Truman Capote, on the back of The War Between the Tates, says Jane Austen would enjoy this novel; the author, Alison Lurie, is called the Queen Herod of modern fiction by Gore Vidal, and the wisest woman in America by James Merrill. Which is the kind of press Lurie has been getting for a decade. Yet if the suggestion is that her work is spicy, wicked, wise in a feline way, it is really the wrong suggestion. The War Between the Tates is Alison Lurie’s fifth novel, her longest and most ambitious, yet it is a sober, witty, modest book, like all her others, better perhaps, very touching in places, no “break-through,” for her or for fiction.
As a working answer to the question of Lurie’s curious reputation, let’s say that at a time when most novels are whole cloth, verve and swagger, people get starved for cool, observant, realistic fiction, and are delighted to read something like this:
The fact that she hates her own children is her darkest, most carefully guarded secret. Even to Danielle she has never fully revealed it. In public she speaks of them as everyone else does, with proud concern or humorous mock despair. Her acquaintances protest that on the contrary they have always found Jeffrey and Matilda most polite (as apparently they can sometimes pretend to be). Then, in a light, humorous tone, they complain amusingly of John’s room or Jerry’s attitude toward homework, which makes Erica wonder if they too might be harboring monstrous lodgers. When Susan says, smiling, that her children are “quite dreadful,” does she mean in reality that she dreads them? When Jane exclaims that her daughter is “hopeless,” has she indeed lost hope?
Lives of quiet, bourgeois desperation, accurately observed in prose a little brisker and more clever than most realistic fiction. It is, of course, not wickedness or wisdom we find here, but insistent penetrating glances.
Give such a writer a small academic community and she will succeed by means of her quickness, her efficiency, her lightness of touch, with lots of subjects that others manage only with ponderousness or self-regarding wit: The Department, The Book, The Cocktail Party, the Young, both children and students. In The War Between the Tates Lurie cheerfully takes on the standard plot—an ambitious professor, his well-educated wife, their domestic boredom and strain, a student mistress for the husband, futile attempts at retaliation and freedom by the wife, and whenever these figures and actions move into the surrounding community, we have clarity and brightness where others usually have managed murky expositions and cute tricks. The Department is brought to workable life in a dozen pages. The incursions of expensive tract houses into the neighborhood of the Tates’ once isolated remodeled older home is done well in a few paragraphs. Late in the book there is a sequence worth the price of admission, back-to-back parties where we see the newly separated wife painfully trying to make her way among people who can treat her only with condescension and sexual advance placed next to the newly separated husband sipping beer at a party with students where the joint is being passed, and he worries about the pot while his mistress worries about his drinking.
Anyone who has read Alison Lurie knows her talent for this kind of thing, and she shows it here better than ever before. It is the sort of quick penetration we might, if we like, associate with Jane Austen, but also with John P. Marquand or Evelyn Waugh, and few writers have it these days; and there is the advantage of being up-to-date too, as when the wife compares the penis of her would-be lover and that of her husband to strawberry and black raspberry ice cream cones.
But all this does not a novel make, however much it may do to establish its setting, tone, terms. Where is life not just as seen but as felt, and who will do this living, and what will happen to them? In The Nowhere City and Imaginary Friends Alison Lurie relied with considerable success on neat and clever plotting; in Love and Friendship she assayed a romance with markedly less success. In The War Between the Tates she has given herself space for her witty observing, she has kept her plot unobtrusive but timed within an inch of its frail life, and she offers another romance, at least of sorts. Since she herself is older, so are her characters, and sadder, too; since she is working here at much greater length than her other novels but in ways already clear and familiar to her, the result is a novel her admirers will like at least as much as the others. Since, however, those admirers find in her qualities I don’t, and since she occupies a field among current literary pastures almost entirely by herself, it seems important to try to assess her accomplishment rather precisely.
First, the failures. Looking back at the quotation offered above, one can say that it matters little what Susan or Jane or their children actually are like, since all that is important about them is their language and the situations they imply. When the characters are asked to play parts of some consequence, however, and Lurie’s method with them still remains the same as it does with the background figures, the results are caricatures that can be embarrassing in their simplicity. Here, for instance, are the adolescent children in action:
“You said the next time Daddy was away you would take us to the Faculty Club and we could have a Supersteak Sandwich, didn’t she?”
“I don’t want you to make me one at home. The kind you make are always foul.”
“You always promise you’ll do things for us but you never do, you’re just lying.”
“I won’t be quiet. Liar, liar, liar.”
And here is the graduate student mistress, talking about the husband’s book:
“But you know what it’s about, and that he’s going to show how this really beautiful plan Kennan had after World War II was shucked because of selfish establishment politics and intrigues. He’s going to explain the whole thing, and if The Book is published in time, and the right people in Washington read it, it’s going to really zap them. And that could have a fantastic effect, you know? Like once they realize what happened before, they would reverse their strategy, and stop trashing the rest of the world.”
Alison Lurie may actually have heard people saying these words, but she hasn’t yet inquired into what might lie behind them, and so characters named Jeffrey, Matilda, and Wendy reappear many times without once being anything but utterers of fantastic sounds.
The real disaster in this respect is the husband, Brian Tate, a boring monster from beginning to end:
What makes the war [the Tates versus their children] most exhausting for Brian now is that his ally, Erica, has deserted him. She has declared, not so much verbally as by her recent actions, that she cannot fight any more, that she is giving up the effort. The defection seems to him profoundly unjust, even dishonorable. For years the Tates’ domestic life has been governed according to the principle of separation of powers: Erica functioning as the executive branch, and Brian as the legislative and judicial. He has always left it to her to supervise the children in everyday matters. Now when—possibly as a consequence of her management—the children have grown into selfish, rude, rebellious adolescents, she resigns and declares that it is his turn.
Since countless husbands and fathers have justified their selfishness in this fashion, there is no need to deny the force of Lurie’s accurate observation. But even monsters, as a friend of mine recently pointed out, must pause to take toast and tea, or must if they are not to wear out their welcome rather quickly. Not Brian Tate. Lurie treats him throughout with the same cool ridiculing air she gives her background characters, and so he becomes a bloated oafish weight around his creator’s neck, and she does nothing to relieve herself of it.
Worse still, in a realistic novel characters must deal with each other, so the problem with Brian also hurts Lurie’s best creation, his wife Erica. All goes well for a while because Erica is coming to see in her husband precisely what we see, though even here we note the discrepancy between Brian rendered as a monster and Erica rendered as an ordinary human being. When the two begin to stumble back together we can only think Erica has taken leave of her senses. Of course good people often return to their awful mates, but this is not so much a marriage of beauty with the beast as of Emma Woodhouse with Daddy Warbucks. Further, it isn’t clear how much of this Lurie herself sees, how much she realizes she has given Erica by making her ordinary and human, how much she betrays her by returning her to her husband and, thus, to the zoo.
But this does lead us to the great successes of the novel. Erica herself is well done, and exceptionally so in her fumbling attempts at an affair with a pathetic old college friend who turns up in town as the owner of a hippie bookstore. Here Lurie drops her cool tones, or subdues them, and if the result is not great richness of feeling it is something almost as valuable, a touching shyness:
He stands there against the shelves of books with his wings hunched, not even looking at her, simply waiting for her to go away. Instead she takes a step in the other direction, toward him.
“Sandy, my dear, what’s the matter?”
He turns his head, looks down, hesitates. Perhaps, now he sees her so close, so creased, even he doesn’t want—Then slowly he straightens and moves nearer; she sees in close-up his ill-shaven, freckled, tired scarecrow features; his pale eyes with their reddish rims and orange lashes. Nearer still—She closes her eyes, improving the view.
Given the context of this scene even that last remark is not a nasty crack, but just what Erica quite naturally feels. Later, after the two go on a drug trip—that is quietly and excellently described—they have to admit they are only fumbling:
“I hate getting old and ugly, I hate it. I hate it!” The wailing turns to sobbing. “Somebody’s crying,” she remarks. “I think it’s me.”
“Right. All right.” He is holding her, her face against his shirt, stroking her. The crying fades….
“Thank you.” She hugs him and sits back. “But do you feel that too? Do you hate getting ugly and old?”
A pause. “It’s different for me,” he says finally. “I’ve always been ugly. Age doesn’t change that much. What I don’t like is the way time runs out. Knowing there are things I won’t do in this life, places I won’t see. People dying.”
Beyond that Sandy and Erica and Alison Lurie cannot go, and so the shyness of all three must serve to convey feeling that is worth honoring as well as observing. Admiring these scenes as I do, I can only conclude that a great deal of Lurie’s cool wit is just a Queen Herod mask, a defense against her own feelings, and can only hope she will go on to face or explore her shyness more, to learn what it hides, knows, can express. Should she let it emerge, it could lead not only to more fully created characters but to a deeper and more thoughtful wit as well.
At the end, in the reunion of Brian and Erica, Lurie must settle for less because all that precedes forces it upon her:
They will laugh, and possibly at some moments cry. They will encourage each other, console each other, and forgive each other. Finally, as the afternoon lengthens and the shadows of half-fledged trees reach toward the house, they will put their arms about each other and forget for a few moments that they were once exceptionally handsome, intelligent, righteous and successful young people; they will forget that they are ugly, foolish, guilty, and dying.
It is a good passage, but askew to the book. Brian does not deserve such scathing and compassionate scorn, Erica deserves something different, perhaps better. If Lurie’s wisdom tells her that she cannot do more than return to him, she may be right, but Erica should still be given more than the yoking of the two into the “they” of this passage allows for.
A good, eminently readable, badly flawed, occasionally touching novel, then. One only hopes that all the talk about Jane Austen and wisdom and Queen Herod does not keep Alison Lurie from seeing that there is more to comic fiction than reducing life to scale, or from knowing she is young, eager, and good enough to find out what that is.
August 8, 1974