Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Harriett Scott Chessman’s The Beauty of Ordinary Things

Spoiler Alert
Reading this book you're closely following the thoughts and feelings of the main character and the principal secondary character.  The main character a Vietnam vet, in 1974, is deeply burdened by memories of physically and morally horrendous incidents in the war.  The secondary main character is a novitiate at a farm that is a Catholic nunnery who is trying to make up her mind to take her vows.  Each character is seeking equanimity.  While this book focuses on the course their individual experiences, their experience is always involved in a set of binding relationships, mostly with his large family, to which the novitiate is a friend.  These friends and relatives have serious problems of their own, which is part of their closeness.  These characters sometimes feel lonely because of their struggle, but the reader always knows that they are not alone.

The critic Ivor Winters once described the poetry of Wallace Stevens as, somewhere "the thought takes place in the images.”  Chessman brings this technique to narrating the thoughts and feelings of her characters with remarkable felicity.  Often their conversations are rather tacit, but you know what they think and what their thoughts mean to them because of her lucid descriptions of the world as it exists at the moment they're speaking or when, later, their feelings are evolving.  Each scene is a metaphor for what people are feeling there.  This may seem like the much-disparaged pathetic fallacy (“It was a dark and stormy night….”) but she executes it with such grace and care that it is very seldom uncomfortable.  Here is an example:

[After a disturbing revelation] 
“Back at home, I sat out on my second-floor porch for a while, trying to calm down.  One of my neighbors, an old, old Polish man, came tottering out of his house with a watering can.  I watched him filling the cam, walking it over to the little patch of garden where he planted what books like tomatoes, lettuce, basil, zucchini, and a whole bunch of weeds.  Maybe the old guy had a landlord like mine who almost never came around to repair faucets or mow, much less help with the weeding.  The old man wore a canvas hat to protect his wispy haired head from the sun.”

Related to this, the vet is a lapsed photographer who resumes his craft during the course of the story, and it is no coincidence that he is capturing and delivering images, as images have captured and delivered him for the reader.

Similarities and contrasts reminded me of some of the work of Robert Stone, another writer I greatly admire.  Stone also frequently deals intimately with desperate people hostage to inward horrors, and as well with good nuns.  But, while in Stone equanimity is in short supply and self-destruction usually triumphs, often in scenes of histrionic violence, in Chessman similar characters evolve toward quiescence.

When I first read the last chapters of this book I shook my head in disappointment, thinking to myself, this is too nicey-nicey, this is to easy.  The novice filled with exultations and beset by doubts quietly becomes a nun offstage and seems satisfied and indeed delighted with her life.  The vet returns to his art, and through his art, through his friendship with the nun, and through his feeling for his family seems set on a successful, and tranquil life.  Do I believe that in the real world such outcomes are possible?  Absolutely, but they are somehow unsatisfactory in literary terms.  They do not provide what Aristotle called a catharsis of pity and fear.  .  Chessman provides soothing like an dissolution of pity and fear.  My discomfort raises questions about what ‘realism’ means in fiction.  I mean, if we take, say, Balzac, as realism, it partly means his characters’ motives are base and their periods of happiness brief.  But, really, people’s motives are sometimes noble, or at least not base, and lives are sometimes happy.  I think Chessman would not mind my discomfort.  She is noting that resolution lies in ordinary things.

Note the remarkable range of Chessman’s subject matter.  Her first novel, Ohio Angels, which I have not read, is set in the midwestern city she grew up in.  Her second novel, Lidia Cassatt Reading the Morning Newspaper, which I consider a masterpiece, is set in late 19th-century Paris among the sort of people your meet in James’ The Ambassadors.  Her third novel, Someone Not Really Her Mother, recounts the story of a family dealing with the Alzheimer's of their matriarch.  The family is in New England and the Jewish matriarch escaped from the Nazi’s in France and lived in England, though her memories are fleeting away.  Then this novel set among Catholics of Irish origin  in New England.  The three I know offer real characters with full verisimilitude.  They each involve certain preoccupations: family, the drama of non-drama, the importance of things unspoken, death, and the importance of inner life.

 Quite a level of accomplishment in the way of an author putting yourself in different worlds and people.

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