Larry Woiwode Woiwode, Larry (Vol. 6) - Essay

Woiwode, Larry (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Woiwode, Larry 1941–

Born in North Dakota, Woiwode is a poet, short story writer, and novelist whose fiction often reflects his midwestern background.

When self-doubt, alienation and fashionable pessimism become a bore and, what's worse, a patent delusion, how does one get back to the big emotions, the large and fairly confident life affirmations of an Arnold Bennett, a Dickens, a Dostoevsky?… [How] is one to get back to plain, grown-up talk about love and death?

"Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album" is a brilliant solution…. It seems to me that nothing more beautiful and moving has been written in years. I was reminded, as I read, of a friend's prediction that the next great movement in literature will be an unashamed return to Victorian copious weeping. That's overoptimistic, probably; but it's a wonderful thing, it seems to me, to laugh and to weep one's slow way through an enormous intelligent novel tracing out the life of a family. (p. 1)

[A] summary of the plot can hardly suggest the richness of detail, keenness of observation, and insight into the interrelationships of time and place and character in "Beyond the Bedroom Wall." Woiwode is marvelously convincing, generation after generation, family branch after family branch, yet manages, incredibly, to find a focus for it all in one character, Martin Neumiller…. (pp. 1-2)

From beginning to end of this novel, Woiwode's dramatization of the problem of getting a hold on reality—the problem of fully realizing what lies out there at the edge of dreams and memories, "beyond the bedroom wall"—is simply brilliant….

Ultimately, by devices of which some readers will disapprove, the link of love, fragmentary shared experience, and faith links all humanity together in "Beyond the Bedroom Wall."… The language is patently sentimental, of course, but by the end of the book it seems to me belatedly justified. (It is true, by the way, that in going unashamedly for emotion, Woiwode sometimes slips into the embarrassing. To take large risks is to fail sometimes.) … At least for a while—which is all art can hope for—the metaphysic of this novel, the exploding universe held together by love, is totally convincing.

"Beyond the Bedroom Wall" is old-fashioned in many ways—its large cast of characters, all carefully developed, its devotedly reported courtships and funerals, its landscapes, houses and weather, its lyrical flights (unabashed prose-poetry that only now and then slips), its moments of super realism…—but it is also, emphatically, a contemporary novel. Time leaps backward and forward in an original and spectacular yet fully-controlled way; people's memories collide and fail to match; points of view shift suddenly. We get no single omniscient narrator but rather a kind of narrative collage, what I've sometimes described as narration by ventriloquy. As in every hip novel of the 1970's (and some from well before), the technique is an essential part of the meaning. Partly by the brilliance of his storytelling, partly by the beauty and fundamental goodheartedness of the story he tells, Woiwode nails the dramatic truth summed up abstractly in his epigraph from Erik Erikson: "'Reality' of course, is man's most powerful illusion; but while he attends to this world, it must outbalance the total enigma of being in it at all." (p. 2)

John Gardner, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 28, 1975.

["Beyond the Bedroom Wall"] is immensely long and ambitious, a serious work of fiction written without regard to current fashions in fictional idiom or perspective. Imminent apocalypses, fragmented societies, the relentless dehumanization of man—these are not Woiwode's themes. Not for him the props that have recently supported our most significant writers: he makes do without satire, irony and wit, without intrusive myths, symbols and experiments in language. Woiwode's chronicle of certain events in the lives of three generations of a North Dakota family is firmly traditional in its concern for the abiding truths of the human condition and its author's determination to burrow into his characters, to explore from a variety of angles their conscious and unconscious lives.

Yet this is not a traditional novel, probably not a novel at all, for Woiwode also makes do without the unities of plot and narration. Properly described, his book is an assemblage of related short stories and sketches of widely varying length and effectiveness—"a family album" is the author's phrase—that reveals the Neumiller family over 30 years or so, on its way from the farms of North Dakota to the professions of Illinois and New York.

This peculiar construction has its advantages. Through a variety of first-person narrations and third-person points of view, Woiwode can enter the thoughts of all his characters—he is equally at ease with a young girl rejoicing in her talent and with an old man cursing God. By changing the length and focus of his stories, he can concentrate fully on scenes of either high drama or routine domesticity—a kind of flexibility of intensity that is rare in contemporary fiction. Nevertheless, we cannot read this novel, if that is what it is, without being constantly reminded that its parts once stood separately in magazines, and that because each episode requires the structure of a short story, the book as a whole lacks shape and momentum.

Even so, Woiwode writes very well about all the big subjects: about ambition and the search for identity, about helplessness and religious conversion, first love, old age, illness, accidents and disasters. (p. 85)

"Beyond the Bedroom Wall" is better in its parts than in its whole. As long as three ordinary novels, it need have been no longer than two. Like J. D. Salinger, Woiwode seems unable not to tell us all the news of his characters, but his strong scenes—of death and illness, of a fishing trip, of children killing cats—are so very good, and the Neumillers so perceptively drawn, that it would be a mistake not to bear with this impressive book. (pp. 85-6)

Peter S. Prescott, "Home Truths," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), September 29, 1975, pp. 85-6.

The events of [Beyond the Bedroom Wall] are the very ordinary ones of every family's existence—the births, deaths, marriages, the growing up. Woiwode evokes each moment in language of pure, cleanly wrought beauty until it is made to seem both universal and extraordinary. At one point, a character recalls her mother churning butter, making beds, and she sees "how these simple acts were given dignity and significance" by her mother's hand. Though the phrase applies to housework, it can just as well be invoked to describe the deeply affecting art of Beyond the Bedroom Wall. (p. 108)

Amanda Heller, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), October, 1975.

Much of [Beyond the Bedroom Wall] is about how people react to the deaths of those they love…. We see all this, and almost all the characters in the book (including the children), from the vantage point of different eyes, so the picture is constantly shifting and deepening. The novel thins considerably toward the end, occasionally employs eccentricities of typography that seem pointless, and sometimes bombards the reader with faces and events that are simply too numerous to keep track of, but Mr. Woiwode's voice is a strong and clear one, and his sense of the intricacy of family ties is extraordinary. (pp. 55-6)

The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 29, 1975.