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SOURCE: “The Lure of the Bright Lights,” in Washington Post Book World, May 27, 1984, p. 11.
[In the following review, Perrin offers a positive assessment of Bridgeport Bus, praising Howard's treatment of the theme of personal transformation.]
Mary Agnes Keeley, 35 years old, 5 feet 11 inches tall, thin as a pencil, lives with her widowed mother in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Her father, a Bridgeport fireman, died when she was 15. Right after high school she went to work to help put her brother through Fordham. He is now an FBI agent, assigned to the Buffalo, New York, office, with a wife and three children. Mary Agnes is secretary to the president of Standard Zipper in Bridgeport. She is a virgin. She is also on the edge of martyrdom to her mother, a natural genius at using guilt feelings and ill health to control her children.
That martyrdom does not occur. Instead this novel does. Mary Agnes takes the Bridgeport bus. That is, she quits her job, leaves home, and goes to New York. Mary Agnes—only let's call her Ag, as most people do—has always been bright. Her one defiance of her mother over the years has been the taking of a whole series of night courses in literature. She reads voraciously, has ambitions to write.
In fairly short order she is writing: not glamorously, to be sure, only advertising copy for a manufacturer of Velcro fasteners. But she's living in an apartment on Ninth Street, meeting artists, putting on weight. By Chapter 5 she has both lost her virginity and begun to write fiction.
This basic plot is a familiar one, because it expresses one of the very commonest of human fantasies. Ugly duckling becomes a swan. Man or woman trapped in a boring routine breaks loose, makes a new start, achieves the glamorous life. Seemingly ordinary person proves exceptional. All of us are exceptional, at least to ourselves, only the world fails to treat us so. It is deeply gratifying to read about someone who gets a grip on himself or herself, and makes the world respond properly.
Maureen Howard's treatment of this theme is something else. In the usual book of this kind—and I am talking about genuine novels, not easy romances—the Ag character has center stage all to herself, while we, entranced, watch her transformation. And in the usual book of this kind, swanhood turns out to be a really nice thing. Some of the other swans may prove vicious; some of the glitter of the great world may prove to be tinsel; the transformed life may even end in tragedy. But that it is a glorious thing to become a swan, and that the great world is truly great, these assumptions are not questioned.
Bridgeport Bus is not like that. It has three heroines. Ag is certainly the main one—and most of the time the narrator—but there are two other young women whose stories are told and whose presence makes the value of swanhood much more dubious.
One is Lydia Savaard. Ag meets her when she first arrives in New York, and stays briefly at a hotel for women, a genteel place on Fifth Avenue. Lydia is 25, rather mousy, as WASPly Protestant as Ag is Irish Catholic. She grew up in a nice upper-middle-class family in Cleveland, went to Vassar, and then married a young aristocrat just out of Princeton. The Savaards, though they have now lost most of their money, have been high society for two centuries. What Lydia didn't realize, marrying Henry Savaard, was that his upper-classness is a burden...
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he can't handle. He simply can't live up to his concept of what a Savaard should be. He married Lydia principally because he thought Miss Mouse wouldn't see through him, and would join him in worship of the Savaard past. But he sees through himself, and the knowledge breaks him. At 26 he is in a mental institution, which is why Lydia is at the women's hotel. She's trying with the aid of pills to sleep 20 hours a day, and in the other four making feeble attempts to get an annulment. (Her lawyer is one of the many superbly drawn minor characters.) Ag partially rouses poor Lydia from this lethargy, and the two of them take the little apartment on Ninth Street together. It is hard to envy the aristocratic WASP life once you've got to know Lydia and Henry.
The third heroine is Ag's first cousin, Sherry Henderson. Sherry, born Mary Elizabeth Hurley, grew up in Bridgeport even more drably than Ag herself. But she was red-headed, very pretty, irresistibly attractive to men. She took the Bridgeport bus long before Ag. She left at 16. First she became a chorus girl, later a budding starlet. Alas, she didn't have quite enough talent or quite enough sense. There is no blossom-time. Though she stays in the world of luxury and privilege—she eventually marries a wealthy older man—she is as unable as Henry Savaard to sustain the role of swan. Sherry is a suicide at 33.
And Ag herself? Ag is a survivor. At the end of the book Ag is about to have a baby. Ag has become a very good writer. One of the marvelous things in Bridgeport Bus is the interpolated play that occupies about a quarter of the book. Ag wrote it. She herself is one of the main characters; the other seven are her parents, her brother, the two Savaards, Sherry, and Stanley Sarnicki, her principal lover in New York. The play is tragic, symbolic, surrealistic—and wildly funny. It is a tremendous tour de force. If only it could stand alone (it can't), I would love to see it on Broadway.
But Ag, tough, perceptive and witty as she is, suffers from the same malady that Sherry and Lydia and Henry do. It is a malady I know well myself. It is the incapacity to forgive life for being so mundane. My first fully conscious experience of it occurred when I was a young man, in love with a slightly older woman, a divorcée with a small daughter. The three of us were in a supermarket on a Friday night, buying food for the weekend.
The store was packed with other shoppers, mostly harassed. Martha, the little daughter, was crying. I longed to be gone. But Lois, the mother, kept thinking of more grubby things we needed: paper towels, detergent, Wesson oil. In the end it all seemed so unutterably beneath what I wanted life to be like that I began drifting further and further back from the shopping cart (a squalid enough object itself). I didn't want to be associated. Lois, a clever woman, divined at once what was in my mind, and we later had a sharp scene about it.
Ag—and, of course, Maureen Howard behind her—sees almost everywhere that failure of life to be what it should be. If you escape the shopping carts, as on the Savaard estate on Long Island, then you merely have a high-class setting in which the actors mostly fail to sustain their parts. It is the special brilliance of Bridgeport Bus that it turns this rueful awareness into gallant and high comedy.
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Maureen Howard 1930-
American novelist, memoirist, editor, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Howard's career through 1998. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 5, 14, and 46.
Howard has garnered widespread critical acclaim for her novels about women searching for identity amid their career aspirations and within their socially prescribed roles. The female characters in her novels are frequently conflicted and struggle to assert their individuality, often by breaking from their families—particularly from mother figures. Howard celebrates the assertion of the human will to affect change, yet, in her works, such action does not always insure a happy or conclusive ending. Critics have commended Howard's precise use of language, her double-edged humor, and the loose structure of many of her novels, which allows readers to draw their own conclusions about characters and incidents. Howard is best known for her critically acclaimed memoir, Facts of Life (1978), which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction.
Howard was born on June 28, 1930, in Bridgeport, Connecticut. The city of Bridgeport played a large role in Howard's formative years, and she would later use the town as the setting for several of her novels. Howard was raised in Bridgeport's Irish neighborhoods, and her Irish-immigrant father, William, was the county detective for Fairfield County. Howard attended Smith College and earned a bachelor's degree in 1952. After college, she worked for several publishing and advertising firms. In 1961, Howard published her first novel, Not a Word about Nightingales. From 1967 to 1968, she worked at the New School for Social Research, in New York City, as a lecturer in English and creative writing. Howard has continued to teach and lecture on such subjects as drama, English, and creative writing, holding positions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Columbia University, Yale University, Amherst College, and Brooklyn College. She was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1967 and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1980. She has also been nominated several times for the American Book Award for autobiography/biography and the PEN/Faulkner Award for nonfiction.
Not a Word about Nightingales focuses on the disruptions within a family when the father decides to leave his wife and children to pursue a life of “feeling” during a vacation in Peruvia. After eighteen months, his wife sends their daughter to bring him back; by this time, her father has become disenchanted with his hedonistic lifestyle and returns without much resistance. In Bridgeport Bus (1966), Mary Agnes Keeley, an aspiring middle-aged writer, leaves her hometown of Bridgeport on the bus to begin a new life in New York City. Mary Agnes has difficulty adjusting to life in the city and finds herself surrounded by a neurotic roommate and a suicidal cousin. She eventually returns to Bridgeport, unmarried and pregnant, to take care of her widowed mother. The award-winning memoir Facts of Life directly addresses Howard's affinity for rewriting and reinterpreting personal narratives, this time using her own life story. The work vividly portrays her parents' conflicting personalities and the consequences of her strict Catholic upbringing. Howard uses the memoir genre to call the “facts” of her life into question, demonstrating the differences and discrepancies between perception and memory. In Expensive Habits (1986), Margaret Flood, a famous American writer, undergoes bypass heart surgery and is given a new lease on life. During her recovery, she discovers that her life and career are filled with lies and untruths, some of which have hurt others. As she heals physically, she also attempts to heal the mistakes she has made in the past. Natural History (1992) is both a narrative and an anthropological assortment of facts about Bridgeport, Connecticut. The novel's loose plot focuses on Billy Bray, a county detective and the patriarch of a large family. Set in 1943, the story focuses on Bray's investigation of the murder of a soldier by an officer's wife. Bray quickly closes the investigation, but his family is plagued for years by the murdered man's brother, who seeks revenge for what he feels was Bray's inability to bring his brother's killer to justice. The novel is filled with details concerning the people, history, and culture of Bridgeport. A section titled “Double Entry” juxtaposes the narrative events with arcane Bridgeport trivia. A Lover's Almanac (1998) is stylistically similar to Natural History in that each includes both pages of straight narration and alternative bits of history, weather forecasts, folk wisdom, and trivia. The novel opens with the ending of a romantic relationship between two characters, Louise Moffett and Artie Freeman, who are splitting apart on the eve of the millennium. After the break-up, Louise and Artie attempt to impose order and criteria on their love lives, much as an almanac provides an order for natural events by presenting predictions based on facts. In 2001, Howard published Big As Life: Three Tales for Spring, a mixture of short stories and memoirs, focusing on renewal and the season of Spring.
Howard has been referred to by some critics as a “woman's writer” due to her recurring focus on female characters searching for self-awareness. Reviewers have consistently praised her prose and her well-drawn characters, both central and minor. Critics have compared her narrative style to that of Virginia Woolf, Henry James, and Toni Morrison. Howard has been noted for her skill at presenting differing points of view and her ability to seamlessly handle transitions between the past, present, and future. Many critics have applauded how Howard appropriates different literary genres for use in her fiction. For example, Natural History makes use of the screenplay, encyclopedia, diary, and history book genres within the central narrative. However, several critics have objected to Howard's tendency toward digression and loose plot structures. Some reviewers have argued that these tangential details make her novels—most notably Natural History and A Lover's Almanac—self-conscious and difficult to read. Some critics have panned the innovative and experimental narrative techniques used in these two works, such as the use of parallel texts on the right- and left-hand pages in Natural History, which Noel Perrin called “a semi-psychedelic melange.” Critical reaction to Howard's seemingly endless fascination with the city of Bridgeport has also been mixed. Some reviewers have derided her continual use of the city as a focus in her novels as repetitive and uninteresting. However, other commentators have praised Howard's utilization of the city as a major character. Many agreed with Pearl K. Bell, who stated that the depiction of Bridgeport in Howard's works ultimately seeks “to defy the evanescence of memory,. … [and] lament the irrevocable dissolution of vanished experience.”
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SOURCE: “Maureen Howard: Satire and Sympathy,” in Washington Post Book World, May 11, 1986, p. 3.
[In the following review, Yardley offers a positive assessment of Expensive Habits, commenting on the ways that the novel breaks from Howard's earlier work.]
By contrast with Maureen Howard's four previous novels, Expensive Habits is long and, in the conventional sense, ambitious: the other books are delicate miniatures, elegantly crafted and somewhat elliptical in narrative method, but Expensive Habits attempts to paint a relatively large canvas and does so in a rather straightforward manner. The novel appears—the impression is fortified by the attendant publicity campaign—to be Howard's attempt to reach for a larger readership than she has thus far enjoyed; it is an honorable effort, and in no way does Howard compromise her exceptionally high standards in the process, but Expensive Habits is an odd book that is more likely to provoke curiosity and respect than affection and admiration.
Readers familiar with Howard's earlier fiction and her fine autobiography, Facts of Life, will find much here that is agreeably familiar. She writes equally well about two strikingly different milieus, both of which are present in Expensive Habits: the domestic life of genteel but threadbare Roman Catholic families, and the bitchy, narcissistic world of the New York illuminati. Her prose has a distinct and refreshing individuality; she moves with ease between high and low styles, changing gears so smoothly that the reader rarely feels she is calling attention to herself. The sense of irony that permeates all of her work is uncommonly acute, yet it becomes merely judgmental; she recognizes all the weaknesses and self-indulgences of the people she describes and the fashionable ideas they embrace, but her satire is tempered by sympathy, even when silliness is endemic.
There is a good deal of silliness in Expensive Habits, much of it committed by the central character, Margaret Flood. She is a 46-year-old writer who has just been told that she suffers from a heart condition that will kill her in a matter of months: “A mechanical malfunction of the body, the doctors with their machines, Providence, if you will, has taken over. What a swindle—she has paid her dues, but that's not it. At last she comes to the hard little core of her misery, small and painful as a pebble in the shoe: for years that now seem always, she has controlled the plot.” Even now, she cannot resist trying, and indeed it seems she may succeed; she drags herself from New York down to Baltimore, undergoes bypass surgery, and emerges from it with an opportunity to live a new life.
But the brush with “death's bright angel” has had a traumatic effect on this difficult, demanding, temperamental, arrogant woman: it has forced her to examine her past and its many errors, to attempt a rewriting of that past. Before leaving for the hospital “she had worked with a frenzy to set the record straight, as though she were ripping out the seams of her life.” After the surgery she does not abandon this effort but continues it with new determination, possessed as she is by the conviction that her books, which are the story of her life, have told that story wrong—that they are riddled with self-serving falsehoods that have damaged others.
Chief among these, she believes, is her first husband, Jack Flood, whom she married while he was in medical training; they divorced following her discovery that he was having an affair with a nurse. This became the subject of her first novel, in which she portrayed him as altering the results of his medical research in order to obtain an MH grant; all of these years she has known that “I contracted with myself to write a revenge tragedy, to make an unsupportable thesis of my marriage to Jack Flood.” Now it is to him, a distinguished surgeon, that she turns not merely for medical help, but also for forgiveness for “bitter words and fancies, my only consolation, having lost the game.”
It is one of many she has lost, thinking she has won: thinking that by reordering life, by faking it in fiction, she can recoup her losses and heal her wounds. But then she is made victim of an irreplaceable loss, one that shakes her house of fiction down to its foundation, and she confronts life's inescapable truth: “For twenty years she has ordered the world, made it accessible, trimmed and fit her stories. More recently, under the trumped-up threat of extinction, she has revised, confessed, approached—well, her version of the truth. … Now she counts herself defenseless, the victim of others' stories—inaccurate, vicious, consoling. Motives beside the point. … Mute, diminished, she is no one in the vast audience. Squinting, on the wrong side of the arena she cannot pick herself out, she cannot heckle.”
This discovery of her mere humanity is arrived at by more routes than those provided by Jack Flood and a terrible personal calamity. Others with whom she must contend include her present husband, Pinkham Strong, a spineless patrician from whom she is separated; their son, Bayard, a 16-year-old of exceptional character and maturity; her first editor, Philo Pierce, a cynical fellow traveler in literary and political circles; Sol Negaly, a Hollywood producer with whom she once made a movie—it sounds for all the world like Nashville—that “so easily reviled our country and patronized the lower, lower-middle, middle classes”; a Hispanic maid, named (with an excess of irony) Lourdes, whose idle chatter has dreadful consequences; and a small band of ancient radicals—“grand men and women—flawed, perhaps fallen, but gods in their day”—about whom she is attempting to write a book.
It is, on the whole, a larger cast of characters (and the themes they bring along as baggage) than the novel can comfortably contain. Although it is clear what Howard means to do with each particular person, these schemes don't always seem necessary to the central concerns of the book; even when their connection to the major themes—fate, history, nostalgia, illusion—is clear, their presence can seem gratuitous. Pinkham Strong rummaging around in the history books, the old women conjuring up memories of their glorious past—Howard can't let sleeping themes lie, but pokes away at them with a didacticism that is most uncharacteristic. Neither does it help matters that Margaret Flood is never really brought to life, never really takes control of her own story; we are meant to feel a sympathy for her that she never manages to earn.
But if Expensive Habits is a disappointment, it is principally so by comparison with Howard's earlier work: those terse, elusive books that are so much larger than the sum of their parts. By comparison with most contemporary American fiction, on the other hand, it is a serious and accomplished piece of work. Here as in her other work Howard writes about the fads and fashions of the day, about a society eager to cash in on any passing joy or sorrow, but she is having none of that herself; she stands apart, observing “the dumb glory of it all” with an eye that is sharp but kind. If Expensive Habits is not the major work her publisher believes it to be, it is certainly a book rich in integrity and elegance, by a writer who matters.
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Not a Word about Nightingales (novel) 1961
Bridgeport Bus (novel) 1966
Before My Time (novel) 1975
Seven American Women Writers of the Twentieth Century [editor] (nonfiction) 1977
Facts of Life (memoirs) 1978
Grace Abounding (novel) 1982
The Penguin Book of Contemporary American Essays [editor] (nonfiction) 1984
Expensive Habits (novel) 1986
Natural History (novel) 1992
A Lover's Almanac (novel) 1998
Big As Life: Three Tales for Spring (short stories and memoirs) 2001
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SOURCE: A review of Expensive Habits, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 18, 1986, p. 1.
[In the following mixed review, Johnson argues that Expensive Habits is a well-written work, but argues that there are several unclear plot elements and character motivations.]
Maureen Howard's fine fifth novel attempts more, and accomplishes more, than all the others, marking her steady progress toward the highest rank of American fiction writers. The prose of Expensive Habits is dense, complex, disturbing, authoritative. Its several voices suit her story and vividly demonstrate her literary intelligence. It's dazzling to see how deftly she wields her author's tools. Point of view, constricting for some writers, becomes in her ken a group of handy launching pads for better views of the territory; and as for the knotty business of time, she slides gracefully from now to then to tomorrow without a sign of discomfort.
The story, set in Manhattan, is—I believe—about death; how Margaret Flood, a famous American writer who has usually managed to be around the action of the decades, avoids a medical death sentence by a successful bypass operation, only to be “faked out by death: It found her” in a shocking climax I won't reveal.
To “set the record straight,” she tells of her first husband, Jack Flood, who deceived her with a nurse, and her real love—I think—Pinky Strong, frail tag end of an old WASP family. Pinky, deeply involved, like Margaret, in '60s causes, is the presumed father of her son, Bayard. There's Sol Negaly, her Hollywood director, and her “fashionable and fussy” editor, Fred Peach, who signs her up for a sizzling expose of the Old Left. There was the early novel about her family she rewrote to suit her fascinating first editor, Philo Pierce, and the one written to avenge herself on Jack Flood, now a prominent New York cardiologist, in which she claimed he'd cooked the evidence in the crucial paper that got him his first grant.
Now divorced—Margaret an invalid, Pinky an alcoholic, running a thrift shop winningly called “Golden Oldies”—the couple are brought back together by a remarkably drawn maid named Lourdes and the 17-year-old Bayard, parent of his two helpless parents, in a curious set of circumstances that ends in tragedy.
I've tripped over some of this because, after one careful reading, I'm not sure of some of the events and motivations in this novel. Though the story is carefully crafted and well-paced, Howard has a way of setting down a brilliant dab of description—“Margaret Flood's editor—very neat, sewn out of mousy flannel; like a toy, muzzle and whiskers atremble, adorable soft belly …” and then leaving it, an unexamined treasure, to sit alone. The characters are tantalizingly presented but often in shadow, rarely emerging into the light where we can watch them engage in real action. Important motivations are sometimes hard to find; I kept going back rather fretfully, wondering if I'd missed something. Was there more significance than I thought to Jack Flood's Chinese pen pal, or to the shopping trip of Tina (Sol Negaly's outrageous wife) to Golden Oldies? Howard ducks and runs at important dramatic junctures—a tendency she's had in her other books too. She'll line up, flex her muscles, salute … and then walk off the field.
Margaret is tough and feisty, but puzzling. Is she the cruel caricature of a writer, putting everybody but herself under her camera eye, or is she a loving and lovable female? I didn't know why she so resented her son's sexuality, or why, in the last section, she and Pinky returned to clean out and sell the Vermont house where they lived in the '60s. And did the author intend the fascinating but veiled suggestion that Margaret's work was molded, distorted, even battered by the opinions of men until the moment when she gave Peach back his check and resolved to write her book the way she wanted? Is that what the novel is really about? I wish I knew.
These are hard times for fiction. Serious novelists strive to avoid the shopworn—which by now includes just about everything—by angling in on their material, barely touching those pressure points where lesser writers would land with a thud. Better to circle, to infer, to let the explosion take place underground, going for the greater wallop the reader gets from making his own discovery. Then style, having a heavier role, becomes visible. The brilliant Byzantine curlicues of a William H. Gass or a Maureen Howard are always a pleasure to read, but sometimes too ripely self-conscious; the packaging tends to outshine the contents.
Howard is so good, so talented, I want her to be perfect.
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SOURCE: “Design for Living,” in New York Review of Books, December 3, 1992, pp. 30–32.
[In the following review, Edwards argues Natural History's unconventional narrative structure complements the novel's thematic material.]
Anyone who loves natural history museums knows that the first moment we enter one, particularly as children, we understand that the collections are not the main point; they are for soberer minds. The point is the dioramas, those magical windows opening on times and places we will never actually visit. And the best dioramas, for our purposes, include not just simulacra of animals and plants but also the human forms posed among them, as if delicately alluding to the human artifice that puts dioramas in natural history museums. We are looking to see not so much nature and its history as ourselves in nature and history, and the nearer the figures come to “life size” the better they please.
Natural History, which includes Maureen Howard's reflections on dioramas and the American past, first shows us particular human figures in a particular time and place: Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the 1980s, though this “present” is deeply shaded by the past. Bridgeport is where Howard's main characters, a brother and sister named James and Catherine Bray, happened to grow up. Much of the novel consists of their memories, of themselves when young and of their often difficult and now dead parents. But as it proceeds, the city itself moves more and more to the foreground, while the Brays, though still very much in the picture, seem less conspicuous individually.
The known history of James and Catherine begins during World War II. Their father, Billy Bray, short and balding, like Jiggs in the comic strip, is the “one and only” detective in the local state's attorney's office. A strict, moralistic Irish Catholic, Billy is puzzled and angered by his bright and rebellious son's devotion not to “normal” pleasures like sports but to magic tricks and movies. Nell, their mother, the daughter of a prosperous cement manufacturer who built the fine house she and her family now live in, worries obsessively about James's physical safety, takes Catherine less seriously, and admires but also fears her husband's competence in his dangerous job. Catherine, the younger child, is devout, hard-working, not pretty, a Girl Scout soberly intent on acquiring merit badges.
In 1943 something happens that will deeply affect James and Catherine's adult lives. Their father is called to investigate a death in North Stamford, where a young war bride from Texas, whose husband, an army major, is serving in Italy, has shot and killed a soldier in the kitchen of her mock-Tudor house. The circumstances are suspicious: Mrs. Poole claims that Private Litwak followed her home uninvited from a local tavern, prowled through the shrubbery, and abused her verbally and physically; yet she evidently had the time to fetch her husband's gun from upstairs and shoot Litwak four times at close range. From her speech and manner, Billy Bray judges her to be a floozie, but there are no witnesses or evidence and her husband is from a socially prominent family. The press makes much of her case; and on Billy's recommendation she is indicted for second-degree murder. But her trial is a fiasco and she goes free.
The book moves on to the subsequent lives of the Bray children. We gradually learn that James, a charming boy, dropped out of Yale to become an actor in New York, and finally went to Hollywood, where in the antiheroic 1960s his offbeat handsomeness won him moderate celebrity. The less favored Catherine, after leaving Marymount, worked in New York as a fact-checker for Time, had affairs with men who treated her like the “second lead, the tough comedienne” in a musical, and occasionally flirted with suicide. She has returned to Bridgeport, where in 1984, helped by a modest inheritance from her mother, she shares a suburban ranch house with an attractive former nun turned social worker, spinning and dyeing fine wool to sell to the “crafties,” as she calls the home weavers of New England. At fifty, she makes out of order and work a monastic kind of life, though not a cheerless one.
But Howard is less interested in the details of these lives than in the continuous self-imagining that any life entails. The Brays are treated as historical “objects” only in the book's first and last sections; between lie eight sections called “Museum Pieces,” which, from various points of view, suggest the ways in which an imagination may offer not the external “truth” about a life but some idea of the inner self that enables it to continue and to change.
In “Closet Drama” and “Screenplays,” we observe James recalling and fantasizing about the events of his life. Now fifty-two, he lives comfortably at his California ranch with his second wife, Lilah, and their teen-age daughter, Jen. His film career is at a stand-still, and his agent is urging him to accept the lead in a new TV series. But James, who would never call movies “art” yet takes them seriously, wants to direct his own black-and-white picture on the Poole-Litwak case, with himself playing Billy Bray. In cinematic episodes reminiscent of the Nighttown section of Ulysses, James raptly watches old film noir classics in his private screening room and mixes into them memories and fantasy reconstructions of events in his and others' lives: his first meeting with the beautiful but rather inscrutable Lilah while acting in a low-budget movie; the New Jersey boyhood of Morty Ziff, the coarse and brutal studio money man with whom his career has long been involved; Lilah's own impoverished beginnings in rural California, her brief career as a rodeo queen and then anthropology major, her fascination with horses and Indian artifacts, her determination “to be natural, to remove herself from human accommodations,” even those offered by her husband and daughter. In all of this re-creation James is at once the director, an actor “doing” the various characters, and the audience of the show within his mind.
The “Museum Pieces” show a character or an authorial voice revising stories as new material becomes available. Some of the revisions are peripheral to the Brays themselves. For example, the life of Private Litwak's inarticulate brother, who intends to kill Billy Bray for letting Mrs. Poole go free, is unexpectedly diverted when he meets at a baseball game a Puerto Rican girl whom he marries; he becomes the owner of a prosperous tool-and-die company. Other figures in Howard's museum stand closer to the story of the Brays. Mary Boyle, with whom Catherine shares her house, has exchanged convent life for social work in a rough housing project, where she looks after Peaches, the abandoned black child of a hooker. The lonely child uses found materials to make astonishing effigies of her mother and her mother's clients, and has surrounded herself with photographs of her kid brothers, now wards of the state, taped to the TV screen so as to lend them an aura of life and glamour.
Peaches is a natural artist whose work is “an ongoing narrative” she can freely revise as momentary needs or whims dictate. She inspires a kind of creative passion in Mary herself—to rescue Peaches from the welfare system, to delouse and feed and clothe and love her, and make her part of the dream of performing sanctified works that, in another form, directs Catherine's dedication to her craft.
But Mary Boyle is “a good girl not fulfilled by goodness.” When James returns to Bridgeport in 1984 to plan his movie, he meets her and, in a scene the aspiring director has not pre-imagined, she impulsively seduces him in his hotel room. This lapse, as much James's fault as Mary's, estranges her from Catherine and Peaches; it also causes James to decide that his picture about lust and crime is not worth making.
Catherine has opposed the movie project since first hearing about it. After the Litwak killing, when she was nine years old, she accidentally came upon evidence that Billy, the uncorruptible investigator, had allowed himself to be seduced by Mrs. Poole, and that he helped her to beat a murder conviction. Now, in 1984, hoping to discourage James from making the movie, Catherine is on the brink of telling him of their father's secret “fall from grace.” But after learning of James's own fall with Mary Boyle and hearing him declare his own change of heart about the movie (“Too straight,” he calls it, “the fancy woman and the soldier”), she decides to tell him that no one really knows what happened forty years earlier. She is then astonished to recognize that this is true. The case against her father, which she has believed for so long and which has helped to turn her against men, was flimsy from the start, something she had wanted to believe because “it was after all my story, the story of a foolish life.”
But all survive their painful experience. James and Lilah have a new baby, and James is a hit in the TV series he has accepted after all, in which he plays a cop with something like Billy's gravel voice and swagger. Mary Boyle watches the show approvingly in Pittsburgh, where she is looking after her failing parents while contemplating good works yet to be done in Central America or Asia. Jen, James's rebellious daughter, enters Yale as her rebellious father did; she has genuine intellectual possibilities, and enjoys being near her Aunt Catherine, who is now well known in the crafts world. Even Peaches at least gets her mother back.
With the serenity of the novel's close, Howard preserves its mood of high romance. Yet the characters themselves, interesting and unexpected as they are, are not the book's primary concern. In “Double Entry,” the longest and most demanding of the “Museum Pieces,” Howard reveals ambitions that go well beyond the realistic and personal. “Double Entry” is something like a split-screen movie in print, almost eighty pages in which two separate narratives proceed side by side on facing pages. On the right we read the story of James Bray searching through his native city for the “essence of old Bridgeport” in order to flavor his picture; he encounters Mary Boyle and abandons his project. Meanwhile, on the left side, a voice we can call the author's, someone who knows what's happening across the book's center fold but takes no part in it, assembles a full account, with pictures, of what Bridgeport and other places used to be, the “essence” that James had vainly hoped to capture and exploit.
We can't of course read two texts at once, and the voice on the left-hand page gives this advice:
In the beautiful concept of double entry bookkeeping, the debit and credit must always agree; no inaccuracies or altered circumstances are admitted, no rambling day-book or mere journal will stand the check of the other side of the ledger. Dip in, flip back or simply read on. Read on—you are free to follow the story.
Readers who try to balance the account will notice some bridges between the texts. For example, P. T. Barnum, Bridgeport's most famous resident and benefactor, appears on the right hand side in James's Don Giovanni-like dream of being visited by Barnum's statue, who compares James's kind of show business unfavorably with his own. And the pseudonym James uses in Bridgeport, “Felix Young,” is, as the narrator explains to anyone needing help, the name of the cheerful youth in Henry James's The Europeans, who brings presentiments of artistic and emotional freedom to a staid New England community. But the historical verso text is mostly intended to look past the dreadful urban blight James discovers in Bridgeport to a time when industrial America was productive, culturally vigorous, a fit scene for human effort.
This half of “Double Entry” reflects an impressive knowledge of local history and Americana, and it is full of striking details: that Bridgeport led the nation in corset-making around 1905; that it was governed between 1929 and 1952 by an Irish Socialist mayor who hated to expend public money; that Seaside Park, Barnum's gift to his city, was one of Frederick Law Olmsted's failures in urban design. But such historical details are meant as something much more than “background” to set off a “human” story. The background merges with the story and is central to it.
In a short section in “Double Entry,” “The Arcade,” the historian's voice takes notice of Bridgeport's only shopping arcade, a glass and steel forerunner of our shopping malls. “Half block of wonders,” Howard remarks, speaking for the young Catherine,
which, as a girl, she did not notice, short cut to the bus that's all, no one to see you though in the eerie light Cath could see herself swimming through handbags and fedoras, wedding china, empty eye-glass frames; herself among the goods. The shop windows displaying, reflecting her. …
The mixing of transparency and reflection in seeing oneself “among the goods” is an effective analogy for historical self-consciousness, identifying our forebears and ourselves as makers and users of objects that are not natural, as figures in particular cultures.
The analogy, in various mutated forms, is I think what impressively holds together a novel whose tendencies are often digressive and episodic. The arcade is at once an emporium, a museum, and a theater of dreams like the movies that would follow. Though its origins are European, it seems especially congenial to America, with its excited uncertainties about the difference between “high” and “popular” forms of culture and about what each may be worth. Starting from the arcade, with references to Lewis Mumford, Walter Benjamin, and others, Howard traces the changes in the way in which city culture meets people's dreams. It is a fairly short step from arcades to “promenades,” those window-lined shopping streets, like New York's Broadway or Bridgeport's (and Disneyland's) Main Street, which in industrial cities (Mumford suggested) serve as both Agora and Acropolis. From there we move to the movies or TV or the malls, to the fabulous boxes of Joseph Cornell or the dioramas of the natural history museum itself, while aware from the rest of the book, and particularly from the right hand pages, of the sad, depressed places that Bridgeport and cities like it have become.
The scenes and changes in public life Howard evokes usually offer us something of value—something salable or beautiful or interesting—though the values they reflect are decidedly mixed. When Howard juxtaposes Walter Benjamin and his Paris Arcades Project—with its suggestion that acquiring modern culture may be something like shopping or collecting—with Walt Disney and Walt Kelly (another Bridgeport native), one has a disturbing sense of our own unstable cultural values. For all its appearance of rational completeness, double-entry accounting, whose figures may or may not be accurate, is quite as susceptible to error and fraud as any other form of bookkeeping is. In fact, Howard's “Double Entry” itself doesn't balance—the verso text is longer than the recto narrative, which amusingly requires the inclusion of several blank pages to make up the difference, in the manner of Tristram Shandy.
But if at any given moment the true balance between past and present is undeterminable, since anything can be added or subtracted at any time, historical accounts can at least tell us something about the conditions of their composition. Contrary to legend, for example, the invention of double-entry bookkeeping was not almost simultaneous with Columbus's first voyage, but was only first described in print then; yet Howard sees that the legend is true in another way, clarifying something about the “new world” mood of the Renaissance that associated geographical discovery with balance sheets and profits. Or we can follow Howard to the Museum of Natural History in New York, where Carl Akeley's great gorilla diorama, for all its magnificence, tells us less about West African wildlife than about America when the diorama was made in the 1920s:
It's not Africa the visitors to the museum look upon, but an American landscape of bright mornings, of time stopped at the innocent moment of discovery before guiltless acquisition, before the gorillas looked back at us in furious recognition.
Though not a particularly long novel, Natural History is in other senses a big one, big enough to have room for a remarkable variety of images of Americans, then and now, “an ongoing narrative” whose ending is unknowable and not really the point anyway. This immensely impressive book treats its people as creatures of the history of a place, but not of a past that is forever dead and gone, whatever the devastations of present-day Bridgeport may suggest. Maureen Howard's kind of “natural history” is about ourselves imagining a past that, for better or worse, remains in our own lives.
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Coulter, Moureen. “Bridgeport Revisited.” Belles Lettres 9, No. 1 (Fall 1993): 15.
Coulter discusses the recurring characters in Howard's works and the cinematic prose style of Natural History.
Flower, Dean. “Politics and the Novel.” Hudson Review 46 (Summer 1993): 395–402.
Flower explores political issues in the writings of Maureen Howard, Julian Barnes, Imre Kertész, Ian McEwan, Rita Dove, and Wendell Berry.
Leonard, John. “Up from Bridgeport.” New York Times Book Review (1 July 2001): E10.
Leonard offers a positive assessment of Big As Life: Three Tales for Spring, calling it an “amazing novel.”
Additional coverage of Howard's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 53–56; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 31 and 75; Contemporary Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 83; Literature Resource Center; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Editions 1 and 2.
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SOURCE: “Circling Back to Bridgeport: Maureen Howard's Unconventional Saga of a Family and a City,” in Chicago Tribune Books, October 25, 1992, p. 1.
[In the following positive review of Natural History, Anshaw commends the novel's “subtle and subjective notion of story.”]
Stories can't always be held within conventional forms. Although novels most often put one page after the other in a forward progression, most narratives in life are not composed of a neatly chronological sequence of events, or even of just the events themselves. In truth, stories jump forward then back again, head off in several directions at once and include the imaginings of the participants as well as their behavior. It is this subtle and subjective notion of story that Maureen Howard plies in her latest novel.
Natural History is the story of both a family, the Brays, and a city, Bridgeport, Conn., (Howard's own home town). The first section of the book covers just a single March Saturday during World War II, following each of the Brays—parents Billy and Nell, children James and Cath—through small, quotidian events that nonetheless demonstrate the characters that will determine their fates.
Billy, a county detective, begins investigating the shooting death of a young soldier by the “Double Indemnity”-ish, 23-year-old wife of an absent Army major. Cath is humiliated when her project—Cotton, Queen of the South—does not win at the Girl Scout jamboree. James takes a clarinet lesson, buys some new magic tricks, and ducks the afternoon in the continuous night of a movie theater. While Nell worries obsessively about James coming to harm on his boyish way through his day, picturing the aftermath of a bicycle accident, “his fair head come to rest on a granite curb,” Cath is in fact running toward her father's passing car, out into the street with her failed project, “where she is hit—gently, unimportantly—by an oncoming car.”
From this one-city, one-day, Irish-American saga of swirling points of view, Howard jumps into an even more Joycean sequence of obliquely narrated pieces, tracking Cath and James into their very different adulthoods—his start as an aspiring actor in New York, hers as a low-rung editor in the Luce empire, a bad-luck girl with men who don't love her, then leave her to battle “the terrors of Saturday night” with enough Miltown to stop the pain that accompanies consciousness.
The novel's form then becomes eerily cinematic, with stage directions and props set out for James' ghostly narrator to tell the story of his rise to the middle rungs of fame.
“James steady almost inaudible: EX-ERCISE. You are permitted one direction, bare-assed in bare room. Let it be this: ‘Actors should be like martyrs but alive, still signalling to us from the stake.’ Anto-neen Artaud.
“The woman's laugh again then an intimate whisper: Later … yes, later, I gave my self to one cowboy, then another, beer breath, Westerns on TV. …”
The woman is a rodeo queen James meets on location, Lilah, who improbably becomes his devoted wife, throwing in her lot with him for the long run. Which has surprising turns. An unexpected last shot at parenthood. A late-in-life burst onto the mainstage of fame as the star of a detective show. In the end, James becomes loved by millions for impersonating the father who thought his acting a waste of lawyerly talents.
Meanwhile Cath has settled outside Bridgeport with her “particular friend,” Mary Boyle, a nun turned social worker who takes on the horrors of the projects every day while Cath sits at her loom, becoming a cult celebrity, a weaver in the ancient traditions, a curator of forgotten patterns.
Events do occur in the book, sometimes even in rough sequence. James, for instance, comes back to Bridgeport in hopes of making a movie based on his father's infamous case—the one with the 23-year-old wife and the dead soldier in her kitchen. While he's in town doing research, he meets Mary Boyle and, for an afternoon, they become lovers:
“James Bray doesn't know Mary Boyle from Minnie Mouse, from some cute extra, day hire on a film. Their intimacy crisscrossing time is the wily trick of an old Hitchcock thriller; or maybe his coming home, call it that, casts him back to lovesick boy, a role he never had much time for.”
But it is the reverberation of events—of Billy Bray's infamous case, of James' interlude with Mary Boyle, of Lilah's breeding her prize mare—that form the center of the novel, for it is really, Howard seems to be saying, the vibrations between us that add up to life, more than our individual actions.
The author is also drawn to the importance of place. Bridgeport, a city in decline through the whole of the Bray children's lives, looms as a character in their story. To give this background its full due, Howard lays out a long middle section of the book—“Double Entry”—with the narrative progressing along the righthand pages while the left-hand ones are cluttered with an old Sears catalog hodgepodge of lore on “The Park City,” on P. T. Barnum, who headquartered there (the commissioning in 1945 by Barnum & Bailey's Circus of George Balanchine to choreograph “The Elephants' Polka” to the music of Igor Stravinsky is my personal favorite), portraits of Tom Thumb and Jumbo the elephant, quotes from Louis Aragon, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, along with scattered diagrams ranging from a scrap of crossword puzzle to one of Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion car.
“Dip in, flip back or simply read on,” Howard instructs the reader, confronted with this peculiar format, and later she quotes Emerson: “All the facts of natural history, taken by themselves, have no value, but are barren like a single sex. But marry it to human history, and it is full of life.” Which would seem to be arguing for an amplification of the sort of story that can be told from a single point of view, with an ordinary narrator, leaving out all the bytes of public culture that inform our private affairs. Still, it's sometimes hard to see what Howard hopes to gain by this fragmentation.
Although readers may sometimes get lost in the maze of this book, those who persevere will be amply rewarded. Natural History is more than a story; it is an exponential explosion of all our complacent ideas of what a story is, how big it can be, how deep it can run, and how strong the currents are that pass through its wires of connection.
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SOURCE: “The Fragmentation of Reality,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 25, 1992, p. 3.
[In the following review, Eder offers a mixed assessment of Natural History, noting that Howard's narrative technique is too unfocused and self-conscious.]
Natural History is a novel about the dissolution of American immigrant values in the second half of the 20th Century, and of our industrial cities where those values once flourished. This, though, is like saying that Magritte's famous painting is about a curved wooden pipe. What the painting really is about is a displacement of reality achieved by the words at the bottom: “This is not a pipe.”
Maureen Howard has tunneled beneath her story of what happens over the last 40 years to Billy and Nell Bray of Bridgeport, Conn., and their children, James and Catherine. She lays a train of metafictional gun powder that explodes and scatters the story. She is a powerful writer, and the unexploded bits are shards of a richly mordant family novel.
But Howard senses that such a thing, like Newtonian physics, is not adequate to our times, and that the reality it encapsulates accounts for too little. Unless it is disrupted, her fragmented method suggests, realism cannot convey the simultaneously horrific and trivial quality of Bridgeport's collapse into crack houses, jobless ghettos, welfare deserts and a gutted central city over which the elevated Interstate runs, “draining life like a rubber tube.” And the lives of James and Catherine, now in their 50s—he a so-so Hollywood and television actor, she a burned-out magazine researcher who becomes a weaver—cannot be conveyed in linear novelistic terms.
For close to a century, modernists and postmodernists have taken the narrative and bent it, scrambled it, interrupted it, drugged it, argued with it or floated it away altogether: Joyce and Kafka, Pirandello and Unamuno, Georges Perec, Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, to take the smallest and most random of samples. Realistic fiction goes on nevertheless, occasionally producing a masterpiece.
Howard's method is to run chunks of straight narration and chunks of undermined narration alternately or side by side, rather chunkily. It is a hybrid and there is a justification for trying it. The result, though, is as fragmented as the method—sometimes effective and frequently laborious.
The first section of Natural History is a set of cameos of James' and Catherine's childhood. Billy, their father, is a colorful public figure, the chief detective of the county. Nell, daughter of a wealthy contractor, alternates grandiloquent dreaminess—she goes about in a sealskin coat—and hyperconscientious domesticity. She cooks prodigiously and worries about James, high-spirited and artistic, being run over as he bops around on his bicycle. It is Catherine, formidably serious, who gets hit by a car, though the injury is slight.
The deflected expectation is a key. That tight, high-powered family unit of the 1950s has all kinds of invisible breaches through which a shapeless outside world shows itself. James takes music lessons in a dark, cold house smelling of furniture wax and his Italian music teacher's frustrations. The neighborhood fruit seller suddenly strokes Nell's cheek. The fatherly Greek proprietor of the neighborhood store where James buys his magician's paraphernalia is tied to the mob. And Billy has a corrupt secret.
These childhood scenes are written with a somber magic of recall. They are individually luminous. But in their perfection, there is something deliberately smothering and stagnant. It can't be sustained; and that is Howard's point as, in the following sections, she breaks out into a variety of styles and techniques.
They do much more than tell us a story. At times, as we shall see, they un-tell it. First, there is James at 50, living near Santa Barbara with a prosperous but unfulfilling career in second-rate films. He is married to a former rodeo star who now raises horses. His daughter, whose notebooks are quoted, is a studious adolescent who is forging a suggestive but still undefined artistic voice for the year 2000.
James spars with his wolfish producer. He is offered a lucrative television series playing an old detective. It taps the memory of his father too cheaply; instead, he returns to Bridgeport to scout out a noir-style film about a celebrated murder scandal that Billy once investigated. The producer sees box office; James sees art, the evocation of a lost place and time, and the redemption of his past.
None of this is narrated. Howard writes it as a filmed interview, with cuts, splices, a profusion of camera directions and continual shifts among levels of reality and tone. It is immensely elaborate. The purpose is to replace the richly grounded narrative of childhood with a nervous blurring of the line between what life does and what a camera does. By turns, it is glitzy cliché, wry anecdote and modest reflection.
It is immensely worked; it is hard work to follow, and the effect is to work into the ground the modestly interesting story of James' adult life. Howard's point is that when the world is run by hype and camera angles, these are more real than any story. Real; perhaps so, but also curiously monotonous.
The most distinctive technique comes in a central section. Howard writes her story on the right-hand pages. It tells of James' return to Bridgeport; his encounter with Catherine, who is initially nervous that his film will uncover their father's corruption; his brief love affair with Catherine's house-mate, Mary, and his conclusion, after touring Bridgeport, that the past is too far gone to evoke.
Each left-hand page is a dizzying miscellany. Ranging from snippets to brief essays, there are reports on Bridgeport's statues and bits on such natives as Robert Mitchum and Walt Kelly, Pogo's creator. There are guidebook excerpts, a quotation from Raymond Chandler, and Lincoln praising Bridgeport's fried oysters. There are extended passages on P. T. Barnum, the 19th-Century Bridgeport promoter and hypester who stands for both the city's real glory and the expansive hyper-reality that would make its gritty factories die. There are engravings, doodles and diagrams.
Sometimes, James or Catherine wander briefly over from the right-hand pages, and Barnum makes sorties rightward into James' dreams. Throughout, there is the author's voice, standing up for her miscellanea and grumbling at the novel across the way. By double-entry-accounting principles, she insists, both sides are equal: shivaree and artistic ordering.
Maybe so, but there is a problem. Howard cites Walter Benjamin, the pre-World War II German-Jewish writer and critic, on his proposal for literature as an assortment from which readers can make their own selections and patterns. “In his Arcades project … Benjamin expected no less than to alter our relation to the page, to let us shop, that's the whimsy, through his chosen topics and cultural totems.”
We can shop for oranges; we want them for themselves. Words and images have no value alone; they exist in a context of attention, the author's. We may contest the intention, or the intention may include renouncing intention, and that, too, provides a context. It is one that fades, though, and is not susceptible to being used more than once or twice. With Benjamin, it was a scintillating exploration. In Howard's massive application—we lurch back and forth from right-hand to left-hand pages and our attention becomes fixed mainly on when to switch—it is sheer swiveling neck work. It is too self-conscious to succeed.
The most wonderful section in the book is a relatively straightforward narrative. It tells of Catherine's floating and tormented life in New York, and of her hard-won, triumphant stability as a spinner and weaver. After years of promiscuity and a breakdown, she is stumpy, shabby and free; a creator of beauty.
“Straightforward narrative,” of course, is a misnomer; the writing pulses around its confines like heat lightning. And it suggests the wild and floating nature of modern life more disturbingly than the more obviously experimental sections do. This is not to deny the power that breaking the narrative can have, but to venture that Howard, stumpy and fierce as her Catherine, is not particularly suited to it. Her most formidable talent, seems to lie in stretching.
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SOURCE: A review of Natural History, in New Republic, November 9, 1992, pp. 46–49.
[In the following review, Robinson praises the experimental narrative techniques used by Howard in Natural History.]
Maureen Howard writes about her abiding subject, the family, with fierce rigor, as though she were at the same time writing in defense of the family novel itself. Not for her the cozy domestic zones where passions are labeled and personal histories are smugly untangled into “relationships.” In the seven books she has published since 1960, Howard's humor and ready sympathy are buttressed by a stubborn refusal to slim down her people and their stories. She insists on taking her time, conferring on her novels such seriousness that reading them takes time, too. The narratives are bumpy, full of abrupt turns, disconcerting stops and starts. Readers keep busy putting together all the pieces she lays before them. “Come now,” she seems to say, “You didn't expect me to do all the work for you.”
Howard deliberately makes it impossible to generalize about her families, fending off the sociologists with a barrage of complicating information. “I may have a fatal resistance to abstractions,” she wrote in her deft 1978 memoir, Facts of Life. Indeed there are few “key” passages in Howard's books where significances are at last spelled out, for she knows that a bald statement, untempered by self-deprecation, risks toppling her entire narrative. Instead Howard works by accumulation of more portable details—totemic objects, deceptively offhand utterances, telling gestures. It's by such small observations—a woman's “frayed Keds sliced for the bunions”; a man unwittingly acquiring his father's favorite conversation starter, “tell me”—that Howard's characters are best measured. They show off new aspects of their personalities with such frequency that we are challenged to keep making acts of recognition, to hold off reaching conclusions. At the very moment someone seems finally to have selected a permanent mask, Howard proposes a contradictory way of looking at him, one that is just as convincing. The “facts of life,” the character's life, are constantly in dispute.
In Bridgeport Bus (1965), for instance, the character Mary Agnes Keely is ever more inventive at self-renovation, but also determined at times to tarnish her new luster and retreat to familiar ground. Pinkham Strong in Expensive Habits, from 1986, renounces his aristocratic breeding and opens an East Village used-clothing store, but also obsessively investigates his family's labelled past. Still another character, Margaret Flood in the same novel, wants to lock into her relationships with friends, offspring, spouses current and ex, yet at the same time longs to get out from under the suffocating attention. She relies on routine—familiar wisecracks, well-rehearsed fumblings in love and enmity—but nonetheless thrills to those times when routine breaks down in a moment of flirtation or blasphemy. Such mercurial characters occupy a rigid institution like the family only tentatively, and rarely for long. Howard's families are never more vivid than when they dissolve; never more poignant than when they try, and usually fail, to regroup.
Howard's refreshing distrust of psychological consistency and ultimate “meaning” informs her new novel, Natural History, making its emotional appeal indirect, unassuming, yet all the more satisfying once found. Again the central figures form a family, and again the family imperfectly coheres, demands to be seen in fragments. But now Howard reaches further, beyond domestic history into histories of places, beliefs, longings, and vices.
In Natural History Howard returns to her native Bridgeport, Connecticut, the city fled in Bridgeport Bus and later retrieved in Facts of Life. This time she comes upon Bridgeport just as it slides from World War II prosperity, when its industries profited handsomely from military contracts, to the gray beleaguerment and dog-eared homeliness it still retains. As the war winds down, Billy Bray is comfortably settled in his tiny fiefdom as county detective, on easy terms with both the district attorney and the local mob, an expert at making his indifference seem charming and masking his bewilderment with banter.
Billy's family doesn't know much more about him than his colleagues do. Nell, his wife, no longer presses him for intimacy and instead tries to obscure her disappointment with elaborate facades. Her efforts only make the sadness more obvious: the woman reared to expect dignity and order in the domestic sphere has never quite given up hoping for a reprieve. She's always tidying shelves of majolica plates and Toby jugs, tearing down cobwebs, patching frayed elbows, or sewing loose buttons tighter—all the while worrying that others will notice the seam, the flaw, the dust.
Nell's daughter, Catherine, inherits some of the same intense self-abnegation. Even at age 11, she's anxious about her salvation, pursued by visions of mortal sin, desperate to learn how to transcend the everyday and give herself over to a redeeming mission. Catherine's brother, James, the fourth corner in the family, also wants a way out of household claustrophobia, but can't imagine what might follow such a violent severance. He is cocky and secretive, in love with movies and magic tricks, able to turn his family into rapt spectators at his performance as son and brother.
“Four faces … each dealt a small portion of wrong and pain,” Howard writes. But even at its most acute, the pain never quite breaks through the surface of their well-practiced stoicism—even when Billy's detective work takes him into the middle of a tabloid-tailored murder case and he suffers public humiliation from the acquittal of the sulky socialite who shot the soldier on leave. Not for another forty years, with Billy and Nell long dead, would their children, now in their 50s—Catherine a professional weaver, James a Hollywood actor looking for a way to regain his bankable allure—return to Bridgeport and try to identify what, if anything, held the Brays together.
Just as her characters spend most of their lives trying to dodge destined identities and elude the consequences of their past, Howard achieves her own amazing formal sleight of hand, assuming numerous guises in which to tell her story. Natural History is a novel always in the midst of breaking free of itself, its pages filled with brilliant variations on the screenplay, the encyclopedia, the diary, and, of course, the history book. In a prefatory note, Howard refers to the novel's “entries,” as if Natural History were a captain's log.
Acknowledging its affinities with the distinguished tradition of narrative restlessness and genre-trespassing headed by Sterne and Joyce, Natural History is part mystery story, part domestic etude, part epic saga. Chapters of telegraphic reflection presented in a clipped first person vie with aloof, majestic narration in other chapters; points of view swerve violently. Often the book jumps literary boundaries altogether and reaches toward the greater tangibility of the collage. A middle section called “Double Entry” presents one story on its right-hand pages and, on the opposite pages, an assortment of drawings, photographs, diagrams, doodles, essays (including a particularly apt homage to Joseph Cornell), and scavenged images and quotations from brochures, calling cards, menus, advertisements, and newspapers—all of which speckle another written version of the Bray chronicle.
With welcome leniency, Howard announces at the start of “Double Entry” that readers should feel free to “dip in, flip back, or simply read on.” She learned of the pleasures of multiplicity and distraction, she says, from Walter Benjamin, whose shade hovers over the entire novel as a sort of ideal reader. But Howard doesn't adopt the flaneur's wide-ranging curiosity simply for the amusements available. Such resourcefulness is necessary if she (and her characters) are ever going to understand their relationship to what is remembered. A subtle current of desperation runs beneath the novel—fear at the consequences of not retrieving the past, perhaps, or worry about what might happen if the search is successful—and that tension seems to impel Howard toward greater and greater acts of narrative ingenuity.
Perhaps the atmosphere in Natural History is so pressed because, having exerted its attractions in book after book, the city of Bridgeport has assumed an almost mystical awesomeness. Here Howard writes as if she wants to compass and contain its force once and for all. Thus Natural History periodically returns to cool descriptions of Bridgeport's layout: at the start Howard explicitly maps the territory, chanting its streets and avenues—North, Parrott, Main, Iranistan, Golden Hill—as if thereby to elicit their secrets one by one. But real information about this town and its citizens isn't so tractable. A long chapter called “Closet Drama,” in which the prose is rigged with stage directions and notes about lighting, allows more of one character, James, to come into view. His monologue provides details of his failed marriages, show-biz rivalries and debacles, and a sudden resolution to change his fate, but most of all it allows us to hear his voice. His uneasy blend of chutzpah and self-disgust—his “you bet!” and “babe!” giving way to long silences, stammerings, and blustery impersonations—reveals the soured man hoping to act his way out of himself.
Catherine's lingering, exploratory rhythm is a marked change from her brother's. And still different voices come from Catherine's feisty roommate Mary Boyle, a social worker; Mr. De Martino, an old clarinet teacher; and James's wife, the rodeo-smitten Lilah. Having netted these lives in her imagination, Howard pulls them apart with ever-steady fastidiousness, acquiring their varied languages, dictions, ways of carrying themselves.
If Walter Benjamin is one inspiration for the novel's style, Bridgeport's favorite son, P. T. Barnum, is surely the other. He is a constant presence, captivating in his unabashed love of performance, his tireless search for the extraordinary specimen and dazzling event designed to guarantee enchantment. James is his most obvious emulator, but Barnumism in one form or another overtakes most of the characters. Whenever he's most pinched by a sense of his own weakness, Billy plays up the hardboiled detective role, tossing salty quotables to the adoring reporters. Peaches, a neglected girl under Mary Boyle's care, creates macabre tableaux in her housing project living room, spectacular visions of her mother's many lives and lovers—her way to regain a family. Others in Natural History are always self-consciously fretting about how convincing they are as seductress, mover-and-shaker, martyr, or madwoman, as though they still believe that a sharp style can cover up a troubled and troubling substance.
Linguistically acrobatic, imaginatively daring, Howard herself is the most debonair performer in Natural History. Her attraction to theater animates many of her previous books; here, however, she gives herself full rein to ponder the form explicitly—in screenplay fragments, in monologues, in musings on the daily circuses at and away from home. This constant experimenting may offer her a way to transcend the sometimes exhausting inwardness of her fiction. With earlier books she reached a challenging impasse, having brought a program of character dissection to its apparent limit and running the risk of ending up in an airless world. Rather than back away from her sensibility and retrench, however, Howard chooses to barrel onward, extending her method of snaring experience to its extreme. Only occasionally does her writing idle (“Closet Drama” has its intermittent longueurs), but in general Howard widens her emotional reach, moving closest to the psychological complexity envisioned in her earliest works.
When Natural History does pause in its progress through styles and forms, it is usually to show that Howard has not embraced her narrative strategy uncritically. Her love of spectacle prevails, yet to a degree never reached by her characters she also understands the sham of performance—the actor's flight from sustained scrutiny, the razzmatazz that blinds real insight. A performed self, she cautions, can often become a simplified self. The distrust she brought to family fiction always remains ready to turn on herself: in the increasing flamboyance of her forms, she shows how often she has questioned the rightness of showing off all the tricks, wondered if she shouldn't have been more discreet with her characters and herself.
That mixture of fascination and aversion lends Howard's writing its unusually charged energy. A passage in which she expresses genuine wonder at one aspect of a personality will be followed by a section grounded in “been-there, done-that” tones. Throughout Natural History, she sounds jaded, but not yet resigned, disillusionment having made her tougher on the people that catch her attention. She's cosmopolitan company, but also fed-up with the fashionable and weirdly thrilled by Bridgeport's boarded-up buildings in smelly alleys and its aluminum-sided houses with lawn gnomes. Howard negotiates a persona for herself in which the self-mockery doesn't wilt into self-effacement, and in which the confident pace doesn't smooth over the ripples of insecurity, the spasms of self-doubt. A lived life—its disappointments, hard work, minor elations—shows in her prose, her survivor's patter, its don't-waste-my-time jauntiness:
It's the insupportable present goads me to project on the defenseless past, brings me back like James to better times. He's primed for his movie, his art, which gives us the sensation of living without direct experience of life. Please, forgive me that last if I enter a slight adjustment to the books: I do not talk to any intellect in nature, but am presuming an infinite heart somewhere into which I play—Henry David Thoreau, Dec. 24, 1840. Play—as an actor? Instrument? On a Christmas Eve play into, as to an audience or congregation, surely. Lord, it's good to come up with the answers, but abandon all thought that I am second sight, able to predict from my side that Cath won't on her life, that James will for the hell of it.
Howard's deep skepticism explains why Natural History isn't a history at all, and never could be. After rummaging in her characters' lives and roaming the byways of her city, she accepts the deviousness of her prey: the past, she writes, is “unrecoverable.” It can't be seen whole, she realizes; its unities are illusory; one looks in vain for its beginning, middle, and end. On its own, the conclusion isn't anything special—what novelist hasn't had to acquire such wisdom?—but what makes it unusual here is Howard's tone: she's elated.
A palpable relief buoys the final chapters of Natural History, as the Bray children leave their histories undisturbed. Having come to Bridgeport to scout locations for a movie he's planning about the socialite-and-soldier murder case, James had hoped to unravel the confusion surrounding his father's involvement—but Catherine successfully thwarts him. We know she's right to do so, not just because there is a sordid secret better left unrevealed, but because, once it appears to be understood, the past will be reduced and shelved. It will no longer have the anchoring weight or the cautionary force of mystery.
This novel glows only subtly with a warmth that, for want of a better word, can be called spiritual—yet such is the quality of Howard's faith in the power of description and inquiry. Character and author alike stand before their lives, remembered conversations, emptied rooms, and once-treasured hand-me downs—and persist in contemplation, asking question after question, hoping to articulate these things back into circulation. It is the writer's (and characters') ignorance and the inevitable frustration of their effort at knowledge that keeps them alive. If fiction can ever be said to be “moral,” it achieves such stature not in legislating “the moral of the story,” but rather in resisting easy catharsis, fixing the reader's attention on the ambiguous and the unanswerable.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 797
SOURCE: “Lost in Bridgeport,” in Washington Post Book World, November 22, 1992, p. 6.
[In the following review, Perrin offers a negative assessment of Natural History, calling the novel “almost unreadable.”]
In 1965, Maureen Howard published a stunningly good novel called Bridgeport Bus. It's about a 35-year-old virgin named Mary Agnes Keeley. She lives in Bridgeport, Conn., with her suffocating Irish mother (her fireman father is dead) and works as secretary to the president of a zipper company. Then she breaks loose and goes to New York. She finds men, adventures, a somewhat better job; she writes one part of the book herself in a surrealistic mode.
Thirteen years later, Maureen Howard published an exceptionally well-written memoir called Facts of Life. The central character is another M. K., only this time it is Howard herself. Maiden name: Maureen Kearns. The book tells of her childhood in an Irish section of Bridgeport, Conn., where her father was a policeman. Not a cop on the beat, but a detective—in fact, the County Detective for Fairfield County.
Now Maureen Howard has published an almost unreadable novel called Natural History. It's about an Irish family in Bridgeport, Conn., named Bray. Billy Bray, the father, is the County Detective for Fairfield County. Like the Keeleys and the Kearnses, he has two children, a daughter and a son, and they are the principal human characters in the book. Only this time the son gets more space than the daughter.
Lots of artists work a narrow vein. It has been said of Vivaldi that he wrote the same concerto 400 times. Jane Austen's novels could be described as six variations on the theme of upper-middle-class courtship in England around the year 1800. There is no sin in Howard's going back to Bridgeport and to an Irish family of four. The sin is the unreadability of the latest version.
The plot, if you can call it that, runs thus. In 1945, Billy Bray, County Detective, investigates a murder. The slightly sluttish wife of an army major shoots and kills an army private in her bedroom. Detective Bray fails to get her convicted, and the dead soldier's brother stalks the Bray family for a time, planning revenge. He doesn't go through with it.
Meanwhile, the two Bray kids, aged 11 and 13 at the time of the shooting, grow up and leave Bridgeport. You learn their adult histories in bits and snatches, in stream of consciousness, in an interminable imaginary stage-show. Cath, the daughter, goes to a New York, becomes a researcher with Time. At some point she turns suicidal, but doesn't go through with it. Instead she moves back to Bridgeport, and now leads a reclusive and mostly unhappy life as a weaver. James, the son, becomes a movie star, has a mostly miserable life, and eventually returns to Bridgeport to make a movie about the shooting. He doesn't go through with it. The book dribbles to an end. It has about as much suspense as a phone book.
But then, Maureen Howard clearly did not intend it to have suspense—or to tell any conventional sort of story. She clearly no longer believes in stories. What does she believe in? Disillusionment. Loss. Human folly.
As far as I can tell, the real character in this book is the city of Bridgeport itself, and the author's purpose is to say goodbye to Bridgeport in two different ways. Goodbye first to the city a child would know—that city so much more perfect than it could possibly ever appear to adult eyes. Goodbye, that is, to the illusion of wise parents, happy neighborhood, secure life.
But second, goodbye to the historical Bridgeport of 1945 (and also the earlier Bridgeport of P. T. Barnum). That city has turned to slums and depression and homeless people in parks, and the book is a kind of wake.
There is much daring in how the wake is presented. One 80-page section, for example, has the “narrative” on right-hand pages only, while on the left-hand pages there is a semi-psychedelic melange. It includes bits of history: a letter from P. T. Barnum to Mark Twain, the entry for Bridgeport in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. It also includes poems, quotes from Abraham Lincoln (he liked Bridgeport oysters) and much tightrope dancing by Maureen Howard herself. At one point (right-hand pages) a statue of Barnum comes alive and visits James in his bedroom.
But I have to say: daring, yes; successful, no. Some individual passages are wonderful—Maureen Howard is, after all, a very good writer—but it is hard to imagine the person who would read the whole book for pleasure.
What one can hope is that Howard now truly has Bridgeport out of her system, and is free to apply her great talent to other and perhaps more readily tellable matters.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1580
SOURCE: “Tales of Two Cities,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. 10, No. 3, December, 1992, p. 20.
[In the following review, Pool argues that the series of “natural, social, and personal histories” portrayed in Natural History do not add up to a compelling whole.]
Anyone seeking to pinpoint the nature of the contemporary novel will have a rough time of it. Wearing old-fashioned stays, postmodern garb, or singular outfits with no designer labels at all, our novels march their many ways, fulfilling the possibilities or landing in the pitfalls of their chosen modes.
Both of these novels, for example, revolve around an American city and family, American lives and life. But from Maureen Howard's Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Marilyn Dorn Staats' Atlanta, Georgia, lies an enormous fictional plain. Staats in her modest first novel invites a traditional suspension of disbelief. Howard in her extravagant sixth does a tango with the very concept of “once upon a time,” which she refers to in Natural History as the “contract between teller and all children, by which I mean us kids, lead-in to magic remodeling of reality.”
In Looking for Atlanta, Staats tells a familiar tale, and she tells it in a familiar mode, even if her narrator is unusually situated on her best friend's roof, accompanied by her yardman, Harold, and armed with a bottle of booze. The date of this rooftop vigil is April 17, 1981. The place is an upward-reaching Atlanta suburb. And the narrator is Margaret Hunter Bridges, a “43-year-old lapsed Southern Belle,” a former debutante (known in the local parlance as a “Buckhead Pink”), who on her rooftop perch is writing her journal: the story of a life that has veered painfully off its expected course, the story which, at its conclusion, will mark what she calls “the end of my past.”
What is it that has brought Margaret to expose herself so shockingly on a rooftop? This is certainly not the behavior prescribed by her mother, whose “favorite credo,” found in her well-worn copy of Mrs. Dull's Guide to Southern Etiquette, reads: “If something unpleasant is happening, pretend not to notice. To do otherwise would embarrass your guests and family.”
At first, the main reason for her transgression appears to be her husband Peter's desertion for a younger woman. I confess I was less than eager to read about yet another fickle male's midlife crisis, however humorously described—and Staats can be very funny, whether describing Margaret's husband or other macho males, her narrow-minded and often mean-spirited friends, or her own comically misdirected efforts. But gradually we come to see that the reason is more complex: it is really the recent death of Margaret's seventeen-year-old daughter Meg that has torn this family apart.
That death was accidental: “‘No crime,’ the police assured me …” Margaret tells us. “‘No crime has been committed here.’” But the effects of grief and guilt have been devastating. In one moving sequence, Staats follows Margaret's train of thought from a love scene in From Here to Eternity to the various things that can interfere with lovemaking when you've been married a long time. Such as cystitis. Or a bad back. Or perhaps grief. “And when you are grieving,” she says,
one of you may not feel the same way at the same time as the other one of you who is grieving. One of you may just want to lie quietly on her back under the father of her first-born child who died and do nothing at all. And the other one of you may want to do everything in a hurry. He may need to get back at his daughter's death by proving to himself, with angry, pain-inflicting thrusts, that he, at least, is still alive.
The novel's central issue, then, is not an unfaithful husband, nor is its central question whether he will come home. In fact, Staats treats the marital rift as comedy, even farce, which balances the grimmer issue of grief.
Is Margaret really planning to jump off the roof, as her grandmother did? At no point did I believe that. Hers is a voice too filled with energy and life to be seriously contemplating death. That voice with its frank intelligence, its canny humor, its Southern lilt, carries the novel, lifting it above its weaknesses. This is not to say that Margaret is altogether admirable. For all her silent apologies to Harold, the devoted black yardman who is with her—for her inherited privilege, for the fact of her whiteness—Margaret remains a Southern white woman to the end, much as Harold remains in his old age as subservient as he was in his youth. “We're two anachronisms,” Margaret reflects. “Two products of the same dying culture.”
With its old-fashioned storytelling and characters, Looking for Atlanta may itself strike some readers as an anachronism. It is not a book John Barth would call “technically up-to-date.” Maureen Howard's Natural History is a different affair. An ambitious, sprawling novel, it draws on an array of artistic techniques to tell its story of the Brays, an Irish family of Bridgeport; to tell the story of Bridgeport; and to tell a story of America itself. Appropriately, the novel includes some violence, celebrity and glitz: it has a murder, a movie-star protagonist and a location that was the operating base of P. T. Barnum, the master of hype.
Natural History starts straightforwardly enough, introducing us to the Brays and to Bridgeport, Howard's own birthplace (and the setting of her autobiography Facts of Life which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction in 1978). In prose that is sweeping but precise, deftly changing perspectives as she did in her earlier work, Howard focuses on a Saturday in the 1940s. We see Nell Bray, the mother, concentrating on family and home, obsessively concerned for her son; we see her son James, at thirteen already a musician, a magician, a charmer, off to his clarinet lesson; we see his sister Catherine, at eleven already compulsive, determined to win a Girl Scout competition; and we see William Aloysius Bray, a swaggering county detective, investigating the shooting of a soldier by the seductive Isabelle Poole.
In subsequent chapters, Howard turns to other styles as she follows the lives of James and Catherine, “the one child who will always know what he wants and the one who will never get what she wants.” Two large sections seem to dominate the book. The first is the long “Closet Drama,” a performance piece complete with script directions, in which James, now 52, tells us about his life, his movie career, his second marriage to a beautiful rodeo star, his daughter, and his decision to direct his own film in which he will play his father, a detective investigating the soldier's murder in Bridgeport.
The second large section is titled “Double Entry” and is arranged as a double entry, “the beautiful concept … of bookkeeping,” the text explains, in which “the debit and credit must always agree.” On the right-hand side of the page, the author follows the story of James in Bridgeport, where he has come to make his film and where he meets up with Catherine, who knows a terrible secret about the murder. On the left-hand side of the page, Howard gives us a compendium of excerpts, letters, cartoons, facts relating to Bridgeport, to P. T. Barnum and his show, but also fictions relating to her characters. Here, for example, we have the story of Jumbo, the “best-loved pachyderm,” killed by a Canadian freight train in 1885; here we have data on Bridgeport's Arcade and a letter from Barnum to Samuel Clemens.
“If yearning for the outcome,” says Howard.
you may depart this side of the page, read on in the story—the will he? the won't she? whatever will become of? It's your right, the pleasure you take in how they will meet once more—those threads; … Read on, flip back, dip in.
It may be that in this compendium, Howard not only wants to give us Bridgeport but also, like Walter Benjamin, whose Arcades Project she discusses—“a collection of aphorisms, quotes, contemplations accruing to the industrial culture”—she intends “no less than to alter our relation to the page, to let us shop, that's the whimsy, through … chosen topics and cultural totems …” And it may be that in offering this history-album beside her invented story, she is having fun, creating an entertainment.
I only wish that I had found all of this more entertaining. “Closet Drama” struck me as tedious. “Double Entry” seemed to offer on the one hand a less than compelling story of Catherine, now a spinner and weaver, and of James, now making love to Catherine's friend, an ex-nun turned social worker; and on the other hand, an elaborate gimmick. Nor was I especially eager to finish the story, even with Catherine's secret yet to be revealed—the only bit in the novel which, though introduced late, offers some needed momentum.
Maureen Howard is a wonderful writer, and I have enjoyed her earlier works immensely. But this one strikes me as something of a stew. Though she juxtaposes strands of natural, social and personal history, patterns of American hopes and familial ties, she fails to weave these threads together into an enlightening or moving whole. Let me say straight out that I may be in the minority in this opinion. But try as I did to appreciate this work by a very fine writer, I couldn't feel its force.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1147
SOURCE: “Around and over and about Bridgeport,” in New Leader, December 14, 1992, pp. 24–25.
[In the following review, Davis offers a mixed assessment of Natural History.]
Matched in her spectacular range perhaps only by Toni Morrison, Maureen Howard can write in any style she chooses. Almost defiantly she follows her fancy wherever it leads, gathering unlikely personalities along the way. Natural History might be called, as one of its characters, P. T. Barnum, in a letter to Mark Twain, called his own most famous production, “a colossal traveling exhibition never before equaled.” The novel's multimedia form (well over a hundred pages are screenplay) gives easy passage from coast to coast and across the ocean. Well, not quite easy; multimedia productions on the printed page make their demands. But trust Howard; she always finds her way back to Bridgeport, Connecticut.
As with earlier works, Howard tells her story in separately complete segments. In the first of eight “Museum Pieces,” whose title suggests the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, she describes an imaginary wall map: “The county entire, Fairfield County is shown as fabulously simple, the shallow blue waters of Long Island Sound, the pale green of its slight elevations in Redding and Trumbull, the heavy pink populace of the industrial centers—your city and others, Danbury, Stamford, Norwalk. Less than you imagined; unstoried, general issue, yet you dare not snap it back into oblivion as though … as though it is not your jurisdiction.”
In that last line Howard may be addressing James Bray, a popular actor who is planning throughout much of the novel to make a serious movie about the life of his father, a Bridgeport police detective until he died relatively young. The film will explore the mystery of his suspicious failure to send to prison a seductive young woman who murdered a World War II soldier.
Or the jurisdiction could rightfully belong to James' neglected younger sister, “Catherine, archivist from age 12, hooked early on queer secrets of the past. … Collecting dates, names, inventions, acts of God or man—truth of it all. …” By this time middle-aged and a genuine spinster (as craftswoman, she spins the wool she weaves), Catherine has gone to the public library to get out the old newspapers James will need to create the background for the film she desperately wants him not to make.
Or the author may be addressing herself, conceding her own need to keep searching among the detritus turned up from her continuing Bridgeport dig. Passionate about possible secrets, she is ambivalent about revealing them.
The characterization of Catherine as archivist occurs in a section called “Double Entry,” laid out in facing pages set in contrasting type. The left-hand pages, devoted to Bridgeport history, mostly from contemporary sources, are in boldface and inventively illustrated. Tom Thumb, the Siamese twins and Jenny Lind appear among hundreds of charming old linecuts. This section also uses lists, statistics, descriptions of gifts to the Barnum Museum from celebrities, poems (apparently the author's own), and scores of quotations, ranging from Sherlock Holmes to Oliver Wendell Holmes, all relating to Bridgeport legends. But Howard frees herself from rules: On a historical page she doesn't hesitate to speak directly to the reader or her characters and even add to their stories, which we expect to find on the facing pages.
Natural History might cause her fans to wonder if Maureen Howard had made a New Year's resolution to abstain from straightforward sentences. Here Lilah Lee, James' rodeo star third wife, gives a hint of her life before she became an anthropology student: “Sold myself to the horses, but inevitable as my tumble in the dust, I fell for one of those cowboys … another and another, bare-assed in bare rooms. Fairly innocent men, not always nice, mostly timid fellas who switched channels to find Westerns on TV. Crossing fully into their world, because the motel rooms were too empty or when the satin shirt and boots were off for the night, riding for the crowd was being no one.”
Howard attracted a following with her first two novels, Not a Word about Nightingales and Bridgeport Bus. But in 1976, with the publication of the third, her unwillingness to pander to those looking for an easy read brought a warning from the Library Journal that Before My Time was only “for discriminating readers.” Three years later, with the appearance of her memoir Facts of Life, described by one reviewer as a “caustic, sarcastic, unaffectionate memoir,” the Journal sounded another alarm: “Recommended only for libraries where her novels are popular.” Yet in 1986 critics called her novel Expensive Habits the work of “a brilliant comic writer.” And Grace Abounding (1982) begins with a delightfully bawdy scene in which a middle-aged heroine driving home from a grim visit to her aged mother enlivens the trip with fantasies about the variously succoring males who might rescue her after the blowout of a tire she purposely keeps in a perilous condition.
Here we have an author who has fun using her talents. Too much, perhaps, if you think of fun as self-indulgence. She seems to write around and over and about Bridgeport to assuage the urgencies of her own obsessions, her compulsion to go back and keep touching the personal wounds that never heal.
Therein, I think, lies the difference between Maureen Howard and Toni Morrison. Though Morrison writes about individuals, their lives connect with great concerns. Big things have happened in Bridgeport, too; far bigger than Barnum's Museum with all its campy fascination. Howard tells of Elias Howe and the invention of sewing machines, but nothing of the life of the people who made them. Early in the century the Bridgeport factory workers never saw winter daylight from one week's end to the next. Wasn't it there that the women, desperate, placed their bodies on the pavement, blocking the rinks coming to break their strike? In the whole section devoted to Bridgeport history we find no mention of such crucial moments.
Phone calls between James Bray and Hollywood types take up much of Natural History. From these, for all the dialogue's acuteness, we learn nothing new. But the reader will surely remember and respond to the brief passages telling of Catherine's social worker roommate visiting a Bridgeport housing project. There she develops an almost demented yearning to adopt and give a future to the spunky, talented seven-year-old daughter of a drug-pushing prostitute. Howard employs all her offhand, unsentimental mastery of specifics to make us suffer through these scenes.
Good writers, even remarkable writers, can limit themselves to their own families. But the great writers, while telling about people they know, somehow by illuminating those lives manage to shine light beyond them, on the world outside. I hope her glimpse of that beguiling child of the project, with vermin in her curls, has caught Howard's imagination and opened her eyes to great new vistas, even in Bridgeport.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
SOURCE: “Novel Strains for Effect,” in Christian Science Monitor, December 14, 1992, p. 12.
[In the following review, Rubin offers a negative assessment of Natural History, criticizing the novel's format and structure.]
Maureen Howard's much-heralded novel Natural History, is a penitential, quasi-Joycean chronicle/collage that purports to do for Bridgeport, Conn., what James Joyce did for Dublin. Winner of a National Book Critics Circle prize for her memoir Facts of Life, and the author of five previous novels, Howard is a sincere and serious writer. Her intentions are doubtless worthy, but this novel never gets off the ground.
The central characters are an American family of Irish descent, the Brays, whom we first encounter during the later years of World War II. Jovial Billy Bray, the father, is a crackerjack police detective. His wife Nell is a gentle, extremely overanxious woman who can scarcely stand hearing her husband mention, let alone divulge any details of, cases he is working on. Murder, rape, arson—even graft and petty corruption—distress her deeply.
The Brays have two children. James is a musically talented lad who loves practicing magic tricks. Catherine is a stolid, bright, hardworking, rather humorless girl. The glimpses of their childhood we are shown are singularly ungalvanizing: James going to his clarinet lesson, Catherine putting together a painstaking cardboard display about the history of cotton for a Girl Scout competition. The next thing we know, they're adults: James has become a reasonably successful film star, on his second marriage (to an ex-rodeo queen). Catherine, following a brief stint as a wise-cracking New York career gal all too popular with opportunistic married men who love her and leave her, has retreated to Bridgeport, making her living as a spinster/weaver. (Her work is prized on the artsy-craftsy circuit.)
James has taken it into his head to make a movie about an old murder case his father was involved in: the story of a rich, brassy woman who shot a soldier and got away with it. He plans to play the part of his father, the investigating detective. Catherine, however, is afraid of raking up the past. James's agent, a standard-issue tough cookie, is not very keen on the idea either—for commercial reasons. The same holds true for James's crony Morty Ziff, a predictably crass and foul-mouthed Hollywood producer. The space devoted to reproducing the unbelievably trite conversations between James and his showbiz buddies is in itself reason to wish that an editor had taken things in hand.
Eschewing straightforward chronological narration, Howard has divided her novel into 10 sections, wildly varying in style and format. Everything she tries, from a screenplay-style depiction of the actorish James to a post-modern, Jacques Derridan escapade involving parallel texts on the right- and left-hand pages (called “Double Entry”), has been done before and done much better. Having to wade through leaden pages of this hand-me-down, avant-garde style is like watching someone shuffle endlessly though a worn deck of playing cards.
Even in the first, most promising section, which introduces the Brays and Bridgeport, the characters are fuzzily drawn and their lives made to seem less interesting than any life has a right to be. Here, for instance, is the mother, Nell:
“She heads downhill, down home, still hoping to see the flash of her boy's red head and a bike. Sad fact, the garbage men are at her drive, and James, whose job it is, has not put the trash cans to the curb. She hefts them against her, twice stumbling down the back path, thank God in time.”
Alas, we seldom get to see Nell when she is not worrying about James on his bike or about the trash cans. Or occasionally, worrying about her husband.
Never using one word in place of six or seven, never missing an opportunity to incorporate a cliché or echo a dull phrase from her own previous paragraph, Howard proceeds to drain any vestige of life from her characters and their story.
In place of storytelling and character development, Howard offers a pseudo-anthropological assortment of facts and artifacts.
In “Double Entry,” James meets the spirit of Bridgeport-based showman P. T. Barnum on the right-hand pages, while the left-hand pages feature a collage of pictures, miscellaneous facts, authorial asides, and pretentious references to everyone from Emily Dickinson to the ever-so-chic Walter Benjamin. The reader is invited to build his or her own narrative by picking and choosing among the offerings.
But the offerings in this section and throughout the book are not very tempting. A dash of family saga, a soupcon of film-noir murder mystery, a clumsy swipe at Hollywood, and a straining for postmodern special effects: This hodgepodge of prefabricated odds and ends does justice neither to the fictitious Bray family nor the real-life city of Bridgeport.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 862
SOURCE: A review of Natural History, in Partisan Review, Vol. LX, No. 1, 1993, pp. 68–70.
[In the following review, Bell argues that Natural History's “uncontainable ingenuity” overshadows the novel's plot.]
The hero of Maureen Howard's Natural History is Bridgeport, Connecticut, where she was born and bred in an Irish Catholic family. A once-thriving manufacturing center on Long Island Sound, Bridgeport, like many such industrial towns of New England, fell victim to blight and decay after the Second World War. In several of her novels and the memoir Facts of Life, Bridgeport has been Howard's Dublin, the native ground that has possessed her imagination with the ferocious tenacity of a demon—the demon of memory—that will never let her go. In this new, enormously ambitious and eccentric novel, Howard concentrates on yet another Irish Catholic family, the Brays, whom we first meet toward the end of the War.
Billy Bray, the father, is a swaggering county detective; his wife Nell, who “married down,” is chronically worried about her teenage children, James and Catherine, and tries to exorcise her amorphous anxieties in fanatical housekeeping. James is obsessed with magic tricks and movies; Catherine is an earnest Girl Scout, miserably unsure of herself and dreamily pious. Suddenly the family romance is thrust aside by a murder (again!) that Billy is assigned to investigate in a nearby town. An aggressively sexy woman, whose husband is a major in the Army in Italy, has shot a young soldier. She claims the soldier followed her home from a local tavern and was plainly up to no good. Years after the murder, which relentlessly haunts the Bray children, Catherine suspects that Billy had treated himself to the sexual favors of the accused woman and made sure she was acquitted. It is never explained, however, why her father's supposed transgression plagues Catherine well into middle age.
But any attempt to convey what passes for plot in Natural History is doomed, for Howard has a great deal more than straightforward narrative in mind. As it develops—or rather, flits hither and yon with antic restlessness—the novel becomes a pinwheel of history: by turns an assemblage, a jigsaw puzzle, a scrapbook, a hodgepodge, a three-ring circus (the exploits of the great showman P. T. Barnum, a luminary of Bridgeport, play a prominent part in the book), a recycling bin, a screenplay, and much more. Within bits of murky suggestion and fragments of fact, we learn that James becomes a Hollywood actor. When he realizes his film career isn't going anywhere, he decides to return to Bridgeport to make a movie about the wartime murder, in which he will play the father-detective. Thus the long chapter called “Closet Drama” takes the form of a screenplay, complete with lighting and stage directions, that wanders erratically through James's movie career, marriages and children, his unrealistic expectations about the film, and his sister's opposition to the whole idea because it might expose the unsavory truth about their father.
But the display of Howard's uncontainable ingenuity in “Closet Drama” is only one segue. Midway through Natural History, she embarks on the most arduously daring of extravagant improvisations, an eighty-page section called “Double Entry” (as in bookkeeping, presumably because the author is totting up the debits and credits of the Bray family and of Bridgeport). Splitting the text literally, Howard offers, in the right-hand pages, the story of James's ill-fated movie, which he eventually abandons; his affair with a former nun turned social worker; and Catherine's return, after some catastrophic years in New York, to Bridgeport, where she becomes a famous spinner and weaver. In the left-hand pages, Howard jumbles memory and history, collective and personal, in a mad anthologist's mishmash of quotations (from Sir Thomas Browne to Walt Disney); Bridgeport lore, including the fact that the city was once the leading American manufacturer of corsets; a rummage sale of miscellaneous pop-culture Americana, old engravings, photos, and greeting cards; a tribute to crusty Jasper McLevy, the Irish Socialist roofer who was mayor of Bridgeport for many years; movies and movie houses; the collage boxes of Joseph Cornell; a lengthy detour into Walter Benjamin's thoughts about the arcades of Paris (because Bridgeport once boasted a beautiful arcade of its own); and ending with the world-shaking revelation that Robert Mitchum, no less, was born in Maureen Howard's beloved hometown.
Once we stop to catch our breath—or nudge ourselves awake—after this breakneck roller-coaster ride, we begin to guess what Howard is attempting: to defy the evanescence of memory, to confront the irrecoverability of the past in its living wholeness, to lament the irrevocable dissolution of vanished experience, yet clinging to whatever connections we can impose on the bits and pieces that have endured. Yet all these free associations remain ambiguous, irresolute, and exhausting, in part because the very shapelessness of her “evidence” is self-defeating, in larger part because of her style. Fussy and overburdened, the sentences are so clotted or fidgety that we can't find our way out of the maze. With all the brio and wit that Howard has lavished on her pursuit of lost time, she has not illuminated the past but buried it under the clutter.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 747
SOURCE: “On the Other Hand …,” in Commonweal, February 12, 1993, p. 23.
[In the following review, Malin offers a positive assessment of Natural History, complimenting the novel's complexity and depth.]
Natural History deserves more than a brief review. It moves on at least three levels: it is, first, a study of the Bray family—Billy and Nell, the parents, and James and Catherine their children; it is also a study of “history,” a meditation, if you will, on what the word means not only to the Bray children but to all who want to recapture the “past” and discover that it never existed as implacable fact; it is, finally about the “mix” of art and reality, of “word” and “world.” These three levels, in effect, do not move in any linear manner; thus any page of the novel combines the various levels and, indeed, makes them into a maze of meaning, an epistemological labyrinth.
If, for example, we simply read the story of Billy Bray, we discover that his life is dominated by one event—the investigation of the murder of a soldier by a woman who pleads self-defense. I underline investigation because we eventually learn that in the investigation, any exploration of motives is unclear. Bray, who works as a detective for the state government, offers one version of the murder. But this version is a perversion; it is his story; it does not account for the full complexity of the event.
And Bray's investigation is viewed in different ways. Catherine, a spinster at age fifty, recognizes that her childhood and adulthood have, in a mysterious way, been shaped by Bray's testimony. She lives alone because she cannot ever be sure about the motives of men, including those of her brother James. An actor (of limited ability), James has been influenced by his father; he has refused to accept “ordinary” happenings. He tries to rewrite—or, better yet—to recreate Billy in a movie he wants to sell to his agent.
The second level of the novel has as its setting more than the “private” Bridgeport or Bray family. It is a bold “double entry” into the way “history” is an odd, mysterious fiction. Perhaps the centerpiece of the novel is the section called “Double Entry.” We are told that in “the beautiful concept of double-entry bookkeeping the debt and credit must agree; no inaccuracies or altered circumstances are admitted. …” This section of the novel can be read in several ways; we can read the fascinating references to Bridgeport in the life of P. T. Barnum, Lincoln, and other famous historical figures. (Barnum is, perhaps, the secret hero of the novel because he was not only a citizen of Bridgeport but a genius who recognized the need to carry history into the unreality of life. Indeed, he saw history—whatever it is—as a kind of duplicity, a hoax, a stage show.) On the right-hand side of this section of Double Entry we can continue to read about the Brays. Howard is, in a sense, questioning the relation of private and public history, of those uncanny associations which can never be correctly explained. She writes: “Double entry, designed to place equivalencies … when something is missing … when something is lost, you simply set down a number on the other side of the page to compensate, reconcile … as if to balance, naturally … as if to insist that the beautiful system must hold.”
The “beautiful system” in effect, leads us to the third level of the novel. What exactly is the relationship of language to life? Can words ever capture life? Is it possible to describe those longings which lie at the heart of “simple” Billy or James? It is interesting to note that Howard ends her “double entry”—now notice the dark pun!—with a series of speculations on vowels. She is aware that “a” or “e” or “o” are symbols; they exist because they began as “pictures”: “In the beginning was the picture. It was the initial A, peak and crossbar simpler than drawing of horse upon the wall of cave.”
The three levels intersect in our minds. We recognize that we can never understand “nature” or “history” in any completely rational way. We crosscut events and motives in an unconscious way. We manipulate them—or are manipulated by them?—so that our constructions are in continual flow, refusing finality.
Perhaps the invisible message of the entire novel is that humanity is flawed, that it can never know unearthly designs.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3252
SOURCE: “Assimilation Blues: Maureen Howard's Facts of Life,” in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 95–102.
[In the following essay, O'Brien explores the themes of assimilation and ethnic identity in Facts of Life.]
Narratives of exile and immigration arguably bring into sharper focus than other autobiographical modes the concept identified by Philippe Lejuene as “the autobiographical pact.”1 One reason why this may be the case is that there is an implicit struggle in autobiography, an application to the self of the sense of confrontation and critique that is applied to the objective world in Realist fiction. The experience typified and challenged in both Realist fiction and autobiography can, very generally, be called change. And in the age of capitalism, which also happens to be the age when change has become the structural principle of both social reality and the models of identity to which that reality gives rise, no change is more comprehensive than that articulated by the immigrant experience. Its comprehensiveness may be appreciated not only with regard to the actual immigrant generation itself, but also in view of its lingering effects on subsequent generations.
Quite apart, therefore, from its numerous artistic excellences and from the fact that its combination of detail and insight make it a unique record of the Irish-American experience of embourgeoisement,2 Maureen Howard's Facts of Life3 functions as a meditation on the mercuriality of an identity trained in, but not conditioned by, a strong awareness of ethnicity. The roots of the tension between training and self-awareness that pervades Howard's novels are explored in a way that reveals the limitations of identity conceived of solely in terms of its ethnic origins and the problematic shapelessness of identity conceived of without an adequate negotiation of those origins.
The vehement panache of Maureen Howard's Facts of Life is not just a matter of style, a matter of applying the cosmetics purchased through a Smith education and life in academia (if “life” is what institutions offer academic wives). The ability to put on the makeup is certainly there:
I wish someone had noted for art's sake—it is pure Chekhov—my grandfather's feelings when he bought the property on which he was to build his grandiose house from Mr. and Mrs. William Abbott Parrott, the faded Yankee gentility for whom his mother had served as the Irish maid.
More often than not, though, “art's sake” is beside the point. A sardonic, satirical, self-mocking tone announces its impatience with high gloss and finishing school and the assumption that one of the objects of experience is syntactical etiquette.
Time and again the social surface doesn't hold good. My lace mantilla lay gently folded in a puff of tissue paper: it was finer than the veils the parish girls would wear (always, always finer, the single tedious note of our supposed distinction). My white gloves buttoned at the wrists with pearls. These clothes would never be worn. I picked up a grapefruit knife and tried to commit suicide.
This, from later life, of a literary luncheon: “There was something pure in the utter filth of the experience” (117). Writing, here, is not an apology for order. Its force and conviction derive from its resistance to conferred codes, a resistance all the more winning for the attempts to identify with those codes—whether they are the attitudes (posture, deportment and declamation as the budding daughters of middle-class Bridgeport should embody them) or as a faculty spouse: “My education and career were sham intentions, smart mid-century substitutes for the embroidery work and social graces of an earlier time” (73).
Is there an alternative to belonging? Not on your life. But it seems that there is also no alternative to the pressures that ostensibly belonging brings. The question forever naggingly remains, belonging to what?
Maureen Howard organizes her “life” and its “facts” in three categories—culture, money and sex—one of the effects of which is to remind the reader of race, class and gender. And an obvious case might well be made for the synonymity of class and money, gender and sex. Maureen Howard doesn't make it, possibly because of its banality, though possibly also because issues of empowerment and disenfranchisement arise more predictably in the context of these two categories. They've entered our awareness. They're easier to assimilate, seem prominent in public discourse. They may even be related: sex is a kind of money, gender a sub-set of class. Or at least to say something like this tends to be less provocative than to speak about the possibly denaturing effects culture—the normality of manners, the quotidien participation in “civilized society”—can have on race, a category which, like many others, culture believes it can control by erasing.
Whatever inherent interest culture and race possess, intersections between them are of interest if only because of the interminable dialogue of the deaf that the two categories seem to carry on in America. Perhaps the dialogue only seems that way because of the difficulty the immigrant has in getting a hearing, or because a hearing only seems plausible when mimicry is the mode of articulation. Chico Marx says, “wadsa madda for you?” We laugh, being given to believe we know what he means. The black butler is by definition happy in his work, we accept him (he's presented as acceptable) because he's always smiling, according to the popular image, according to an image the very transmission of which defines the power of cultural institutions. The image validates that power, not the subject upon which it feels free to draw. Notre Dame sports teams are nicknamed “The Fighting Irish”—but that's different (we're different), that's good, clean fun: no harm meant, no harm done, don't be so sensitive, all it means is that we Irish have made it. …
Maureen Howard is not an immigrant, though. She comes to us by way of a Seven Sisters education, university teaching, publications with the brightest and best in toney journals. So why is so much of her story taken up by contests against images of conformity, with distinguishing oneself in terms but against the grain of institutional standards and expectations, with a persistent sense of breaking off, breaking out, breaking away? Partly—the understandable part?—because of admissions like these:
I said yes to the academic poetry of that time which had grown out of stale criticism [the scene is Kenyon College] and yes to the limp refined productions of Shakespeare that had begun to seep out of our new repertory theaters over the fetid landscapes of high culture and yes to the staggering simplifications of all the Abstract Expressionists, because—ever aiming to please I had let myself be told.
But partly too, perhaps, because her origins were Irish. This part is more obscure, less easy to find a language for, rooted in a landscape whose character, whose difference, seems to exist because it was the site of those first, formative rejections and resistances. If life at Kenyon was “a colonial existence which seemed unreal even as I lived it,” (79) that may have been because it was all too reminiscent of the limbo of designated culture that was the author's girlhood. “Colonial” seems to mean here vulnerable, adrift, frontier in the depressing sense, marginal—terms which are usually associated with the colonized.
The point here is not so much an uncharacteristic verbal lapse as an expression of the difficulty in establishing a place to be, a difficulty which culture is supposed to render recognizable and then sublimate (green thoughts in green shades). A more complicated example of the same bifocal state of mind may be elicited from the following. Northrop Frye, on a visit to Kenyon, gives “the impression of a generous man, so committed to his work that he could not fathom my triviality” (78). Compare the man of culture's impact with that of Jasper McLevy, “the famed Socialist mayor of Bridgeport” (3). He is presented only to be satirically dismissed by the author's mother with the help of “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain” (3). The dismissal is replicated by “famed”—the very thing McLevy is not.
What is of interest here is not drawing attention to those occasions on which the author's language seems to say the opposite of what it means, or to note the empty irony of the dismisser dismissed, much less to accuse the author of snobbery, or even to make a case for the rehabilitation of McLevy on the grounds that one more anecdote about Northrop Frye is of much less interest than a word or two, however cursory, on what “socialist” meant in Bridgeport long ago.4 Rather—as in the case of the dual applicability of “colonial” and “colonized”—what emerges most convincingly is the writer's position between high and low, between the preacher and the converted, between local and international, between home and world. The position could be that of a person undergoing both the inevitability of assimilation and the failure of assimilation to be completely successful or credible. The position could be that of the writer negotiating between the various versions of being declasse and marginal, between origin and apotheosis, between facts and the life that they betoken.
What her mother experienced as contradictory, the author takes fully conscious responsibility for by making it problematic.
I sensed that my mother was a misfit from the first days when, dressed in a linen hat and pearls, she walked me out around the block. She was too fine for the working-class neighborhood that surrounded us. (4) At Smith College she was homesick but stuck it out. She dare not disappoint her father. One of the social clubs was called the AOH, mocking the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the members took shanty Irish names—Mudeater O'Climint and Annie Rooney Terhune. She made tea dates and went on happy walks with a few friends. In the name of the Burns family she read Heine and Schiller, Faust and more Faust. The answers to mathematical problems that no one could solve in class came to her in her dreams.
Mother is a misfit because she has espoused culture, dragging the young Maureen and her brother to concerts, citing and reciting fragments from years of spare time immersed in minor and not so minor poetry, establishing standards, suggesting roles, indicating paths onward and upward, per ardua ad astra, the ne plus ultra of the immigrant's dream of education (not that she is an immigrant either: she is faithful to her immigrant father's educational designs for her, however, not daring to disappoint). Mother's father, Grandpa Burns the asphalt magnate, is a “provincial patriarch” (102). He designs and builds a car, “the supreme American machine” (103)—Maureen Howard quotes from a book produced to commemorate this automotive phenomenon. The book contains a story of pleasurable escapism in the form of a world tour. At the end, the lucky lady tourist in question, widow of an industrialist,
stands midst her souvenirs looking out the window of the anvil works on the flourishing cornfield by the Delaware River where she hopes, magnificently, to build homes for all her men and their families. There are no trade unions, no anarchists, nor is there any child labor in the land. It is the willed romance of the early twentieth century.
Culture is a vehicle to the promised land, en route to which Mickishness and its squalid struggles are jettisoned. To be cultured is the assimilationist dream. To be cultured is to be as empowered as one's masters, to speak their language. Culture is a replica of wealth, internalized, edifying, sanitary, harmlessly acquired, beneficiary retained. Grandpa Burns's car was a flop, but the “willed romance” of its fetishism persists. And, in Maureen Howard, persists with such completeness that only interrogation, challenge and repudiation will preserve it, will preserve its true nature: “what the past will yield if we are truthful” (51). True nature is a tendentious, not to mention arrogant phrase. A nature that is more satisfying to behold because rendered more complexly, rather than as a rationale, rather than as the kind of response to cultural experience articulated by the author's father.
I'm circling back to the problem of Joseph McCarthy. I have refused to understand my father's admiration for that twirp who manipulated two Presidents. I have tried to justify his allegiance on the grounds that my father wanted revenge, along with the Senator from Wisconsin, on a society that had treated the Irish like guttersnipes and cartoon drunks when he was a kid.
Such a scenario seems just as far-fetched as the existence of a socialist mayor of Bridgeport. But it might well be just as true. And it is a scenario that is difficult to come to grips with, speaking as it does of bitternesses, resentments and frustrations that are hardly convincing watchwords of assimilation. The escapism of culture and its mythology of assimilation (the best things in life are free) are more understandable than a politics of vengeance, articulated by the patriotic Senator in terms of purity and danger, terms that delimit the immigrant's hope and his voyage towards it, his ghetto (sorry, neighborhood) and the world beyond it. Better culture than race. Better Faust, a thousand times, read in a chilly dorm, late into the night, alone, in the cause of self-improvement and rising in the world and belonging.
Part of the conviction of Facts of Life is Maureen Howard's awareness that she is saying something that has not been said before. This awareness underlies much autobiography, understandably, with its interest in recuperation, rehabilitation, naming of unfamiliar parts, coloring in a landscape where a cultural desert was thought to have existed. Chicago or Boston may be thought worthy of the quality of attention she brings to her story—but Bridgeport? Chicago and Boston would have furnished different books, however, less intimate, a little more predictable perhaps, whereas the very unlikelihood of Bridgeport seems to make for piquancy: its anonymity is given its alter ego in the notoriety and daring of Maureen Howard's view of it. She makes it complex, the way real places are supposed to be. In her hands it both is and is not “a vaudeville joke of a town” (11). And all the details are in place, the way they tend to be in autobiography, presented as an inventory of personal and family appurtenances, but utterly familiar as soon as they're mentioned. Whoever writes his or her life turns out to have written the lives of many.
And, being autobiography, tension between a self that longs and a world that lures is only to be expected, with routines and rituals of assimilation as temporary reliefs from the tension. Race and roots are what you belong to; culture what you grow into. Everybody who might read this book has been somewhere within its orbit. We are all educated, we all leave, we are melted down, recast. We can't go home again. Here again, strictly from the point of view of genre and without belittling the qualities or diminishing the pleasures of Facts of Life, Maureen Howard has not done anything exceptional by reminding us of a generation's uncertain but distinctive trajectory from home to world. It's the same old story, the one about identity as a venture capitalist's prospectus, a tale of virginity and how to lose it, all too familiar, yet ever fresh in each retelling, with Listerine-breathing nuns and boyfriends from rough neighborhoods, “Catholics in good standing, pure potato-famine Irish, gone fine with our cut glass and linens from McCutcheon's” (13).
What gives Facts of Life its urgency and its pointed, rather flaying, style is that it also speaks of something unmeltable, irreducible: At the shaded, turreted Academy of Our Lady of Mercy the nuns all but insisted that my body was on loan like a library book or a company car. My arms and legs but above all my womanly appurtenances, mons veneris, the very curve and tilt of my womb existed for a higher purpose. How many years has it taken to claim myself—big ass, caesarean scar, broad hands good for scooping potatoes out of the dirt of Killarney … the mockery, will I ever leave off. (172)
Probably not, if we're lucky (in answer to those last words). And it's not that the earthy coalescence of the feminine and the Irish should be noted in order to clinch some kind of case. There isn't a case to be made, because the making of cases is part of the process of assimilation, tending to standardize in terms of a prefabricated good what should be allowed its own particularity and distinction. Maureen Howard is nowhere more convincing than when she shows how she could not be institutionalized. Besides, that's not a particularly well-written sentence, its fragmentariness seemingly enacting a resistance to what it seeks to order. (And in any case, Killarney dirt … ?! Or is that a joke at the expense of Emerald Islers?)
What seems new is the celebration—mordant, ironic, merciless, restless, as is often the condition of the autobiographing “I”—of certain energies that have resisted virtually everything to which they've been attracted. There's something here that is a continual going on from, as Facts of Life's closing paragraph (to cite the most obvious instance) winningly attests:
I am walking up lower Madison Avenue in an old straw hat, circa 1918. Yes, always the heightening. The last golden hour of the day. Everything is clear: the rose marble of the Morgan Library, mahogany bushes, tulips on the verge. Soon to marry, I am twenty-three years old in a blue suit, size eight. Natural time. I hardly touch ground the last blocks to Grand Central, but come triumphantly to rest alone on Forty-second Street, on the edge of evening. I am beginning. My life is beginning which cannot be true.
There's something here that, by being a continuum of uncertainty, is true to life. And it isn't even that that in itself is new, particularly (there's no intention, much less need, to Molly-Bloomify the author)—though one respects and is glad for “always the heightening,” which is undoubtedly one way to characterize unassimilable energy. More than that, it seems that what Facts of Life most powerfully and poignantly reminds us of is how few books there are like it, how little known they are (beyond Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and Harp), how prone we seem to be to representing ourselves in the cultural graffiti of Greenery—proofs, perhaps, of assimilation and its discontents.
Philippe Lejeune, Le Pacte Autobiographique (Paris: Editions de Seuil, 1975). The theoretical essay on which this volume is based appears in translation in Philippe Lejeune, On Autobiography, translated by Katherine Leary (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1989): 3–30. In his foreword to this volume, Paul John Eakin summarizes the concepts as follows: “In effect, the autobiographical pact is a form of contract between author and reader in which the autobiographer explicitly commits himself or herself not to some impossible historical exactitude but rather to the sincere effort to come to terms with and to understand his or her own life.”
Unique as to quality of recall and formal complexity, as comparisons with Mary McCarthy's Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1957) and John Gregory Dunne's Harp (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989) readily reveal.
Maureen Howard, Facts of Life (Boston: Little, Brown: 1978; New York: Penguin, 1980). Subsequent citations to Penguin edition.
A treatment of the life and times of Jasper McLevy may be found in Maureen Howard, Natural History (New York: Norton: 1992) at the conclusion of the “Double Entry” section, facing pp. 295–97.
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SOURCE: “Millennium Light,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, January 25, 1998, p. 6.
[In the following review, Friedman offers a positive assessment of A Lover's Almanac.]
“Lightness is his affliction,” Louise Moffett says of her lover Artie in Maureen Howard's comic tour de force, A Lover's Almanac, a novel about love, art and life precariously poised at the edge of the third millennium. Patching into the narrative excerpts from works dating as far back as the Greek and Roman classics and as contemporary as the lyrics of a Joni Mitchell song, Howard extends the boundaries of her love story into a broader meditation on Western thought. The story begins on New Year's Eve 2000 with Artie and Louise frenetically celebrating at a party somewhere near Central Park in New York City. The evening's disaster and the central breach in the relationship between Louise and Artie occur when, having drunk too much champagne, he playfully spills his drink down the front of Louise's blue retro silk dress, an act that pushes her to the end of her patience with him: “… for can it be that one night can unravel their years, one rotten night of Artie's misdemeanors? The answer is yes. Her Artie will never give up on his lightness. And the years that stretch ahead offer a diminishing view in which he will never change.”
This “lightness” and the “hedging ironies,” reflected both by the couple and by the age itself, prove limiting, Howard suggests, making it difficult for her characters to spontaneously express themselves. Louise, an artist—who had become “somewhat famous” for her Botanicals, paintings of trees in which the foreground is made background and the background is blown up, intricately detailed, creating a “simple reversal of scale”—finds herself limited to ironic mockery in most of her work. Having been raised on a dairy farm in a manner she found stifling, Louise makes the family operation—brimming with cows, silos and barns—the subject of much of her work. Artie, a New Age computer whiz, works for his friend Boyce “designing plausible graphics … stylish bar charts and pies, seductive pictograms out of mightily inferential statistics.” Artie's work is big on flash and low on purpose.
With well-aimed but playful pokes, Howard hints that her confused characters have plenty of talent but find themselves lacking any solid perspective. This problem is not peculiar to Louise and Artie, Howard implies, but one that has characterized the frantically uncertain atmosphere of an age cowering before the looming millennium.
Nostalgia, even ironic, becomes the guide for stance and style. Louise isn't the only one of the pair given to retro clothing. After Artie's disgrace at the New Year's party, he finds his “sodden garments on the floor. … The coat is an Eisenhower jacket with military emblems and campaign ribbons now stained.” While Louise is working on a new series of photographs titled “Postcards,” her art dealer drops by to survey the work, commenting on how she and her generation are “so adept at appropriation” or even “counterfeit.” The dealer's comments address the idea that Postmodern work specifically interests itself in imitation, a phenomenon arising from the belief, on the one hand, that everything has already been thought and done and, on the other hand, that all art is appropriation: Postmodern work simply makes the process more explicit. Howard's own use of historical excerpts within the narrative—whether she draws from the Iliad or the Bible—supports this view, demonstrating her own dependence on historical texts for the shape and substance of her novel.
Howard uses a quote from the American historian Henry Adams to comment on the writer's task: “The secret of education still hid itself somewhere behind ignorance, and one fumbled over it as feebly as ever. In such labyrinths, the staff is a force almost more necessary than the legs; the pen becomes a sort of blind-man's dog, to keep him from falling into the gutter. The pen works for itself, and acts like a hand, modeling the plastic material over and over again to the form that suits it best.” Howard joins such eminent precursors as Laurence Sterne in taking a book-within-a-book approach to her novel, yet there are moments when the reader might wish Howard would simply get on with her tale. But this sort of impatience occurs whenever narrative is interrupted by other forms of extended commentary and, in fact, A Lover's Almanac relies on this impatience for bringing a sense of suspense into the otherwise familiar territory of contemporary love.
In exploring the relationship between her central characters, Howard wittily suggests the mechanistic use of genuinely valuable knowledge, in this instance targeting Freudian psychology and its offshoots. As Artie attempts to sift through his feelings for Louise, trying to understand why he seems to himself so incapable of sustaining deep feelings, he ponders his early loss of his mother. Howard evokes cyberspeak as she describes this process: “Artie, sensing that his heart is adulterated, gives up on love, on Louise. Click AVOIDANCE DISORDER to find your way out, your way back to the old attraction, the mysteries of his mother's past. … Click REENACTMENT OF LOSS, which images love on the simu-scape, which tests pain beyond endurance.” Believing themselves “free of conventional family tales,” Louise and Artie are, on the contrary, as bound as we all are to history and specifically to our own personal pasts: “They will not make it out of the happenstance of birth and are headed for yet another shopworn romance. …”
Yet Howard does not leave her characters hopelessly stranded. Artie's hostility toward a woman artist who has the year 2000 tattooed on her arm, Auschwitz style, hints at the limits of what he will swallow. However familiar and incremental their steps, Artie and Louise do move—at least somewhat—outside the trap of Postmodern limitations. For it is within the acceptance of their very ordinariness that they begin to grapple with their difficulties, shedding superficial impulses toward individuality as they attempt to nourish themselves on ordinary, if uncommon, human love.
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SOURCE: “Seasoning Love,” in Nation, January 26, 1998, pp. 29–32.
[In the following review, Simon offers a positive assessment of A Lover's Almanac, noting its stylistic similarities to Natural History.]
About your arcade. You do see the pathos and pretension of the great Parisian arcades popping up in Bridgeport—your little glassed-over alley!
—Maureen Howard, Natural History
Once celebrated as a hallmark of America's cheery future, its robust inner health, the suburb has fallen from grace. No longer do aluminum siding, pink shutters and identically plotted lawns signal comfort and ease. These are the trappings of the Doll House (as in “Welcome to …”), the setting for key parties and other signs of marital decadence and cultural malaise. The Bradys are not a happy memory of family blending, before race, gender and Reaganomics got in the way; they are a symbol of our collective delusion. What we thought was success was really melanoma—a sunspot that's rotten underneath.
But with crime on the wane and the squeegee people in jail, the city is picking up where the suburbs left off. Even television, arguably our most accommodating cultural medium, has ventured forth with gusto into the urban jungle. The Friends frolic in Central Park, Susan has suddenly become herself in San Francisco and loads of sexy, eligible Chicago doctors kiss each other under the el and jog along Lake Michigan; only once in a blue moon do they get mugged or caught in the crossfire of drug-infested neighborhoods. More often, television cities—like movie cities and the cities of political campaigns—are stimulating, hopeful places where white people have black friends and sometimes you meet someone who teaches you something. Even cop shows seem to flaunt the benignity of the city's ills: Unlike angst, alienation and anomie, murders and robberies can be solved, their perpetrators punished.
Maureen Howard has long been a champion of the glorious city—even when the cities she was writing about seemed, on the surface at least, rather unlovely. A native of Bridgeport, Howard often sets her stories in the crucible of urban Connecticut, where, if they linger long enough, every Pilgrim meets a millhand, a machine Boss and a mallrat. The peculiar economy of Connecticut—some of the nation's richest suburbs pitted with some of its poorest cities—has become for Howard a stage on which to set grand, sweeping novels, novels where the past is the only weapon available to fight the future. Bridgeport Bus, reissued recently by Penguin, is the byword for her particular brand of urban irony, for the ways splendor fades into decay. For those who lived in the milltowns along the Housatonic, the bus to Bridgeport was once a transport of hope; now, its alliterative promise is a joke, a fare to Nowhere.
Howard's Natural History, which appeared in 1992, is both a paean to Bridgeport and a meditation on the accretions of urban life. Ostensibly the story of a Fairfield County detective, Billy Bray, and his family, Natural History swings from the starved fields of Ireland to the Hollywood hills as Bray's descendants—his daughter, Catherine, his son, James, and his granddaughter, Jen—puzzle with the pieces of Bray's life. As in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, Bray's offspring draw us into the web of their own fallible truths. We get a remarkably tactile vision of Bridgeport in the forties—Billy in a brown fedora; a sexy murder suspect with silk stockings and a war-hero husband; an old Irish neighborhood where the Brays, their big house inherited from Nell Bray's made-good parents, are both too much and not enough. And we get a remarkably stark portrait of contemporary Bridgeport, which Catherine Bray can neither leave nor embrace (she lives in the suburbs, not yet stained by the muddy excavations of Hollywood), and to which James Bray returns in an aborted effort to make a movie of his father's life. Along the way, Howard treats us to excursions: visits with P. T. Barnum, the ghost of Bridgeport's prosperous past, the guiding spirit of industrial hokum; the musings of Aaron Burr, Samuel Clemens and the Roman alphabet, in which Y is the final letter that matters.
What we do not get is the facts about Billy Bray—what he thought, where he went on those evenings when he was investigating the murder of a young soldier by a woman whose husband was overseas. Howard's bricolage takes on a logic of its own, a compendium of family memory and urban folklore. Toward the end of the book, we meet Walter Benjamin in small print, and in Howard's introduction to his “Arcades” project, we find some of the wisdom of her ways. “Benjamin,” she writes, “expected no less than to alter our relation to the page, to let us shop, that's the whimsy, through his chosen topics and cultural totems; to rifle the bins of ‘Dream City,’ ‘Museum.’”
And so, in a celebration of the possibilities of modern life, we shop through Natural History (nature's story)—for the Bridgeport story that makes sense to us, for the bits we'd like to keep. We know only the barest facts absolutely—Billy, Nell, their names, occupations, paternity. Everything else carries with it the surreal aura of movieland props: a hovering urban smog, the fixed smile of a shop-window mannequin. Howard's Bridgeport, like Barnum's, is subtle, gallant pastiche.
It is a question for the ages whether people who live in cities envy country people as much as they say they do.
—The Old Farmer's Almanac, 1998
Despite its urban busyness, Natural History has a strong connection to a rural world. Its title gestures toward the enterprise of historical study—the “natural” layering of events—but it also gestures toward a primal moment, a time before the city became itself and lost its agricultural memory. Indeed, like the suburbs that are the uncanny spawn of rural expanse and urban industry, Natural History occupies a space between worlds. Between literary genres as well: If Natural History owes a debt to Benjamin's “Arcades,” it owes one too to Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, another project of observation and classification created for the casual perusal of acquisitive customers.
Howard's latest novel, A Lover's Almanac, owes similar debts. It too is the product of a rural genre—The Farmer's Almanac—claimed for the telling of a quintessentially urban tale, the loft-based love of a New York City couple, Louise Moffett, a painter, and Artie Freeman, a conflicted designer of market messages. The romantic chronicle of Lou and Artie, who when we meet them are separating after five years, is punctuated by zodiac dials, homey proverbs, charts detailing the “Remarkable Days” had by January, February, March. Howard has magnified the tiny historical markers found in The Farmer's Almanac, so that Louise, Artie, their friends and families share narrative space with Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Adams and Ann Lee, celibate mother of the Shakers. As in Natural History, Howard has amplified the micro-story of her characters, placed them in the shadows of the world stage, where the lighting is good and the sets spectacular. Sandwiched between “The Flintstones” and “The Celebrated Soup,” William James explains the magnetic pull of the Almanac's narrative, its effect as novel, history and exercise in humanity. “The world is full of partial stories that run parallel to one another,” he tells us, “but we cannot unify them completely in our minds. In following your life-history, I must temporarily turn my attention from my own.”
This is exactly what Louise Moffett and Artie Freeman are doing when we first meet them, at a New Year's Eve party they have thrown to greet the millennium: December 31, 1999. In grasping for a theme, Louise and Artie have settled upon the early fifties. Their party is part millennial frenzy, part domestic fantasy: guests in satin thrift-store party dresses doing the cha-cha and nibbling on Ritz crackers spread with spread; Artie in his grandfather's Korean War uniform, his hair freshly buzzed. Drunk, he botches his marriage proposal to Lou and is ejected from the party, exiled from her life. The story that follows is both reunion journey and zodiac-managed time travel, for before Lou and Artie can join the march into the twenty-first century, they must first make peace with the twentieth. Nostalgia is one thing, history another.
Hobbled by yearning for another decade—a decade when the trajectory of their love would have been obvious, marriage and babies following professional establishment for him and renunciation for her—Artie and Lou are displaced people. Lou has left behind the Wisconsin farm of her youth, where her ambitious father lavishes attention on his cloned cow, Dossie. And Artie is equally estranged from his origins, for though he cares deeply for the grandfather who raised him, he has never met the father who sired him. His mother, out of defiance, named her son “Freeman,” distancing him from both his own origins and herself. Louise's art dealer cynically praises her generation—“so adept at appropriation”—but we know from the start that he's wrong. True appropriation might satisfy, but used clothing does not.
Alternatively, Howard solicits our sympathy: “Born into Generation X 1/2 or Y, into the willed innocence at the end of a century, they have lived without a war … without poverty to give them just cause.” Artie and Lou, for the moment, are living on borrowed traumas, the unnutritious aspirations of another place and time.
It is appropriate, then, that their story is told through the medium of a displaced genre, the homiletic tone of the Almanac overlaying both the byzantine twists of Howard's prose and the urban chaos of Lou's and Artie's lives. What saves Lou and Artie is a combination of theatrical emotion—Love! Valour! Compassion!—and simple cosmography: Like the grateful Shakers who danced for Ann Lee, Artie and Lou come down where they ought to be. Ultimately, it is the persistence of the Almanac that comes to their rescue—its conviction that order can be imposed on the whims of nature, that prediction and understanding are not, despite the warnings of theorists, zealots and random cynics, completely outside our grasp. Following the natural wisdom of Poor Richard, Louise and Artie learn that love can be alternately fertile and barren. Love, like history, has seasons.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 853
SOURCE: “Stormy Weather,” in Washington Post Book World, February 8, 1998, p. 5.
[In the following review, Dooley offers a negative assessment of A Lover's Almanac, criticizing the novel's lack of focus and cohesion.]
For more than 600 years, almanacs have been counting us through the calendar, helping us to calculate the position of the sun, moon and planets, entertaining us with feeble jokes, providing us with reminders of famous birthdays, cautioning that on such and such a day people in such and such an area will rise to find their world buried under snow. Once the almanac may have filled a need, but now it is a magpie collection of bright and shiny lore, a compendium of disparate information where everything stands alone and, wherever you chance to poke in your thumb, you'll pull out a plum.
And that is what Maureen Howard offers us in her new novel, A Lover's Almanac, with its collection of quotes, birthdays, astrological plotting, and stray bits of information patching together a love story firmly anchored to the end of the 20th century. There are so many voices, so many shiny bits of inessential information, so many things going on that the book never gets a firm hold on itself, never totally draws the reader in. The characters can't overcome the idea behind the book, can't climb over all the extraneous information that surrounds them and present themselves as real people.
Howard is a wonderful writer with a mind full of fabulous facts, and she lays them out for us to show the ways in which people slide by each other, bumping but never connecting. But to this end she spins out not one love story but two, three, four, until she has a book with so many hearts that ultimately it takes an entire art gallery to hold them. These hearts, symbols of all the loving and losing life has to offer, are placed in the gallery by Louise Moffett, whose latest conceptual art project is making a statement about marriage. With devastating concentration, she paints and piles thousands of shiny red hearts in a see-through vat, where gallery goers can grasp at them with a mechanical hand but can't remove them from their container. Like the lovers in Howard's novel, they can get hold of these alien hearts, but no one is able to keep them.
A Lover's Almanac is a paradigm for New York at the millennium, where the more pressing the crowds, the more precious the privacy—and the more people seek to seal themselves safely away. If even one person should break through the boundary, would we find ourselves overtaken by all?
Louise's lover, her dilemma, is Artie Freeman, a cybergoof who uses computers to hack out a paycheck and jokes to fend off the world. Born out of wedlock, he bears the burdensome name Freeman because his mother, refusing to tell him who his father was, had stripped him of the problems of a past. Naturally, Artie has devoted his life to finding the ties that will bind him in place.
Louise Moffett knows exactly what life she is fleeing, the rural world of Wisconsin where she was the farmer's daughter. Not just any farmer but a “global milkman, breeder of lactatious good will,” who has genetically created and then cloned “Dossie … Engineered for the new century, grazing arid land, she will produce 20,000 pounds of Product within the year.” With her art, Louise has attempted to dominate her past by first painting it in miniature and then creating pictures that dissect that rural world. Louise and Artie are a very modern pair, carefully casual about love, but they enter the millennium with the same problems lovers bore a thousand years ago.
There are many other voices in Howard's book: an old couple who met and parted many years ago, an aunt who briefly exchanges science for love and finds herself betrayed, a homeless child fantasizing affection, an assortment of steadfast wives, who stay on course out of habit rather than passion. There are even voices that float in out of nowhere, telling stories which seem to have no connection to anything that's gone before.
Among the many quotes Howard places throughout her almanac is this, from the philosopher William James: “The world is full of partial stories that run parallel to one another, beginning and ending at odd times. They mutually interlace and interfere at points, but we can not unify them completely in our minds …”
Well, actually, we can when a novelist pulls them together for us, but Howard has chosen to follow James and let disunity define her tale. Even in the hands of a writer as gifted as she is, the material is overwhelming and the characters never entirely get free of it. Occasionally one story bumps into another, but no one is changed by the encounter or even aware that fate may have offered a footnote on the past or a different future. In A Lover's Almanac, Howard has written a book that is less about how people come together than about the many ways in which they stay apart.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 951
SOURCE: “Far from Home,” in Commonweal, March 27, 1998, p. 24.
[In the following review, Schwartz offers a mixed assessment of A Lover's Almanac, arguing that the novel's minor characters are more compelling than the protagonist.]
In A Lover's Almanac, Maureen Howard moves far afield from the literary precincts of spirited Irish-Catholic women where she has made her mark. In this more youthful, futuristic venue, Howard's protagonists are a star-tossed couple, Louise (Lou, Lou-Lou) Moffett, an aspiring artist on the cusp of Downtown success, and her boyfriend Arthur (Artie) Freeman, a computer-graphics adept for a cyberspace ad agency. The opening scene is a fifties-style New Year's costume party, replete with tuna and taffeta, to greet the year 2000. Artie, who has sampled too many martinis, assaults two of the guests, including Louise's art dealer, and is unceremoniously hauled out of the apartment and hurled from Lou's life. The next two-thirds of the book is devoted to Artie's efforts to get himself back into Lou's good graces. The outcome is never in doubt. What we have here, as Howard readily acknowledges, is an extended lover's quarrel, hardly the stuff of millennial reckoning. So what is the author doing? Surely a novelist of Howard's heft (Grace Abounding,Expensive Habits,Natural History) has something more up her sleeve than providing love-tipped arrows for Generation Y.
It turns out that the book's most captivating character is Arthur's grandfather, Cyril, who has brought up the fatherless boy from age eleven when his mercurial mother, Fiona, died in a boating accident. With Cyril, the son of a boozy Irish cop, himself a scholarship lad who married up and did well on Wall Street, we are back on Howard's home turf. It is Cyril's story, a life of accommodation to a loveless marriage and a meaningless career, with which the novelist seems most comfortable. We are beguiled when Sylvie, the widowed Cyril's bygone lover, appears after fifty years to rekindle the fires of a brief but memorable encounter. The other characters are interesting acquaintances; Cyril is an old friend who confides in the author more easily than the rest. It is his failures of nerve, their consequences, and Arthur's own efforts to break loose from their quiescent legacy that inform this parable on the downward pull of generations.
The plot reverberates between flashbacks to Cyril's could-have-beens and fastforwards to the young lovers' still-might-be's, all of it wound on the metaphorical spool of the Almanac. If our faults lie in ourselves, our stars certainly give us a nudge and the almanac provides a handy device for Howard to comment on our struggle to give free will room to maneuver within destiny. Interspersed throughout the novel are homilies, folk wisdom, weather forecasts, zodiac signs, auguries, factoids, advice, biographical sketches (Benjamin Franklin, Isaac Newton) and other commonplaces that have graced the genre from Poor Richard's debut (1733) to the perennial Farmer's Almanac which will serve as inspiration for Louise to turn the demons of her rustic past to artistic purpose. The design is clever but the results are mixed. After a while the adages and advisories become intrusive; whatever their symbolic quotient they are distracting and finally wearying.
More disquieting is the author's reversion to stereotype in evoking her minor characters. Arthur's false friend Bud Boyce is lampooned as an exploitative cyber hustler, a Bill Gates wannabee, and a lecher. Louise's dairy-farmer father, who conducts Strangelovian experiments in cow-cloning and who is variously referred to as the Mighty Milkman and The Big Cheese, is an ogre: insensitive, oppressive, malevolent; he does everything but intone fee, fi, fo, fum. A lapsed priest who writes popular spiritual tomes is a bopbag Deepak Gantry.
Also annoying is the use of overheated language. For whatever reason, Howard has chosen to use the conventions of Harlequin Romance to project modern angst. She announces her intentions early with Lou's anguish after the disastrous New Year's party: “And, having sworn off the man, she's into it again, choking back saltwater sorrow, for can it be that one night can unravel their years, one rotten night of Artie's misdemeanors. The answer is yes.” And later, pining away: “… for she has neglected all her friends, imprisoned herself with the legend of her sorrow, her abandonment … and shame. …” For someone with Howard's usually unerring ear, this time out she can't seem to resist a cliché: “Every day tells Louise Moffett this is the winter of her discontent”; or a bad pun—the cynical art dealer's “schlock of recognition.”
But the real problem with the novel is that the key to its mystery—Artie's mother Fiona—is a wraith. The novel follows Arthur's quest to find the identity of his father. The trails leads to a failed Jesuit, Father Joe Murphy, now a harmless math teacher at a Catholic high school in Connecticut but once tapped for higher calling before he had an era. Fiona was no mere ripe and randy flower-child but a charismatic presence with a deep moral dimension that stirred everyone she met. But we never learn why “they had all been in love with that redhead.” In the novel it is simply a given, but we want more. Still, Fiona and Father Murphy, briefly sketched, are far more intriguing than Lou-Lou and Artie wholly rendered. Interestingly, the writing here is strong and spare, dispensing with the coy affectations that too often mar the novel.
Howard is too skillful an author to write a bad book, but she has not written a good one. What could have been a movable feast of the century is little more than a confection, a harmless enough soufflé lightened by the occasional divertissement, but lacking the grit and grace of hard-earned lives that represent the author's best work.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6466
SOURCE: “On the Love Boat,” in New York Review of Books, July 16, 1998, pp. 31–35.
[In the following review, Wood explores the literary technique of utilizing correspondence to narrate a story, citing A Lover's Almanac as a prime example.]
Milan Kundera's new novel, Identity, written in French and marked at its end as “completed in France, Autumn 1996,” reads like a modest commentary on a famous page in Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Charles Swann's love for Odette de Crécy, entering its unhappiest phase, is described as an illness, in which physical desire, and even Odette's person, play only a small part. Swann can scarcely recognize her in a photograph, can't connect her face with his pain—“as though suddenly we were to be shown a detached, externalized portrait of one of our own maladies, and we found it bore no resemblance to what we are suffering.” The switch from Swann to us is striking; our identification with his condition is swiftly taken for granted. Proust's narrator then, even more strikingly, relates love and death, not, he says, because of any of the “so vague” resemblances which are “always” discussed, but because both make us interrogate further, interroger plus avant, “the mystery of personality.” Who is it we love, and who are we, in love or out of it?
There are really only two characters in Identity, although to call them “characters” is pushing it a bit. Chantal and Jean-Marc are lovers, have been for years. They are happy, have no thought of separating, but then certain thoughts disturb their relationship, as if thoughts were worse than infidelity, more dangerous than distance or violence. These thoughts are what matter in Chantal and Jean-Marc, so that everything else about them, their jobs, their bodies, their past lives, their friends, their apartment, their styles of speech or dress, is merely sketched in, or not even sketched in.
The first words of the book are: “A hotel in a small town on the Normandy coast, which they found in a guidebook.” No name except that of the region, no evocation; not so much as a main verb to take the sentence beyond the effect of notation. Chantal has been married, and has had a child, who died, but that's all the boy is: a child who died, his death merely the premise for her current freedom. “Child,” Kundera writes: “an existence without a biography,” but that wouldn't distinguish a child from anyone else in this book. Chantal's dead child is what allows her to despise the world, because “it's impossible to have a child and despise the world as it is, because that's the world we've put the child into.” Translation: the novelist has given her this child and taken it away again in order to make this point about the world.
It would be absurd to ask for documentary realism of Kundera, who specializes in erratic and edgy mentalities; but the people in this novel do seem to be very skimpily and casually imagined, unlike the characters in most of his earlier works, who are solidly and quirkily alive among abstractions, and whose very ideas become flesh. Here the flesh itself is an idea, if that. The novel's abrupt dips into Chantal's mental idiom—“Ah, how she hated that, eating alone!”—seem blandly conventional, and Kundera wheels out clichés as if they were a form of worldly (masculine) wisdom: “Suddenly it is the immemorial situation of a woman being chased down by a man,” “this immemorial action of women hiding a letter among their undergarments.” The imagery, too, comes from well-worn general stock: “I was cold as an ice cube”; She is icy with honor.” Is this the effect of Kundera's no longer writing in Czech? His previous, similarly very thin novel, Slowness, was also written directly in French. The language may be one answer, and the French isn't any fresher than the English translation, but I think rather that Kundera is deliberately looking for bareness and the plain style and has gone too far; or that he overestimates the interest of what's left.
Chantal's disturbing thought occurs on the beach in that Normandy town. All the men she sees are carrying children or pushing strollers, and she decides that “men have daddified themselves. They aren't fathers, they're just daddies, which means; fathers without a father's authority.” She wonders what would happen if she made a pass at one of these daddies. Would the man even be able to turn around? Then she thinks, “I live in a world where men will never turn to look at me again.” She is amused by this idea at first, but when she tells Jean-Marc about it she can't get the tone right. “She tried to say it as lightly as possible, but to her surprise, her voice was bitter and melancholy.”
Jean-Marc hears the melancholy and feels excluded—why does she need other men to turn to look at her?—but he also has had his own disturbing thought. Arriving in the town after Chantal and looking for her on the beach after she has returned to the hotel, he momentarily mistakes another woman for her. This other person is “old, ugly, pathetically other.” How could this happen? “How is it possible that he cannot distinguish the form of the being he loves most, the being he considers to be beyond compare?” At this point the Proustian echoes, intended or not, seem particularly clamorous, and Kundera executes a number of variations on this theme. When Jean-Marc catches up with Chantal at the hotel, she doesn't look like herself any more: “Her face is old, her glance strangely harsh. As if the woman he had been waving at on the beach must, now and forevermore, replace the one he loves. As if he must be punished for his inability to recognize her.” Chantal is changed twice, so to speak: once by her own experience on the beach, and once by Jean-Marc's.
A few pages later Jean-Marc has a dream in which Chantal appears with “an alien and disagreeable face. Yet it is not someone different, it is Chantal, his Chantal, he has no doubt of that, but his Chantal with a stranger's face, and this is horrifying, this is unbearably horrifying.” Even awake, Jean-Marc finds Chantal's social self different from the person he loves, and his terror, in his bad moments, is not that he will lose Chantal but that he will no longer be able to distinguish her from other women, “that she would come to mean as little to him as everybody else.” The self-directed phrasing is important. Just as Chantal is free to despise the world as soon as her child is gone, Jean-Marc despises everything and everyone except Chantal. A lovely couple. Chantal is Jean-Marc's “sole emotional link to the world. … She and she alone releases him from his apathy. Only through her can he feel compassion.” His love for her is his love of his ability to love her, a fragile form of self-congratulation.
Neither of the lovers is very secure in the self they prefer to the world. Troubled by Chantal's need to feel looked at, Jean-Marc starts to write her anonymous admiring letters. She is touched and aroused by them, keeps them and hides them. When she realizes, by a few careful acts of deduction, that Jean-Marc is writing them, she thinks he is trying to trick her and get rid of her. He can't understand why she is so upset by what he meant as a gesture of kindness, and their mutual misunderstanding sends Chantal off to London, with Jean-Marc trailing miserably after her. Certain sudden shifts of scenery and oddly recurring characters now suggest we have entered a realm of fantasy or hallucination, where Chantal gets trapped in an orgy and thinks she may be dead, and where Jean-Marc can trace her but can't reach her. The end of the novel finds the lovers back together again, anxiously reassuring each other about their presence.
Just before this Kundera has teased us with speculations: “And I ask myself, who was dreaming? Who dreamed this story? Who imagined it? She? He? Both of them? Each one for the other? And starting when did their real life change into this treacherous fantasy?” These questions are less interesting than the one they seem to have displaced: Why would love, even happy love, be so prone to doubt and anxiety; what mysteries of personality have come unraveled here?
Letters and separation also figure significantly in The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto and A Lover's Almanac; and John Bayley's The Red Hat is, among many other things, a delicate meditation on the rewriting of love. The letters are anonymous and at the heart of Vargas Llosa's novel; signed but not immediately opened in Maureen Howard's book. In The Red Hat a timid and languid Englishman almost falls in love on reading a young woman's letter to a friend and writes his own modest, bewildered companion piece. With all four of these novels in mind we might want to add a line to Proust's parallel, and say that not only love and death but also love and writing keep turning up questions about personality. In writing as in love we see, if not our maladies, at least what may be a piece of ourselves externalized and independent, living a life of its own in the world. This other self is ours, but not recognized. Or it is recognized, but not our self. You don't have to be a graphologist to get caught up in this riddle; and of course in writing about love the whole spectacle is dizzily doubled.
The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto picks up precisely where Vargas Llosa's In Praise of the Stepmother (1988) left off, although the new work is much more densely elaborated. In the earlier novel the angelic stepson, Fonchito, all golden ringlets and blue eyes, short trousers and school uniform—we are told he has recently taken his first Communion—seduces or is seduced by his beautiful stepmother Doña Lucrecia. He is young enough to be repeatedly called a child and to present a perfect picture of sexual innocence; old enough to enjoy sleeping with his stepmother and, with seeming calculation, to let his father know of the (recurring) event. The boy's father, Don Rigoberto, throws the wife out, which may be what the boy wanted all along.
In the new novel the boy is living with his father but secretly visits his stepmother after school each day. There are no further sexual misdemeanors on these occasions, but there is much suggestive talk, often focused on the drawings and paintings and life of Egon Schiele, who has become a passion with the boy. When the married couple are finally reunited, after a year of living apart, Lucrecia confesses that her abstinence had nothing to do with virtue. “I didn't go to bed with him, but wait. Not because of any virtue in me, but because of him. If he had asked, if he had made the slightest suggestion, I would have done it. With the greatest of pleasure, Rigoberto.” These are hard words for a husband to hear, but perhaps not as hard for Don Rigoberto as for some, since he has made a nightly career out of mental voyeurism.
Don Rigoberto is an insurance lawyer, director of a company, a rich, conservative citizen of Lima, a man with huge ears and a corkscrew nose, poor equipment, we might think, for a would-be libertine. But then he is a very special kind of libertine, a connoisseur of lingering fleshly pleasure, but only with his own wife, in person before their break-up, and in the shape of her imagined, lovingly evoked phantom when she is away. Don Rigoberto has other interests too. He has a collection of “four thousand volumes and one hundred prints,” a number he maintains exactly by burning a book or a picture every time he acquires a new one, on the grounds that “it was stupid to inflict on other eyes a work I had come to consider unworthy of mine.”
He worries about these acts of destruction at first, but comes to think he is “engaging in literary and artistic criticism as it should be practiced: radically, irreversibly, and flammably.” Don Rigoberto writes elaborate, polemical letters (which he does not send) to an ecologist, a feminist, a sports enthusiast, a Rotarian, a patriot, a bureaucrat. He writes a fan letter to a voyeur. His tune is always the same, although the rhetoric is different each time. He will not and cannot join in what he calls “municipal” pleasures and projects. His only religion is his faith in “the rule of the free and sovereign individual”—accompanied where possible by his wife.
Don Rigoberto sees himself as “an intractable and unclassifiable spirit.” What about his job at the insurance company, we may ask, and his impeccably conformist upper-class life, the complete absence from the Peruvian social or political scene of the slightest trace of his libertarian dissent? Well, that's the trick. Don Rigoberto is not saying he's a hero, or even a philanderer. He is just a “modest epicurean and anarchist concealed in the civil body of a man who insures property.” He needs the job and the money to protect not only the privacy of his hedonist separatism, but its very possibility: “The world of fantasy, pleasure, and liberated desire, my only homeland, would not have survived unscathed subjected to the rigors of need, deprivation, economic worries, the stifling weight of debts and poverty.”
Don Rigoberto is eloquent rather than appealing, and I kept wondering whether he and Chantal and Jean-Marc might want to get together in a little society of scorn. But he is also one of Vargas Llosa's finest and most self-renewing comic figures, caught up in all the social contradictions he keeps denying, and there is considerable pathos and bravery in his cantankerousness, since it is mainly a side effect of his attempt to get fantasy to do more than it ever can.
For all but the last few pages of this novel, Don Rigoberto is desperately dreaming of the presence of his absent wife, putting her through all kinds of erotic paces (sex amid a pile of Angora cats, a trip to Paris and Venice with a former suitor, a partner-switching night with his brother and his spouse, a couple of lesbian moments with a maid and a visiting diplomat's wife, an incident à trois in a seedy club in Mexico), but only in his mind. He thinks of Calderón's famous play La Vida es Sueño—“Life Is Dream”—and Vargas Llosa, in a chapter subtitle, amiably inverts the phrase to read El Sueño es Vida, but Don Rigoberto's sorry discovery is that the proposition is untrue both ways. “Life was not a dream, dreams were a feeble lie, a fleeting deception that provided only temporary escape from frustration and solitude. …”
There is an interesting, perhaps insuperable difficulty of translation here, since the famous Spanish phrase lacks an article, and the usual version, sensibly followed by Edith Grossman, tells us only that Life Is a Dream (or Dream Is a Life), not that life is (inescapably, completely) indistinguishable from the state of dreaming. The whole of life is dream, Calderón says, and dreams are dreams too: que toda la vida es sueño, / y los sueños, sueños son. Don Rigoberto, I should add, understands the Spanish as if it were idiomatic English; and writes, in the passage I have just quoted, exactly as the translation says, “La vida no era un sueño.”
What brings Don Rigoberto and Doña Lucrecia happily if nervously back together is a sequence of anonymous letters each has received, and which each thinks comes from the other. They all turn out to be the work of the angelic Fonchito, who has rifled his father's notebooks to get a sense of his taste and manner, and has made up his stepmother's style by borrowing freely from the works of the sentimental writer Corín Tellado. Fonchito no doubt wants to repair the damage he has done in the earlier novel, but he is such a wonderfully ambiguous figure that there is really no knowing what he is up to. What is called the “savage little light” in his eyes is ultimately unreadable. He is clearly smarter and more mature (and more devious) than anyone else in the book, so perhaps he means to prepare both a happy ending and the possibilities of intricate and perverse disaster in the future. The ominous last words of the novel, after Don Rigoberto and Doña Lucrecia have failed to decide what to do about Fonchito—they can't keep him with them and they can't send him away—are: “In spite of everything we're a happy family, aren't we, Lucrecia?” Cue for a sequel to the sequel.
Time, appearing as a chorus in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, says it pleases some and tries all of us. It's a cheerful thought, since most writers, ancient and modern, find time merely trying, possibly redeemable but hardly ever a source of pleasure. “A Winter's Tale,” a subtitle, are the first words before the story starts in Maureen Howard's acute and haunting new novel, and the play itself is quoted later, to signal a narrative elision, a time beyond what seems to be the end of the tale:
I turn my glasse, and give my Scene such growing As you had slept between
A Lover's Almanac tells the story of three months in the lives of various lovers, lost and found, young and old, past and present—chiefly those of two thirtysomethings, Louise Moffett, a New York painter, and Artie Freeman, a sporadically employed computer whiz. The months are January, February, and March of the year 2000—Howard has reserved the other months, perhaps of different years and almost certainly inhabited by different characters, for two future volumes to make up a trilogy.
The millennium, barely over in the opening pages of the book, seems at first to be just a missed chance. “Louise Moffett cries in the ruins,” we read at the start of the story. The ruins are those of Louise's party, held for New Year's Eve, the last moments of the old century and the first of the new, and she has had a row with Artie, whom she loves and wants to marry but who is too shaky in his sense of himself to contemplate such a drastic descent into stability. The party, to complicate our sense of time, was in 1950s fancy dress. It takes Louise and Artie most of the three months of the novel to get back together again, but that's quick compared with Don Rigoberto's and Doña Lucrecia's twelve-month estrangement. Artie sends letters, calls Louise; she doesn't answer. He visits his grandfather, thinks about looking for a real job. Louise pulls herself out of her gloom and gets back to work. She leaves the door of her loft open for Artie's return, a forlorn hope until one night he is there when she gets back from an art show. The reunion is ecstatic but the future uncertain. The millennium, though, or at least the next quarter-century, now looks like an opportunity.
Louise has all but cut herself off from her farm childhood in Wisconsin, and from her aggressive, all-modern-methods farming dad and her mild, submissive mother. Her family is too much, while Artie's is too little. His mother died in a boating accident when he was eleven, and, raised by her parents, he has never known who his father is. Louise's moment of illumination, and paradoxically the renewal of her faith in the possibility of marriage, comes about when she realizes that her mother can be separated from her father and be happy, that even the most conventional of persons may know how to rebel, and Artie's moment comes when he finds and meets two men, old admirers of his free-loving mother, one of whom may be his father. In fact, one of them is, although Artie can't see his idea of “father” in the defeated priest that this man has become. But Artie's freedom resides in his finally knowing how to give up his quest for his father, not in defeat but in a turning from an imaginary then to an actual now.
Not all is splendor or cheer, though, which is why the illumination makes so much sense. “He quits the believing … if ever it was belief in the phantom father … yet his sorrow is immense, real as the knowledge that he can't subtract loss from what he never gained.” You can't lose the sense of loss, and you shouldn't try. One of the strongest connections between Artie and Louise is his feeling for the unkinder meanings of the word “home.” “I see,” he says when he first looks at her little paintings of the family farm, recreated not as it was but as it felt to a child. “Home. The crippled viewer, the crippling view.”
Times and places crisscross through memories and flashbacks in the novel: New York and Wisconsin and elsewhere in the 1950s and 1960s and the year 2000. We learn about the other lovers, whose lives have been affected by the century's horrors in ways that the young people find it hard to imagine: Louise's independent-minded Aunt Bea and her refugee intellectual; Artie's grandfather, Cyril, and his once abandoned and now reencountered lover, Sylvie. Sylvie is an Austrian escapee from the Anschluss, raped as a little girl by a German soldier and unable, even in old age, to forget the sour smell of that violence. Her mother, Inge, is a more versatile survivor, hanging out with émigré intellectuals in California and then marrying the rich Billy Ray Boots, of River Oaks, Texas. Still, Sylvie finds something like peace in her reunion with Cyril, whose wife of many years is now dead, and whose only family tie is Artie. What is said of Cyril could also be said of Sylvie: “old and strangely in love or in love strangely, go figure.” This too is a way of talking about the mystery of personality.
All of this is evoked in rich, crowded, metaphor-making prose. Sometimes we wonder who is speaking, whose consciousness this is which runs so fast, and then we realize it is the writer's, in and out of her characters' heads. Artie buys a steak and a soup bone for his grandfather, for instance, and takes a bus across Central Park. The butcher's bag in the following quotation is his. The eyes and thoughts, however, except for the thought about the destination of the Pope's blessing, seem to be his and everyone's.
The passengers … observe the iced rocks shimmering black in the sun, toppled trees and torn branches, a shutter flapping at the barracks where patrol cars snort, ready to drive their routes where no dog or jogger or criminal element yet roams. A still, colorless world: ebony limbs, white hillocks severed sharp as canyons by the wind, lamp posts crowned with turbans of snow. Grand, the close-up as well as the panoramic view. As the bus skids toward the Museum, a woman in a leather hat, slick black hide pulled tight to her skull, follows the rivulet of blood which drips from the butcher's bag across the face of her New York Times, miraculously published this day, across the face of the Pope in his white robes blessing Artie's beef bone.
It's almost too much, too busy; or seems so, until we remember the work this restless notation of details and associations is doing, and the model it has drawn on.
The Old Farmer's Almanac (established 1792), glanced at in Howard's title, is a compendium of dates and facts and sagacity, confident in its predictions, a little garrulous, in the manner of Shakespeare's talking Time. For June 1998, for instance, after telling us about the conjunction of the stars and the phases of the moon, times of sunrise and sunset and of high tide at Boston, it gives us three amiable paragraphs on June butterflies, a quotation from Einstein (“gravitation cannot be held responsible for people falling in love”), a couple of bits of anonymous wisdom (“Nature does nothing in vain,” “A trusting heart is an easy mark for the cunning scoundrel”), and lists a series of feasts and events for particular days of the month: St. Boniface (5th), first drive-in movie, Camden, N.J., 1933 (6th), Magna Carta sealed, 1215 (15th), Amelia Earhart flies across the Atlantic, 1928 (17th), Willie Mays graduates from high school, 1950 (20th). Information seems endlessly available, recyclable, but also eccentric and random. What logic produces these snippets and not others? Could there be such a logic?
A Lover's Almanac reads entirely like a (very good) novel in which the lives and sensibilities of such characters as Louise and Artie become memorable; but it borrows an effect from the Farmer's Almanac by inserting into the story brief, casual-seeming almanac entries. We learn, for the first months of the year 2000, of the Feast of the Circumcision and the Eve of St. Agnes, the birthdays of William James and FDR (all January); of the birthdays of Gertrude Stein, Edison, and Ann Lee, founder of the celibate Shakers, the death of John von Neumann in 1957, the burning of Jefferson's library in 1770, Hitler's threat to annex Austria in 1938, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus (February), the birthdays of Alexander Graham Bell, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Haydn, and the founding of the New York Stock Exchange in 1817 (March).
The result of these brief and lively lessons, often but not always associated with events in the lives of Howard's fictional characters, is that all these historical persons and occurrences, in spite of their different centuries, seem to belong to one circling year, as if they are bound to keep coming back, cropping up again and again but also each time for the first time. And more important still, these quirky acts of cultural memory, through the eager, grasshopping curiosity which animates them, and through their very failure to add up to anything more than fragments, suggest something of the immensity of what we might know but don't. The Farmer's Almanac was born in the century of the great French Encyclopedia, but it looks like an encyclopedia in reverse: a demonstration that only pieces of knowledge can be represented, or even that knowledge is just a matter of pieces. This is of course a late-twentieth-century reading of the almanac's achievement, but that, Howard would say, is where we are.
Time for Howard is always then and now, but the really difficult time, the one we need to love and have such trouble with, is now. We need to learn, as in The Winter's Tale, that time can be on our side as well as against us, and this is where the details, even random details, may help—since their scattering and incoherence, combined with their unmistakable concreteness, may defend us against the coercion of large stories, either oppressively upbeat or irredeemably glum. Howard is moved by the thought of Haydn in London, jotting down the price of a roasting chicken, of a measure of coal, interested to know how many baskets of gooseberries were served at Lord Barrymore's ball. We may be skeptical, Howard suggests, about Haydn's self-proclaimed “cheerful heart,” perhaps even about the untormented perfection of his music, but his attention to detail brings him closer to us, just as Howard's own prose catches us up and won't let us go.
No, in honesty we cannot, in these hellish, postindustrialist days, sell you the elixir, the tonic of Haydn. … We must cut Franz Joseph down to fit the page of our Almanac, as we have trimmed Franklin, Edison, Bell, von Neumann, noting their failures and amusing foibies. …
We have to do this, Howard's narrator is suggesting, although we are “poorer” for it. Honest but poor, that's us. But the Haydn who was interested in the price of a chicken was also “in love with a charming widow.” We can care about this couple and their attachment to “domestic details”—as we can also care about Howard's modern characters—without selling any elixirs or cutting anyone down to our idea of size.
All three of the novels discussed in detail so far are explicitly dated on their last page. France, autumn 1996 (Kundera). London, June 28, 1997 (Howard). October 19, 1996 (Vargas Llosa, in the Spanish edition). Howard even tells us, about a quarter of the way through her book, what the time is now, as she writes, calling it a “blessed moment”: “9[frac12] minutes before 2 p.m. of this 23rd day of August, A.D. 1996.” The symmetry among the three texts is even neater if you think, as I do, that A Lover's Almanac is eloquently and unmistakably a New York novel, so that the name of the city scarcely needs writing with the date.
The suggestion of these discreet but insistent traces of the hand of the actual author is that love is not timeless, but local, a matter of particular places and times, identifiable countries and cities and years. Howard explicitly compares Louise Moffett's artwork The Progress of Love with a work of the same title by Fragonard, “a series of wall panels in which lovers are restored to the garden where they play erotic games under a china-blue sky.” Louise's show, by contrast, has two plexiglass bins full of plasticine hearts and cheap charms and favors, old bridal photographs, a kitsch image of the Sacred Heart.
“We see how diminished our time,” the narrator comments, “how black-and-white earnest the libidinal nature of consumerism,” but the narrator is getting carried away by anti-presentism. What the contrast between the two artworks suggests, in the context of the novel, is not simple diminishment but a ratcheting up of the difficulty of love, which now has to find its way not among courtly subterfuges but among self-consuming ironies, among the endless ambushes of late-modern mockery and despair. “It seems,” Louise thinks, “you must reinvent yourself to meet love's impossible demands.” This is probably true of most times and places, but the language of invention must change, and perhaps the very notion of impossibility changes too. It almost certainly couldn't be the same in the eighteenth century and the early days of the twenty-first. This is not to say that love's impossible demands cannot be met, in any time or place, if you are lucky, and if your self-invention is up to scratch.
John Bayley doesn't date The Red Hat, doesn't appear, in this sense, on his own pages at all. The author stays tactfully dead and leaves all the talking (all the writing) to his characters. But this also is a novel about self-invention, and about love as an interrogation of personality. The first half of the book takes the form of a letter written from Nancy Deverell to her friend Cloe Winterbotham—the names seem to place as somewhere between P. G. Wodehouse and Anthony Powell. “Friend” is not quite the right word, as Nancy is quick to tell us. “Cloe is supposed to be what we once used to call my best friend.”
Cloe is my best friend, yes: but actually I hate the idea of best friends. Or friends of any sort, come to think of it. What's the point of them?—why such a big idea? There are people you know, and a great many more whom you don't, and that's about it.
This sounds like cynicism, and similar remarks in Kundera's Identity are cynical, weary dismissals of the very notion of friendship, but Nancy is too breezy and light-hearted for cynicism. She just thinks friendship is a tie, a restriction, and she wants to be on the move: Nancy is in The Hague with Cloe and Cloe's fiancé Charles, “about as queer as they come,” according to Nancy, but “trying pretty doggedly to be in love with Cloe.”
They are there to see a Vermeer show, and to have a good time. Cloe and Charles take themselves and Vermeer very seriously, and bicker a lot; Nancy's not too serious about herself or the art, but she identifies strongly with the person in the picture called Girl with a Red Hat. Is this person a girl? “She's a girl,” Nancy says, determined to be sophisticated about gender matters, “and yet she's not a girl. She's a boy. That's obvious. At least it's obvious if you really start to think about it.” Nancy also thinks this figure bears a startling resemblance to herself, although no one else comments on it, so perhaps she's projecting a little. What Nancy likes about the person in the painting is that he/she seems not only to have been lively once but to be lively now, ready to skip the frame:
It's the picture of Vermeer, perhaps the only one, which has a future, if you see what I mean. That girl or boy is going somewhere, though he or she doesn't know where. None of the others are: they have become their pictures. That red hat person is getting out—is on the way out as she looks at you.
Nancy takes the red hat as the sign of adventure, a disguise which is also a permission. “It was a real red hat situation,” she says, and wonders, “What would the girl in the red hat have done?” She has plenty of occasions for asking, since she meets a dark, mysterious man in the hotel elevator, who later comes and makes love to her in the night, and later still tells her he is a Mossad agent and threatens to kill her. Nancy wears an improvised red hat to a fancy-dress ball, loses it in the drunken aftermath of the festivities, and closes her account of these Dutch doings with a report of her reconciliation with the putative secret agent, who's got over wanting to kill her, it seems. He has bought her a splendid red hat to replace the one she has lost.
It's black velvet lined with white silk, under the red plumes. I put it on every evening … and look at myself in the mirror. I'd thought of sending it to you, Cloe, before I go, as a sort of consolation prize. But now I think not. No, I shall take it with me on my journey back to him.
The second half of the book presents a memoir by Roland, a diffident chap with a private income who is a friend and admirer of Cloe's. Roland has read Nancy's letter, and agrees, at Cloe's suggestion, to go to France and see if he can find Nancy, where she has apparently gone to live with her Israeli, if that's what he is. “I was struck by her tale of events,” Roland says, sounding like Bertie Wooster when he is concentrating hard, “to the point of wishing with what for me is quite remarkable intensity to get to know this peculiar girl.”
The narrative voices are beautifully done and are among the great pleasures of this book. Roland is as elegantly stuffy as Nancy is casual and scatty. Nancy is fond of words like “rackety,” for example, and mildly says, “What has to be called my mind was still divided between the two possibilities.” Roland uses phrases like “the fishiest part of the whole business,” and his high point of romance comes when he almost lets himself go. Nancy is strolling across the top of the great viaduct of the Pont du Gard, Roland is watching from down below, by the river. She waves, and “her gesture … seemed to carry an immense significance. I felt suddenly and at once that I loved her: needed her, wanted to protect her. She was so far away, and in the last few days we seemed to have come so close.” This is so unlike him that he is glad to get it over with. “All an impulse of the moment of course,” he says in the next sentence. “By the time she was back beside me at the car I felt quite normal again. …”
Quite normal. Roland has fallen in love with Nancy's story, and is half in love with Nancy, because he thinks the whole tale is a fabrication, a harmless alternative to a cozy life. He is perfectly sure that there is no swarthy Mossad agent whom Nancy is hooked on, and who may return at any moment to beat her up—until someone remarkably like this fellow turns up and threatens them both. Carrying a red hat. The chances are that Nancy has been telling the unlikely truth all along, but her truthfulness is not the main preoccupation of this very engaging novel. What Bayley is asking us to think about is our sense of what's odd and what's not. What is out of the range of our experience is not necessarily implausible. What seems probable is not necessarily what's happening. “And was she so incomprehensible?” Roland asks about Nancy. “Perhaps she was no odder than anyone else?” She is more fun than anyone else Roland knows, and when he learns that her Dutch/French affair is over and that she is returning to England, he is overwhelmed by “a really ghastly depression.” Can it be that she is “just like everybody else”? Can one give up wearing the red hat? Perhaps one has to.
Identity is the only unalluring book among these four novels about love. Its air is too thin, and its ideas, interesting as they are, are just dangled rather than worked on. The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto is immensely accomplished, the book of a craftsman, only a little dogged in pursuit of the formal scheme it has set itself, each section repeating the shape of the last. A Lover's Almanac is the richest, most substantial book of the four, the one to return to, because it is crowded with detail and associations, not always easy to gather at first go. The Red Hat is the lightest and most surprising of the books, driven by the purest sense of mischief.
So had Nancy become odd, or strange or peculiar or whatever one called it, because of what she had written down about herself? Rather in the same way that people in portraits become strange and unique to our eyes just by being painted. If the painting's good enough, that is …
Becoming peculiar or whatever we call it may be a way of becoming ourselves: not eccentric but clarified. One of the lessons of love and writing, and above all of the writing of love.