Failures of Family and Community Solidarity in Russell Banks’s short story collection “A Permanent Member of the Family”
This was my first exposure to Russell Banks’s works, and knowing that he is an award-winning author, I was eager to see what others had seen in his works that might represent the need for acclaim. Nevertheless, although the stories were quite insightful and profound in their treatment of various kinds of failure to maintain relationships, they were not what they had been represented to be in the blurb I read. The blurb had indicated that they were all about family and the interconnections therein, whereas they proved a little more often and a little more strongly to be about failures of marriages and community solidarities than about families plain and simple.
Not that there were not families in the stories. In the title story, “A Permanent Member of the Family,” a family divided by divorce but at first managing more or less amicably to “get along” with a two-household situation becomes permanently split up over the quite accidental incident when the father, in his truck and in front of his three daughters, backs over the very old, very incapacitated family dog and kills it. The father, one would think, is a permanent member of the family, but what happens is that he finds out he is out in the cold when the perhaps more symbolic but certainly loved dog, another “permanent” member of the family, is gone.
The tales mainly circle, however, around families who are falling apart due to divorce or who are already adults and have their own families, or significantly enough around groups of friends or strangers who have formed themselves into family-like units, or who at the very least owe each other some kind of humane courtesy as fellow humans. In “Former Marine,” grown-up sons must deal with their father’s secret behavior, and its aftermath; in “Christmas Party,” a cuckold must learn to accept socializing with his wife and his wife’s new husband, and desist from any attempt to take away from their happiness. In “Transplant,” an older man who has received a new heart finally accepts an emotional summons to meet the former owner’s mate. This is perhaps the one story in the collection which represents a positive rather than a negative movement. In “Snowbirds,” a woman must accept that her good friend does not mourn the death of her own husband adequately, and must turn away from deserting her own husband likewise, out of a desire to recover her own autonomy, however well worthwhile it is to have. “Big Dog” is a story in which a group of friends, all artistically or creatively inclined, in jealousy and spite turn away from a member of the circle who has had a sudden break of good fortune; this group of naysayers includes his own mate. In “Blue,” a woman with a strong sense of community abruptly finds herself deserted by the community, and alone with a ferocious animal, and no one to help her get away. “The Invisible Parrot” shows a man, down on his luck, who attempts to forge a tenuous bond with a woman down on hers, based on what he uses the force of imagination to “see” of her life, only to have her turn out to be incapable of the connection he is attempting. “The Outer Banks” is another dog story in which a man and a woman must make peace with their decision to be permanent travelers, and must find a resting place for their loyal dog. This sets them at odds, and changes the tenor of their trip. “Lost and Found” shows a man who is different away from home than he is when at home, and a woman who tries to rely on his “away self.” He has to make a commitment to one self or the other, and the story is about what he keeps, and what he has to give up. The story “Searching for Veronica” is a bit mysterious, in the sense that the narrator himself disputes an inset story he is told, and he is given the same first name as the author of the collection, to add to the uncertainty. He listens to a story told in an airport bar, but then argues that the woman and those she searches for are one and the same, seeming to prefer a more “literary” and recondite story than the one he heard. She is describing a failure of community from her own life, as well as a failure of family, but he himself encapsulates this failure by instituting one of his own, with her. Finally, “The Green Door” features people who are total strangers to each other, not family members, and who are driven by casual malice, concupiscence, and murderous hatred. Here there is the futility a bartender experiences of attempting community with others who are equally callous; what seems like a mere indifference to eccentrics in the beginning of the story emerges as a positive cruel viciousness by the end.
Thus, all in all, though Banks in this book largely examines bonds being broken, they are not as the blurb misdirected me to believe always the bonds of family per se, but also the links and connections of humanity and fellowship. The book is quite remarkable for stories which are so relatively short and condensed, yet so full of significance and emotive power as well. The language of the stories is usually quite simple, and where accents or dialects are indicated, the tactic is relatively subdued and not overdone. Overall, this is a fine book, one well worth the praise and attention it has garnered from many different corners of the critical world. Now if only blurb writers could learn to be a little more accurate in their assessments! But that misdirection is in no wise to be attributed to the book itself, which repays serious attention and will no doubt continue to do so for many a long year, long after the stories themselves have become dated in their references and facts, for the truths in the book are universal and timeless, though well-cloaked in the topical and temporal world.
When someone entitles a book Signs and Wonders–a phrase which I recently discovered comes from Passover, and is in Elie Wiesel’s A Passover Haggadah–we think we are prepared ahead of time for unusual events and mysterious happenings. But the fact of the matter is that Alix Ohlin illuminates the everyday event and ordinary life by showing the connection between them and the astonishing and predictive, the almost magical traces that we often call “coincidence” because we are afraid to call them “fate.” There are sixteen different fairly short stories in this book, and in every one of them we see people engaged in lives that are like those we know from our own experience or witness around us. But when we retell these sorts of events at parties, or gatherings, or coffee klatches with our friends, what obsesses us often is the magical trace, the thing that makes us feel “I should have known,” “It now looks so obvious,” “Of course, that was what had to happen.”
The title story, “Signs and Wonders,” has preeminent place in the book, coming at the very first possibly because of its thematic content. Just as one place of emphasis is the very last (and Alice Munro’s book Too Much Happiness, which I recently reviewed, had its title story in that ultimate position), so Alix Ohlin, another Canadian writer of note, puts her title story at the first. Briefly, the story is about an academic marriage which has run its course; but the wife cannot divorce the husband immediately because he is in an accident, and in all charity she cannot end things while he is in a coma. When their adult son, who has problems of his own, is informed of their decision to divorce after the husband returns to health, he becomes hysterical, and only the prayer intervention of a woman whom the wife has always hated and whose pet bird she tried to release into hostile surroundings helps him. As we are told in the last few sentences of the story, as the wife ponders in amazement at the fact of prayer come into their lives, “She couldn’t decipher [the signs and wonders]; she couldn’t read her life that way….But she could feel them all around her, the questions of her life, at times beating like wings, at times soaring clearly through the air, and she could only wonder how it was that she had never felt them before.”
As we continue throughout the book, we see other lives suddenly taken at a moment of attentive arrest in which “the beating of wings” of key or significant happenings can be witnessed. There’s a doctor dating a nurse, who “helps” her returned vet brother out of his addictive life, and who later witnesses something, a moment in time, which reminds him forcibly of the brother’s perspective, and his words, too late. There’s a stepmother who has a vision of one of her stepchildren dying, which she follows up on in spite of all pressure to the contrary, with astounding results. Two women in a park, superficially alike and dressed similarly, experience a moment of fate when one of them is mistaken for the other, and shot. Former assistants and interns of various businesses in New York hear of the death of a friend, and realize abruptly what their former life was like. And so on through the rest of the sixteen deceptively simple stories. Though death is sometimes the end or a major event in these stories, it is not really death in a depressing sense that these stories are “about”: Ohlin wants us to pay attention to other things as well.
As I think I’ve made obvious, the lives described in the book are those of people anyone might know, well-polished surfaces in which anyone might recognize his or her own face. What is crucial to each story, however, is the sudden intrusion of what Bob Dylan called “a simple twist of fate,” a funny or poignant or simply “there” little incident or fact which proves decisive in the lives of those depicted.
I said these stories are “deceptively simple,” and I think this is the mot juste for the author’s perspective and voice as well. It would take much longer than I have here, I think, to penetrate thoroughly all the rhetorical tactics and narrative ploys and gambits she uses to get her points across. But I think at least one point she makes is quite clear and lucid, and that is that we can never see the shape our lives are taking or the conclusion they are likely to have if we are too caught up in the moment or the quarrel or the obsession to take a look. And if we do look, and really see, what we observe may indeed be a sign, and a wonder.
I can remember the first time I was curious enough to mention Maeve Binchy’s Circle of Friends to another friend who reads, one whose tastes are perhaps a little less specialized than mine. She said, “You probably wouldn’t like her; it’s not really literary fiction.” I persisted, and she said “Well, it’s more like popular fiction, kind of gossipy and low-key. No big symbols or literary stuff to interpret, it’s mostly just about people’s lives in a small town in Ireland, and how they change when exposed to social currents from Dublin.” So, I thought, well, I’ll see the movie, which got some acclaim, and in which Minnie Driver starred, I wasn’t sure in what role; that seemed like a good way to approach the thing.
But something came up, and I missed the local showings of the movie, and by the time everything was over, I had gone on to something else. This made me all the more curious when a copy of the book fell into my hands from a free book shelf (don’t ever believe that it really happens that way–it didn’t “fall into” my hands, I regularly prune certain free book shelves with effort and abandon to get books I think I might like to read).
True enough, when I read the book blurb, it didn’t seem like my kind of book; for one thing, it was about a hometowny little friendship between two girls who go on to university together, and it sounded fairly humdrum. No Pulitzer or Nobel there. Then I started to read. I found other reasons not to get too excited about the book; for one thing, it seemed to have a number of places in which the dialogue that should logically have been in the mouth of one character came from another character, or there was a typo, or one character’s name seemed to be given for another character’s. This was a minor distraction, however, once I got involved in the story.
What I found was that the author was a penetrating judge of character, and though most of her creations were young and just starting out in life, she had a knack also for writing about the older people in the book and their conflicts and disappointments. Though the young university students and their cohorts are spoken of as the “circle of friends” once or twice in the book and are the central focus, by the end of the book the whole cast has become one whose lives have importance to the reader. It’s as if we are having a gossip about them all with the village maven. Every character, no matter how minor, has a fate or an ending, or a new beginning, and though there are no major surprises in the way they turn out, yet everything develops satisfactorily and in line with one’s sense of poetic justice. This treatment, though it is decidedly not literary in the sense of showing just how arbitrary life can actually be, and how ironies can multiply and interact, is still the source of a satisfactory read. After all, there are also instances in real life when people do get what’s coming to them, whether for good or for ill, and those can also be written about: not everything is some huge black catastrophic event or supplies a constantly pointed little fictional essay that baits the reader and leads him or her to expect what isn’t delivered and to be disappointed as a source of entertainment.
Which is to say, when all is said and done, that Maeve Binchy delivers no more and no less than the blurbs have contracted for: she is a reliable and percipient author who, though perhaps a bit lingeringly romantic or sentimental, never puts the romance or the sentiment in the position of having to carry the entire load of the plot effects. Circle of Friends, though not a book I would necessarily find it important to reread in order to get anything I didn’t get the first time, might become a soothing anodyne that I would read again because it reassures me about humanity in the main. I seem to remember that I read of Binchy’s death some time back, and I can now see why her devoted readers created such a stir about her potential absence: she has a kindly, open, wise, and perceptive mode of writing that while not pretending to be full of literary tricks and technical achievements is nevertheless full of human warmth and good humor. Now I suppose all that remains is sometime to watch the movie and see if the movie magnates have managed to capture the work of her great heart on film.
Ellipses/Lacunae of Knowing, Feeling, Fact, and Time in Alice Munro’s stories in “Too Much Happiness”
Both Doris Grumbach, writing of God, and Mahmoud Darwish writing poetically of things and people he has lost have used the phrase “the presence of absence.” Without explicit reference to either of their works per se, I would like to use that phrase, “the presence of absence,” to refer to the overwhelming sense of importance we derive from the ellipses or lacunae in the stories Alice Munro chose to put in her collection titled after the last of the stories in the group, Too Much Happiness. Quite simply, in every story, there are things that the author in the case chooses to omit, to gloss over, or to mention only in passing. My contention is that these ellipses or lacunae of knowing, feeling, fact, or time in Munro’s collection stand out from those of the usual method of omission in the sense that they are key and crucial to the meaning of the stories, and are not merely structural conveniences for moving the story along.
In the first story of the ten, “Dimensions,” the facts we receive are delivered from the wife Doree’s emotional stance until almost the very end, and we have three interwoven strands of encounter amongst characters. There is the strand of story in which Doree goes to visit her criminally insane husband Lloyd, who in a fit of rage with her murdered their three children; there is the portion of the story taken up with Doree’s new life under her middle name “Fleur”; and there is the set of conversations she is shown as having with her therapist, Mrs. Sands. In none of these strands, however, do we sense the introduction of a synthesizing voice, as if the shattering of Doree’s life has left these three strands only loosely entwined. The husband is spoken of as a ghost, and he insists at a key point in the story that he has seen the children in another dimension. It is almost as if the story is “under-written,” though it is proficient and completely artistic as it is. Only at the ending of the story, in which Doree is desperately and effectively engaged in trying to save the life of an entirely unconnected person does the perfect resolution occur–and of course the “message” if one must have one is that no life is unconnected to the rest. Here it is that a synthesizing voice speaks, in a sense, because we are told that she has learned CPR from Lloyd before their children were dead, and then we feel the lacuna between a reasonable amount of give and take between them and the total disaster that their life together later became. “At what point did such and such a thing manifest itself?” is a futile question, but we can sense the gap itself, the presence of the absence of married charity.
In “Fiction,” the second story of this volume, the unfilled spaces are both of time and suggested plot. A woman encounters a younger woman, someone previously known to her as a child, now a young writer, who has written a story about people they know in common, including the older woman herself at an earlier stage, fictionalized. Not only has the young writer’s life since they fist knew each other taken place during an ellipsis, she doesn’t recognize the older woman in the present tense section of the story. There is also a hint in what the older woman expects to find in the writer’s fiction that she herself has victimized the younger woman, but this clearly is not in the fiction the younger woman writes, so there is a lacuna here, if in fact the tale is supposed to be based on her own experience, as the older woman expects. Naming the story “Fiction” of course highlights the fact that the young woman’s writing is perhaps more artistic than the older woman expects, because in writing of one’s own life, one is free to use blanks and spaces and absences of fact and time and sequence.
“Wenlock Edge” is named for a portion of poetry by A. E. Housman from A Shropshire Lad, and here there is a presence of absence in that the character’s feelings are only sketched out, but the poem itself is left to fill in a lot of territory, especially in the quoted sections. The narrator’s roommate Nina, not a serious student like the narrator, but a sort of Holly Golightly of the academic world and beyond, has some sort of undeclared (and therefore elliptical) relationship with an old man named Mr. Purvis, who at one point when Nina is ill asks the narrator to come to his house for dinner instead. Later, Nina gets together with a relative of the narrator’s, who has taken the narrator out to eat many times in a sort of older-cousin way. The lacunae come in when the two girls change places, because of what Mr. Purvis asks the narrator to do, what Nina does with the narrator’s cousin, and finally what the narrator does to “get even” with Nina and the fates for the shame she feels. The two men are two different kinds of bachelors, and the various points at which the narrator is left in ignorance or “guesses” about things make for an exciting and ironic story: after all, Nina has told the narrator’s male relative that Mr. Purvis is her own uncle: what if, perhaps, he is only an uncle and not the old pervert that the narrator has always assumed he was, even before she met him? Doesn’t that make the two girls the same, or very similar? But these sorts of thoughts are ones left to the reader to intuit, the narrator’s elliptical remarks don’t make them explicit.
The next story, “Deep-Holes,” has as a major “presence of absence” theme the way in which early suffering leaves its mark on a young man, a mark which his own mother is not fully aware of until she meets up with him again, years later, after much searching. Though she knows a few characteristics of his early personality which are predictive of his later ones, yet there is a huge ellipsis between the child and the suffering man during which his mother has not played a part.
“Free Radicals” is a story in which a woman whose husband recently predeceased her in spite of the fact that she has terminal cancer comes to terms with how much she still wants to live. When a threatening drifter comes to rob her and possibly kill her (she cannot be sure of his intentions), she has to attempt to deal not only with death, but with the life she manipulated others to get. Her sharing of a bottle of red wine with the drifter (and her remark that she cannot remember whether it kills free radicals or promotes them) has a symbolic connection to the end of the story and the drifter’s destiny, but there is a sort of blanking out of the obviousness of the symbol because of the sheer vitality and importance of the plot and dialogue as she lures him in line by line, still afraid for her life. She also shows a sense of guilt for an episode in which she was the “free radical” to someone else’s happiness, and attempts to make up for the past as well as affecting the future with a bit of fiction of her own; of course, the past cannot be reversed. The last words of the story, “Never know,” marks the lacuna that has ruled the plot.
In this story, “Face,” there is an ellipsis of memory between the evidence of the boy’s strawberry birthmark on his face, and having “face” or daring, as the young girl his playmate in the story does later, approaching his bedside when he is in the hospital and reading poetry to him without identifying who she is. He is a minor celebrity in adulthood, so he is known to her, though he does not at first know her. The lacunae also occur between the years in the story when they have encountered each other.
In the story “Some Women,” the ellipsis contains the significance of the title, which is different from the point of view of each of the story’s female characters. As Old Mrs. Crozier would say of her daughter-in-law Sylvia “Some women take the joy out of life.” As the narrator would say of the masseuse and attendant Roxanne “Some women are no better than they ought to be.” As As Sylvia would more evasively put it about Roxanne when Sylvia finally wins in a tug of war over her dying husband Bruce’s affections, “Some women are not aware of how they should approach the dying.” Finally, when Bruce’s mother Old Mrs. Crozier intuits that her son has set aside his flirtation with Roxanne for his wife, she outright says something to Roxanne about leaving, and it’s obvious that she has switched her opinion and thinks some women get way above themselves, and above their place. Bruce himself is in a way the location of the lacuna, amidst so much female activity and plotting.
The next story, story number eight, is called “Child’s Play.” In it, two girls named Marlene and Charlene, who joke at camp about being twins but who are widely different in some respects both as children and as adults, conspire to do something quite horrible but described in everyday terms to a third girl, Verna, a developmentally disabled child. But this event, which is the central event in the story, is held until the end, and almost is left out altogether; there is a lacuna or an ellipsis in the place where the narrator’s human compassion should be, though it’s obvious by the avoidance tactics in the narrative that she now knows what she did, and how it should be morally assessed. It’s the actual moral assessment which is missing, really, though the narrator remembers, finally, or imagines, what must have happened after she and Charlene left the other girl. Thus, the repressed memory and the imagined results only come together at the very end, and it’s the overt sense of guilt which is also repressed, though clearly it has had a major effect on the narrator’s choices in life.
In “Wood,” we quite literally have the case of a man, an amateur logger, who cannot see the forest for the trees. He is given numerous small contracts to log wood from various farms, and does so. When a local ne’er-do-well gossips to him that he is not the only person with a contract on a prized piece of land, however, he loses his composure and tries to beat the competition, with the result that he gets injured, almost without knowing how it happened. Though the story has a happy ending in a sense (at the same time having passages reminiscent of “To Build A Fire” by Jack London), the lacunae or ellipses center around what the truth actually is about the contract (never known) and the man’s realization that it is not only wood,for humankind’s use, but also has a life of its own as a mysterious and deeply silent living thing. The wood has previously only spoken to him as something to sell; now, it speaks to him out of its own deep “presence as absence,” its enigma of the world before or without humankind.
The title story, “Too Much Happiness,” doesn’t seem to follow the same patterns as the other stories, in having lacunae or ellipses of knowing or feeling or fact, though the time scheme is transient, partial, and elliptical. This story is a brief account of the significance and the ending days of Sophia Kovalesky, a Russian mathematician. As Munro notes, “I have limited my story to the days leading up to Sophia’s death, with flashbacks to her earlier life.” Munro recommends Don and Nina Kennedy’s book on Kovalesky for those interested in reading more.
As a whole, Munro’s book reminds us of Henry James’s edict that if a work is well-imagined, that the reader will be the one to do a good proportion of the work in responding imaginatively to the writer’s words. Certainly in Munro’s case, there is much for the reader to respond to, without anyone being likely to get the sense that the work is not complete. In fact, in calling the “blanks,” ellipses, and lacunae instances of “the presence of absence,” I intend to indicate the same sort of artistic choice as may pertain to the white spaces on an otherwise brightly-painted canvas: they are an integral and vital part of the whole, and call for something from the observer, an act of responsive mimicry which makes the “filled-in” described portion itself all that much more sensitive and profound.
Never having read anything by Anne Brontë before, I decided to hold off on the excitingly named The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and go for the more quietly named Agnes Grey. My decision was affected partially by the thought that “wildfell” sounded like more “wuthering,” or “heights,” and misery, and romantic passion, and though I’ve since been informed that the tale of the tenant is not what I’m expecting (about that more another time), I stuck with my decision and started reading.
To say that I was pleasantly surprised is saying too much, but at the same time I wasn’t appalled; I was instead nonplussed. I found Agnes Grey slight, short, and simple. There were no overwhelming highs and lows of emotional resonance as in Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights or in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. It was actually a competent and unsurprising tale of a vicar’s-daughter-turned-governess-eventually-makes-good (by the oldest–or second oldest–“trick” in the book, the first supposedly being prostitution, which of course can’t be mentioned in the same breath with churchy mid-19th century marriage).
And yet, the book has appeal, in spite of the fact that there is little or no let-up from the trials of teaching bad-mannered and spoiled upper-class children, no break to the virtuous sermonizings on Fate (herein known as “God’s will”) in which the heroine indulges at the least opportunity. She is too good, like many a religiously inclined governess in similar novels, but for some reason, though a little missish from time to time, she is not boring. Maybe it’s the repetitive instances of words in narrative and especially in dialogue which are either capitalized or italicized to indicate emphasis: when they are those of others, they are those most often of outrageous remarks made to or near the heroine; even more, when they are hers, we sense a sort of youthful eye-rolling. “Can you believe this?” she seems to be saying. A technique like this, which we would censure as puerile in a contemporary author, thus becomes a bit appealing in this otherwise sometimes prosy young writer.
And this is the thing to remember about her: though we learn by reading that she was exceedingly precocious, she had a youthful high spirit, and was not inexperienced in terms of what she was writing about. She was a governess for six years herself, and her character of Agnes Grey thus owes something to her own experience. It’s not too far to assume that there are aspects of wish fulfillment in Agnes’s eventual destiny and the book’s happy ending. Yet this book should not lead anyone to underestimate the youngest Brontë, who was a poet and a novelist (under the pen name of “Acton Bell”) though she was dead at the age of twenty-nine of what Wikipedia calls pulmonary tuberculosis. Her fame today, though it is derived from her entire body of work, is largely endebted to the book which shocked her contemporaries, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (and once again, more about that another time). Still, the gentle, sweet tenor of Agnes Grey, wherein doing one’s duty and maintaining a hopeful demeanor in the face of all adversity brings eventual reward is a reward in itself as a reading experience–and the adversity is not of that ilk which tortures the reader’s sensibilities in the apparent belief that a catharsis can be forced. As a steady diet, Agneses might be a bit tame, but then, there’s no danger of that: there’s only one Agnes Grey.
Has anyone ever said to you “Everything happens for a reason”? Or, perhaps, like Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow, “There is no such thing as coincidence”? We smile and nod, and pass by the cues to a better understanding of such notions of Jung’s synchronicity. But today, while reading from two supposedly widely different texts on two different library websites, I ran “smack-dab”–as people from my part of the world say–into a lovely coincidence about meanings and situations which I’d like to share with you. On one website, I was starting to read from the Nag Hammadi scriptures, the Gnostic scriptures which were suppressed from the canon of allowed Christian texts by clerics who called them “heretical.” They have now surfaced again, and have been translated from the Greek and the Coptic into English, and have stirred my curiosity. On the other website, I was finishing up a reading of Fay Weldon’s book of short stories called Watching Me, Watching You, which was named after one of the stories. And then, it hit me: the whole of Weldon’s book bore an intimate relation in its themes and structures to something quoted from one of the Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Thomas. And here’s what it was:
“Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed to you. For there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.” Ever hear someone say to someone else “It’s as plain as the nose on your face”? But then, in order to get a proper view of one’s own nose, one needs a reflective surface in front of one, and Fay Weldon’s short stories, with their scalpel-sharp ironies and desperate comic turns, are that reflective surface of what often goes on in front of us, but which we chose to ignore, or cannot master the trick of deciphering, simple as it might seem to others watching. The book is dated in some respects, having been a collection of stories from the 7o’s and published as a whole in 1981, and yet the situations that make up the action in them still occur today, in actuality or in shadows of actions. I would like here to give a brief summary or synopsis (not so brief, in the first instance) of each story, just to whet the readers’ appetites, and then without spoiling the adventure, go on to final comment.
1. “Christmas Tree”–A writer gradually becoming successful for his counterculture writings allows his personal life to affect his career. An old story, but told with refreshing clarity here. As Weldon writes about her character, “Writers tend to undervalue those who praise them, or complain that praise is patronising; whilst at the same time feel aggrieved if they are not praised. They never win the battle with themselves, which is why, perhaps, they go on writing.” With this writer, his first wife left him taking with her their small daughter, when he cheated on her, starting him on a lifetime of going from woman to woman. In this case, however, the womanizer finally becomes the victim of his habit, and is deceived and taken advantage of by a much younger woman who gets him to marry her because he believes she is “pure” and virginal. As he says of her before he marries her: “I’m glad she’s a waitress….I’m finally back where I belong. Amongst real people, who do real things, and live simple, honest hard-working lives.” When he finds himself amongst her whole family of small-time grifters, he is instead of being realistically downcast about it (as his art would suggest) ironically overjoyed. “He had bound himself by accident to a monstrous family in a monstrous place and had discovered by accident what he felt to be the truth, long evident, long evaded. It was that human nature was irredeemable….All aspirations and ambition had been burned away: all wounds cauterised with so sudden and horrific a knife as to leave him properly cleansed and purified.” This is a funny way to describe total failure and withdrawal from one’s own creative sphere, but thus it is, and we see it as he does not, for he is like the Christmas tree that his own family used to replant year after year, only now his “roots” have been “cauterized” as his new family does when they steal trees to sell off someone else’s land: his roots have been boiled, and he seems not to mind his fate at all.
Breakages–In this very innovative story, a clerical wife is “haunted” by a ghost who gets even with her husband for his unfair treatment of her by breaking his things. This only happens when he is in church preaching or is elsewhere occupied and she is alone, at least in the beginning of the story. The bitter issue between them of whose fault it is that they have no children comes to a head, however, and then the husband too is confronted by the “ghost,” though he funnily enough persists in blaming the wife for the noises and moving furniture up in the attic, even while she is in the same room downstairs with him. Against all the reader’s expectations as they are established by the story thus far, when the two characters finally get around to speaking to each other about their “guest,” even though they are still deluding themselves about some things, they are visited by a happy ending, which yet is not free of whimsical irony. This is thus another story in which something is obvious, yet needs to be confronted before the apotheosis can take place.
Alopecia–The topic is “sisterhood” or the lack thereof, amongst a group of women, and the lovely reversal at the end that takes place when the least sisterly of the women is suddenly put in the same position as a woman known to them all whom she has maliciously gossiped about for years. Once again, the quote from the Gnostic gospels rings true, because she has willfully ignored for years what has been right in front of her, which has been going on between the woman and her husband, blaming the wife for everything and seeming deliberately to cause hatred and suspicion to surround her. The term “alopecia,” which is a kind of diseased hair loss, stands in as a subject-replacement for the actual “bald” cruelty of the other woman’s husband, who among other brutalities has made a habit of pulling her hair out by handfuls. When the situation is reversed between the two women, the woman in the previously superior place derives the full benefit of a hateful kind of achieved wisdom, too late.
Man With No Eyes–This is another “ghost story,” featuring “the man with no eyes,” a sort of bugaboo from an Eastern culture, who seems to visit a family purporting to be a happy one in which the husband, however, is always demanding much, giving little, and constantly and apparently deliberately misjudging his wife. He is another one not seeing what is before his eyes. It seems likely that at this point the general drift of the stories of Weldon’s labelled (and sometimes marketed) as “ghost stories” must be obvious to my readers: a number of her stories, though they all contain ironic reversals or heapings-on of fated happenings, are clearly not the cheap and simple ghost story per se (fun as that can be). Several of them, however, were in the 70’s and 80’s published in magazines and volumes which purported to be ghost story-oriented.
Threnody–This is the most mysterious, in its way, of all the stories. A female character who is seeing a therapist, another woman whose words we know only through those that the first character repeats aloud, changes her story repeatedly, ready to take anyone’s view of her as the true one. She seems to have no sense of self, but one after the other, follows other people’s views of what she is “like.” We as readers are frustrated in some ways in trying to get to know this character, because we cannot really be sure of what the truth is about what these other characters say and do to and with her. Thus, this story is in a sense a sort of defeat of the Gospel of Thomas notion that it is possible to know what is in front of your face, because as another more famous Biblical quote says, we are seeing her “through a glass, darkly.”
Angel, All Innocence–Yet another young woman, an expectant mother this time, who becomes aware of “ghosts” in the attic, hears a tale of former tenants from the kindly village doctor who treats her and senses her husband’s casual emotional cruelty and indifference. She makes a decision which is not logical at all in ordinary human terms, but which the ghost from the attic (whom she thinks she sees one day upon the stair) would understand completely. She is the character par excellence among these in the book who, though “all innocence,” yet is worldly enough in spiritual terms of a good sort to know what to do to save herself and her child.
Spirit of the House–The predominance of the characters in this story do not see what is in front of them, an abusive nanny. One character does, and must strive for justice.
Watching Me, Watching You–Cyclic wives and lovers, and a ghost who sleepily observes them all, as they take perspectives on each other, and history repeats itself. One could even argue that it’s the accumulation of repetitions through history that has made the ghost so “knowing,” that this is in fact the spirit of all the tales in the book.
Geoffrey and the Eskimo Child–This is the bittersweet story of a man who for years is a sort of feminist’s ideal man, at least on the surface, a feminist himself, and a good socialist and humanist at the same time, who yet presents his wife with a final shocking conundrum and doesn’t help her to solve it. The question is, why is the view occluded for her, his closest, and why is it likewise obscure to others on the outside? One might almost suspect Weldon of attempting to suggest that such model behavior is too hard for any man (as opposed to the women whom she celebrates in her stories), did he not have a certain charm and resilience as a character, even though he may have just a bit of feet of clay.
Weekend–This is a final picture in the book of a condensation of a family’s whole way of life into how their lives are arranged for a single weekend (one of many, a pattern) in their country home. No words are wasted; every single thing that happens means something, amounts to something, counts for something, to the characters living through it nearly as much as for the reader. Though the two creative works are so very different, and the character of the mother in this work is gentle and constantly striving to please, very different from Elizabeth Taylor’s character in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, yet the economy of the wording and the ferocious amount of energy that is released from it reminds me of that in the famous play by Edward Albee.
Fay Weldon, whom I have never read before but whose works I now intend to become more familiar with, was awarded the CBE in Britain, and is the author of the pilot for the famous PBS series Upstairs, Downstairs. She has written many novels and scripts and plays and books of short stories, and given my acquaintance with her merely through this one work I’ve written on today, I think she would well repay serious attention. It’s quite clear that though in this book the plight of women is one of her chief concerns, or at least was in 1981 when she published this work (and I can’t imagine such a devoted advocate changing her mind), she is well able to see more than just the contemporary injustice and look behind it for the historical one. As well, her male characters are not straw men, easy to knock down, but believable even when culpable or villainous. I hope to run across something else by her again soon, perhaps something a little more recent and topical. For the meantime, I hope you haven’t been totally exhausted by this long post, and welcome any comments you may have to make.
A reversal of expectations for characters and readers alike–Juan Bosch’s “The Beautiful Soul of Don Damian”
Readers in the English-speaking world are familiar with the word “expectations” (in its sense of having something to inherit) from its usage in Charles Dickens’s famous novel Great Expectations. Readers in the Dominican Republic, however, are surely more familiar with the ironic and witty tale of reversed expectations in Juan Bosch’s short tale “The Beautiful Soul of Don Damian,” which has some plot twist surprises for the reader as well. The tale goes thusly:
Don Damian’s soul, which in passing is shown to be hosted in the body of a miserly and greedy and unscrupulous rich old man, is just preparing to make its final withdrawal from the world and the body as the story opens. It is described as having tentacles, which it is slowly retracting because the temperature of the body in a coma is too hot for it to stand much longer. As it is withdrawing, the nurse becomes alarmed and sends for the doctor and gives an injection, but to no avail, apparently: “At the precise moment that the needle punctured Don Damian’s forearm, the soul drew its last tentacles out of his mouth, reflecting as it did so that the injection would be a waste of money.”
As the body becomes cold and yellowish, the soul flies up to a Bohemian glass lamp in the middle of the ceiling and looks down on the scene below, watching who mourns and who hesitates, meanwhile able to be aware of all their secret thoughts and feelings. The housemaid mourns sincerely; she has served Don Damian “for more than forty years,” and she weeps and wails, and as the priest arrives to give last rites (which he should’ve done the night before, only he was preoccupied with trying to get money for a new church from Don Damian), she says that it doesn’t matter whether Don Damian is shriven or not, because he has a “beautiful soul.” In the meantime, the beautiful but unfaithful young wife and the mother-in-law are crying crocodile tears in order to deceive everyone into thinking that the wife (who has a lover) truly grieves her husband.
Two things happen almost simultaneously, though in the course of the story they are related one at a time–the hypocritical mother-in-law, wife, and priest take up the housemaid’s cry of “beautiful soul” and start to ring changes upon it to prove that they too mourn the passing, and the soul, hearing how beautiful it is from all sides, decides to have a look at itself in the bathroom mirror, to be able to visualize its own beauty. Both sides are in for a shock, however, the soul first: “But good God, what had happened? In the first place, it had been accustomed, during more than sixty years, to look out through the eyes of Don Damian, and those eyes were over five feet from the ground; also, it was accustomed to seeing his lively face, his clear eyes, his shining gray hair, the arrogance that puffed out his chest and lifted his head, the expensive clothes in which he dressed. What it saw now was nothing at all like that, but a strange figure hardly a foot tall, pale, cloud-gray, with no definite form. Where it should have had two legs and two feet like the body of Don Damian, it was a hideous cluster of tentacles like those of an octopus, but irregular, some shorter than others, some thinner, and all of them seemingly made of dirty smoke, of some impalpable mud that looked transparent but was not; they were limp and drooping and powerless, and stupendously ugly….It had no waist. In fact, it had no body, no neck, nothing: where the tentacles joined there was merely a sort of ear sticking out on one side, looking like a bit of rotten apple peel, and a clump of rough hairs on the other side, some twisted, some straight. But that was not the worst, and neither was the strange grayish-yellow light it gave off: the worst was the fact that its mouth was a shapeless cavity like a hole poked in a rotten fruit, a horrible and sickening thing…and in the depths of this hole an eye shone, its only eye, staring out of the shadows with an expression of terror and treachery!” Don Damian’s soul thus has its own expectations reversed when it sees itself truly. Not realizing that it is invisible to others, the soul wonders how it can go out into the street appearing thus, and just as the doctor rings at the front door, it reverses the expectations of the mourners by making a mad jump back into the ice-cold mouth of the body of Don Damian.
The doctor, taking the wrist of Don Damian, grows excited and then opens his bag, taking out a stethoscope and a syringe. He too avows that Don Damian has a beautiful soul, and that he must try to save him. While the simple housemaid rejoices in the next few minutes that Don Damian has been returned to life, the doctor and the priest both plan secretly what they are going to be receiving from him, while the wife and mother-in-law make the best they can of a bad situation, and evidently pretend to be elated. “The soul of Don Damian, tired of so many lies, decided to sleep. A moment later, Don Damian sighed weakly and moved his head on the pillow. “‘He’ll sleep for hours now,’ the doctor said. ‘He must have absolute quiet.’ And to set a good example, he tiptoed out of the room.”
Amid the reversals in the story, the readers’ expectations too may be reversed, especially if they are anticipating a typical “and I felt myself flying toward the white light” sort of tale. The soul not only does not see a white light, but perches on the Bohemian lamp and finds it as much too warm as the body with its fever was. As well, despite the fact that all proclaim the soul as beautiful, the soul when it confronts a mirror sees itself as it truly is, and flies back into the body so as to have the countenance (literal as well as figurative) of the body. This is yet another reversal, because usually when people are physically ugly, some well-meaning sort will come along and say something like “Yes, but I think he/she must have a beautiful soul.” In this story, as in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a sleek and attractive physique hides an ugly soul.
The author of this story, Juan Bosch, was born of educated farmers in the Dominican Republic, but at one stage of his life attained the office of President. When he was deposed, he turned to teaching, and then began to concentrate on nonfiction as the best way to expose the problems of human existence. Though the tale we have looked at today is necessarily fictional because we cannot know in actuality what happens to the soul after death, the farcical elements yet have a reality of their own, which makes the story persuasive and compelling just as it is. And certainly what some regard as the soul but which could also be seen as the sum total of a person’s actions and emotions in life is part of the human experience, along with its eventual destiny. Thus Bosch’s light touch and gift of humor give to Don Damian’s “death scene” an enduring significance which puts it among the best of the tableaux of this sort, and an ability to affect its readers not only with a smile and a rueful shake of the head, but with some moments of serious thought as well: what will all our souls look like when we no longer have bodies to hide them? Two apposite quotes spring to mind, one from the cynical and witty La Rochefoucauld and one from a medieval nun: La Rochefoucauld said, “Our words are given us to hide our thoughts.” The only person in the story “The Beautiful Soul of Don Damian” who is sincere in her appraisal of his goodness (though mistaken, as it turns out) is the housemaid, who perhaps has not the realistic view we see of the soul, but something even beyond that. The medieval nun said: “God sees us not as we see ourselves, nor as others see us, nor yet as we are, but as we would be.” One can only surmise that when the housemaid sees Don Damian from the point of view of a long-time employee and household dependent, that she is looking with the eyes of God, and that somewhere, sometime, in some way, Don Damian has wanted to be better than he is!