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The Way We Lived Then

Sigrid Nunez is a memoirist of considerable gifts, which is worth remarking only because she is the author of novels rather than of memoirs. Her first book, A Feather on the Breath of God(1995), is the fascinating account of a young woman’s childhood and adolescence in the housing projects of Staten Island, poignantly detailing her immigrant parents’ challenges and isolation, and her own desires to dance and to become a writer. For Rouenna (2001) chronicles her rediscovery of Rouenna Zycinski, whom she knew slightly as a wild child during those Staten Island years. The two become lively acquaintances, if not wholly friends, until the woman’s sudden suicide, which prompts in the narrator a vivid imagining of Rouenna’s time as a combat nurse in Vietnam. Using an intercutting of meditation and careful reconstruction, she has written an impassioned and complicated recollection transformed, by the author’s skill, into a work of fiction rather than of history. Both novels are marked with the authority of lived experience, and readily acknowledge that authority. Their scope is not large, but their effect is profound.

Nunez tends to write in the first person, which allows time for recurring digressions in her narrative. In For Rouenna, for example, she sets the dramatic story of Rouenna Zycinski against the narrator’s own mundane employment as a teacher of creative writing at Smith College, and offers us apparently tangential details about her apartment and her isolated existence in Northampton, Massachusetts. In A Feather on the Breath of God, she writes about her adolescent passion for ballet, and her later dismay at the tortures it inflicts upon women’s bodies, without feeling obliged directly to link these ruminations to the central subjects of her immigrant parents’ alienated lives, and her adult passion for a louche Russian student in her EFL class. She makes much of life’s small details, while glossing subtly over great events. Nunez’s latest book, The Last of Her Kind, departs from its predecessors in the scale of its ambition—the number of characters it involves and the large time span it tackles—but it retains, at some cost, similar techniques.

The Last of Her Kind is narrated by Georgette George, a woman from humble and unhappy beginnings in upstate New York, who lands at Barnard College in the late 1960s, only to find her world, and herself, transformed. The novel spans three decades in Georgette’s life, two marriages, two children, and a love affair; but it is not, primarily, an account of its narrator. Or rather, it is a book about its narrator only insofar as her life is defined by two other women. What the narrator of For Rouenna observes about her subject is equally true of Georgette and her two doppelgängers: her sister Solange and Ann Drayton:

Let it be said that I was not harboring any foolish idea that in writing about Rouenna I was bringing her back to life…. No: the one being brought back to life by this investigation was I.

In this instance, Georgette’s subjects are not dead, as Rouenna’s are, but the effect is the same: Georgette is created, enlivened, by the pair. In such a tale the narrator observes, and her subject acts. Ideally, the subject acts dramatically and impressively; and in The Last of Her Kind, in which Ann shoots and kills a policeman, this is certainly true.

This is, of course, a time-honored form—it takes Nick Carraway to tell us about Gatsby, or Charles Ryder to follow Sebastian Flyte—but it is a technique not devoid of risk. We, as readers, must be convinced of the significance of the story’s star not only to the narrator, but to us, his readers. And in some measure, therefore, we must be convinced of the significance of the narrator herself—which is no mean feat when the arc of the account is to highlight the superior interest of the star over the storyteller, or, in Waugh’s terms, of the flyer over the rider.

The first and abiding star in Nunez’s novel is Georgette’s freshman-year roommate at Barnard, Dooley Ann Drayton, a dynamic and puritanical student radical born into privilege in Connecticut. Arriving at college in 1968, Drayton drops the name Dooley in favor of plain Ann, because it “was a family name, and the part of her family that had borne the name, somewhere on her mother’s side, had been from the South, she said, and were descended from plantation owners.” She quickly reveals that “what she had really wanted…was a black roommate. But she had not had the courage to ask.” Initially she is disappointed in Georgette. But for a woman on a political mission, a working-class roommate, while not black, is not to be sneezed at, and the two become fast friends: “As good a description as any of that time: one single, endless, smoky conversation, interrupted by classes and a little sleep.”

Georgette repeatedly accompanies Ann to lunch with her parents, Turner and Sophie Drayton, and watches without apparent judgment as Ann insults and condemns their gilded life:

I actually heard her tell her mother to go fuck herself. I heard her tell her father he was a prick…. “I’m their only child,” she explained. “I could murder someone and they wouldn’t disown me. I could murder one of them and the other would stand by me.” And yet she saw nothing in this to admire. Such loyalty could not dilute her contempt by a drop.

In time, Georgette, too, earns Ann’s contempt. The two drop out of college and their paths diverge: Georgette takes a job as a secretary at a fashion magazine called Visage, sampling beauty products and having makeovers, while Ann, committed to the radical movement, falls in love with a thirty-year-old black man, born Alfred Blood but living under the name Kwame Kwesi.

The more critical [of me] Ann was, the more vulnerable I became. It was like having layers of skin peeled away. That I had disappointed her, that I did not meet her standards, that I had ceased to be of serious or special interest to her—all this was as painful as it was undeniable.

In spite of the years elapsed between their drifting apart and its recollection, Georgette does not recognize that Ann’s disappointment could be linked to Georgette’s social mobility: it’s not just that she’s working for a fashion magazine that disturbs Ann, but that she’s working for a magazine at all. Ann’s original interest in Georgette lies in her unfortunate origins; and in abandoning those origins, Georgette loses her appeal.

Several years after the two have lost contact, in 1976, Ann becomes notorious, having killed a policeman in an attempt to protect her lover, who is also shot in the incident. Convicted of murder, Ann is sent to prison. The two women reestablish their connection; but even before they do, Ann’s fate affects the course of Georgette’s life: “It was then, right after Ann disappeared into the dungeon of Maryville, that I was overwhelmed by the wish to be back in school.”

Here Nunez invokes Simone Weil, and the similarities she draws between Weil and Ann Drayton are pointed and deliberate: the two women share a similar hapless, almost vindictive, rigidity, unrelenting but judgmental, and are devoted to a political idealism that has no patience for human foibles, one that has led, inevitably, to their downfall. But Weil is not the only saint to whom Ann is compared: the novel’s title comes from Middlemarch, and specifically from a reference to Saint Teresa of Ávila: “That Spanish woman who lived three hundred years ago, was certainly not the last of her kind.”

Ann’s qualifications for sainthood are debatable; but Georgette’s other primary focus, and a foil for Ann Drayton, is Georgette’s sister Solange, who qualifies, quite cheerfully, for the category of “sinner.” Solange is a teenage runaway, whose absence shadows the early part of the novel. (Another of Georgette’s sisters, Zelma, only peripherally present in the book, becomes a nun.) When Solange finally knocks on Georgette’s door, it is with an account of her adventures with drugs and sex. She has been hitchhiking across the country with her boyfriend, Roach, who

looked like what he was, a survivor of an era that had tipped over into madness, a type that was just emerging at this time, guys whose histories could be read in their tattoos and prematurely lined faces, like a map of every wrong road they’d been down, and in their pupils, like spent match heads….

Solange proves to be manic-depressive, and the roller coaster of her life continues even once she returns to her sister. But

I had a sister. A real sister, not a fake one like Ann. I had Solange and Solange had me—no room in my head for the thought that we would ever again be separated. And in fact, between then and now, with very few lapses, Solange and I have spoken with each other nearly every single day.

Georgette’s first husband is a doctor whom she meets in her sister’s mental hospital. And no bad behavior—including her provision of drugs to Georgette’s young children—can break their sisterly bond. Unlike Ann’s interest in Georgette, which is in some measure idealistic, Solange’s need for her sister is practical, and constant: “I told myself she was my responsibility now, and the thought filled me with pride.”

Between these two poles, Georgette leads an unremarkable and often near-invisible life—her first marriage is dispensed with in a paragraph; her second in a few pages—but in the lives of Ann and Solange are played out the dramas of the late Sixties in America: SDS vs. the summer of love; cop-killing vs. drug-taking; a radical and oppositional engagement with bourgeois society vs. opting out. Ann is compared to Patricia Hearst; Solange is obsessively in love with Mick Jagger. These characters’ lives read like a teeming but contained synopsis of the period. Entangled in these women’s actions are matters of social class and its effects, along with the influence of the women’s liberation movement. Nunez describes the turmoil faithfully and with considerable authority. Indeed, at times, her research shows in the telling, as when she ponders Solange’s youthful flight:

According to the police, there had been a great rise in the number of runaways—more American teenagers had run away from home that year [1968] than ever before. Fifteen was about the average age (Solange was fourteen and a half), and most runaways—almost three-quarters, I was surprised to hear—were girls.

In spite of the colorful and disturbing behavior of Ann and Solange, or perhaps because of it, the heart of the novel must belong to Georgette. She is our guide, and hers are the observations we will take away from the book. She herself seems unsure of her mission: “Is it for the children that I am writing this?” she wonders. “I have sometimes thought so, and then, what a vain and silly idea. And if true, if it is for Zoe and Jude, why include so much they do not need and doubtless would prefer not to know?” The answer, of course, must be that of For Rouenna: that this account is intended to give shape and voice to Georgette, to allow her, and consequently us, to see her clearly.

And it is in the character of Georgette that the novel faces its greatest challenge. If Ann’s background is clearly defined for us—although even here, the Draytons’ hometown in Connecticut remains unspecified, as do the Southern ancestors (who must have been Catholics, one imagines, to have been named Dooley; that in itself is surely of interest?)—Georgette’s remains, in spite of Solange, and Zelma, and the other siblings—of a desultory sketchiness. We are told only:

Where I came from. Upstate: a small town way up north, near the Canadian border. Jack Frost country, winter eight months of the year…. Moneyless. A world of failing factories and disappearing farms, where much of the best business went to bars. People drank and drank to keep their bodies warm, their brains numb.

The people. Given the sparseness of the population, you had to ask yourself, Why so many prone to violence? Many were related, true, and a lot more closely than you liked to think. Did inbreeding lead to viciousness? Alcoholism certainly did, and alcoholism was universal…. The savage world of the North Country poor.

This is all very well as far as it goes, but in a novel fiercely attached to the specifics of time and, in New York City, of place, it stands out as a storybook account, the glossing of myth. Upstate New York may indeed suffer all these ills, but East Aurora differs from Boonville, and Warsaw from Watertown. A town defined by failing factories is not the same as one marked primarily by disappearing farms.

Georgette emerges from her cloudy past with a mother whose nature—however imposing Georgette may tell us it is—remains equally vague:

O mother of the thinning hair, the mouth set always in a peevish line. O weary, battered mother of the bulging veins, the harrowing periods, the throbbing molars, and the spastic back. I do not remember a time when you did not look worn.

But we are not privileged to see this mother, in her fullness; nor do we see, with the exception of Solange, Georgette’s siblings or their family life together. It is as if Georgette assumes we will understand fully without being shown; and again, in her adult life, we are told of people—her colleagues at Visage, her husbands, Solange’s boyfriends—in terms of their mythical, or cultural presences, as with Roach, rather than in their peculiar specificities.

The events from her own life that Georgette chooses to dramatize for us are, without doubt, of vital importance to her; but their significance in shaping her character and life is not always fully clear. While at Barnard, she is raped in Riverside Park (where, in a rare and wonderful detail, we are told, she had gone “to sing not to be heard. Like many people who can’t carry a tune, I love to sing”). But the incident is almost immediately overshadowed when she is introduced to heroin the same day by a radical friend of Ann’s. Indeed, her experimentation with drugs looms large: she takes meth to do her homework, and drops acid, unhappily, with her sister. She informs us, too, of the petty awkwardnesses of her social life: the husband of her boss at Visage makes a pass at her at a party. All of these events are given much the same emphasis.

As a result, in the rich mix of recounting and reflection upon the lives of others, the incidents of Georgette’s life seem small (including, oddly, and by her own admission, the rape). Like her marriages, which appear, in retrospect, to be of little consequence (“Look at me: married and divorced in the same paragraph—dispensed with Husband One in a few lines!”), her children, while adored, are barely present. Only a passionate love affair in her twenties—with Ann’s widowed father, after his daughter’s imprisonment—merits, in Georgette’s eyes, a detailed and moving rendition.

Here, in Georgette’s secretive and doomed liaison with Turner Drayton, lies her most significant gesture, and her strongest, but always unacknowledgeable, connection to Ann. The novel’s shape and meaning clearly hang upon the account of this affair, which is revealed long out of chronological sequence and with the distance of a third-person narrative (the only one in the book). This thwarted union represents not simply the road not taken, the self ultimately unrealized, but the summation of Georgette’s fantasies about Ann, to whom we understand she was attracted not simply for her moral purity, but for the very aristocratic baggage that Ann was so keen to shed. It ought to set in perspective our sense of Georgette, to enable us to comprehend her later choices in life. But it does not fully succeed in this task, because, I think, Georgette has nowhere fully revealed herself to us, however unwittingly; so that the force of this conscious revelation remains, to the last, muffled.

By the novel’s unexpected final lines, quoting from The Great Gatsby—which turn away from dramatic event to a call of personal longing—the book feels like a full, often powerful, but slightly incoherent chronicle of a time rather than of a person. It feels, indeed, like a memoir, relying upon the power of the first person to elide scenes and facts that might establish a narrator’s idiosyncrasies. Unlike A Feather on the Breath of God or For Rouenna, however, the novel’s authority seems willed, and its sense of urgency a literary contrivance rather than the genuine article. The very scope of the novel, spanning decades and a wide spectrum of society, ultimately works against Georgette’s intimate, sometimes rambling quotidian narrative voice, and the modulation of small and large dramas, so successfully manipulated in Nunez’s earlier books, proves here less effective.

Refreshingly impatient with the conventions of fiction, Nunez is capable of upending our expectations to powerful ends. While writing the memoir of For Rouenna, she slips into a fully imagined, vividly realized, third-person account of Rouenna’s tour of duty in Vietnam, so engrossing that it is a rude (if deliberate) shock for the reader to return to the comparatively inconsequential routines of the first-person narrator’s life. I read that novel with an almost breathless excitement at this technical daring, and felt, as with A Feather on the Breath of God, that I was seeing truly the peculiarities of individuals who would never have articulated them. The third-person section of For Rouenna makes us forget fiction’s artifice, just as the first-person narrative that surrounds it reminds us constantly of all that is projected and imagined; and the openly acknowledged disjunction between the narrator’s literary eye and the lives of those she describes proves paradoxically effective. It is as if a magician showed us how her tricks are performed in order to render those illusions more powerful.

The Last of Her Kind is, in its reliance on character development and on realized dramatic scenes, a more conventional book, even as it is, in providing snapshots of an entire generation, more obviously ambitious; but its resistance to conventional structure and explication—a resistance, in short, to the satisfactions of fiction—then becomes a problem rather than a strength. Georgette returns repeatedly to The Great Gatsby, and at the novel’s end rereads her college paper on that book: “The book is full of ideas, two of them named Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, but no real characters.” And then:

I have reread [Gatsby]. And to my own surprise, I felt almost exactly the same way about it. This time, though, there was something always in the back of my mind to make Gatsby a touch more plausible. For hadn’t Ann done it—held on to her purity and her dreams and illusions all those years? Hadn’t they both remained faithful to an ideal vision of themselves formed when they were still in their teens?

This is undoubtedly true; and Ann is a deeply plausible character, even as she is also, like Gatsby and Daisy, the embodiment of an idea. In The Last of Her Kind, the problem is not Ann Drayton: it is Georgette, who has at no time any vision of herself to which she might remain faithful or with which she might break, and who does not allow us to form any rounded vision of her from the outside. The literary structure Nunez has chosen here demands that we ally ourselves with Georgette, just as we ally ourselves with Nick Carraway or Charles Ryder or Mole. A novel belongs to its narrator; but in this case, its narrator refuses, alas, to lay claim to it.

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