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Comedy in Bloom

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Columbia/Everett Collection
Kate Winslet as Marianne Dashwood and Greg Wise as John Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, 1995

Even the best comic writers have had difficulty being taken seriously. Tragedy always wins more prizes and generates more serious literary analysis—though possibly fewer readers. This has not always been so: in the nineteenth century an important novel was expected to end happily for its central characters, though often after a certain amount of suffering and moral improvement. Today, though, even a gifted comic novelist like Cathleen Schine does not get the respect and admiration she deserves.

This is true even though Schine has been favored in so many ways by the muse of comedy, and is able to write in a wide variety of genres, with happy consequences both for herself and for her readers. She has also occasionally attracted the attention of the muse of farce, whom I picture not as a graceful young woman like her cousin Thalia, but as an overweight, oversexed, giggling adolescent with curly red hair, dirty bare feet, and robes that are always falling off. Pharsa has been a brilliant inspiration to theater and film, but she can damage or even destroy a novel. Under her influence Schine has now and then exaggerated characters and situations to the point where, though some readers laugh with pleasure, others cease to suspend their disbelief.

Schine’s first novel, Alice in Bed (1983), might be called a modern black comedy. In spite of its title, it is not about sex, but is the story of a year actually spent in bed, first in a hospital and then in a rehabilitation center, by a nineteen-year-old girl. According to the author, it is close to autobiography. While a student at Barnard, Schine was given too much cortisone and developed a side effect now known as aseptic necrosis of the hips. (As she explained in a 1995 interview, “basically that means they get inflamed and disintegrate.”)

We usually know what to expect from narratives of illness: accounts of pain, anxiety, and treatment, sometimes ending in a miracle cure, sometimes in a stoical resignation to disability and/or death. Often we hear of the assistance provided by supernatural forces and/or saintly humans, and of how the narrator gained greater wisdom as a result of his or her experiences. In some cases, as Barbara Ehrenreich has shown in her brilliant recent exposé, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America (2009), it is suggested not only that an unwavering upbeat attitude will help us through dark times, but that it has become almost obligatory to treat disease and pain as a life-enhancing experience. As Ehrenreich points out, this is hard on the sick, but useful to medical professionals, who cannot help but be relieved when patients complain as little as possible and blame themselves when they feel depressed or in despair.

Schine does not fall into this miserable, self-accusing trap. Alice in Bed is a serious novel about being sick, but it is also essentially a comedy. Awful things happen to Alice but she is able to look at them clearly and head-on, without self-pity or self-blame. Also, even when she is cursing and wishing she was dead, she finds her life interesting.

In the hospital Alice is angry most of the time, and with good reason. She soon realizes that none of the doctors really know what is wrong with her, though they prescribe many and varied treatments. At first she is implicitly accused of being responsible for her own illness: “Everyone thinks I’m a hysteric. Except my parents, of course.” In effect she, like the most famous Alice in literature, has fallen down a rabbit hole into a world that makes no sense.

In 1973 (when Schine herself spent a year in bed), pain management was not yet seen as essential to recovery, and a “good patient” was expected to be literally patient, and accept what was sometimes referred to as “discomfort”—i.e., constant physical suffering. Alice refuses this option. She is smart enough to know when her doctors and nurses are baffled or incompetent, and willing to complain when they are careless or cruel, and her take on some of them is devastating:

Dr Witherspoons…was tall and tanned and looked as if he’d be cold to the touch. He took care of famous football teams and was famous himself.

As time passes, Alice learns how to survive in the hospital. When she is sexually abused in a fumbling way by two rather creepy doctors, she allows it to happen because it distracts her from boredom and pain, as well as giving her some power over them. She is also lucky in her parents. Her mother, who is somewhat flaky but incurably optimistic and deeply loving, comes to the hospital every day and stays for many hours. She brings books, magazines, and excellent takeout food, and puts constant pressure on the doctors. Alice’s father can hardly bring himself to visit, and when he does he mostly sits and stares at her and sighs. On the other hand, he is willing and able to pay for a private room and private nurses. And as a young, rich, beautiful woman, Alice gets the best care available—though in the end she has to have both hips replaced with prostheses and learn, with great difficulty, how to walk again.

To the Birdhouse (1990), the sequel to Alice in Bed, is an entertaining domestic farce. Alice is well now, married to a good man, and has a good job photographing birds for a nature magazine. But Alice’s mother has an awful boyfriend called Louie, whom she met when he was sitting on the steps of a Manhattan brownstone, pretending to own it. Louie’s attitude to the world is simultaneously sentimental and exploitative. He dyes his hair, wears shiny light blue suits, drinks too much, and cannot tell the truth. He is a memorable character, and Schine has given him an unforgettable voice. At Christmas, for instance, he gives Alice a clingy nightgown with the following message:

To the One I love
Here I’m the Dirty Old Man
I wish I was Young
And gay to see You in this—
You and I with your loveliness
Body and Soul
For you are a lovely Woman
To have a Man
Want you and hold you and love you
—Louie!

When Alice’s mother throws Louie out he begins to behave crazily. He breaks into her house in Westport and persecutes her and her children. He spies on them with binoculars, slashes their tires, dumps their garbage, steals their clothes, kidnaps their cat, follows them in his car, and makes harassing phone calls. Yet since this is a farce, no permanent harm is done; Alice and her brother actually come to enjoy confusing Louie and making his persecution boring and difficult. At the end justice is served, and Louie marries the only other really awful character in the story.

Schine’s next novel, Rameau’s Niece (1993), is her most intellectual. Its heroine, Margaret, is a historian who has achieved unexpected popular success with a study of an eighteenth-century woman of letters. Currently she is translating an (imaginary) eighteenth-century work, a light-hearted parody of Diderot’s famous philosophical discussion in dialogue form, Rameau’s Nephew. But whereas Diderot’s philosopher is a serious man interviewing a self-confessed flatterer and toady, Schine’s philosopher uses the language of the French Enlightenment ironically, to seduce his sixteen-year-old pupil. From the start, their high-flown inquiry into the nature of truth is merely a metaphor for erotic exploration. For example:

Myself [i.e., the philosopher]:…Impressions are perceptions that are forceful and violent, external objects pressing in upon you.

She : At this moment, not only do I sense a glorious external object forcefully pressing in upon me, but in truth I feel myself to be nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions.

In the novel, passages like this, which must have been fun to write, alternate with Margaret’s own, less lighthearted—and for me, less convincing—story. Under the influence of the manuscript she is translating, Margaret starts seeing sex everywhere. She falsely accuses her husband of infidelity and begins to lust after inappropriate persons, including her dentist, who is humorlessly obsessed with teeth, and her best friend, who is humorlessly obsessed with feminist theory. She ends up being discovered naked, though innocent, in the apartment of her editor. The implication is that philosophical investigation can lead to erotic hysteria. But since this is a broad comedy, Margaret soon recovers and reunites with her husband. As both a tour de force and a jeu d’esprit, Rameau’s Niece is charmingly French, and when it appeared its author, like her heroine, was praised for her skillful use of an eighteenth-century form.

With The Love Letter (1995), Schine turned to another classic genre: the romantic comedy based on an initial misunderstanding. As in some Shakespearean comedies, most of the characters are rich and well-born and in self-imposed exile—at a beach resort in Connecticut. The MacGuffin is an anonymous love letter that causes anyone who finds it to fall for its supposed author. Helen, who lives in a beautiful fifteen-room house and runs a bookstore as a more or less not-for-profit hobby, and her assistant Johnny, who is spending the summer in his parents’ eighteen-room mansion, each believe that the other has sent the letter to them. As a result they start a passionate love affair. The story is a fairy tale: at nineteen, Johnny is unbelievably well-read and sophisticated, and forty-one-year-old Helen is excessively, even annoyingly, beautiful and charming. She likes clarity and humor and feels fully in control of her life and emotions. I was therefore naturally pleased to see her lose control, though a little disappointed when at the end she is back in charge of her life; she was more likable when less confident.

The Evolution of Jane (1998) might be called a scientific comedy, since one of its central themes is natural selection. Jane, who has just been left by her husband, goes on a tour to the Galápagos Islands, and discovers that the tour guide is the childhood best friend and cousin, Marge, who dropped her when they were teenagers. Jane and Marge, like Darwin’s finches, have evolved differently after they were placed in different environments, and in the end Jane is forced to admit that they will never be close again. The book is rather short on plot, but a fine introduction to Darwin’s theories, and wonderful in its description of a unique natural world full of mountains of ashes, parasitic cones of lava, frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, and giant turtles. Schine is also very good on the effects of this peculiar world on the other tourists, who are observed as if by an extremely gifted biologist with a fine sense of humor as well as a tendency to seasickness.

Five years passed before the publication of She Is Me (2003), which can qualify as a family saga, and also as a superior example of satirical fiction about Los Angeles. The heroine, Elizabeth, is working on an updated film version of Madame Bovary for a producer; but though the book’s title echoes Flaubert’s declaration ” Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” Elizabeth is unlike Emma Bovary except in her desire for the luxuries of this world: clothes, jewelry, houses, and cars. She and her affectionate partner, Brett, feel embarrassed by the idea of an SUV, but they get one anyhow, and when they adopt a stray dog, they agonize about what to name it, since in Los Angeles, with its obsession with celebrity and self-advertising, all names seems phony, pretentious, and ironic:

Language had devolved from being a means of expression to being little more than a flag. Expressing oneself, once a naive occupation of her parents’ generation, had somehow devolved into waving that flag, conveying one’s place in the world, or the place one would like to hold.

They decide to name the dog after the first sign they see. “And so the dog was named Temple Ben Ami.”

She Is Me, according to interviews with the author, is partly autobiographical. Elizabeth’s mother and grandmother, like Schine’s own, have had cancer, and the progress of their illnesses is described with great feeling. Schine’s cool, critical take on the medical profession has also survived from Alice in Bed. Greta, the mother, has a doctor husband whose main occupation is raising money for hospitals; he is uncomfortable with illness, preferring The Sick to individual sick people, including his own wife. When he visits, he does not touch her: “Instead, he held his own hands, as if he were his own patient.” Like most of Schine’s comedies, She Is Me has a partly happy ending. Even the dog, who has turned out to be a truly bad-tempered animal, is lucky: he is adopted by an equally bad-tempered film producer who recognizes him as a soulmate.

The New Yorkers (2007) belongs to a much more modern genre of comedy, the TV sit-com. It relates the stories of a group of people in their twenties, thirties, and forties who live on the Upper West Side near Central Park and own dogs. All of them are good-looking and single, and have varied and interesting jobs. They gather at a neighborhood bar run by a lovable gay man, and also meet in the park when they walk their dogs. Some of them fall in love; others help one another out when in trouble. Both the humans and the dogs are likable and varied New York types—anyone who watches more TV than I do could easily cast the excellent show that the book seems to want to be. The New Yorkers is fun to read, especially if you like dogs, but for me there were too many characters, both human and canine, to keep track of.

Cathleen Schine’s new book, in my view, is possibly her best. It belongs to a currently very popular genre: one that takes off from Jane Austen’s novels. Among this crowd of awkward, flightless spin-offs, it rises like a helicopter. The Three Weissmanns of Westport is a contemporary version of Sense and Sensibility. It does not stick narrowly to the plot, but all the essentials are there, as well as Austen’s sympathetic and ironic detachment. Like the original, it is the story of two sisters who have been effectively disinherited—in this case, not by their half-brother, but by their stepfather, Joseph, whom they have regarded as a father since early childhood, when he married their widowed mother. Now Joseph has fallen in love with a younger woman and wants a divorce—or rather, his new girlfriend, Felicity, wants it. Felicity, who has “round, oversized eyes, bright blue eyes, like a child actor who knows how to act like a child,” also wants Joseph’s Central Park West apartment and his business.

The story begins with a scene that is parallel to, and the equal of, the one in Sense and Sensibility in which John Dashwood is gradually persuaded by his greedy wife that he really needs to do nothing for his indigent mother and sisters. Joseph Weissmann allows himself to become convinced by Felicity that it would be not only unselfish but generous of him to turn his wife Betty out of the apartment that has been her home for nearly fifty years, because it is too large and expensive for her to keep up. In order to persuade her to leave, and to sign a very unfavorable settlement, he cancels their joint bank account and all her credit cards. Just as the Dashwoods are exiled to a small, uncomfortable house owned by distant relatives in another county, so Betty and her daughters, Annie and Miranda, are forced to leave New York and move to a rundown seaside cottage lent to them by a cousin.

Like Sense and Sensibility, The Three Weissmanns of Westport is a study of different kinds of temperament. Annie, like Elinor Dashwood, has always been restrained, reasonable, and practical. Even in childhood she “had never looked youthful, always so serious, her dark eyes taking everything in and giving nothing back.” Perhaps predictably, she is a librarian; she also organizes literary readings, forming opinions on the famous aging participants but keeping them to herself, silently criticizing “both the Jewish writers of his generation (that showing off masked as neurosis) and the Wasps (the coldness masked as modesty).” Annie was briefly married to an unreliable man who is now dead, and has two affectionate college-age sons. She is surviving, but without much enthusiasm for life.

Miranda, like Elinor Dashwood’s sister Marianne, is romantic and impulsive, and to Annie occasionally very irritating:

For the members of Miranda’s family, her unpredictability had become predictable. There were tantrums when she was young; when she was older, a combative dedication to whatever it was to which she was dedicated at the moment, and, at every age, the demands and the drama.

Though she is in her forties, Miranda has never married, but she has had many dramatic affairs. She loves being in love, but becomes easily bored by routine. She is a successful literary agent, specializing in tell-all memoirs:

Her clients…had always overcome something…so ghastly and so lurid they had to write a ghastly and lurid book recounting every detail of their mortification and misery…. The books were very popular.

Unfortunately, when Schine’s novel opens, several of Miranda’s authors have turned out to be frauds. She has believed their tales of suffering and is devastated when they are exposed. Suddenly she is being sued by publishers and torn apart on television by Oprah. Genuine memoirists and editors drop her and her business goes bankrupt.

The girls’ mother, Betty, is also a fully realized and complex character. Like Miranda she is essentially an optimist, but her faith in the world has been shaken. Her husband’s desertion and his attempts to leave her almost penniless have, in her mind, turned him into another person. Quite logically, she thinks of the Joseph she knew as dead, and herself as a widow:

A divorce was surely a kind of death: a murder, in fact. It was the memories, so stubbornly happy and lifeless and useless, stinking with decay, that lay in a putrid heap like a rotting corpse.

Yet Betty, like Miranda, can view the move to a rundown summer cottage as an adventure. Where Annie sees peeling paint and dead grass, they see a wild rose bush in bloom. In hard times, Schine may be suggesting, it is perhaps useful to be a romantic optimist.

The Three Weissmanns of Wesport is an only partly ironic title. Annie, Miranda, and Betty are not originally wise women, but they become so during the course of the novel. In the end Annie’s common sense keeps the family together and financially stable (though only barely) when she rents out her New York apartment to save money and moves in with her mother and sister. As a result, she discovers how much they mean to her, and learns that she can both love and be loved. Miranda’s incurable optimism keeps up the family morale. Though jobless and broke, she reacts by “embracing a new, a second, a rediscovered adolescence.” She takes risks and remains open to experience, so that when she is rescued from near drowning by an amazingly handsome young actor called Kit, the equivalent of Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility, she falls unthinkingly in love.

Like Willoughby, he turns out to be self-centered and unreliable, but for a while Miranda enjoys a passionate affair. She also in a sense falls in love with Kit’s two-year-old son, a thoughtful, lonely child called Henry, and eventually realizes that she misses him more than she misses Kit. Betty survives a devastating betrayal and separation, and brings her daughters closer together; she also becomes someone whose life no longer centers around shopping and routine visiting, and who can see and understand what others are feeling.

The villains (most of them villainesses) in The Three Weissmanns of Westport are as varied as those of Sense and Sensibility. Yet most of them have at least one redeeming characteristic. Felicity, who persuades Joseph to leave his wife, is tough and practical: when things go wrong for her, she does not complain or feel sorry for herself. Kit, when he has free time, is an affectionate father. The Three Weissmanns of Westport does not have a completely upbeat ending, but it proves that the uses of adversity may be sweet as well as bitter. The heroines’ enemies may seem to prosper, but it is clear that their awful behavior will cause them to spend their lives with other greedy, selfish, and dishonest people. This time the influence of Schine’s model has been wholly positive: the untidy muse of farce has been banished and The Three Weissmanns of Westport is full of invention, wit, and wisdom that can bear comparison to Austen’s own.

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