Woiwode, Larry 1941–
Woiwode is an American novelist and poet who has been compared to Proust for his delicate, detailed chronicle of a midwestern family in Beyond the Bedroom Wall. He was awarded the William Faulkner Award for the best first novel in 1969 for What I'm Going to Do, I Think. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
Beyond the Bedroom Wall …, an enormously overlong tribute to the tender web of family relationships and the powerful endurance of the past in the present, is sometimes moving, more often exhausting. It is, basically, a conventional American epic of restless mobility and disappointed expectations, with the generations shifting from a secure rural environment imbued with faith and industry to the more unstable, relentless pursuit of change and displacement for their own sake….
Rather than unfolding [his] family saga in a conventional linear narrative, Woiwode presents a series of frozen episodes and tableaux told in different voices, scrambling with harsh abruptness distant moments of time (Woiwode calls them still pictures from a family album) in a collage of childhood and maturity, joy and tragedy, life and death. The choppy dissociation of names and places and people, of scattered, deceptively isolated incidents, are meant as clues to the unspoken coherence making up one family's reality. Every piece is to contribute its crucial weight: photographs minutely described, job applications, pages from a young girl's diary, visions of a book that adumbrate the book we are reading.
But while some individual scenes are executed with a resonant beauty of human feeling and a genuine sense of place, the novel as a whole reles too primitively on the maudlin force of nostalgia. As one character remarks, seeming to speak for Woiwode: "Those days are best. I keep going over them and over them again and again… just like they were the only part of my life I really lived…. They never grow tiresome and I never run out of things to think about." For his readers, on the other hand, they do grow tiresome, because what is missing from Beyond the Bedroom Wall is a unifying, discriminating intelligence that might lend this family album some reflective meaning…. Woiwode gives self-indulgent voice to all the torrents of memory. As a result, the significance of the unforgotten is too easily lost in the dishevelling flood of detail, and he is forced to take refuge in the fraudulent certainties of sentimentality. (p. 16)
Robert V. Daniels, in The New Leader (© 1975 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), October 13, 1975.
At his worst Woiwode is content to tell neat stories of children at hideous play that seem like many other New Yorker tales. But at his best he is marvelous, a real bringer of news, a writer in love with his world, who cares about the hurt it has given him as his inheritance, and honors and forgives it. Beyond the Bedroom Wall is a very long novel in which Woiwode has tried something unlikely and achieved something impressive.
He calls his book "A Family Album."… Woiwode's love for the Neumillers and for North Dakota—which is unashamedly a love for his own family and childhood home—is a matter of memory and reconstruction. He discovered at some point that he began to achieve his own life when his parents and grandparents achieved theirs, and an "album," a loosely connected series of pictures and episodes, is his way of honoring not only their achievement but his way of knowing it.
Does it sound a perfect formula for sentimentality? It is no more so than is "East Coker."… Like Eliot, Woiwode perceives a...
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time for "the evening with the photograph album" and that "Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter." But where Eliot filtered and displaced his autobiographical sense of home and family, Woiwode succeeds by being personal, by putting his imagination at the service of memory, and by realizing in this way that love really is most nearly itself when the here and now cease to matter. (p. 31)
Woiwode is always evoking, but never in set pieces, and the links we get from episode to episode are never forced because they don't have to be. Home is where one starts from, and Woiwode's sense of home is strong enough to allow him to be relaxed and unself-conscious when he writes about winters and schools and sex and religion, and tries to make each one fully felt as lived….
[When] Woiwode comes to his own experience he begins to falter, and much of his account of the boyhoods of Jerome, Charles, and Tim (who seems closest to Woiwode himself) reads like anecdotal New Yorker stories…. Earlier the fact that Martin is somewhat less distinct than Alpha seems nothing more than a reflection of his being less distinctly a personality, and none the less important as a person. Later, especially after Alpha dies, Martin's fuzziness begins to suggest a loss of control by Woiwode….
Martin doesn't want to get ahead …, doesn't know why he wants to leave, and, we realize, Woiwode doesn't either, it seems. With this realization comes our first sense of the limits of Woiwode's making a novel out of a family album. The individual pieces that don't work, after all, are only that, and there are others right through to the end that are superb….
[A] kind of nostalgia has obviously been at work in Woiwide, a much more interesting and hard-working kind, a nostalgia for his family and for North Dakota before he was born. In order to imagine or reconstruct or remember this world, he has had to lay aside simple reminiscence, to find a real and vivid use for this nostalgia, and he has done so wonderfully. The moment he comes to himself, as it were, to his own more direct memories, his novelistic hold slackens….
I have no idea what "actually happened" to Larry Woiwode, or how much if any of this book is simply autobiographical. I am only trying to distinguish the impulses that seem to lie behind the two parts of his book, impulses that as I make them out seem related but crucially different. I want to make the distinction, furthermore, mostly out of gratitude to Woiwode for all he has achieved here…. Knowing how possessiveness and pride and fear were barriers to feeling, Woiwode breaks through the barriers and is able to feel and make us feel what those people experience. It may be one of the last books we'll get that can do this. (p. 32)
Roger Sale, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 NYREV, Inc.), November 13, 1975.
[Beyond the Bedroom Wall] is a search for lost time, a book of remembrance, where desire, sleep, memory and death intertwine. (p. 38)
The novel's title reflects Proust's influence, mixing the wonder and fear of childhood with a dreamlike hint of the sexual jealousy Freud found basic to family life…. The North Dakota and Illinois of this work are like the terrain of dreams, a wide, continuous plain that seems forever cold or on the edge of winter. And for anyone who has lived there, this is the "reality" of the Middle West; one's life there is always remembered against a succession of gray skies whose clouds may break at any moment to reveal a deep blue as endless as the flat land.
But the similarity to Proust ends at this level. Woiwode does not try to duplicate Proust's grand "symphonic" design; his story is told from many points of view in an unembellished prose. Each of his major characters is given at least one chapter to narrate or oversee. And yet Woiwode's intention is far from, say, the cubist approach of Faulkner in As I Lay Dying. In fact, on the technical level, Beyond the Bedroom Wall is not particularly adventurous. Nor does it pretend to be. Woiwode does not jump about in time; he moves forward, from one year to the next in chronological order, from one major event to another, leaning heavily on ellipsis but keeping to a basically linear progression. Woiwode is more interested in the process of memory, in uncovering its depths and mysteries; and he gives his narrative a smooth, dreamlike flow by repeating a set of images and events and having his various characters respond to them, each in his particular way.
The first of these images is sleep…. To sleep and then awaken is to move from an illusion to reality, a distinction in Woiwode's province of memory that is, at best, tenuous. Revelation begins at the edge of consciousness and dreams are the connective tissue of memory….
And then there is death itself. Beyond the Bedroom Wall tells a sad, sad story that is imbued with death…. The book's central experience is the death of Alpha, an event of such tragic weight (both for the characters and the structure of the book as a whole) that Woiwode divides it between two chapters, not to prolong but to banish the pain, to objectify and cleanse the past of its most tragic moments….
[Like] Proust's great work [Remembrance of Things Past], Woiwode's novel should not be read quickly but rather in long slow draughts that will not blur its beauty and power. (p. 39)
Robert Leiter, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 29, 1975.
Rising young novelist Woiwode has made an impression with his "Beyond the Bedroom Wall" and "What I'm Going to Do, I Think." That his poetic gifts are also of a high order is made clear by this first book of his poems ["Even Tide"], which surge and crackle with all the intensities of an immensely imaginative young man trying to recover from that first deep shock of his kind—separation from the woman he loves. These are poems of moods and phases, numbness and self-castigation, passion spent, remembered, transmuted…. Readers are not likely to be able to go all the way with this poet, who sometimes uses "words that have been on my tongue so long they're mangled and broken." The curse of the crypto-confessional hurts communication, but readers who care will want to look in on even the self-lacerations of a genuine new young poet. (p. 55)
Publishers Weekly (reprinted from the October 31, 1977, issue of Publishers Weekly, published by R. R. Bowker Company, a Xerox company; copyright © 1977 by Xerox Corporation), October 31, 1977.
The judicious use of italics throughout [Even Tide] is part of the technique of creating a more distant voice speaking to the immediate, consistently strong "I." This dialogue is extended frequently to others, sometimes simply "you" (meaning his wife, presumably, judging from other references), sometimes to named individuals whose identity is neither often specified nor necessarily relevant.
But addressing another does give an informal, conversational quality to the poems, which goes hand-in-hand with the varied tone of the collection….
The choice of images is equally diverse. Such apt expressions as "the kite tail of sin" are testimony to the poet's skill in imagery. The many forces and faces of nature provide a metaphorical backdrop for many of the poems. The title of the work is evidently an extension of the many references to the sea.
Clearly, there is much to admire in this trove of poems. The studied technique (which admittedly goes astray occasionally in an annoying, but insignificant, abstruseness) compellingly conveys an important message, allowing the ensemble to serve as a welcome complement to more prosaic treatments of the same subject. Furthermore, the overall skillful treatment is a commentary on the ability and courage of an author (Woiwode has two novels to his credit) to extend himself in another literary genre. Finally, Even Tide is an appropriate application of W. H. Auden's definition of poetry as "memorable speech." (p. 31)
Kay Larrieu, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), April, 1978.