The Art of Losing


by Susan Minot
Knopf, 264 pp., $23.00

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.

Dying is not a life, Ann Lord thinks. “She’d once had a life but was no longer in it. Nights without sleep and hours spent staring did not make up a life.” But then she has her doubts about her life even before her illness. “What else had life been but a night in the dark on the ground turning in stranger’s arms.” In his recent novel, The Last of the Savages (1996), Jay McInerney also distinguishes between life and life. His narrator says of a picturesque and wounded character, “If this has been the story of Will’s life, more than my own, that is because he has lived.” Not only lived more richly or diversely than the narrator has, but actually lived, while the narrator was doing something else, also called living but nowhere near the real thing.

The unlived life is one of the great American themes, of course, but its familiarity doesn’t reduce its mystery. We may not like the lives we have, and we can all imagine better ones. But to decide that what we have is not life at all, that we have somehow missed everything worthy of the name, is a truly extravagant gesture, all the more dizzying because we don’t have any difficulty in making it. Life as it is lived in Jay McInerney’s novels, with their brilliant scrambles from bar to bar and club to club, and from one danger and indignity to the next, regularly looks like a flight from another life, some hidden or displaced form of existence too terrifying to seek and too precious to forget. “He felt a keen pang of nostalgia,” we read in Ransom (1985), “but he didn’t know for what.” “Everything he knew and believed was hideously inadequate to the task of living.”

In McInerney’s early novels real living is still in the future, in spite of the nostalgia; it may arrive when the characters wake up, if they are not killed first—as Ransom is. In the later work, it has slipped away somewhere into the past, a road not taken because it wasn’t even noticed. “The end was the best part,” the narrator of Model Behavior says to his girlfriend, thinking of the first time they had sex together. She shakes her head. “No,” she says. “Somewhere between the middle and the end is always the best part, but we never know exactly where it is until it’s over.” And even then we may not know. The way we live now, in this vision, is in a curious condition of delusion. We spend our lives waiting for our lives to happen—until they’re over, and we can’t even see where they went. The hero of Henry James’s story “The Beast in the Jungle” does exactly the same thing, but he waits seriously, so to speak, devotes his full attention to his waiting, consuming the unlived life in the endlessly examined expectation. McInerney’s characters don’t think while they wait, because thinking for them would be perilously close to real living. They cultivate their wisecracks and they devote themselves to their disgrace, as if disgrace was a career, and they have scary moments of lucidity. “It occurs to you that inattention might, cumulatively, spread over years, be as great a crime as infidelity.”

Model Behavior, McInerney’s sixth novel, is a close remake of Bright Lights, Big City (1984). Young writer (well, no longer quite so young), distraught because his girlfriend has left him, loses his low-level job in journalism, roams Manhattan, gets into all kinds of scrapes, but drinks his way to safety, and remains standing amid the ruins, a Hollywood contract in his no longer shaking hand. “You will have to go slowly,” Bright Lights, Big City ends. “You will have to learn everything all over again.” Model Behavior ends with the narrator’s account of the movie he’s making of his own story: “In the end she comes back to me.” Even if his girlfriend comes back to him outside the movie, as she may well do, this conclusion is a little downbeat, since it suggests that the narrator has no story, no life, except that dominated by his loss of her, rather as Ann Lord has no story except that of Harris’s defection. This hero hasn’t even learned he has anything to learn all over again.

Still, the differences from Bright Lights, Big City are slight compared with the resemblances, and the book exhibits all kinds of nervousness about this fact. McInerney toasts Bill Buford for helping him to “revive Model Behavior when my own enthusiasm was waning.” The text is full of snappy intertitles (“A Friendly Face,” “At Long Last, Sex,” “Another Story,” “House Call,” “A Serious Talk”) of the kind you put in when you feel your continuous prose may not keep the young people’s attention. The narrative point of view shifts now and then from first to third person, just to keep us within shouting distance of the word “experimental”; and the publishers have thrown in seven of McInerney’s stories, first published in Esquire, Granta, Playboy, The Atlantic Monthly, and Spin, in case we feel short-changed.

This nervousness is misplaced, I think. Model Behavior doesn’t have the hectic energy of Bright Lights, Big City, but a decent remake is not to be confused with sorry recycling. The book is very funny, and full of the rakish, old-fashioned literary elegance that McInerney always manages to mix into the slangy idioms of his characters. When the narrator, one Connor McKnight, speaks on the phone to his wandering girlfriend, she comments on, among other things, his diction. “Who else would say ‘this little farce aspiring to tragedy.”’ And who but a McInerney character, we might ask, would speak of “metropolitan life in all its colonoscopic intricacy,” or of “the layered stench, the several octaves of decay” to be encountered at the western end of Gansevoort Street? Or tell us that his “best friend gives new depth and resonance to the concept of an unreliable narrator,” or that “New York…is to monogamy what the channel changer is to linear narrative”? Consider the easy, comic shifts of register in sentences like these, pitched somewhere between Edmund Spenser and S.J. Perelman:

December is the perfect month for a Florida wedding, warm evenings scented with orange blossom…. Although in this case the epithalamia are tinged with melancholy, since Dad has been forced to sell the old homestead after mortgaging it to the hilt. But here we are, gathered beneath a tent beside the old white house, with its porches and gables, the groves spreading around us in orderly fecundity.

As Irish Catholics, my father’s side has done an excellent job of acquiring the neurasthenic traits of ancient Wasp pedigree while preserving the traditional failings associated with the old sod.

There are plenty of sleek epigrams too, rather low-powered as satire but pretty lively as ways of avoiding real life. “Behave unto others as if they were about to become incredibly famous.” “It’s not necessarily whether you win or lose…. It’s how you look while you’re playing the game.” The only times when the book seems as if it might sink beneath its combination of cleverness and nervousness are when it becomes too intricately self-allusive. Connor’s friend Jeremy Green, a flamboyantly depressed author, has written a story called “Model Behavior,” which has a plot remarkably like a large chunk of McInerney’s novel, and Connor himself has turned the story into a screenplay for a movie being peddled as “a noirish romantic comedy.” Jeremy’s fiction is said to circle obsessively round the woman who left him seven years ago, and of course McInerney’s fiction circles round the same plot, underlined by McInerney himself choosing to thank, with whatever degree of irony, “all the women who left me.” The constant puns on the word model—as in “economic model,” and “another model besides the purely mercenary one she subscribes to”—become a little cloying because they too hover so eagerly round the missing girlfriend, a fashion model. After all, it’s not her behavior that’s at stake; we’re being dazzled by the erratic behavior of the man who can’t forget her. Or less romantically, can’t accept the blunt fact of her having left him.

Sometimes she was amazed,” we learn of the heroine of Minot’s Folly, “by the amount of feeling sloshing about inside her.” None of Cathleen Schine’s heroines could be amazed in this way. They may have feelings but they won’t put up with any sloshing. And they’re pretty picky about the feelings they have anyway. Margaret Nathan, in Rameau’s Niece (1993), is “a demanding person, hard on her-self, harder by far on everyone else.” Helen MacFarquhar, in The Love Letter (1995), doesn’t like to be dissatisfied. “She found it so dissatisfying.” She doesn’t like the idea of equality either. “Equality struck her as demeaning.” She even thinks she can control “the kind of happiness” she will or won’t have. She can’t, of course, and as the novel develops she learns to respect equality and dissatisfaction in love, and encounters entirely the wrong kind of happiness, “pain in the name of joy.”

But there is something so appealing about her haughty refusal of easy sentiment that we don’t, as we might, feel she has got her comeuppance. We feel she has earned her complicated luck through a hard training of the heart. Even when a miracle happens, herfirst thought is that it’s “preposterous.” “Because it’s preposterous for a middle-aged woman to fall in love with a boy unless you are that middle-aged woman and you have fallen in love with the boy.” The echo of Elizabeth Bishop is striking, and the poem itself is quoted elsewhere in the novel: “Love’s the boy stood on the burning deck/trying to recite ‘The boy stood on/the burning deck.”’

Jane Barlow Schwartz, in The Evolution of Jane, Schine’s fifth novel, is doubly bereaved: her husband has left her after six months of marriage, and her best friend dropped her “many years ago.” She is not too bothered about the first loss, although she does “feel regret at no longer being a wife, if only in an abstract sort of way,” but she is still desolate about the second. No one understands this grief, not even Jane herself, until she takes a trip to the Galapagos Islands, and discovers that her old friend (and cousin) Martha is a tour guide there. Treading in Darwin’s footsteps, Jane decides Martha herself is like Darwin. “He approached everything, from his account books to the bees in his garden, with a sympathetic, dignified courtesy. It was this trait, I now realize, that we all responded to in Martha. She was positively chivalrous in her studies, eloquent not by virtue of any special quality of language, but by virtue of her own unshakable, irrepressible, courtly delight.” But it is not really Martha in the Galapagos who matters so much. It is the Martha of childhood, growing up next door to Jane on the New England coast, amid their kindly, eccentric families, also evoked by Jane with a very fine eye for distinctions.

My mother thought collecting was a bad habit, like coming into the house without wiping your shoes. She didn’t collect. She accreted. Our house was full, just uncatalogued.

Friendship…was what ordered the world,” Jane claims, and both girls, within the parameters of their various differences, were very keen on order. “We were both bossy, but Martha was bossy in an abundant, inclusive way, while I tended to be merely imperious.” Martha in fact begins to remind us of Schine’s other austere and demanding heroines. “Forgiving suited her. It was her hobby. Perhaps that’s why she liked to argue so much.” Martha’s family moves to New York, and she comes back to the coast only in the summer. The relation becomes the more precious for that, and Schine’s chapter about its blossoming is one of the best brief pieces of writing about childhood I can think of.

Summer was back, an immediate, intimate time of year, when the world was close enough to touch. It was this feeling of freedom, of timeless, shoeless, ambitionless joy that I began to associate with Martha, as if she brought summer with her, rather than the other way around. I can honestly say that for me Martha existed only in the summer. I dismissed the other Martha and all her friends as wintry apparitions. She took on the inevitability of a season.

It is this season, of course, that is lost when the friendship ends. Jane learns in the Galapagos that there was no story to this, no spectacular insult or melodrama she had somehow missed or instigated. “Perhaps friendship has no end, meaning no intent, no goal, and so no narrative structure.” It’s just an evolutionary trace, a vestige of other kinds of love.

We can’t quite believe this, though. Schine works a little too hard at the evolutionary parallels, the Darwinian subtext to Jane’s tale, or rather Schine lets Jane worry at the parallels a little too explicitly. “Let’s pretend friendship is a species. One possibility is extinction. I had searched my memory for an event that precipitated the end of our friendship. A sudden change in climate, a meteor, a story of a drowned man. But our friendship was not extinct, for I still carried it with me.” Jane goes on to conclude that the species had changed because Martha had changed, not because Jane had done something to offend her. Martha simply had a life that was her own.

But then no change or separation can take away the shoeless joy of those remembered and revived summers, and friendship in this context must be more than a vestige of love. It must be quite different from love, perhaps its opposite, since of all the losses in the three novels I’ve discussed, only lost friendship brings back an old life, richly regains time. Lost love, at least in these versions, confines us to the repetition of loss.