“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 the sentence, Howard describes the party with a light touch: Artie is “lifted ceremoniously, held up to ridicule as in a tar-and-feather ritual. Heaved out of Lou’s loft.” Artie is also searching for the identity of his mysterious father, guided only by a photograph he finds in his grandparents’ apartment.
Here, and in Big as Life (which contains yet another story about Artie and Louise, as well as a story concerning Artie’s grandmother, Mae), Artie remains something of a cipher, his one remarkable characteristic being his status as a “free man,” without parental ties. Louise is seen in sharper focus, while the character of her art does raise profound aesthetic questions in the reader, questions Howard fails to resolve. When Artie visits her installation of TV monitors screening a montage of world history alongside Freeman and Moffett family portraits, dates of births, marriages, and deaths, he cannot make up his mind “whether their lives—his life and Lou’s—are made smaller or bigger by this show.” Readers may have the same problem, left pondering questions that could be asked about the novel: “What does she mean, if we may use that overdirectional word?… That we are trivial and grand?” Ultimately, the fictional characters seem upstaged by weightier figures, such as the wonderfully vivid Lucy Audubon: “Of her marriage to a man obsessed with his art, she will say, Every bird was my enemy.”
So, too, the author’s own voice, speaking to the reader directly at the end of Big as Life, is more captivating than those of her invented characters: “I will admit that some of Audubon’s birds have never been seen. At times, not often, he worked from memory, the great distorter.” Some of the writing, particularly in the title story of Big as Life, is profoundly evocative and accomplished. Yet these two knotty novels ultimately seem like intellectual versions of Rube Goldberg machines: ambitious, comic, but inevitably anticlimactic and willed, adding up to less than the sum of their parts.
Compared to the first two novels, The Silver Screen seems, at first glance, a more conventional work. It is a novel ostensibly about the priest, “Joseph Murphy, S.J.,” who is glimpsed in A Lover’s Almanac. Father Joe is indeed Artie Freeman’s father, although Artie never learns this. The Silver Screen stands alone as a novel, but for readers of A Lover’s Almanac and Big as Life the knowledge of who Father Joe is adds a voyeuristic interest.
The Silver Screen gains its intensity from its relentless focus on death. The epigraph is from Moby-Dick: “Methinks we have largely mistaken this matter of Life and Death. Methinks that what they call my shadow here on earth is my true substance.” The dead, in this instance, is Isabel Maher Murphy, briefly a film star of the 1920s, mother to Joe and his sister, Rita. The shadow is cast by her story, the myth she has created around herself. The novel opens in the Twenties, when we glimpse her first one-reel movie, in which she is among a group of beautiful young women romping on the beach: “Play ball, dash for the bleachers, pose in the jersey bathing suits that cling to their delicious bodies.” One page and many years later she is lying dead, and her seventy-one-year-old son, Father Joe, has come home to the Rhode Island house where he grew up, a house on a bluff above the sea, “the sun on the water blinding this Summer day.” His sister, the sixty-eight-year-old Rita, a physical therapist, has dutifully cared for her mother for decades and is sullenly resentful of the bond between her mother and brother.
In his eulogy for Isabel, Father Joe begins a process of recollection that continues throughout the novel, a process carried on not only by himself but by “Bel” Maher, sometimes speaking from beyond the grave; Rita; their childhood friend Gemma Riccardi, now a well-known photographer; and others. Each successive speaker has his or her own story to tell, but many of the stories overlap, and, with repetition and variations, the novel becomes more complex. Father Joseph Aloysius Murphy seems drawn from the world of Joyce’s short stories (Augustine Aloysius was Joyce’s middle name). But the novel’s real homage may be to another modernist masterpiece, Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, which incorporates recurrent interior monologues, the use of repeated phrases as refrain, and memories recalled by different characters. Many of the overlapping memories in The Silver Screen revolve around two questions: Why did Bel Maher precipitously abandon Hollywood and return to Rhode Island to marry and have children, and why did Father Joe lose his faith and yet remain a Jesuit priest?
Both questions are linked. Because Bel has abandoned “the silver screen”—so Joe thinks—she needs to use her children as an unwilling audience. She needs to live through him, wanting him to star in a realm purer and higher than Hollywood. The daughter of Maeve, a severe Catholic housekeeper, and Pat Maher, a Rhode Island factory worker who is trying to invent a self-winding watch, Bel is a young eighth-grade teacher in the early 1930s and engaged to Tim Murphy, a local boy. When an itinerant vaudevillian sees her rehearsing in a local theater—“Sweethaat, you oughtta be in pitchas”—she takes off for Hollywood. She becomes a silent-film star, and has affairs with her director, Bill Banks, and with a socialist screenwriter, Meyer Wolf. Banks is an attractive materialist; Wolf has the single-minded self-righteousness of moral assurance. Staying at the Santa Barbara Biltmore with Banks, she plays out a scene that Wolf, the champion of the working class, could have written. As they finish breakfast in the hotel restaurant, Bel and Banks are approached by a ragged Mexican child and his sister, who try to sell her a small skeleton made of tin, meanwhile eying the food on the table. The waiter drags them away, but Isabel stops them and gives the children her gold watch, a gift from Banks. Three weeks later, she is playing the lead in a movie inspired by Amelia Earhart, a woman aviator lost in the jungle, her only friend a monkey, when she walks off the set in the middle of a scene, throwing her cap to the animal. She packs her bags, including the tin skeleton, takes the train home, marries Murphy, and has two children.
Walking away, she cannot explain her action:
In Phoenix I blamed the two men in my bungalow life…. In Chicago I believed it was the monkey, his scrabbling brown fingers clinging to my breast like a child I’d never have…. Sitting up all night to Grand Central, I knew it was Maeve—when she was horrid—my mother’s voice called me back.
All these play a part—her disillusionment with the shallowness of Hollywood, her desire to have children, her own self-chastening childhood (“Pretty enough child, her mother said, but we set little store by that…. Plain will do us”). As Howard examines the reasons for Bel’s abandonment of Hollywood from every possible perspective—from Bel’s beyond the grave, from Joe’s, from Gemma Riccardi’s, from Rita’s—she beautifully captures the mystery and confusion of human motivation.
The other characters’ differing perceptions of the silver screen, the central image, reveal how their egos can distort their vision. To Gemma Riccardi, a young girl from the “wrong side of town,” who has been befriended by Bel Murphy, The Silver Screen is a movie magazine that Bel buys in the town drugstore in 1942, in which young Gemma recognizes her friends’ mother in a glamour pose:
“Sweethearts of Yesteryear.” Where have they gone?… Then turned to the page with Mrs. Murphy distant and rare as a queen in a silver gown, a gleaming helmet of black hair. A promising heartbreaker lost to the business, Mrs. Murphy with a dark shadow of herself cast on the wall behind.
But to Bel herself—who “disliked myself magnified, turned away from my enormous eyes, the grotesque mouth of a close-up”—the screen embodies the perils of narcissism, the thin line between self-love and self-loathing:
At first she wanted to love herself up there, all shadow and light, the illusion she’s really someone, Isabel Maher, but her career had more to do with leaving than arriving…. The screen is a fun house mirror. Our Bel, our Izzy, is not self-enchanted. When the beautiful boy Narcissus falls for the beautiful boy in the pond, he’s overcome with desire. Nothing will do but the wet kiss of self-consumption. No mirrors in the woods where Narcissus ran free, sloughing off lovers, until his fatal self-reflection in the pond’s glass surface. Isabel Maher is well acquainted with mirrors. When she was a girl, the crazed mirror in her bedroom told her she was a beaut, the one with the cupcakes.
At once a romantic and a hard realist, Bel never resolves the contradictions within herself, and she bequeaths to her children this confusion.
Bel takes her children driving on an “excursion” to the Seamen’s Bethel in New Bedford, Massachusetts, some miles from home. This is the chapel dedicated to sailors lost at sea, which is the setting of a key scene in Moby-Dick. At the chapel Bel theatrically reads from Ishmael’s meditation in the chapel (“Yes, the dead, that they tell no tales, though containing more secrets… Methinks that in looking at things spiritual, we are too much like oysters”), and throughout the novel, both in Father Joe’s eulogy for his mother, and in his and Gemma Riccardi’s memories of her, this scene is recalled. But each recollection is entirely different. For Gemma, Bel’s performance was “the beginning of all my journeys.” Without knowing it, Bel has given the girl a reason to grasp what she herself has relinquished, “a desire to make my name, to prove that she was wrong choosing exile.” Gemma describes it as a benign day: “I understood nothing of your performance, just heard your voice which could tell me any old story and I’d believe it, the whole Hollywood script.”
But for the young Joe, his mother’s singing show tunes (“By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea“), her exclamations—“There are never enough stories!”—and her reading in the chapel inspire no mere teenage embarrassment:
They did not want to know this about her, that she seemed, well, kind of nuts reading from a famous book for three kids in a row who could not meet her expectation of an audience. Had she brought them to this musty place hung with names of the dead to show them her cap and trench coat were not up to the performance? Many years later, her son reading Melville, would recall his mother exposing herself as an actress, her desperation as she slapped the book closed…. Hearing Bel proclaim Melville’s fierce sentences, he had prayed, Let her stop the dramatics. Dear God, let my mother be ordinary.
In his eulogy for his mother, he describes their family as a replacement for the audience Bel relinquished: “She left the glitter and bright lights, came home…to marry Tim Murphy, and so we must feel we were chosen. Bel’s role was to be our star.”
As if in retaliation, Joe, a handsome high school football player, has refused to star in his own life and has been the dimly observed servant of others. Joe sees himself as Bel’s second chance at self-creation: “His mother wanted him to be the best…. It did not occur to her Joey until he was in the novitiate that she named him after the carpenter who fathered no one.”
Here, as in the previous novels, the female characters are stronger and better defined. One sees Father Joe’s passivity, and his adoption of the life he imagines his mother has envisioned for him, as part of his reaction to her self-dramatization. His love affair with Fiona O’Connor at Anima Mundi, a hippie commune on the Bowery, remains his one engagement with life:
For some weeks they were blessed with the book of their bodies. He turned her like a prize in their single bed, lifting himself above her to see what must be a miracle, their legs and arms entangled in the light of a street lamp cast through a dirty schoolhouse window.
Without telling him that she is pregnant, Fiona flees uptown to her parents’ apartment. Father Joe is sent, as punishment, to El Salvador to teach poor children, where he drinks too much, becoming a hapless witness to the violence unleashed by the clash between great wealth and the Church’s liberation theology. A lover of poetry, he is forced to teach math. Yet he does not leave the Church because “this is what life had in store for him.” On retreat at Shadowbrook, a seminary in the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, he realizes that his loss of faith is—like his mother’s refusal to be a star—not so much a decision as an act of self-denial, a walking away: “For years he’s stopped counting, Father Joe has lived without will.”
The choices Howard has made in The Silver Screen—placing a dead woman and her submissive son at the center of the novel—nonetheless serve its subversive purpose: to expose the sometimes ruinous power of stories. Many of the stories the characters of The Silver Screen tell themselves are confidence games, and in Father Joe’s case are capable of swindling them out of life.
Stories, in Howard’s view, can be sinister: Bel Maher’s exclamation—“There are never enough stories!”—serves to paralyze her son. Making myths or stories out of life is one way to make sense of death, but in The Silver Screen it is not always certain that death can be kept neatly in its place, as an ending. Death is a constant presence in the novel, from the scythe-wielding tin skeleton that Bel Maher hangs on her mirror to the ever-present images of clocks and watches: Bel’s father’s obsession with his self-winding watch, Bel’s exchange of her watch for the skeleton, Father Joe reading Thomas Campion’s “On a Portable Clock.” The priest inherits his grandfather’s timepiece, which he has worked on all his life, when Bel dies. Just before he dies, “he feels for his workman’s watch.” The multiplication of all these timepieces emphasizes not only that “All must die,” as one of Howard’s epigraphs, from Tristram Shandy, has it, but that it matters how the time one has is spent.
In this most bookish of books, each of these images brings to mind “the clock ticking on the mantelpiece” in The Waves. The Silver Screen begins: “Sea laps the shore. We need not know what shimmering sea, what pure white sand,” its italics and heightened language recalling the famous italicized passages of Woolf’s novel: “The sun had not yet risen. The sea was indistinguishable from the sky, except that the sea was slightly creased….” We see Bel Maher’s “delicious body” on that beach and then we see her dead body, decades later, “the sun on the water blinding this Summer day.” There is no more chilling way to depict the fact that, as Woolf famously put it, “time passes,” than this extreme foreshortening. Dense, difficult, at times elegant, The Silver Screen can be read with admiration, giving perhaps the most pleasure as an homage to the masterpieces that inspired it.
December 16, 2004