Scarcely anyone now turns to novels, as so many once did, for direct information about the world. We are more likely to consult memoirs, biographies, histories, interviews, surveys—assuming we go to books at all, and are not already amply briefed by newspapers and radio and film and television, overwhelmed by news, talk shows, phone-ins, gossip columns, and those in-depth investigations which remind us how far down the surface goes. We don’t expect novels to tell us the way we live now, in Trollope’s phrase: only the way we don’t live, or would like to live, or think we live.
There is something wrong with this reasonable proposition, but it’s not immediately obvious what it is. Certainly novels no longer do their old documentary job, although even when they did, in the works of Balzac, Dickens, and Zola, say, they dealt as much in fantasy as they did in realism—as if fantasy was a way of drawing out the real rather than its escapist opposite. Stendhal’s mirror on the road and the Naturalists’ slice of life were gestures toward the neutral observation the nineteenth century thought it wanted and could have. But the gestures were full of other possibilities, and the nineteenth century wanted other things as well. The mirror could be tilted, the slice taken at an angle. These were not biases but choices, and the choices were part of what was being said. Even Trollope’s famous title has its quiet irony, the hint of an awareness that any representative “we” is likely to contain quite a few satirical “theys.” The way we live now is the way some of us live now, or are supposed to live: a fraction posing as a whole, a mythology rather than a portrait. Remembering this lurking irony, we do still turn to novels, perhaps, not for the unadorned record, but not just for evasions or for revisions of history either. Novels give us a chance to worry or gloat over various pictures of contemporary living, and to wonder whether living is what this is.
I’m not suggesting that Trollope is a major influence on contemporary American fiction, but it is odd to see his name and his title recur, along with precisely the irony and the reservations they evoke. Cathleen Schine writes of a character who sees the “natural world,” in this case “the life of a yellow, smiling land iguana,” as unfolding “in all its Trollopian detail”: natural selection as novelistic riches. One of Jay McInerney’s narrators refers to Susan Sontag’s borrowing of Trollope’s title (“Coover’s ‘The Babysitter,’ for example, that’s your top-dollar story idea. Ditto Sontag’s The Way We Live Now“), and another knowingly wraps the phrase into his prose:
They live in a community called Live Oakes Manor, two-to-four-bedroom homes behind an eight-foot brick wall, with four tennis courts, a small clubhouse and a duck pond. This is the way we live now—on culs-de-sac in false communities…. Terri’s two-bedroom unit with sundeck and Jacuzzi is described in the literature as “contemporary Georgian.”
And even when the signals are not quite so clear, when we can afford to forget about Trollope as long as we remember the question of representation, the novels under review are full of traces of a world that looks like ours. People get married in Maine, die in Boston, visit Venice; they grow up on the Connecticut or Massachusetts shore, get abandoned in New York, rediscover themselves in the Galapagos Islands. They lose their jobs and trawl Manhattan in search of ever more elusive pleasures. And they always, in all three books, fall in love, and have theories about their fall, because they know that unexamined love is not worth having—or at least they know that they are not going to get it. In Susan Minot’s Evening, love exhausts and defines the world. “If the concept of romantic love has any use,” Jay McInerney’s narrator says in Model Behavior, “it is to denote that vast residue of inexplicable attraction which is not covered under the categories of blind lust and well-informed self-interest.” Not a big discovery, maybe, but a large step for a fellow who generally finds lust and self-interest a full-time job. The love in Schine’s The Evolution of Jane is the most unusual because it is love for a time and a place and a person all at once: for a childhood that could have been lost but isn’t, because it is so perfectly, so affectionately recaptured in the memory.
Of course, the way we die now is also a good subject, and it is Susan Minot’s in her fourth book, Evening. Ann Lord, sixty-five years old, three times married, is dying of cancer, and remembering the lost love of her life, the one that got away. His name was Harris Arden, he was a doctor, and they met at a wedding party on an island off the coast of Maine. They fell for each other, spent the night together, and then he remembered—or rather, had never forgotten—that he was engaged, and went back to marry his pregnant fiancée. That was all, but it was enough, or nearly. “She knew that what they’d had was not enough but believed it would have to be.” And it was enough, in another, damaging sense: enough to haunt the rest of her life, and make everything else seem a fake or a diversion. For good measure, their night together is paralleled by the absurd, accidental destruction of a likable minor character, the bride’s cheerful, drunken brother, so that both married and unmarried love are shadowed by violent and unexpected death.
The novel is framed and punctuated by conversations between Ann and Harris, looking back on their respective lives, on what they missed and where they ended up. “Where were you all this time?” the book begins. “Where have you been?” It ends with Harris’s final departure:
I won’t say goodbye.
No, she said. Don’t.
He did not come again the next day, he did not come the day after. He did not come again.
It’s possible, even likely, that Ann is imagining these conversations, that the man of her memories is currently present only in her mind, but this option only underlines the urgency of the lost relation, the cruel dominion of the life they didn’t have together. He didn’t come again, we may think, because the mind he was visiting was extinguished on the last page, because Ann Lord has died into the silence beyond the book.
Evening is a curious mixture of the discreetly modernist novel—single-word title, no quotation marks for dialogue, multiple flashbacks, plenty of stream of consciousness, epigraph from Faulkner cueing us in to the importance of remembering and forgetting—and the entirely old-fashioned romance, where love is all, and the characters inhabit sentimental stereotypes as if there were no other form of life. You might think the modernist text was the hard part—hard to read, and perhaps hard to write—but in fact it reads fluently and persuasively, and it’s the romance that causes the problems.
Sometimes the writing is just too casual—as if the editor had taken a holiday at the wrong time, or the author believed too much in the authenticity of the first draft. “Her heart began pounding in a sort of sickened way.” “Each time he touched a new place she sort of fell off an edge.” “The sky sort of jolted to a stop.” “Something erupted in her chest with a gush.” “Something was opening beneath her. It seemed to be her soul. Something stole into her as she walked in the dark.” “What they knew had faded into a kind of mirage. It became One of Those Things.” Clichés are wonderful stylistic instruments, but they need a little maintenance if they are not to turn to mush.
At other times, Minot’s writing shows all the signs of hard work, trying to make us see and feel whether we want to or not. “Ann felt as if a heavy boot were on her chest, slowly crushing her lungs.” “She felt as if she’d been struck on the forehead with a brick.” “Inside she was crashing like the bottom of a waterfall.” “Her heart was crashing…. She felt as if the whole factory of herself had been thrown into operation with one switch.” “It was as if someone had pierced her chest. She felt it in her toes. It was a marvelous feeling.” Momentous emotions are being announced as momentous, rather than being re-created for us. As the last example makes particularly clear, bathos is never far from these exertions, and the book is full of sentences and exchanges which are crushed to comedy by the weight they can’t carry. “She said his name to herself and felt it inside her as something full. Harris.” “For a long time neither of them spoke. Finally she managed a word. God, she said.”
Minot’s signature in her early books, Monkeys (1986) and Lust (1989), was an artful appearance of naiveté, a minimalist innocence, which allowed children and bewildered young adults to suggest truths beyond their linguistic reach. “Mum hardly ever plays with us because she has to do everything else.” “Everyone began to smile. But their smiles wouldn’t quite take and their faces wouldn’t quite go.” “The boys are one of two ways: either they can’t sit still or they don’t move.” “I felt very adult, reasoning away my emotions. I didn’t say a thing. It was a peculiar feeling, it felt very strange. It was like being dead.” This is a little arch, but it’s very effective: the characters wave their tiny words at unspeakable catastrophes, abandonment and loss, a mother’s death, a father’s descent into drink.
In Folly (1992), there is already some of the later stretching for simile (“It was as if she’d become velvet blackness.” “Her mother’s death was like adding a bucket of black paint to an already dark barrel”), but the plain nostalgia of this chronicle of a life all but empty of romance—Folly is really Evening without the cancer, and with a longer historical sweep—absorbs these strains easily. “So this, she thought, is how my life turns out: that there are slivers into which I pack my greatest feeling, that the moments with this skittish man who appears now and then in my life are to have more power than all the days with my husband.”
Evening too has its moments of minimalism, where the thinness of the language becomes moving through its very poverty. “She wanted his hand, she wanted someone to take her hand and take her away, but he was not there and all the someones were gone.” When the nurse looks at Ann Lord in the early hours of the morning, she sees a “face wild with pain, pleading for this not to be true, a face incredulous and lost.” The narrative structure of the novel, with its old and new times crowding unpredictably into Ann’s pain-beleaguered mind, is both firm and flexible, and the prose itself often catches what feels like the very tempo of Ann’s distress. “I’ll never get out now she thought I’ll never get back down those stairs a moth battered against the ceiling against the ceiling against the ceiling.” Here is how Ann remembers her various husbands, as they begin to melt together in her memory. “They all said will you marry me it had been raining they were by the river another couple walked by a boat slid past in the dark…. I know I am young and don’t know I am not so young any more I will always I will never tell me again of course I do by now you should know don’t you know by now of course I do I know I do too they all said they would they all said they did they all said I do.” In fact, almost every direct encounter with Ann Lord’s dying is eloquent in its helplessness, its sense that the reign of words is over. “The ceiling was frowning. It said no one knows what life is for, no one knows what anything means, the plaster soft and uneven, the lines as thin as the cracks in one’s palm, it said silence wipes everything out.” But then the final suggestion of the novel is that speechlessness produces better writing than talkative love, that dying is more vivid than living, because it represents a whole kingdom of variegated pain and loss, while the great romance, the ostensible center of the missed life, is a corpse that no amount of strenuous description can animate, just one of those faded things. It’s as if Cole Porter, to say nothing of Petrarch, had lived in vain.