Here’s a quiz: close your eyes. Remember a novel that moved you, stayed with you. What is it that you remember? Something shocking, violent, unexpected? Or something small and human and unexpected, yet so so true? Last May, the Globe printed two reviews on the same page that to me typify current misconceptions about fiction, misconceptions that were challenged, for me, by a reading of Abide With Me, by Elizabeth Strout.
The Globe reviewer of the new Lori Lansens novel begins with the assertion of the conventional wisdom that a novel must “hook” the reader on the first page, and he marvels that Lansens goes one better than that, by hooking the reader on the dust jacket itself. He says “ The terseness of the tease ….[is] almost irresistible: Something terrible is going to happen within. The question of just what, and how terrible, will drive the prospective reader into the book.” Possibly. However, this reader (and I expect I’m not alone here) would probably just feel irritated at being manipulated by some cheap trick and set the book aside.
There’s no hook in Abide With Me. I got fifty or so pages in and nearly gave up. (In fact I had a sneaking suspicion at that juncture that all seemed familiar here and that quite possibly, I had gotten to exactly this point in the book and had given up once before. That deja vu thing that happens with books sometimes ) Why did I persist, this time? Personal reasons, I guess. The title popped up when I was searching the library catalogue for CD versions of the hymn of the same name, which was played at my mom’s funeral a couple of months ago. The hymn has stayed with me as I learn to live in a world that doesn’t have my mother in it. It’s hard to find stomachable versions of hymns, by the way, without descending into the smug self congratulatory maw of Contemporary Christian. The best version I’ve found so far is by The Priests, a trio of spraytanned handsome Irish guys in clerical collars.
There is plenty of drama in Abide With Me. There’s a death at the centre, a couple of murders, rumour and gossip, betrayal, sex, marital infidelity, and lots of secrets. But almost all of that happens offstage and what the reader gets is aftermath. Decent ordinary people dealing with the aftermath.
The novel introduces an intriguing situation: a smalltown minister, recently bereaved, raising his elder daughter on his own. The reader is “hooked”, I guess, by wanting to know what happened in the past — what happened to the wife? — and what will happen in the future — how will the little girl survive her grief and the well intentioned fretting of her teacher? But there comes a moment about page 42 when I nearly gave up: the young minister, Tyler, is musing about a 20th Century German Christian martyr named Bonhoeffer. He “imagined the sound of a German radio broadcast, Bonhoeffer’s clear voice declaring that man’s responsibility against evil lay in action, and then the radio cut off in midsentence by the government authorities”. I set the book down here, but then, after a while, I picked it up again. Because Tyler, how ever obtuse, seemed such a good man. And poor little Katherine, his daughter — so silent, so heartbroken. And my persistence paid off. By the middle of the book, I couldn’t wait to get back to it, and I gobbled up the last hundred pages in a sitting.
The other novel reviewed in the Globe on the same page is the new Toni Morrison. And certainly, Morrison deserves to be venerated, but the reviewer is clear-eyed enough to remark that this new book “is less a Toni Morrison book than an extrusion of familiar figures and features from earlier Morrison fiction” with “a contemporary sheen” and “a series of ugly, graphic revelations”. If I think about what I remember about Toni Morrison’s fiction, I do recall the ugly revelations — the whip scars, sexual enslavement, murdered children. But I also recall some very wise and beautiful things that Morrison has to say about love. And I wonder why authors and poets often revert to the trope of shocking violence as a way of making it memorable, waking the reader up?
What Strout does is precisely the opposite, and this to me is her genius. There is a scene between two male characters — the bereaved minister and an adulterous parishioner who hates his guts— and the two men are titanically angry at themselves, the world, and each other, and neither one, in this tense scene, comes anywhere close to even mentioning what’s really on his mind — but still the scene works like crazy, and still the two men somehow manage to communicate something useful to each other despite the bluster. Isn’t that how most of these real life, actual, important conversations in life actually work? There’s no big revelation, there’s no perfectly articulated speech or explanation — we come to understand what’s really going on with each in subordinate clauses, in muttered phrases, in indirection. And it suffices.
I love Strout’s subtlety. The snarl at the back of Katherine’s hair, and the way a kind neighbour brushes it out. The book broke my heart and then suggested that it might be mended again. And not in the gross shocking way of a Morrison novel which the reviewer assures me “will surely break your heart, and in spite of the rest of the book, remind you of just why Toni Morrison has long been regarded as one of American’s greatest novelists”. No, Strout does not manipulate. She invites me to look closely and think deeply and forgive and be human — as Tyler says, “The question is — how do I live my life? Do I live my life as though it matters? That our relationship to God, to one another, to our ourselves — matters.” The climactic scene in the novel has poor beset Tyler Caskey furiously preparing to give his congregation a blast of righteous fury — and boy do they deserve to be taken down a peg, these gossipy cruel smalltown folk. But no, something entirely different happens, something human and small and unexpected, which gives the congregation an opportunity to become their better selves.