Revealing All

April 2, 2016


In a new interview with JD Fox at Mud Season Review, I reveal the connections among Jane Austen, Bernie Sanders, grandmothers and groupies.

Thanks to JD for some excellent questions that allowed me to rant so broadly. Potential readers should be forewarned: this is a somewhat alarming peek into the inner workings of a peculiar mind.

Drawing from Life

August 19, 2014

Robin Black’s novel Life Drawing is remarkable in many ways. So many reviewers have praised the book already that there’s no need to add to the chorus, but I want to note one element in particular.

A baLife Drawing by Robin Blackd thing happens in this book. A big, bad thing, with a clear victim and a clear perpetrator. But what makes the act unusual is that everyone is guilty in some sense. The victim bears some guilt. So do three other people who did not commit or encourage or sanction the bad thing but nevertheless helped move it toward fruition.

That strikes me as more true to life than we care to acknowledge on a daily basis. We may nod at the author’s wisdom, but in real life we prefer to get outraged. We like to draw hard lines between the innocent and the guilty, point our fingers at the bad guys and clamor for justice. For just a moment, think of how often we do this when discussing, say, Palestine, gun violence, political rebellions, multigenerational poverty, _____ [insert controversial subject of your choice].

Ms. Black’s one sin against realism in Life Drawing is that she allows her characters to recognize how much they have all contributed to the evil. In real life, we won’t admit any such thing.

If only we could be as smart as our best novelists …

While waiting impatiently for the copy of Robin Black’s novel that I preordered last July (damn these publishers and their extended marketing campaigns!), I saw that she’d published a new story on Five Chapters, and I went to it eagerly. Called “The Rabbi’s Wife,” it’s as well-crafted and psychologically complex as the stories in her first book, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This—and even more provocative.

To talk about it, I have to give away the surprise twist that emerges, so if you haven’t read it yet, go do that now, at this link. Then come back and argue with me about it. Because I’ve been arguing in silence with the author, and the main character, Hannah, and myself for several hours now, and I need somebody else to direct my rantings at.

OK, you’ve read it? So you know the story is about Hannah, nearing 70, widowed a few years ago when Ben, her rabbi husband, died. She stopped going to synagogue after his death and cut her ties with the congregation except for her best friend Myra. She wants to remember Ben as the man she married when they were both “graduate students in psychology, non-believers,” before he betrayed her, in a way, by becoming religious, essentially forcing her—though she agreed to it—into the role of “rabbi’s wife,” with all the public duties that entails: “Part of loving Ben meant accepting a kid of amputation of self.” And yet she realizes that she now is betraying him, in a way, by stripping him in her thoughts of the rabbi-role he cherished.

So far, this is typical of Black’s stories in its subtle moral insight and sharp analysis of the myriad small treacheries of everyday life. I can’t think of any contemporary writer who is better at this kind of vision. But then the story goes to another level as we learn more about Hannah’s current situation.

The immediate occasion of the story is Myra’s funeral—Hannah’s close friend and confidante has died suddenly. At the shiva, the gathering at Myra’s house, Hannah empathizes with Myra’s ex–daughter in law, who recently divorced Myra’s son. The young woman is too good for the son, and Myra had supported her in breaking free. As the story of the young people comes out, we learn more of Hannah and Myra, and we see that Hannah has a breaking-free for herself in mind.

Hannah has been dating a man, Peter, for eight months now. She likes him, even enjoys having him in her bed, where he forges “a shelter into which she, the old tired she, could disappear.” But now he has been diagnosed with lung cancer and given two years to live—the same prognosis her late husband was given. Having suffered through the years of chemo, surgery and radiation with her husband, and then the inevitable grueling death, Hannah doesn’t feel she can do it again with Peter. Myra, her confidante, urged her to break off with him immediately: “The fact that you were sleeping together doesn’t indenture you to him.” He has children, Myra pointed out. You’re not his wife, Myra argued. “He’s a perfectly nice man, but you do not owe him this.”

Now Myra is suddenly dead and Peter is waiting for Hannah to come to him after the funeral. This nice man—a “genial man,” a “gentle being”—expects her to stay with him through his crisis. But as she sits alone in Myra’s bedroom gathering her thoughts, Hannah determines that she will not. She refuses to stomach another excruciating death. Life is unfair, she knows, and “she will conspire in the cruelty it brings.” She marches out on the way to Peter’s house, where her “newly ruthless self” will tell him, no doubt in the kindest possible terms, that she’s through with him and he’ll have to find others to help him die.

Finishing the story, which I read on a printout, I tossed the pages down in a small spasm of disgust. Hannah values her own comfort and sense of identity over the needs of her dying lover. At first thought, this seems too easy an assertion of the primacy of women’s rights over obligations to oppressive males.

But it’s not easy, of course. Hannah wishes deeply that she were not in this position. She doesn’t admire herself for deciding to be selfish for once. Eight months, the length of her relationship with Peter, is a terribly ambiguous amount of time: beyond casual, in our current way of assessing these things, but nowhere near an ironclad commitment.

And I’ve skipped over some of the details that deepen the story: the profusion of funerals that the rabbi’s wife attended over the years, the sense that there was always a death on the horizon; Hannah’s negotiations with Ben about the public role she would play when he became a rabbi; some insights into Myra’s character that enrich the advice she gives to Hannah. But it comes down to Hannah’s choice to stay with Peter or abandon him, a choice fraught with moral and psychological angst.

It’s interesting that when we consider such matters on a large scale, our sense of morality tends to shift. Should a people under the sway of a relatively benign but oppressive foreign power value freedom over loyalty, even if obtaining freedom means cracking some skulls? Yes, we said in the American Revolution. Yes, we would still say today. We will sacrifice lives (especially those of others) for freedom and self-determination. Personally, when I think about matters on this scale, a vague utilitarian calculation prevails: if, in the long run, there will be more happiness with freedom, then…

On the personal level the moral sense doesn’t, and probably shouldn’t, yield to utilitarianism, and it’s harder to see justice in Hannah’s behavior. Yet it’s hard to blame her either. We can line up arguments for and against her:

For Hannah:

She surely doesn’t deserve the agony of nursing Peter to his death. Especially so soon after doing the same for Ben, her long-time husband.

Against Hannah:

Practically no one deserves the suffering life metes out. And Hannah’s total lifetime suffering, added up, doesn’t seem like a horrifying amount. She has had children she loved with a husband she loved; she has had friends in the congregation; she had her special friend, Myra. Yes, she lived a lie in some sense, but who doesn’t, in some sense?

For Hannah:

After surrendering to her husband’s desire to become a rabbi—because it amounts to that, ultimately, a surrender, even though we don’t see what particular dreams of her own she had to give up—she is not required to surrender to any other man’s needs.

Against Hannah:

Of course she’s not required to take care of Peter—and perhaps he’s wrong to assume she will—but we’re talking about what she ought to do. She deliberately chooses to be cruel to him to make her own life easier. She is not being asked to surrender anything except her own pleasure. That is selfishness, not good behavior.

How many more pro-con arguments could we list? Five, ten? Dozens?

I’m irritated with Robin Black for writing this story, and dazzled that she has created a text that provokes such dense reflection. I’ll keep thinking about the rabbi’s wife for a long while, and if I ever meet that old lady, I may scold her or hug her, or both.

Unreliable Narrators

September 16, 2011

On his new blog, David Sanders quotes from J. T. Bushnell’s recent article in Poets & Writers on unreliable narrators. According to Bushnell, even a third-person narrator can be unreliable if the point of view is limited, and he offers this advice:

“you have to know not only who your characters are, but also who they pretend to be, not only what they care about but also what they say they care about, not only what ideas they live by but also how those ideas are false. You have to figure out why your characters are blind, and how they’ve managed to maintain their blindness. And you have to signal these disparities to the reader without revealing them to the character, or straining credibility by making the characters too blind. This creates other dynamics that are necessary in good storytelling, for example, character limitation and unrecognized truth, and moving between the former and the latter helps shape a story’s meaning, or theme.”

I prefer to call a non-personified, third-person narrator a “narrative voice,” and when that voice limits itself to the perspective of a given character, much of what the reader hears can be untrustworthy. However, it’s the character, not the narrative voice, that is unreliable. That’s a trivial distinction, probably—and Bushnell’s summary of what the writer needs to know about each character is certainly a good one.

In a similar vein, Robin Black recently mentioned that the art of writing conversation includes knowing what the people are deliberately not saying. We might add that it also helps to know what the interlocutors are refraining from doing, such as yawning, giving the other person a dope-slap, scratching a devastating itch, and so forth. It’s all in the subtext.

If I Loved You

September 5, 2011

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You ThisWell, I do love Robin Black’s incredible book of short stories. I’ve refrained from blogging about it because (a) Robin wrote a nice prepublication blurb for my own novel, and my ridiculously fraught conscience felt that a return rave from me would seem too quid pro quo, even for the incestuous literary world, despite the fact that (b) my opinion of Robin’s work would hardly have the same zing as hers of mine, and (c) with Oprah on her side, she hardly needs my support. Nevertheless, I want to say that, having just reread If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, I believe it’s even better the second time through. Most of the books I come across aren’t even interesting at first glance. Hell, even the promotional copy doesn’t usually appeal to me.

If you haven’t read this book yet, you need to. It’s in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle, and if you don’t want to read, you can listen to an audio book. It’s not a fun collection—too honest for that, with too much loss and suffering—but it will do your soul good. Especially the second time.