Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430
Yates prided himself on capturing his characters in revealing secrets about themselves they would have preferred to keep. He achieves that in this story through his selection of vivid sensory images. For example, Carol’s dislike for London is epitomized by the yellow, foul-smelling fog that seeps in through windows and stings eyes. Aunt Judith has a face as pink and fresh as a child’s as she emerges from the shower in a billow of steam. Christine’s room smells of cosmetics and urine, and her droopy cotton underpants strike Warren as “pitifully cheap.”
The form of the story is consistent with Yates’s fatalistic theme. There is action but no plot. The ups and downs are the rhythm of real life, with attractions waxing and waning and conflicts dissolving as quickly as they materialize. The plodding banality of the language matches the plodding banality of the character’s lives. “Well, but wait a second. Listen a minute, OK? Because I really do want to tell you something,” Christine says—wasting two lines of dialogue in the same way she has wasted years of her life. With equal ineptitude, the characters’ lies are thinly told. They lack substance in language as they lack substance in fact. “Wouldn’t it be better if we could sort of try to tell each other the truth?” Warren wonders. The phrase “could sort of try” divulges more about Warren than he would ever openly disclose.
The word “nice” is used repeatedly throughout the story. It is an appropriate word choice, as all who use it desire vaguely positive approval granted in the absence of any stringent criteria. Carol hates London because she rides the bus “for miles without seeing anything nice.” Casual conversations with Aunt Judith are deemed “nice,” a lie that hides the strain of their shared living arrangements. Yates reveals that “They both made frequent use of the word ’nice’ all afternoon,” as Christine and Warren kindle their affair.
The music box is the story’s central metaphor. At best, it is a cheap and useless thing, neglected and forgotten by Carol and Cathy when they depart for the United States. Played backward, it symbolizes Warren’s lack of direction. He is committed to nothing: neither work, nor family, nor illicit lover. At the story’s end, Warren cranks it backward once more. Nothing has moved forward in his life, but Warren lacks the introspection needed to learn his lesson. He discards the toy just as he discards human relationships. Part of him, the reader suspects, is abandoned along with it.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1860
Richard Yates’s Liars in Love is a collection of seven smooth, professionally written stories which eschew contemporary clichés of sex and violence. While the title strains somewhat in stretching from the title story to cover the entire collection, the stories certainly form a collection with unity and continuity of thematic conflict, character, and time and place.
Indeed, the stories are too smooth and professional. The pleasure of reading a story which makes perfectly lucid transitions from paragraph to paragraph becomes less when the reader is never asked to puzzle out what is going on in any of the stories. Six of the seven stories present the protagonist’s name in the first paragraph. The one which does not presents a page on Europe at the end of World War II before presenting the protagonist in that setting. Basic continuity in each story is provided by a protagonist seeing and remembering events that are important to him (her, in one story) in a sequence that eschews the roughness of stream of consciousness or suspense-building. Similarly, it is a pleasure to read a story that could be about incest or rape and, instead, ends quietly and anticlimactically, but quiet anticlimax can become a predictable cliché itself.
“Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” features a tantalizing cameo appearance by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Unfortunately, the “inside” look at FDR is a cliché: he looks ugly and pathetic as a cripple. The story is marred by an obvious implausibility: late in the story Billy, remembering his life at age seven from an adult perspective, is revealed as a stutterer. The information fits in smoothly, and is not needed for the plot line earlier, but it strains credulity that the adult remembering his childhood does not remember that he stutters until it is important to the plot line.
“A Natural Girl” is a character study of Susan Andrews, a woman without any character, without any interesting bumps in her personality. She lends herself to smooth depiction because there is so little that can be said. The events of a rather ordinary life wash over her without touching her. “Trying Out for the Race” is potentially rough in its imbalanced cast of characters: two women, each with a daughter and one with a son, live together to save on expenses. The story does not pursue this opportunity, however, singling out the son as the protagonist and focusing on his difficulties as symbolic man of the house, making the story a variation on the theme of “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” rather than something unique.
“Liars in Love” is smooth with familiarity. Warren Matthews, a Fulbright scholar in London, is deserted by his wife. He takes up with a prostitute who is, apparently, a better person than his wife, but she proves to be grasping and mendacious. His wife wants him back and he gladly returns. His only problem is keeping this sordid escapade from his wife’s Aunt Judith, with whom he lives, but she finds out and is more understanding and “hep” than he expected. In “A Compassionate Leave,” an American G.I. goes from Germany to Paris to London, but Yates’s only concession to the hectic, chaotic ambiance of time and place is a page of explanation about the lot of G.I.’s in 1945 before moving smoothly into the events.
“Regards at Home” is more a sketch or tone poem than a story and rolls out the protagonist’s difficulties with mother, wife, and male colleague. “Saying Goodbye to Sally” is the most original story in the collection. A screenwriter in California in 1962 seeks sex and tranquillity in the chaos of the notorious Hollywood life-style. Nevertheless, Jack Fields’s difficulties with erratic women unfold in the same smooth, unreflective way as those of boys and men in other stories.
Yates exercises self-censorship in references to sex and violence. Curiously, the few instances he presents would benefit not so much from explicitness as deletion since they do not play integral parts in the stories. “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” has one act of violence, one reference to female nudity, and an ugly confrontation. The episode of the arrow-shooting of Billy’s namesake fish underscores Billy’s sensitivity, but, then, what child would not be upset? John Cabot, the archer, age eleven, is also the one to comment leeringly on seeing Billy’s sister naked. Billy is unimpressed. In her frustration at not reaping fame and fortune from sculpting FDR, Helen, Billy’s mother, verbally assaults a Jew with anti-Semitic remarks. The story would not be better with more violence, more sex, and a pogrom, but these little unintegrated gestures toward harsh reality do not contribute much as they stand.
In “Trying Out for the Race,” Elizabeth Hogan Baker has an offstage affair with Judd Leonard, but the focus is on Russell Towers’ relationship with Nancy Baker. She is a bright girl who likes Gilbert and Sullivan. He is a “mother’s boy,” which is mentioned several times, and Nancy spreads the word in the third grade that he is a “sissy.” In 1935, “sissy” carried more sting than it does today, but the sexual dimension of the sting is not explored. “Liars in Love” features a fight between Christine Phillips and another prostitute who has flirted with Warren Matthews. It is silly rather than violent and is broken up by the “man of the house.” “A Compassionate Leave” prepares the close reader of the earlier stories for sibling incest, but does not deliver any. Marcia Colby is not a sister Paul Colby has grown up with; he sees her as attractive; he is desperate to lose his virginity. What he gets is her good wishes on losing his virginity in the future. “Saying Goodbye to Sally,” has plenty of violent California undercurrents which culminate in a cruel joke of giving a potted plant whose pot is coated with permanent glue to a rejected lover. The glue, however, is easily dissolved by gasoline. This anticlimax is something Jack Fields witnesses as he leaves his “love nest.”
It is fitting that the title story has the most literal liars. Warren Matthews lies to his wife’s Aunt Judith about his love life. Christine Phillips tells elaborate lies to make herself more interesting and to harass her ex-lovers. “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” presents self-deception rather than lying. Helen is not worldly-wise enough to know that the sculpting of the President-elect by an unknown artist is a routine and non-newsworthy event. In “A Compassionate Leave,” Paul Colby lies in order to get his leave, and lives the lie of pretending to have lost his virginity.
The central theme of the collection is best stated not in terms of lying or even self-deception, but as a series of battles in “The War Between Men and Women.” In fact, these stories recall James Thurber at his most somber, as in his “One Is a Wanderer.” Yates’s collection presents men who cannot live without women as boys or men, as sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, or prostitute’s clients. Women are not as gentlemanly as men; they lie and deceive with more skill; they refuse to pay for their mistakes and abide by agreements. In “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired,” Billy’s mother, Helen, is clearly setting the pattern for Billy’s future difficulties with erratic women. Billy’s father cries at the end of his visits with his children. Billy and his sister Edith enjoy detente because Billy does not see her as a sexual being.
“A Natural Girl” presents the only female protagonist in the collection and there is only one way to interpret the title: as a moral disapproval of women. Susan Andrews discards her adoring father at the outset, and later, her husband, and disappoints her father by not returning to him. The force of the story is toward the notion that this is “natural” for modern woman. Her motives are not presented as murky or complex. She does not have any motives. Abandoning men is “natural” for women. David Clark is typical of the husbands in the collection. He does not understand his first wife, nor Susan. He adores, mystically reveres, his infant daughter, but knows in his heart she will grow up to be a woman, too.
In “Trying Out for the Race,” the lesson is learned that little girls who are not one’s sister are not to be trusted and that women even betray other women, when Elizabeth Hogan Baker drops out of the communal house-sharing. In “Liars in Love” the pattern of a wife leaving for no reason and taking the adored infant daughter is repeated and prostitutes are presented and rejected as alternatives for lonely men. In “A Compassionate Leave,” Paul Colby’s sister is in London because his mother took away his father’s adored infant daughter years before. The sensitive Paul cannot lose his virginity but the cretinous Jessie O. Meeks can; sex is harder for the sensitive.
By the time the reader has finished “A Compassionate Leave,” some unity and continuity of time and place become obvious. The boy protagonists (c. 1932) are about the same age and the post-World War II men protagonists are the age those boys would grow up to be. Warren Matthews remembers worrying about losing his virginity in London in 1945 as Paul Colby experiences it. Helen’s lover, Nicholson, goes back to his wife in London in 1935 and Warren leaves London for his wife in America in 1953. What emerges from these overlaps and echoes is not so much intimations of autobiography as Yates’s convenience in having characters his age to present in a limited number of overseas settings. There is not enough of Germany, Paris, London, or, for that matter, New York and St. Louis to “prove” that Yates lived in those places.
“Regards at Home” is not only generally consistent with this pattern; it seems to be a sequel to “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired.” Bill Grove grew up with an erratic sculptress mother and sister in Greenwich Village, as Billy did.
“Saying Goodbye to Sally,” set in 1962, shows, as a sign of the times, a boy named “Kicker” who is more troubled than boys of 1932. Jack Fields seems troubled by California macho, largely because it means making a meaningless show of dominating the indomitable. Sally Baldwin is more ignorant and silly than any other woman in the collection, but Jack Fields still has his male needs. Jill Jarvis is the matriarch of her communal mansion and is more erratic than her counterparts in the earlier stories. Whether this is a sign of the times, or just California, is not clear.
Yates’s collection reads easily, but leaves an unpleasant aftertaste. The theme is not subtle: the world of women by which small boys are frightened and confused is the world as it will be in their adulthood. To Yates’s credit, it is not so much sex his protagonists seek as dependable companionship. There are, however, both lighter comic approaches and deeper less antifeminist approaches to the theme of communication gaps between the sexes.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 39
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic Monthly. CCXLVIII, November, 1981, p. 84.
Booklist. LXXVIII, September 1, 1981, p. 31.
Library Journal. CVI, November 15, 1981, p. 2254.
The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVI, November 1, 1981, p. 3.
Saturday Review. VIII, November, 1981, p. 76.
Village Voice Literary Supplement. October, 1981, p. 3.
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