets her sights low enough.) Ironically, oafish Chuck Mumpson turns out to be a tender and sensitive lover, while the dazzlingly beautiful Rosemary is revealed as shallow, vain, incapable of love, and inwardly ugly. The beautiful and the handsome, like Fred and Rosemary, have just as much difficulty finding genuine love and affection as, by society’s standards, the unattractive and no longer youthful.

Another favorite target of Lurie’s satire is class, not only in the United States but, in Foreign Affairs, in England as well. Her upper-middle-class American academics range from uptight, conservative boors such as Don Dibble, who gets trapped in his office by a group of radical feminists in The War Between the Tates, to aspiring young professors such as Fred Turner, whose theatrical good looks make him suspect to his more conventional-looking male colleagues. Lurie’s academics are pigeonholed in their sequestered world not only by whom they are sleeping with but also by how well they keep it hidden, by meaningless books and articles (and how well they are received by reviewers), and by the whimsical regard or disregard of their more powerful colleagues.

Lurie has a wonderful eye for details of clothing, material possessions, and surroundings that typify middle-class American life. Her biting satire of Southern California, The Nowhere City, ridicules the tacky architecture, labyrinthine freeways, twenty-four-hour “Joy Superdupermarkets,” littered and smelly beaches, and voracious realty development that only a confirmed easterner such as Lurie could describe with such gleeful malice. To Lurie, Los Angeles is a “nowhere” city: a stratified geographical area with a central valley thick with smog and poverty, topped by the private pools and hillside palaces of the tastelessly rich.

Finally, there is the subclass of hippies, gurus, student groupies, and dropouts that appears frequently in Lurie’s novels, not so much representing a class as a counterculture of the young and disenfranchised. Like Wendy Gahaghan and Ceci O’Connor, they live in “the now”—with no emotional commitment, no sense of responsibility, no ambition, and no hope. Small wonder that Wendy, at the end of The War Between the Tates, plans to go off with her latest casual lover to California, Lurie’s favorite nowhere.

In Imaginary Friends, Lurie satirizes American religion, another favorite subject of traditional satirists. Reminiscent of both Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry (1927) and Henry James’s The Bostonians (1886, a satire not on religion but on the feminist movement of his day), the novel explores a spiritualist group called the Truth Seekers, a group of lower-middle-class losers who are convinced they are in touch with a spiritual space traveler named Ro of Varna, who sends messages (via automatic writing) through a young woman in the group named Verena Roberts.

The Seekers could be one of any number of similar groups throughout the United States, trying to find spiritual uplift for their pathetic and uneventful lives. The group is infiltrated by two sociologists from Corinth University who are out to prove a hypothesis about belief systems and find in the Seekers a perfect control group. As it turns out, the senior sociologist, Thomas McMann, is more lunatic than any of the Seekers (the novel also lampoons social scientists) and winds up in an asylum, believing that he himself is Ro of Varna. Both seekers and sociologists, Lurie tells us, get caught up in their own delusionary systems, irrational wishes, and distorted perceptions of reality—perhaps everyone does at one time or another—and who is to say that one form of delusion is better or worse than another?

Aside from the intelligence, social commentary, and sheer fun of Lurie’s novels, many admire them simply for their artistry. Her carefully constructed novels often employ several voices and points of view, effortless shifts from present to past time, believable dialogue, and arresting images. Her prose is admirably lucid, concise, and direct, always perfectly suited to the narrative and subject. Her wit and use of irony are those of a highly sophisticated social novelist, and her illumination of the self-deceptions and disappointments of adult life reveal a novelist of serious intent for mature readers.

The Nowhere City

First published: 1965

Type of work: Novel

A young history professor and his wife encounter culture shock in Southern California.

The Nowhere City, Lurie’s second published novel, is a somewhat malicious satire on California manners and customs, written from the point of view of someone who believes in the superiority of life in the eastern United States. In this early work, some of Lurie’s dominant themes become evident: marital disharmony, the transformational effect of adultery, and the shabbiness of American middle-class culture.

The central characters are Paul and Katherine Cattleman, a young historian and his wife who have come to California from Harvard University, where Paul was completing work on his doctorate. Paul has taken a job with The Nutting Research Development Corporation, a large electronic firm in Los Angeles; his assignment is to write a history and description of the company’s operations. To Paul, it is an ideal position: He will have time to write his dissertation and will be making twice the salary he would make as a young college instructor. Besides, he thinks of Los Angeles as an...

(The entire section is 5047 words.)