Reviews | January 21, 2016
The Novella: Four New Collections
Liliane’s Balcony: A Novel of Falling Water by Kelcey Parker. Rose Metal Press, 208 pp., $14.95 (paper).
A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates. Alfred A. Knopf, 314 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)
Elegy on Kinderklavier by Arna Bontemps Hemenway. Sarabande, 232 pp., $15.95 (paper)
Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III. W. W. Norton, 292 pp., $25.95 (hardcover)
Though the novella can loosely be defined as some sixty to one hundred and thirty pages of prose fiction, length is only one part of the equation and cannot speak to the magic of the form. The novella’s effect, unlike that of the short story, is cumulative rather than immediate. The novella allows for a subplot or two, though plot need not be at the heart of the form. In “Some Notes on the Novella” (The New Yorker; October 29, 2012), Ian McEwan stresses the need for an economy that requires the writer to “bring off [his] effects with unusual intensity.”
As a frame for discussing the novellas under review here, I found myself immediately drawn to two additional statements by McEwan, whose novella, On Chisel Beach, had the rare honor of being shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize. First, in addition to sparing us the novel’s “swollen mid-section,” McEwan emphasizes the novella’s “architecture” as one of its “immediate pleasures.” The statement is valuable for its emphasis on structure and craftsmanship—for studying the novella as a made thing.
Two of the novellas under review here focus directly on architecture and architects. The first is Kelcey Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony, a multi-voiced work set at Fallingwater, the fabled house Frank Lloyd Wright built in 1936 for Liliane Kaufmann and her husband, Etgar, first cousins and department-store magnates from Pittsburgh. Parker herself has served as a volunteer Ask-Me Guide on the grounds, and her experience of the place and of the couple who lived there inspired her to dig more deeply into their story. Etgar Kaufmann was notoriously unfaithful, and the beautiful and cultured Liliane weathered his infidelities. On September 7, 1952, however, she fatally overdosed on sleeping pills at Fallingwater, and Etgar was the one to find her. Liliane’s trials in marriage and her suicide are at the center of Liliane’s Balcony, a syncopated narrative which captures the rhythms and inflections of a multiplicity of voices. The novella alternates between Liliane’s story—with strategically placed “chapters” spoken by Etgar and other members of their circle—and the narrative of a single house tour from the point of view of four present-day visitors. In her Author’s Note, Parker describes the novella’s structure in architectural language:
The multiple voices and hybrid structure emerged in the earliest draft, and I came to see the form as analogous to that of Fallingwater. Just as Fallingwater’s stone chimney serves as the structural vertical core, rising from the rock foundation and supporting the rest of the house, Liliane’s story serves as the book’s core. The other characters’ sections extend forth like multiple cantilevered balconies. I also knew very early on that the book would be a novella—that Fallingwater is, to my mind, a novella-sized house.
With a very few exceptions, each chapter bears a character’s name, and it is through the immediacy of Liliane’s sensory experience that the reader enters the novella’s Prologue:
Liliane strains to hear the falling water. She closes her eyes to open her ears to hear the water falling, for that is the point of the house, the architect had explained, to live with the waterfall. It was too plain merely to see the waterfall. One had to live with it, hear its voice, feel its pulse. But Liliane, in her bed, in early September, with the terrace door open despite the threat and scream of late-summer insects, cannot.
Not until the chapter’s end does the reader understand that Liliane is in the midst of committing suicide:
She hears a bullfrog, but no answer, no waterfall. It is the contrast between inside and outside that she can no longer abide. Her inside, her outside. Outside, she is the proud Mrs. K—, who owns a department store, travels the world, patronizes the arts, and rules over the famous house. Inside she is withered, neglected, scorned. . . .
You will live with the waterfall, the architect had said.
At last, at last—as if someone has switched on the amplifiers—she hears its familiar voice cry out to her.
And die with me, the waterfall says.
The novella, then, will explore the history that has brought Liliane to this breaking point.
From the Prologue, the reader moves to Part One, set in the present day of the tour and spoken by four characters, three of them women and the other a man named Josiah Quimby. The chapters spoken by characters other than Liliane are really fragments, incomplete and impressionistic, what one might expect from spending a few hours with strangers and speculating about their lives.The novella would not work were it made up solely of these voices of the present-day tourists. It works because it spans the arc of Liliane’s adult life, through her engagement to Etgar, her brief happiness, his infidelities and her ultimate death. Liliane makes her final appearance at the opening of the tenth and final section which returns the reader to the moments before her suicide.
The rewards of Liliane’s Balcony are not immediate. The novella is pleasurable, but its meaning only becomes apparent with rereading and ultimately with a little sleuthing into the circumstances of the Kaufmanns’ marriage, the centrality of Fallingwater in their lives, and especially into Liliane’s troubling death. More than any of the other novellas considered here, the architecture of Liliane’s Balcony—its intricately crafted form—is an intrinsic and highly self-conscious part of the work.
David Gates’s “Banishment” is the other novella to emphasize architecture, though here it is more about plotting, since the unnamed main character’s aging, second husband is “a once-almost-famous architect.” Like Gates, who covered music and popular culture for magazines such as Newsweek and The Rolling Stone, the narrator is a journalist. She meets her second husband when her editor sends her out to interview him in the posh, old-money town of Rhinebeck, New York, where he lives. “Banishment,” like the other stories in A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, is scathingly bleak. Gates writes about affluent, highly educated, disillusioned men and women. All his characters seem to attend or have attended private Eastern colleges, though they are not necessarily ambitious, successful or even committed to social change or “making a difference” on even the smallest scale. In their world, infidelity is the status quo, as are drugs and alcohol, and people expect frighteningly little of each other. For all these reasons, despite the accomplishments of Gates’s well-crafted prose, the reader must really connect with his voice and/or be able to derive some value from the experience of his characters if she’s to stay with his ninety-page novella, as opposed to one of his stories which requires less of a commitment.
The narrator of “Banishment” is the collection’s only female protagonist. In this way, Gates said in an interview with the Reading Room, he made up for the collection’s lightness on leading women. That said, the narrator is not believable; always her male creator’s presence lurks in the background. This brings distance to the reading, especially since “Banishment’s” narrator talks a little too much and too frequently about her privileged upbringing, her gender and her affiliation with or difference from archetypal literary heroines:
I was thirty when I’d married my first husband, whom I’d met while we were both
working for a Gannett paper in the Hudson Valley—not much of a job for a gal with a degree from Yale, but we can’t all be Naomi Wolf. (She was in my year, and I suppose I have to admit to some envy.)
I see that I’ve been painting myself as the little creepmouse-victim wife in a gothic novel—the house really did have a mansard roof: Was I not supposed to notice?—what with the attic room, the sad little plastic storage box and so on, the overwhelming older husband.
I’d been to Rio, Amsterdam, St. Kitts and wherever else a snotty Yale girl goes, as well as France and Peru with my first husband, but I’d never seen what you call America: just New York, L.A., San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Colonial Williamsburg.
“Banishment’s” sarcastic, highly self-aware tone brings me to another of Ian McEwan’s statements about the novella:
To sit with a novella is analogous to watching a play or a longish movie. In fact, there’s a strong resemblance between the screenplay (twenty odd thousand words) and the novella, both operating within the same useful constraints of economy—space for a subplot (two at a stretch), characters to be established with quick strokes but allowed enough room to live and breathe, and the central idea, even if it is just below the horizon, always exerting its gravitational pull. The analogy with film or theatre is a reminder that there is an element of performance in the novella. We are more strongly aware of the curtain and the stage, of the author as illusionist.
This passage speaks directly to the performative or theatrical elements of “Banishment.” Gates’s characters perform their lines more than they speak to each other, and his presence saturates the text. “Banishment’s” narrator is presumably attractive, given the immediate sexual attraction of the once-almost-famous architect. Although she is not haunted by aging—the novella spans some ten years of their marriage—she is painfully aware of, even debilitated by her lack of success as a writer, which forms one of the subplots or secondary threads, the novella’s primary focus being her marriage to the architect (a marriage that in no way seems to change or challenge the selfishness and self-absorption of either husband or wife) and their ultimate divorce.
The narrator continually tells the reader of her attempts to write something, initially at the architect’s house in Rhinebeck, New York, and later in their house at Montana, a house that her husband designs and builds only after they marry, and one in which he presumes they will spend his final years. While the architect paints in his artist studio, turning out mediocre pastiches of well-known modern and contemporary artists, the narrator struggles to write the book that will redeem her, only to wind up with “a computer infested with miscarried books—they never made it to stillborn—a husband whose body was beginning to bother me and whose mind was running out of fascinations. . . .”
Near the novella’s end the narrator confesses, “I don’t know what all this is supposed to add up to: it seems about damaged and selfish people. . . .” That’s exactly what “Banishment” is about. It’s an effect that begs the following question: why did Gates push what could have been a short story into a novella? In answering this question I’m returned to the fact that the effect of the novella is cumulative rather than instantaneous. In living with the narrator for nearly ninety pages, the reader understands why she is so disillusioned and bored. “What goes by the name of life is banishment, with now and then a postcard from the homeland,” she says, quoting Samuel Beckett. This enervated attitude, one without any real promise of redemption, is what abides long after the performance has ended.
The performative elements of Arna Bontemps Hemenway’s “Elegy on Kinderklavier,” the title novella in his 2015 PEN/Hemingway Award-winning short story collection, are worth noting here as well, though the effect of this novella, also narrated in the first person, by a man whose small son is dying of a brain tumor and whose bipolar wife keeps leaving rather than face their child’s terrifying death, is radically different.
Given its subject matter alone, “Elegy on Kinderklavier” could have been an intensely bleak piece. Although the descriptions of the child’s physical state border on the macabre at times, the novella is not depressing, in part because Bontemps Hemenway, like Joan Didion in her extraordinary The Year of Magical Thinking, creates a structure that invites the reader to focus on the mysteries surrounding the protagonist and his small family. In an interview with Sarabande Books, which published the book, Hemenway stated that the novella came together “when the story of a family’s struggle with a particular kind of pediatric brain tumor combined with the story of a woman leaving her husband while their child was sick.” The joining of these two stories, and the compelling ways in which Hemenway voyages increasingly deeper into each via the narrator’s associative musings, is central to the novella’s cumulative power.
In the opening pages, the narrator calls attention to the ways in which narrative eludes both time and closure, letting the reader know that “Elegy on Kinderklavier” is simultaneously about the linked journeys of memory and grief:
These things don’t have a beginning, not really. I’ve reached now the age of narrative, and it’s important to remember that this structure is false, an imposed will, a quirk of myself as a thirty-four-year-old man, of an age (reached perhaps a decade or so prematurely) when I have begun to be concerned with the story of what’s happened to me.
The passage invokes Didion’s much-quoted “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” from The White Album. Indeed, this could be the novella’s epigraph.
“Elegy on Kinderklavier” avoids becoming maudlin and melodramatic because of the ways in which the narrative freezes various moments—seemingly disparate images—from both the narrator’s present and past. Initially the primary focus seems to be the son’s dying and the unstable history with the narrator’s wife, while the story of her leaving is the secondary story. But the reader very quickly realizes that the two stories are interdependent. It is the spaciousness of the novella that gives the author room to really explore the interrelationship between past and present and the way in which memory works. Had “Elegy on Kinderklavier” opened up into a novel, Hemenway would have run the risk of that “swollen midsection,” dwarfing or burying what works so well here.
“Elegy on Kinderklavier” opens with a universal statement that is every parent’s worst nightmare:
A child is sick. A child is sick. You open the door to the room, or you look up, or you wake up and there is your son, sick, changed, and even with the scaled-down hospital bed they use in the pediatric oncology unit, even though he’s been there for months, there is still a micromoment of near panic, of your reptilian brain sending up the signal, running the sentence through every level of your mental processes. A child is sick. A child is sick. You want to tell someone. Though, of course, they already know.
Part of the pleasure of this beginning and of Hemenway’s writing in general, is the rhythms of his sentences and the ways in which such rhythms shape and enable the reader’s growing understanding.
In these initial pages, too, the reader learns of the wife/mother’s, Charlie’s, absence, though the reasons for her staying away are introduced slowly. And again, her absence is delivered in deeply satisfying sentences that employ a repetition which feels all too true given the distraught state of the narrator:
I don’t know where Charlie is. I don’t know if she’s on one of her jags, in which case she is probably wrapped up in the covers of our bed or cocooned on our couch in front of the TV, paralyzed by depression; I don’t know if she’s not left the flat for days, if she’s eaten this week. Or she could be gone, vanished during one of her different periods, wandering any of the tourist sites of our little island country, as she calls it.
The dying child, Haim, always asks where Charlie is, having stopped referring to her as his mother when she stopped coming to the hospital regularly. It is up to the narrator either to remain silent or to create a fiction for the boy. Both father and son are aware that the story, or a part of it anyway, is a lie, and perhaps a very necessary one. For the larger fiction here, as the narrator makes explicit, is “the game we’re all playing, pretending he might get better.”
Through it all, the narrator is a constant at his eight-year-old son’s bedside, and he recounts the gruesome interventions. All of this could become unbearable and maudlin, but the narrative is liberated from grimness by the questions about story and meaning and identity that he asks, questions that propel him—and the reader—ever further into the past, all the while bringing his son closer to that unthinkable absence that lies ahead: death. Yes, death will bring relief, but death will also eradicate all evidence of the child’s existence and with it, for this narrator at least—and I should mention here that the narrator is also an unsuccessful fiction writer—all meaning.
Counteracting the agony of the child’s circumstances is the narrator’s emphasis on the terrifying pleasure he takes in thinking about how his wife will react to her son’s disfigurement, for Haim is unrecognizable from the child he once was. After all, this is a novella both about a child’s dying and the dissolution of a marriage which brings with it cruelties between husband and wife, cruelties that become all the more chilling and simultaneously believable given the unbearable situation of their child:
If I am to be brutally honest, I admit to taking some pleasure in her difficulty, her struggle in the moment. I wanted him to be foreign to her in the wake of her desertion, un-recognizable. For Charlie, for lack of better words, to understand that he was now more mine than hers.
I also wanted her to see what was the cruelest bodily insult of all, which was that instead of the wan, rail-thin body of the child with cancer nearing death, we had been given the opposite: a robust, bloated, outsized child, an embarrassment of flesh. I wanted her to get that we would not even have the small mercy of watching our own kid live and fade; that, instead, we would only have the queer neutrality of watching this Other, this boy whom some persons else had allowed to grow so fat, to become so lost in his own body. Of not even being able to recognize him, really.
You can’t see him as he once was…. You only see what’s before you. The foreign body, the sickness. It’s impossible to see what you’ve already lost.
As a novella about an archetypal, primal fear, “Elegy” succeeds precisely because of the way the narrative becomes about looking within oneself—in this case within the narrator’s self in which the reader inevitably could see herself, given the right or the most unthinkable circumstances.
And along the way, the narrator also comes to some profound discoveries about the relationship between literature and life:
The great authors in their twilight produce books that grow shorter and shorter, and nobody has much to say about a child with a terminal brain tumor watching the first snow of the year collect on his windowsill. The story refuses to assemble itself. Dying defeats all plot. What would I possibly have had to say to Charlie, even if we did talk?
Hemenway is only twenty-eight, and this is remarkable given one of the narrator’s final discoveries: “There may have been a time when we were not yet the people we are now, but we certainly always contained them.”
Like “Elegy on Kinderklavier,” bestselling author Andre Dubus III’s quartet of novellas, Dirty Love, is concerned with the psyche’s “dirtiness” and the many ways in which moral damage plays out in intimate relationships. For Dubus, there remains the possibility of redemption, and always, as in the case of Hemenway, compassion. His novellas are linked in terms of geography as well as tone, set in the coastal mill towns near the Massachusetts–New Hampshire border, fertile terrain that Dubus explored in his coming of age memoir, Townie.
In the opening novella, “Listen Carefully as Our Options May Have Changed,” the reader meets Mark Welch, a fifty-six-year-old man whose wife, Laura, is having an affair. Mark has pried into his wife’s correspondence and rifled through her private things; he’s even hired a private investigator to film Laura with her lover, and he’s forced her to watch the video. Armed with a lead pipe, Mark eventually drives across town to her lover’s house to confront him, only to discover, belatedly, that he’s accidentally confronted the lover’s son.
One of Dubus’s strengths is his ability to render the self in extremis. Here the novella form allows room for Mark to revisit his long history with his wife—they have a grown daughter—and to realize the ways in which his compulsive need for order and control damaged and diminished her and their marriage. In the process, Mark must really look at himself, and in the end, he is allowed a measure of hope.
Spanning only forty pages, the second novella, “Marla,” introduces an idealistic, overweight young bank teller who initially believes that a romantic relationship will somehow complete her. When Marla becomes involved with Dennis, a fat, lethargic sound engineer who works for the local radio station, her co-workers encourage her to believe that Dennis is her destiny. A particular fan of the relationship and a powerful influence is pretty, middle-aged Nancy, who lives in a customized house on the lake and hosts themed couples parties. Though Marla tries to believe in the idea of a shared future, little by little doubt seeps in, inevitable given Dennis’s competitiveness, his compulsive cleanliness and his inability to compromise or yield on anything. One of the most poignant scenes centers on Dennis and Marla’s double date with Nancy and her husband. While the other couples dance around them, Marla waits for Dennis to invite her to join them. She’s patient for a while but finally confronts him. Later, Dennis proves equally fixed on the subject of having children:
She took a deep breath. “Think we’ll ever have a baby, Denny?”
“Not if I can help it.”
Marla felt slapped. . . . She felt like crying, not because of what he’d said
but how he’d said it, his voice adamant and final. Then his big hand was on her knee and she wanted to push it away.
Confused and disillusioned, Marla would probably end the relationship, were it not for Nancy, whose form of pressure proves truly chilling:
“I’m afraid you’re expecting too much from him and you’ll give up too
soon. Which wouldn’t be fair to Dennis, by the way.”
“Is it fair to pretend around him?”
“There are worse things than pretending, Marla.”
Like Mark Welch, Nancy tries to control those close to her, and Dubus is particularly good at rendering the subtly damaging or “dirtying” impact. “Marla,” even more than the first novella, is a testament to how efficiently character can be established; and character is one of Dubus’s greatest strengths. His people step forward fully formed, so the reader believes in them instantly.
In “The Bartender,” the third novella, twenty-something Robert Doucette wants to be a poet; in reality he’s a hard-drinking bartender at a seaside resort who cheats on his patient, very pregnant wife. Dubus’s characters may inflict damage, but they’re still allowed to hope, even if that redemption is far-fetched or unlikely, as is the case with Robert, who longs to change after his daughter’s premature birth. Dubus feels compassion towards Robert, and via the last six or so pages of close description set in the hospital at the novella’s close, he kindles that compassion in the reader.
The title novella, also the longest at nearly one hundred and thirty pages, follows eighteen-year-old Devon and her eighty-year-old great uncle Francis, with the narrative alternating between their two viewpoints. We’ve met Devon before. In “The Bartender,” she was a waitress at the restaurant where Robert tended bar, but she disappeared almost as quickly as she was introduced, a point which illuminates yet another quality of these novellas. In this geographically-linked collection, the reader feels she’s met many of the characters before, and in several cases that’s true. Nancy, from “Marla,” reappears in “Dirty Love” as the mother of one of the boys responsible for the creation of “Dirty Devon,” an Internet identity that haunts Devon and leads to her dropping out of high school. (Meanwhile Nancy’s son is going to Dartmouth.)
Shamed and alienated by the sexual act that her friends posted to the Internet, a clip that her father eventually watches, Devon’s only real connection by the time her story opens is with the music constantly streaming through her headphones and with a traumatized Iraq vet in Texas, whom she meets on the Internet. This lost girl is all too real; her enthrallment to cyberspace, a terrifying testament to our age. But her great uncle, Francis, is alienated, too. This complicates the narrative beautifully and makes the novella even more interesting. Traumatized by the memory of the massacre he witnessed while serving in Korea, Francis, a beloved, retired high school teacher, has given Devon a place to live since her estrangement from her adulterous, alcoholic father.
“Dirty Love” is a particularly satisfying narrative and definitely the tour-de-force of the collection, with Dubus moving seamlessly between the two characters and weaving in and out of their recurring memories and fears. And yes, the vision is bleak. Yet hope does emerges in small moments of grace or connection, as when Francis, a recovered alcoholic, remembers being pulled over for speeding—he was running away from his fear by pressing the gas pedal—by a cop who turns out to have been one of his most troubled students turned good. Francis may not able to move beyond his agonizing memories; he may not be able to help the great-niece he has always loved who, at the end, embarks on what will likely become a dangerous and painful journey. That danger, always shimmering beneath the surface, is part of “Dirty Love’s” power; and Dubus is able to sustain and develop it through the novella form. “Dirty Love,” like the other three novellas in this collection, brings into sharp focus themes of damage and hurt but also hope and love among characters who are all too flawed, yet utterly believable.
Ultimately, then, what the novella does so well is enable the writer to showcase his/her mastery of craft and to bring forth central thematic, formal and existential concerns, all the while giving the reader a knockout infusion of voice. While the short story is too tight a form to enable the writer to really wander, and the novel too big a thing, with its highly developed characters, its subplots and digressions, to showcase a writer’s mastery of form, the pressure of the novella does indeed suit it to a single powerful idea or, as Henry James has said, to “the idea happily developed” to its own perfect length.
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