Laurie Colwin Essay - Colwin, Laurie (Vol. 5)

Colwin, Laurie (Vol. 5)

Colwin, Laurie 1945?–

Ms Colwin is an American short story writer and novelist.

[Trying] to say why [Laurie Colwin's stories are so] good and so funny (well, they're not all funny; there are a few sad ones) is like trying to analyze the excellence of a good cartoon. Maybe I should say "comic drawing"—I mean the sort of cartoon you see in the New Yorker or Punch, where the way a chair sags or a dog's ears perk up is a delight in itself. Her comedy is the comedy of manners, and it succeeds by its style and observation. The stories aren't anecdotal—I can't give you plot summaries that you can retell at your next party. But when you've read her stories, your next party may seem to you as if Laurie Colwin had written it.

Judith Rascoe, "Party Tales," in Rolling Stone (© 1974 by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 28, 1974, p. 56.

The surprising thing about Laurie Colwin's first book of short stories, Passion and Affect, is that it's so good. The stories have a quality of grace and understatement which takes one by surprise. Partly this is the result of Colwin's style, which is often so bare and unadorned as to seem pinched. Yet the style is eminently suited for her subjects. And it can perform wonders.

Passion and Affect is a collection of fourteen stories about people who learn how quietly irrational human beings are. In a sense it is a series of small ballets performed by people who can't, won't, or simply don't communicate. Couples move in slow, graceful circles of bewilderment around one another, and it is men like Harry Markham, in "The Big Plum"—men who try to make a facile equation out of life—who lose their balance. Harry, the world's only supermarket manager who also is working on a dissertation in art history, becomes infatuated with one of his cashiers. Why would a woman who looks like Vermeer's The Girl with the Pearl Earrings work at a check-out counter? Harry invents pasts for Binnie that would do credit to Beau Geste, and pursues her with the intention, essentially, of solving her. But there is no "solution" to Binnie. She provides Harry with two different versions of her life and lets him choose for himself. "'What am I supposed to believe, then?'" he asks her. "'Whichever suits you,'" she replies. "'It's your dissertation. Have both. It has nothing to do with me, anyway.' She got up from her chair, did an abrupt dancer's turn, and opened the door for him. 'I'm very serious,' she said."

It is always the dancers who win in Colwin's stories, because they understand movement, and movement is the essence of life. They understand how little they can ever hope to understand about something as shifting and private as a human being—including themselves. Sometimes a character has to make a full circuit around himself before he can begin to grasp even the shape of his life. Max Waltzer—the name ought to be significant—for instance. Max loves his job, loves his house, loves his children, and madly loves his wife. Yet, when he spots water rats in the inlet where his children swim during the summer, he becomes obsessed with the idea of exterminating them…. For Max is so happy that he has to invent enemies to protect his family from. And his sudden realization of this, handled skillfully yet almost in whispers, tells the reader what all good art ought to tell him: that "the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time." (pp. 108-09)

Colwin's great strength is not that she has a theme, but that she has a particularly fertile way of seeing her characters. She obviously believes that life is exciting when people are emotionally alive, and that the quirks and inconsistencies are what the story is all about. She has, in her own words, "the sort of worldliness that spans humor and outrage;" but she has it precisely because she has both humor and outrage and the perception that the very worldliness which incorporates both may, in fact, be either ironic or tragic depending on perspective. In other words: nothing stays; everything is changing into the next thing, and then into the next, before coming back to itself. Colwin's world is alive.

One is hesitant to pin these stories down with a superlative. They are so unassuming that it seems an act of bad taste to trumpet them when they do not trumpet themselves. But Passion and Affect is a delightful book. (pp. 109-10)

John Agar, in Carolina Quarterly (© copyright 1974 Carolina Quarterly), Spring, 1974.

Laurie Colwin's people in Passion and Affect … are tired and whipped—but not by poverty or age…. Their fatigue is a function of their emotional style; they love intensely, they speak their deepest feelings, and unrequited love can addle their hearts for months. The title of the book's opening story, "Animal Behavior," foreshadows Colwin's treatment of sexual stress. She darts into remote, highly sensitized corners of the human psyche without explaining what goes on there. Like the other animals, man can enjoy sexual love, but he cannot understand or control it; nobody learns from loving. It strengthens and comforts some; others are wiped out by its sharp, aching joys…. The main currents of Passion and Affect are psychological, not satiric. Personality neither flattens nor falls into patterns. Rather, the reverse applies: the more Colwin says about her groping, decent people, the more she prods our imaginations.

Another imaginative enticement comes from her bright, figured prose. As in Muriel Spark, her short, terse paragraphs transmit sharp-cut images and bright little rips of meaning….

Though saying nothing new about human sexuality, Laurie Colwin writes with unobtrusive skill, insight, and touching moral passion. (pp. 28-9)

Peter Wolfe, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), April 27, 1974.

Laurie Colwin's … very good in stories of contemporary manners: "The Water Rats," with its upper-middle class family and the husband's almost obsessive need to share, to love, is reminiscent of John Cheever and the best of the Roger Angell-Edward Newhouse-Robert M. Coates New Yorker school. "The Smartest Woman in America" is an effective characterization of a female intellectual who would make Norman Mailer tremble; "Mr. Parker" is an expert small piece about small-town provincialism related in terms of a child, her music teacher, and her bigoted mother; "Wet" is a marvelously economical husband-wife story in which swimming becomes a kind of infidelity; and at least half a dozen others [in her collection Passion and Effect] are very good indeed. Two of her longer pieces, though, "The Girl with the Harlequin Glasses" and the title story, about a pair of New York intellectuals and their personal problems and their magazine Runnymede, are repetitious, long-winded, and soporific. But in the final analysis Laurie Colwin looks and writes like a first-rate writer. (pp. 728-29)

William Peden, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Fall, 1974.