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.

Visiting a Playgroup

September 22, 2011

The Playgroup coverRecently I’ve been learning about motherhood. Being a father of two and grandfather of five and a half,* I never expected to study mothering except for the few tricks a man needs to know for self-preservation. But reading Elizabeth Mosier’s The Playgroup (part of GemmaMedia’s Open Door series) was entertaining as well as enlightening.

The novella (110 pages) focuses on a group of women who have set up a Playgroup ostensibly for their infants, but really to give the mothers a chance to schmooze. And their talk, as Mosier details it, is alternately funny, unsettling, profound, trivial, and full of annoying advice about child-proofing the house. What comes through most strongly is an undercurrent of fear—that a mother will fail at her awesome responsibilities or that this carefully arranged but fragile life will take a gruesome turn. The protagonist, Sarah, pregnant with her second child, has a special dread caused by an abnormality in her sonogram, a small spot “shaped like a cashew.” But uncertainty governs even the most outwardly self-confident of the women:

“Motherhood is like a second adolescence, a time when the self a woman thinks she owns is repossessed by the so-called authorities [all the experts, including family members, who tell her how to be a mother]. She’s left naked and defenseless, asking herself questions about purpose, faith and identity she thought she’d already tamed. … At times, we seemed less like mothers than like insecure teenagers at a beer keg tapping liquid courage, though at Playgroup we swilled coffee while we sought each other’s advice.” (pp. 11–13)

“Loss always lurked beneath our conversations in Playgroup, under talk of microdermabrasion, premenopausal symptoms, IRAs and long-term health insurance.” (p. 72)

The book has one symbolically “perfect” mother, Amy Marley (name reminiscent of Jacob Marley, one of the ghosts in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol), who comes back to haunt the others in an unexpected way, and the arc of her life becomes instructive to all.

During a recent reading at Philadelphia’s Musehouse, the author explained that details of the new mothers’ thoughts and emotional swerves are based on notes she took at that stage of her life. She was brutally honest with herself back then, and her readers get the benefit now.

To give us multiple views of the Playgroup in a short space, Mosier employs a clever narrative device. The first-person narrator, Laurie, begins as a relatively undifferentiated member of the group, and as such she gives us the community outlook on the main character, Sarah:

“Sarah led us into the living room, an arrangement of white chairs and a couch on a white pile rug. … Another group, gathered for a different purpose, might have praised the room’s stark furnishings, but we were there to compare and to judge. Sarah waited nervously for our review.”

Soon, however, Laurie becomes a confidante of Sarah’s, able to reveal Sarah’s thoughts and feelings. Though I was a little less than 100% convinced by this dual narrative function, it should work for 99.9% of readers.

The men in these women’s lives are mostly ignored and irrelevant in the story; they pour margaritas and hammer away at construction projects. Yet the only time I wanted to escape the estrogen-laden environment was when the women started scrapbooking—an activity that, to my relief, the narrator treated with irony.

The book is a quick and fascinating read, and I recommend it to all men who are partnered with a mother, who work with mothers, who stumble upon unfathomable claques of mothers and infants at coffee shops, or who wish to understand why mothers behave in an irrational manner so totally unlike our time-honored male form of irrationality.

*Three dogs, one long-term cat, one short-term cat recently expelled from the immediate family (that’s the half), and one snake. At last count.

Measures of Disobedience

August 30, 2011

Cover for A DISOBEDIENT GIRLLast night I finished Ru Freeman’s novel A Disobedient Girl, which is composed of two interlocking narratives about Sri Lankan women trying to break loose from the stifling conventions of marriage and caste. This book has a lot to recommend it. To me, one striking feature is not the obvious similarity between the two female protagonists, both of whom are seeking freedom, but rather their difference.

In one story line, Biso, a devoted mother of three, leads her brood in a flight from their abusive father; she’s close to 100 percent good, without a nasty thought in her brain. Though she cheated on her husband, he deserved it. The other protagonist, Latha, a servant girl, whom we follow from childhood to her thirties, is not just “disobedient” as the title proclaims, but genuinely nasty at times; she has a penchant for disloyalty, revenge, sneakiness, and deceit.

With Latha, the author herself is being disobedient to the standard portrayal of a female heroine. True, Latha is no Emma Bovary; she’s more pleasant than Emma, smarter, more honest with herself. Still, we’re asked to admire a character who takes some malicious whacks at those around her—and we do. We like her spirit, and we sympathize with her bondage. Orphaned, she was taken as a young child into an upper-class home, where she was raised with another girl her own age, Thara. She and Thara become close friends, but the caste difference can never be shaken, and ultimately she takes the role of Thara’s servant. Their love/hate relationship forms the core of the novel.

We also admire Latha for her passionate dedication to Thara’s children, whom she treats as her own. Like Biso, she has mothering instincts that are fervent, tough, resilient. In this book, it’s only the spoiled high-caste twits who make bad mothers.

In contrast to the women, the adult males in both story lines tend to be distant and/or beastly, and I found that a bit disappointing. Both plots end melodramatically, too, with some twists that I found unlikely. But the sharp details of Sri Lankan family life more than make up for any distortions of realism in the plotting, as does the complex psychology of the bond between Latha and Thara.

Since I read this book in an electronic version on a Nook (the popular Barnes & Noble e-reader), I have to point out that many of the special characters in the Sri Lankan terms did not translate—they appeared as question marks. They may be fine in the epub file itself, but they don’t display on the Nook. The publisher, Atria, is a division of Simon & Schuster, and with that major house’s resources, the editors ought to be able to pay someone to check a book’s appearance on the most common e-readers. If an accented character doesn’t display properly, a workaround can be found—at the very least, the substitution of a standard keyboard letter.

Other Likely StoriesMy friend Debra Leigh Scott, a fiction writer, playwright, scriptwriter, dramaturg, writing teacher—an annoyingly multitalented person—has just published her first book-length collection of fiction, Other Likely Stories (Sowilo Press, available on Amazon and elsewhere). What follows is a brief and totally biased commentary.

Other Likely Stories brings together nine linked tales that follow two young sisters, Rachael and Valory Meade, and their cousin Marlena in the American South during the 1960s and early 1970s—the Vietnam War era. Debra typically packs more drama in a few paragraphs than I could manage in an entire novel, and these stories are no exception. In less than 200 pages we get child abuse, rape, arson, murder, war deaths, cancer, the Mafia, prostitution, a car crash, a mother’s desertion, insanity, and alcoholism. The characters are burdened by such cataclysmic pasts that it seems impossible for mere humans to bear the emotional load. Yet there’s an odd tenderness here, and a resilience in the three girls that keeps you reading, makes you think they’ll manage to overcome their personal traumas and the outrageous social tragedies of the era. It’s definitely a time for women’s toughness to emerge. Here’s an exchange between Valory and a college friend, Bina. Bina is describing her parents:

“Picture a grown man,” Bina said, handing me a joint, “sobbing through a Gene Autry record. His wife’s quoting Isaiah and ironing ferociously in the corner.”

“Where are you in that picture?” I asked, holding a hit and passing the joint back.

“Exactly,” she inhaled.

Though life deals out broad, hard swipes to the head and heart, there’s nothing broad about the characters’ reactions. In one story, when the sisters are living with their bitter mother at an army base, their long-estranged grandmother appears at the door, and it becomes apparent that she’s come to their house to die. The girls’ drunken grandfather, Billy, then shows up to reclaim his wife, and 12-year-old Rachael forms a bond with him, only to find that he’s not going to stick around. Look at the subtle interplay of compassion and cruelty here, in a scene on the morning of the grandmother’s funeral:

Shyly, I slid closer to him, gratified at how quickly he closed his roughened fingers around my chilled shoulder.

He looked down at me. “I’ll be goin’ away now, you know. I’m sure nobody in there’s gonna mind it,” he indicated with his head toward the house.

It hadn’t yet occurred to me that Billy wasn’t going to stay, that he wouldn’t stay for me. I hadn’t yet realized that these were my last moments of safety.

“I’ll go, too,” I said.

He removed his hand from my shoulder and nodded his head slowly. “That you will, someday,” he said, “and it will be a distance.”

He spoke the words easily, as if the torn fabric of my life could be tacked together by a simple pronouncement, as if the certainty of my mother’s uncontrollable fury was no concern of his.

I wrapped my arms tightly around my chest, where it felt, all of a sudden, as if something big had cracked.

“This is why my mother hates you,” I said, realizing the edges of something too vast to see all at once.

Billy’s face stayed empty. The blue of his eyes was too diluted, too watery; I saw no reflection of myself in them.

“They’re throwing the only one who ever cared about me in a fresh-dug hole today,” he said. “The rest of you can all go to hell, the whole stinkin’ lot of you.”

That’s powerful writing, and after scenes like that throughout the book, the reader emerges with a strange but genuine-seeming view of American life, one full of violent and complicated beauty.

“Nothing will ever feel the same again,” Rachael says in a later story, as the girls escape the scene of yet another disaster.

“It will,” Valory answers. “Once this is the sameness we mean.”