Why Can't We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings?

by Maxine Winokur

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Why Can't We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings?

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2067

The title of Maxine Kumin’s collection of short stories—Why Can’t We Live Together Like Civilized Human Beings?—is, to some extent, ironic, since her characters, with only minor exceptions, are very humane, highly civilized people. In fact, one of the delights of reading this book is watching these characters cope with—or even triumph over—circumstances that test their humanity. Most of the stories deal with marriage, family, or friendship, and each approaches its themes in a quintessentially civilized way. When her characters commit adultery, for example, it is not through loathing of the marriage partner; violent quarrels hardly exist. The shy mycology professor in “On This Short Day of Frost and Sun,” who has a two-day affair with a dancer visiting his school, seems not so much dissatisfied with his wife as understandably drawn to the vibrant visitor, herself an amateur mycologist. Her own marriages, both failed, offer only poignant sadness—not intense grief—and she is “grateful that neither [husband] bore her any ill will.” In the title story, a Socialist film director who helps his wife defect to her lover shows an altruism that ennobles his grief. When the lovers in “Another Form of Marriage” do quarrel, the anger is relegated to the characters’ remembrances: violence is kept firmly offstage in Kumin’s works, allowing her to explore the more subtle reasons behind people’s actions.

In her stories about families, Kumin’s understatement highlights suppressed tensions more than extravagant gesture would. “The Neutral Love Object” shows an uneasy relationship between a wife and husband and their daughter and son-in-law, who are spending the summer with them. When they go out to dinner they “run out of comfortable small talk,” since the only neutral subjects they have are “pornography, pantsuits, athletics, animals.” The daughter’s marriage seems shaky, but the most tangible sign of this shakiness is her constant correction of her husband’s English—he was a foreign-exchange student—which causes her mother acute embarrassment. Like many of Kumin’s stories, this one offers a reconciliation based on the sheer niceness of her characters. When their classically named dog is missing before their return from a trip, the whole family can grieve together: “And thus the family mourned Agamemnon.”

“The Missing Person” celebrates independence rather than family unity: a wife becomes separated from her husband in a large city where they have gone to see their former daughter-in-law—their only son died in Vietnam—in a play. The wife is “reclusive” and the routines she has established (growing and preserving things) suggest that she has not really adjusted to her son’s death. As she copes with the rigors of her husband’s disappearance—policemen who refuse to declare him missing until twenty-four hours have passed; hoodlums who perch on a car near hers and pass a bottle back and forth—she grows in strength until she feels a certain euphoria at realizing she has survived her ordeal and coped. Suddenly, her life seems to fall into place: “She has forced the city to declare Alan a Missing Person twelve hours ahead of schedule. She knows now that Jay has been dead all these years.”

Many of Kumin’s stories about families explore the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. To Kumin’s credit, she is not doctrinaire about this subject, nor does she highlight only the problems that mothers and daughters encounter. A good case in point is “The Facts of Life,” in which a mother, whose preadolescent girls are awaiting the onset of menstruation, “itchy with the work of sprouting,” awaits her own mother’s death in a nearby hospital and tries to make sense of her childhood. Only after her mother dies and her uncle tells her a grotesque story of her mother’s youth, ending in a “therapeutic abortion,” is her repressive childhood explained. Kumin’s characters can learn from their past, however, and several days later, when her daughter has her first menstrual period, they rejoice: “Women together, we try to keep the celebration down to a dull roar.” One feels that this woman will never make the mistakes with her daughters that her mother made with her.

Kumin shows mothers and daughters occasionally at odds but always drawn to each other for emotional support. In “West,” the reader sees a widow running a farm while worrying about her two daughters, one recently divorced and one missing from her United Nations job in Uganda. As she reminisces about their past—meditation is a common element in these stories—she remembers all the “anguish and tenderness” of their moments of crisis: “the sisters call each other day and night. The mother calls the daughters, who tell her not quite what they tell each other. The daughters call the mother; then they must check back with each other.” While recording the small elements of deceit inherent in these calls, Kumin also shows the great affection involved. The mother herself realizes that “Memory glosses over, invents, modifies” and thinks that there must have been “quarrels, fits of depression”; in the face of this knowledge, however, she also knows that “The daughters are there; they glow.” Only one story, “The Banquet,” hints at the dark side of parent-child relationships in its suggestion of parent-child incest at the end. The narrator, however, herself a mother, feels only revulsion: Kumin’s characters are simply too civilized for incest.

The humanity that Kumin displays in her stories about families is equally evident in those about friendship. “The Town Records Its Deaths” recounts the friendship between an immigrant, Leopold Petrus, and a neighboring family in rural Vermont. Leopold—or Poldi, as he is affectionately known—is an old-fashioned man whose beliefs are occasionally outmoded: he passionately wishes for a grandson, for example, because “A grandson is a monument.” While the neighbors’ daughter mutters “Incredibly sexist,” she also holds her peace, since “what she now knew was that some things are worth overlooking.” In fact, Poldi makes life better by his very existence: helping his neighbors clean out a clogged stream, teasing their daughter, telling incredible stories about his encounters with bears. When he has a stroke and is reduced to a “living corpse,” the whole Cotton family feels the grief intensely.

Of particular interest to Kumin’s theme of humanity is David, a friend their now-grown daughter has brought home. Her father mistrusts him because he “had the uneasy surety that David and Nina were living together in New York.” His criticisms of David at first only infuriate Nina but she, too, turns on David when he applies his medical knowledge to a clinical description of Poldi after his stroke and then proceeds to read aloud from a local history book stories of bizarre deaths: Nina compares him to “a goddam Peeping Tom” who has not “earned the right to mock the dead.” In Kumin’s stories, as in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s, the one unpardonable sin is to treat other people in a detached way: to forget their humanity.

Given the sensitivity and likeableness of Kumin’s characters, one returns to the question raised by the book’s title. Several answers are offered, and they are all somber in their recognition that even well-meaning people can still inflict pain. In “The Neutral Love Object,” Sue thinks that “The trouble with love was, it could be outlasted.” This is exactly what happens to the Socialist film director in the title story.

Another answer—or rather a jumble of answers—is given in the same story as the narrator leaves the Lurgian film festival to return to the United States: “I believe in the theory of socialism and in the infinite depravity of man. I believe in love and in the bicameral mind. For all these reasons we cannot live together like civilized human beings.” The setting of the story, the imaginary Socialist country of Lurgia, provides a constant commentary on the power of nationalism to divide people. Kumin’s criticism is not aimed at socialism, however, since the story also seems to show a universal human need to unite under a political banner: the narrator comes to understand that “No matter how vigorously I complained about American foreign policy or excoriated domestic infighting, it was affectionate criticism.”

Her second answer, the infinite depravity of man, hearkens back to the Socialist director’s question “Do you believe in original sin?” Since the last story may be seen as a summation, one might logically look in earlier stories for traces of this theme. “The Perfect Body” immediately comes to mind. There, the narrator goes to a party given by a famous director who was her necking partner at summer camp many years earlier. He gets drunk and displays her to his other guests as “my secret sex fantasy.” His comments embarrass her—“I felt degraded or at least besmirched”—but she is able to exonerate him by thinking of his fantasy “as something lodged inside him, in his neck or his head, something rattling like a hard black bean inside his thymus gland . . . I liked thinking his sex fantasy was a genetic flaw, an atavism, something he need not take responsibility for.” This narrator’s ability to forgive, her willingness to disassociate this “genetic flaw” from the basic person, shows a humane sensibility that can even forgive original sin, translated here into a hereditary physical defect.

The narrator’s comment about the “bicameral mind” at the end of the title story shows an equal willingness to see man as tragically—but perhaps not damnably—divided. It is an encompassing and humane vision. A quote by Louise Bogan which opens this collection helps to define Kumin’s art: “One should set oneself the task, in full maturity, to fix on paper the bizarre, disordered, ungainly, furtive, mixed elements in one’s life.” This quote opens by rejecting “The paper people in books, who have one agony to endure, one set of toils to fight clear of. . . .” Kumin makes the reader believe in the complexity of her characters; these characters, in turn, accept one another’s complexities in a humane way.

The disorderly split in human nature which Kumin chronicles could lead an author to a tragic vision. Instead, many of Kumin’s characters—and at times the omniscient narrator—adopt a wry view of their world and their problems. As the adulterous lovers in “Another Form of Marriage” pick strawberries, they overhear two women near them talking about a faithful husband taking care of his terminally ill wife. The man thinks, “Only in Purgatory was one doomed to hear such tales of domestic heroism.” Even when the daughters in “The Facts of Life” play a game, the “repellent name” of which is “Abortion” (played by dropping sandballs into Puget Sound), their glee makes this pastime comical: “’This is the fetus of Annabelle. Down goes Annabelle. Goodby Annabelle!’” Liz’s ambiguous mixture of love for and jealousy of her married friend who has become part of the counterculture in “A Traveler’s Hello” finds expression in wry comments about her friend’s passion for growing things: “Parsnips she thought of as pale carrots; why would anyone wittingly grow them?”

Kumin’s eye for detail also adds a richness to her stories which plays against their somber themes. In “The Banquet,” the narrator comments on her friend’s “eye for the absurd detail that humanized the experience”; this is an apt description of Kumin’s own gift. Sue, in “The Neutral Love Object,” for example, thinks how her family “composed the kind of grouping commonly sought by fashion photographers,” but their dog’s lineage belies their perfection: “we are pretenders . . . and our golden [retriever] is one-half ancestry unknown.” In other stories, detail is used less for absurd effect than for arranging suggestive associations in the reader’s mind. The female character in “Another Form of Marriage” is “dazzled by one off-center gold tooth” in the man who later becomes her lover. In the very next sentence, the reader learns that “she began wearing a pair of dangling imitation-gold earrings.” Some almost alchemical attraction between them seems indicated by the gold they wear.

Above all, the diverse stories in this collection are unified by the compassion that Kumin shows for her characters and that they show for one another—the antidote, Kumin suggests, for the wry despair of her title.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 34

Booklist. LXXVIII, March 15, 1982, p. 941.

Library Journal. CVII, May 15, 1982, p. 1011.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 13, 1982, p. 1.

Nation. CCXXXV, July 24, 1982, p. 89.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, August 8, 1982, p. 10.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXI, April 9, 1982, p. 44.

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