Lisa Alther Essay - Critical Essays

Alther, Lisa

Alther, Lisa 1944–

Ms Alther is an American novelist.

["Kinflicks" is] an admirable if deeply flawed first novel which is really two books, quite different in style, tone, and, for me, interest. The technique is simple—alternating chapters that deal with the past and the present, the long growing-up of Ginny in the past, and the lingering death of the mother in the present.

The better book is the first of the two, the pain-of-it-all growing-up chapters that by now are familiar unto exhaustion, yet which in the hands of Lisa Alther come alive and are undeniably, sometimes hysterically, funny….

Sociological stereotypes is what we have here: characters who, in spite of the bizarre and violent events that may befall them, remain at best only half real, half compelling—and there are still more to follow in the seemingly endless parade. "Kinflicks" simply goes on, and as though she herself senses the threat of pointlessness and banality in her material, the author's compulsion to keep us laughing becomes almost oppressive. Joke follows joke as humor is pushed to its limits with increasingly diminishing returns. (p. 41)

[In Alther's second segment] the tendency is to sentimentalize, give it all a little existential whammy. Here is Mrs. Babcock literally near death, and Ginny symbolically so, both "awash on a healing sea of indifference"….

Like her daughter, Ginny's mother has lived "largely in obedience to her parents' wishes," and also like Ginny she has spent years of "satisfying other people's needs." It is, of course, the excrutiating truth for them both. And from my point of view it may also be what's fundamentally wrong with the novel. It is not that the point being made is necessarily false, although by now it may be trite; it does hit home, and it is dear to the heart of any woman who has lived it. What's maddening is the superficial way it's made to "come through"….

And there's the rub; the book aims high, hits low. As for the ending, it's just there. Getting herself together at last, Ginny leaves the cabin "to go where she had no idea."

Is this, at long last, what liberation means? Is this the "new woman"? I don't know, but I would like to have cared. (p. 42)

Anne Larsen, "Reeling through a Daughter's Decade," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), March 8, 1976, pp. 39-42

"Kinflicks" is almost as pleasing for what it isn't as for what it is. Imagine a first novel about the coming of age of a young woman in the American 1950's and 1960's that never gets anywhere near New York; there are no cocktail parties and no psychiatrists in the book. Although a good portion of it is set in the South, it is innocent of symbology; there is no pickled lyricism, no swamp gas. And while it is full of men who don't understand women, the women don't understand themselves, either. "Kinflicks" is not a long-playing whine; it is, rather, an exuberant yawp.

This tone, this bounciness, is all the more amazing given Lisa Alther's materials. "Kinflicks"—the title refers to snapshots of family occasions—is a month in the life of Virginia Babcock Bliss, with flashbacks to her high school and college days, her interludes of left wing politicking, communal farming and lesbianism and her tryout and failure as a wife and mother….

When we aren't eavesdropping on Ginny, who spends this month with her mother, we are reading the mind of Mrs. Babcock, who prepares for her own death with a vexation and perplexity, a dignity and intelligence, that is quite simply beyond the power of most novelists, first or otherwise, to evoke….

[Her materials] are Doris Lessing materials. Indeed, Mrs. Babcock reminds one of Kate Brown in "The Summer Before the Dark," a Kate Brown who never got to Spain. Ginny is an American Martha Quest. Minor Lessingisms abound. Miss Alther, for instance, seems to share with Mrs. Lessing a weakness for Sufism: quotations from Idries Shah are used as epigraph and epilogue. As Kate Brown dreamed of caring for a stranded seal, Ginny actually cares for three abandoned baby birds: a compulsive mothering of the mute, a lockstep. There is even a character in "Kinflicks," Hawk, who is writing an apocalyptic "historical science fiction," just like Mark Coldridge in "The Four-Gated City."

More to the point, Miss Alther and Mrs. Lessing share an energetic intelligence, an absence of self-pity, an appetite for experience. Ideas are to be passionately engaged. Philosophy, politics and the natural sciences are to be plunged into, waded through. (Ginny's choosing sides at college between Descartes and Nietzsche, Spinoza and Schopenhauer, is genuinely moving.) They are pioneers of the idiopathic, not bookkeepers of the emotions. They open up, making many recent feminist novels seem like clenched fists around the fact of injured self, pretzel boxes of ego that have to be ripped apart by the reader to get at anything.

But if "Kinflicks" is a sort of Doris Lessing novel, it is one into which, by accident, someone like Mary Tyler Moore has wandered…. This is a very funny book, not at all savage, about serious matters, full of people one would like to meet, and oddly invigorating. The tone of voice throughout is a tone that has been missing in American fiction for years—it is the speech of breezy survivors, of Holden Caulfield, Augie March and, ultimately, Huckleberry Finn. (p. 4)

John Leonard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 14, 1976.

Lisa Alther's targets [in "Kinflicks"] are barn-broad, her aim at them erratic. Intending a '60s "Candide," she achieves a women's lib update of Max Shulman's "Barefoot Boy With Cheek." She gets off some good one-liners….

But when this kind of cartooning is excessively protracted to 500 pages, Alther's crayon proves too stubby to draw convincing diagrams of Ginny's quest for identity, the late-dawning mutual recognition of mother and daughter and the suction toward death exercised by Ginny's upbringing. These themes are swamped by the arch jocosity and sophomoric overwriting Alther locks herself into by her relentless determination to be funny. Her characterization is primitive and her ear for talk only approximate….

"Kinflicks" is an amateurish stab at a major novel. If intention were achievement, I could recommend it. I don't mean to discourage Lisa Alther or count her out. She has energy and nerve, and she may turn out to be able to write a good book. It isn't her fault that her debut has been overpromoted. (p. 91)

Walter Clemons, in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 15, 1976.

Kinflicks … is soaring in the slip stream of Fear of Flying, Erica Jong's bestselling hymn to the body electric. The novel proves again—if any doubters still remain—that women can write about physical functions just as frankly and, when the genes move them, as raunchily as men. It strikes a blow for the picara by putting a heroine through the same paces that once animated a Tom Jones or a Holden Caulfield. And it suggests that life seen from what was once called the distaff side suspiciously resembles the genitalia-centered existence that male novelists have so long monopolized. The organs are different; the scoring is the same.

Kinflicks is also an abundantly entertaining progress through the unsettled 60s. Virginia Hull Babcock, 27, comes home to Tennessee to care for her ailing mother. The act is not exactly unselfish, since Ginny has nowhere else to go; her Vermont husband has just thrown her out for practicing sexual yoga with a Viet Nam War resister. The home-town setting reminds Ginny of the home movies—kinflicks, as she and her two brothers called them—that her parents lavished on the events of her childhood. She begins mentally unreeling the X-rated scenes the old folks never saw….

Alther … draws this story in broad strokes, and as exuberant caricature Kinflicks is authentically inspired….

Unhappily, Ginny is equally one-dimensional. A confessed "easy lay, spiritually," she makes Candide look like a graduate of assertiveness-training school. She has plenty of wise-girl things to say about her passively dumb behavior, but she has not really learned anything from her myriad misadventures. Alther tries to make the illness and eventual death of Ginny's mother the rite of passage that will turn the daughter into a self-winding adult. But Mrs. Babcock, whose suffering and despair are movingly portrayed, seems to have been smuggled in from a different novel. Kinflicks, for better and worse, belongs to Ginny and her amusing, if hardly profound, moral: Sisterhood is Slapstick.

Paul Gray, "Blue Genes," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), March 22, 1976, p. 80.

Kinflicks is a long first novel about a young woman's search for selfhood and relevance in the turbulent decades of the frustrating '50s and the savage, swinging '60s. As such, it necessarily embodies every exhausted cliche in the line you've just read. Unnecessarily, it does so with an excess of careless prose built into a structure either misconceived or unachievable. Surprisingly, these three strikes don't put the book out. It has so much energy, so much humor, and so fine and moving a story at its core that it handily defeats the author's worst intentions.

Kinflicks—Lisa Alther's clever name for home movies, and stable metaphor for memory—is built mostly from flashbacks into the story of Ginny Babcock, who, at 27, has temporarily shut down her own ongoing life to return home to Tennessee and bear witness to her mother's death….

While the book remains at the maternal deathbed, it is a powerful piece of work. Alther portrays Ginny and her mother with a caring detachment that can comprehend both the younger woman's rebellion and the elder's tragic sense that she has lost her life in living for her children. Few other novels do so fine a job of realizing this fundamental relationship.

The long flashbacks are a good deal less successful. The writer seems to have been determined to fill them with a social history so complete that Ginny sometimes becomes as unreal as the "representative" characters who surround her. It isn't that Alther's humor deserts her … so much as it is that her encyclopedic ambition betrays her.

Not since Ayn Rand inflicted Atlas Shrugged upon us have so many stick figures labored up Symbol Hill, hauling so much of history's heavy water…. The heroine's father will be not just the usual oppressor, but the owner of a munitions plant, so that his child can picket Daddy and the Vietnam war at the same time. In the hospital, two patients do a regular walk-on bit to debate the meaning of life; must one be a nun, the other a Jew? Nor does the author hesitate to deliver her dialectic at top speed: there is a war resister named Hawk.

Those who can live with this logic still have to cope with the prose. As Alther settles into the rhythms of her long book, she assembles a creditable style; but how many readers will she lose in the first pages, where she is ready to call an airplane a "winged bird" and her hemorrhaging parent an "overripe tomato." The language is often clotted: "riot of noxious exudations" is Alther trying to spell "smog." And sometimes meaning itself is simply ignored….

Though there's no excuse for such writing, there is a plausible explanation for the thunderous design and population of the book that Doris Lessing, in praising it, touched on when she made mention of Tom Jones; for this novel is so rigidly picaresque as to be almost a bow to that tradition. The novel's vast social canvas, its generational time scale, its concomitant length, and its—largely successful—striving for a constant undertone of grim humor suggest nothing so much as a picaresque novel; and those were books often peopled by blatant archetypes bearing outrageous names.

But Alther can cop such a plea only at the price of admitting a serious aesthetic misjudgment: the forms of 18th-century art will not contain contemporary experience, and most especially not the explosive, disjunctive experience of Alther's heroine over the past 20 years.

Even so, the specifics of Kinflicks' kinflicks are generally well handled. The author owns a memory for social detail that rivals Tom Wolfe's….

She is also able to make undergraduate life vivid in its academic aspect as well as after class, which—examine any dozen "college" novels from This Side of Paradise to Other Men's Daughters—is very rare. Ginny's discovery of Descartes one year, and of reason's great foe Nietzsche the next, is genuinely moving, and it validates her as a woman who cares for her mind (despite all the funny things she does with her body) so convincingly that when complex metaphors from the physical sciences crop up in the novel, they hold as much fascination for the reader as for the woman who constructs them. (They also pave the way for a brutal clinical detail about Ginny's mother's illness that restores some of the impact the symbolic nature of that illness has leached away.)

Finally, there is a good deal in this messy novel to admire—its reckless ambition, its candor and coolheadedness, and the hard-won combination of compassion and ice with which the author has viewed her protagonist's experience. But it's a pity that Alther didn't take more trouble with her prose, or examine more carefully the probable consequences of her overreach. She might easily have had a small masterpiece instead of an enormous notebook that sacrifices the best that is in it to the urge for total recall.

William C. Woods, "Projection of Things Past," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 28, 1976, p. H1.

["Kinflicks" is an] ambitious, funny, lucid, and unfailingly honest first novel about a young Tennessee woman's coming of age in the nineteen-sixties. While a number of excellent writers have covered various parts of the turf covered here—small-town rites of passage, sixties politics, communes, the effect of the Vietnam war on those who grew up during it, and the extraordinary difficulty the past two generations have had in understanding each other—no other writer has yet synthesized this material as well as Miss Alther has. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that her cynical, clear-eyed, well-heeled, disaster-prone heroine, Ginny Babcock, can easily take her place alongside Holden Caulfield as a symbol of everything that is right and wrong about a generation. Appropriately, a great deal of the book is about sex, and Ginny's sexual adventures and misadventures … are possibly among the funniest ever recorded…. In its scope and depth, Miss Alther's writing most resembles Doris Lessing's …, except that her touch is a lot lighter than Miss Lessing's. And though there are some marshy areas (usually in the form of endless recitations of biological and chemical processes, which add little to the narrative) in this very long … book, most readers will find themselves dawdling as the end draws near, trying to prolong the pleasure. (pp. 112, 114)

The New Yorker (© 1976 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), March 29, 1976.

[Kinflicks] is long because much of it is inefficient. This is not prose but gab run mad, the gab of a writer anxious to stuff every narrative cranny with something, relevant or not, that might seem entertaining to someone.

Kinflicks is also too long because the life and hard times of its young heroine are meant both to pose serious questions about life in general and to give us a satiric picture of contemporary America….

[It] is often very funny, but the satire is too resolutely representative to seem very disturbing…. [The] pleasure of even subtle satire is usually inversely proportional to its length, and Alther's does go on….

Kinflicks has as its epilogue a little Oriental tale, in which a scavenger, felled by the atmosphere of the street of the perfume sellers, is revived by a whiff of the filth he knows and relishes as life. The moral is that "if you remain attached to the few things with which you are familiar, it will only make you miserable, as the perfume did the scavenger in the street of the perfume-makers," since death is a transition beyond everything we are accustomed to in life.

This seems confusing—the tale might just as well mean that unfamiliar things will make you sick, so you'd do better to stick to the garbage you know. And there seems to be a similar uncertainty at the center of this novel. Read one way, it says that Ginny needs to escape the ties of family, false lovers, and culture, which the book so vehemently ridicules, and that no effort at reconstituting herself—through sex, learning, politics, communality, marriage and motherhood, mystical transcendence—can quite do the job of dying, which from the opening sentence ("My family has always been into death") has hovered over Ginny's bright and brittle patter.

But the implied invitation to take her failed suicide as her final defeat clashes with a meaning which more thoroughly has engaged the novel's energies. "The few things with which you are familiar," the filth which (if you like) is living, are the source of the amusement and contempt, for the American Way and also for our easier rejections of it, which are Ginny's (and this novel's) most likable qualities. Lisa Alther has an honest talent for broad social comedy, and it's the familiar, and forgivable, impulse to be "serious" that makes Kinflicks too long, too much more than the rude portrait of failed contemporary desires and enthusiasms it was in its power to be. (p. 34)

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1976 NYREV, Inc.), April 1, 1976.

[At the beginning of Kinflicks], Lisa Alther tells us that she is writing about matters which are high and serious indeed: death and sex and how to come to terms with them (not simultaneously). At the same time she makes us laugh….

Ginny Babcock Bliss, Miss Alther's heroine, is wholly like-able. She is brave and bright and honest and self-doubting. She is a loving person, and funny, especially about sex. Sex is something that Ginny likes, and is strongly drawn to, but she simply is not good at it. (p. 94)

What is wonderful …, aside from the laughs, is the humaneness of Alther's approach. She seems to be saying that we're all in trouble, Ginny and Joe Bob and Clem Cloyd, and everyone, and no prizes are given out, no blame attached. In most current fiction (and of course far too often in life) when love does not work out, the disappointed partner is vindictive. Alther's view would seem to be that when it comes to sex we're all amateurs.

As it turns out, what Ginny needs is a warm and experienced woman (yes, a woman, but this is no more a "lesbian novel" than it is a "woman's novel"). She finds Eddie Holzer, of the beautiful and most female body, who radicalizes Ginny as well as turning her on to sex….

Even that great love affair flounders ("I've hurt the woman I love," Ginny thinks) in a commune in Stark's Bog, Vermont. Its resolution in death leads us to Alther's other major preoccupation.

Ginny's mother is in the hospital; she is dying of idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura: internal and external bleeding, no clotting, blood gone out of control. And Ginny has come home to be with her mother. They both must come to terms with each other and with death, and that is what really goes on in this novel.

As Ginny's mother is not supposed to guess, Ginny has actually been thrown out of Stark's Bog by her husband. She has married Ira soon after Eddie's death, and they had an adored daughter, Wendy. But Ira has found Ginny in a cemetery one night with a crazed army deserter, Hawk (a man truly into death), in what had every appearance of being a postcoital position. Ira does not see it as a semen-retention posture, not being familiar with Hawk's Maithuna rituals. So Ira expels Ginny; she is never to see her daughter again.

Therefore, Ginny and her mother cannot talk about what is most on either's mind. Sex and death are out, and they play at make-believe….

Such is the quality of this book that Mrs. Babcock's eventual refusal to take any more steroids seems heroic, and her death, when she is finally allowed to die, is tragic. By that time, as surely and slowly as Mrs. Babcock, the pretend-game between her and Ginny has died. (p. 98)

Alice Adams, in Harper's (copyright 1976 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the May, 1976 issue by special permission), May, 1976.