Confidence Games

The novel became my game,” writes Maureen Howard in an essay in The New York Times. “We are in this game together,” she goes on, defining “reading, real reading” as a “strenuous and pleasurable contact sport.” The theme of reading and writing as a game is pervasive in her work, and the games she plays with the reader—allusive, structural, self-referential games—contribute to her novels’ rich and sometimes confounding complexity.

Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in 1930, Howard has spent much of her writing life chronicling the bourgeois aspirations and cultural limitations of the city’s Irish-Catholics. More recently, she has been producing a series of novels—“Novels of the Four Seasons”—linked by their recurring characters. In them she has largely left Bridgeport behind, but references in each of the three volumes published thus far—A Lover’s Almanac (1998), Big as Life: Three Tales for Spring (2001), and The Silver Screen (2004)—allude to her home town. The novels are not conventionally autobiographical, but their fleeting glimpses of the author are all part of what one character calls, in the manner of Melville, a “confidence game,” the act of conjuring art out of life.

Both A Lover’s Almanac and Big as Life are radically experimental in form. Almanac proceeds not by means of straightforward narrative but through dated entries, weather reports, and illustrations; Big as Life is a novel in what Howard calls “panels,” three distinct short stories (each containing multiple stories), related only by a common theme, that of the ways in which art can interpret nature. All three of the novels are dense with multiple epigraphs and illustrations, as if Howard finds conventional narrative an insufficient mechanism. A Lover’s Almanac contains capsule accounts of historical figures and dates, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Graham Bell, the founding of the New York Stock Exchange, some of them woven into the story, some not. The title story of Big as Life is a moving, imaginary account of Lucy Audubon’s long-suffering tolerance of her famous husband’s passion for the natural world, and contains two portraits of John James Audubon himself, as well as two of his drawings.

Perhaps in keeping with the strange fictional apparatus in which her recurring characters find themselves, two of the central characters—Artie Freeman, or A. Freeman as he is sometimes allegorically referred to, and his lover, Louise Moffett—are treated comically, almost cartoonishly. In Almanac, we are told that Freeman, a fatherless young math and computer geek, lost his mother, Fiona O’Connor, a flower child of the 1960s, in a boating accident when he was eleven and, with her, any chance of discovering the identity of his father. Throughout the novel, Artie is in pursuit of Louise, an artist living in a SoHo loft, who broke off with him after he treated his marriage proposal to her, at a New Year’s Eve party, as a joke. Writing in her peculiar shorthand style, which often dispenses with the subject of …

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