Alison Lurie Lurie, Alison (Vol. 5) - Essay

Lurie, Alison (Vol. 5)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lurie, Alison 1926–

Ms Lurie is an American novelist whose "outstandingly intelligent" fiction has earned for her an international reputation. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Miss Lurie's central female characters, Emmy in Love and Friendship, Katherine in The Nowhere City, Janet in Real People and Erica in The War Between the Tates share some preoccupations. They have a powerful call to pleasure which is countered by an equally strong cry for decency, candour and moral fastidiousness. They want to have a good time, they want the people round them to have a good time, but why do they—why does everyone else—have to be such hypocritical, censorious, devious, vain, cruel bastards? What had been a low, enlightened murmur of discontent in Love and Friendship is transformed into a fierce, controlled song of rage and frustration in The War Between the Tates. It is as if a powerful classical soprano were giving a recital which she interspersed with very funny stories; the skill of the performer is so exceptional that the audience feels at the end that it has witnessed such a great act that to analyse how the effects are achieved would be an impertinence. (pp. 126-27)

Miss Lurie's treatment of Wendy [in The War Between the Tates] … constitutes, in my view, a damaging element to the subtle moral and comic balance of the book. To all the other characters Miss Lurie extends what might be described as a concealed warmth—a belief that for all their moral failings she likes them. The appalling children; her hypocrite husband; her sluttish friend Danielle; Sandy, the local guru-shop owner, each possess—or have possessed—radiant saving graces. Though she tries, Miss Lurie fails to be just to Wendy. She hates her mindless devotion to Brian Tate, her degradation of language, her careless, futile half-bakedness. She seems even to hate her youth. The result is that the funny scenes and incidents involving Wendy have a malice about them which isn't to be found in any of Miss Lurie's other books, though she has frequently and foolishly been accused of bitchiness in the past.

The novel is beautifully constructed. Moving between the present and past historic tense we watch the declaration of war, the recruitment of allies and the marshalling of commanders and troops; we see the intricacies of espionage and the complex development of tactics sometimes from the front line and, sometimes from a further, higher vantage point. Vitally important skirmishes between some of the contenders are left unrecorded, as in the chaos of war itself, when smoke, shouts and fear distort and destroy communication. This large simile is never stressed, and only by the very end of the novel is the reader aware of its richness. He feels the elation and fatigue which follows battle.

What distinguishes The War Between the Tates from so much other good American fiction is its fearlessness. Vonnegut, Updike, Mailer, Philip Roth may lay claim to greater literary inventiveness—but none of them [tells his] truth with the sophisticated directness of Alison Lurie. An obsessive hatred of deceit and a minutely exact response to the surface and inner substance of ordinary life go to produce her art. (pp. 127-28)

Julian Jebb, "Ordinary Life," in London Magazine, (© London Magazine, 1974), December 1974/January 1975, pp. 125-28.

There is some firm evidence in the five novels she has so far published that Alison Lurie should be a better novelist than she is. Her reputation up to now does not indicate that she has been widely appreciated for the qualities she does possess, although she has acquired over the years a certain small cult following, and … The War Between the Tates appears to be winning her the kind of popular attention which may prove only that her limitations have at last begun to be recognized as seeming more attractive than her virtues. That novel, at any rate, represents a descent from some relatively serious level of intention into a flossiness which was only occasionally detectable in her before and which may well be attracting her natural public.

Yet from time to time even here and in the best of her earlier work Miss Lurie reveals qualities that merit—and have seldom been given—close critical consideration. She has a satirical edge which, when it is not employed in hacking away at the obvious, is often eviscerating. She writes a prose of great clarity and concision, an expository language that efficiently serves her subject but that does not stylize upon it. She has many true things to say about the various modes of self-deception and distraction by which we endure the passage of life in these peculiarly trivializing times, and she often says them in a manner she has earned entirely by herself and that represents an authentic fictional voice. Yet there is also something hobbled and hamstrung about her engagement of experience, something that causes her again and again to fall short of what one feels to be her full capacity to extract the truth of her materials. She seems regularly to be aware of more than she can imaginatively comprehend, to be able to describe more than she can make thematically significant. Above all, there is a lack in her of the kind of adventurousness usually associated with important talent, a conventionality or timidity that frequently causes her to make formulations of reality which in a part of her mind she must know to be clichés, and to pass over without examining certain possibilities for satire which a more radical talent would recognize as the most fertile possibilities to be found in her chosen subject.

These deficiencies manifest themselves perhaps most clearly in Miss Lurie's heavy dependence on sexual intrigue for the dramatic complication of her fiction. In all her novels except Imaginary Friends, which seems to have no recognizable place in her canon, there is a monotonous sameness of situation which might appear to represent a ringing of changes on, and a progressively deepening exploration of, an obsessive subject until one sees that really there is no changing or deepening. Love and Friendship, The Nowhere City, Real People, and The War Between the Tates all have to do with the experience of adultery … [in] the university community or artist colony … and as a rule the sexual drama is given such force as it possesses through being played out against the background of the dreariest middle-class respectability, boredom, child-breeding, and generalized spiritual and material shabbiness. What usually happens is that as a result of having good sex with somebody not one's legal spouse, the errant husband or wife achieves some temporary sense of rejuvenated identity which may or may not be to the ultimate advantage of marriage and community.

It is one of the older saws of criticism that extramarital sex in literature is not of terribly much interest in itself, however graphically it may be described. Its value lies in the illumination it gives to character and in the extent to which it poses some fresh challenge to the always fragile balance of tensions existing between the erotic imperatives of the self and the official hypocrisies of the public world. The penetration of the illusion that snobbery generates is, in Lionel Trilling's excellent phrase, the proper aim of the social novel, and adultery is one of the traditional, if hackneyed, modes through which this aim is accomplished. But Miss Lurie seems never to grasp the implications of the melodrama around which four of her five novels are constructed, and there are insufficient moral prohibitions in the society she describes to give it the depth of implication she is unable to perceive within it. She appears to feel that it is enough if her characters dare to commit the heresy of climbing into bed with one another. That is enough to insure their meaning as characters and to justify their presence in her novels. Her treatment of adultery suffers, in short, from arbitrariness and inconsequence. The insight it affords us into the natures of the people who commit it is finally reducible to some idea of the beneficial or destructive effects of orgasmic liberation, which is repeatedly seen as in and for itself an apocalyptic experience…. [The] lives of these people either do or do not undergo some important change—a sufficiency of meaning perhaps in the one-dimensional world of the soap-opera serial, where what happens next may finally be all that matters, but a gross insufficiency in novels that seem to promise some genuine revelation of character on a plane subtler and more complicated than that simply of the variety of sexual things one does to others or others do to one. (pp. 79-80)

Miss Lurie can be seen to share the dilemma of any satirical novelist of manners whose work must depend for its vitality in some direct way upon the vitality of the life he is attempting to satirize. The dilemma is deepened, furthermore, when the novelist's subject is contemporary academic manners, for nothing is more obvious to anyone familiar with the university scene of the last twenty years than that the dramatic possibilities for a fiction dealing with academic life are not what they once were—nor has the gradual growth of an encrustation of cliché around some of its most typifying characters and situations made the problem any less difficult. It seems scarcely conceivable that a novelist of whatever degree of talent would be able to write academic fiction today without being obliged to write through the precedent established by such classic practitioners of the genre as Helen Howe, Mary McCarthy, Randall Jarrell, Robie Macauley, and Bernard Malamud, at the same time that he would necessarily be writing without most of the advantages which these writers possessed. (p. 80)

In Miss Lurie's fiction of academic life a situation that may once have been crucial may seem to be of uncertain significance or to have a merely hoked-up significance just because the actualities of academic life have depleted it of drama…. [In The War Between the Tates, the] problems would seem to be swollen with dramatic, not to say melodramatic, possibility. But they actually are not because we recognize that behind them there is absolutely nothing at stake—no risk, no threat, no anguish. The society in which they and the characters exist is much too limited, drab, and morally diffuse to give them consequence…. It is a society made for and by the burgeoning new population of academic Babbitts, and it is the ideal medium for their relentlessly bourgeois pursuits.

There is evidence in Miss Lurie's novels that she has some awareness of this aspect of academic life, but she treats it as little more than stage-setting for her favorite drama of sexual intrigue. Perhaps it would require a talent the size of Mailer's or Bellow's to recognize that just here, in the contrast between the professional function of academics and their way of life, is to be found what little remains of interesting literary material in the university scene …, and it could form the basis of a great subject. But Miss Lurie's novels do not engage it because her imagination remains trapped amid the clichés of academic life, in situations which history has rendered obsolete and crises which have lost their power, in both actuality and art, to matter very much. (p. 81)

John W. Aldridge, "How Good is Alison Lurie?" (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1975 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, January, 1975, pp. 79-81.