Natural History is Maureen Howard’s sixth and most ambitious novel. Its ambition embraces virtually every aspect of the art of the novel. This work’s geographical scope is continental, oscillating from Connecticut to California, a movement with connotations of “sea to shining sea.” Its implications of territorial and other kinds of integrity are, in a strategy which is typical of Natural History as a whole, upheld while being undercut.
The novel’s historical range is multigenerational, though the transmission of family history from one generation to another is characterized by omissions and evasions. Such features, frequently indicative of an author’s powers of accumulation and organization, may denote artistic ambition. The handling of history and geography, despite their prolific presence in Natural History, and even despite the idiosyncratic twists the author gives them, are an inadequate measure of this novel’s scale. Time and space are given a much more complex embodiment here, not only in the work’s narrative but in its artistic form and stylistic texture. Operating on a number of different levels at once—cultural, public, and personal—this novel not only differentiates between those levels but also challenges the reader to integrate them, a challenge that perhaps many readers, to their loss, will resist.
The deliberate reorganization of narrative patterns and forms that constitutes the central interest of Natural History as a preeminently artistic venture represents on one obvious level the author’s far-reaching aesthetic interests. On another, more elementary level, however, the use of various different narrative forms such as the screenplay and, more provocatively, the double-entry ledger, provides an important basis for assessing the novel’s self-conscious realization of its own potential and the potential of all of its constituent parts as cultural artifacts. The fact that the title sections of the novel constitute a framework around material that, though it seems essentially tangential to such conventional novelistic issues as plot and denouement, makes up the most diverse and longest sequence of the work, is indicative not only of the author’s formal and aesthetic aims but of the fabricated characters of much of the material at her disposal.
This central section of Natural History is at once its richest and its most problematic. Its organizing motif is one of seeing, and in that sense it is an important reminder of the relevance of perspective and vision, in their more extended senses, to the experience of this novel. Entitled “Museum Pieces,” it develops a sense of past history, whether that of the characters, or of Bridgeport, or of the murder case that provides the novel’s limited plot with speculative possibilities. This section isolates in a variety of artistically venturesome ways the conjunction between nature and history, to which the novel’s title draws attention. That conjunction, in its implications, amounts to a cryptic pun, the terms of which are also contained in a term, “artifact,” to which “Museum Pieces” inevitably draws attention and which itself is a species of complicated cultural pun.
These speculative possibilities, which not only draw on the conceptual apparatus that underwrites Natural History but comprise, within the text, a distinctive if inconclusive argument concerning the nature of American culture and the construction of American identity, are most obviously and provocatively realized in the subsection of “Museum Pieces” entitled “Double Entry.” This subsection consists of pages that alternately continue the novel’s narrative and amplify that narrative’s significance through annotations, parallels, illustrations, and various other devices. An instance of how the section works occurs as the narrative features the arcade in Bridgeport. The relevant commentary invokes the work of the German critic Walter Benjamin on the arcades, or passages, of Paris. The commentary draws attention not only to the fact of Benjamin’s exhaustive study but also to its unfinalized form: Unlike the double-entry method in accountancy, there is no ultimate bottom line. Inconclusiveness provides its own finality. This formal resistance to formality is characteristic of Natural History as a whole, even to the artistically paced orchestration of its basically colloquial style.
One particularly effective way in which the reader is constantly reminded of the novel’s interest in the pragmatic consequences of potential is through the status accorded the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut. The author’s birthplace functions in Natural History as though it, too, were a fictional character. This development is...
(The entire section is 1966 words.)