Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton

Strout, Elizabeth (2016), My Name is Lucy Barton, Random House
ISBN 978-0-8129-7952-7

I’ve actually read this novel twice. Twice! And I am still not sure what to think about it. It appears to be written and conceived so clearly in many ways, with various structures and strictures in place to deal with some forms of sentimentality, a style that conveys emotionality and openness without lapsing into soft and soppy imitations of poetic diction, qualities I am particularly receptive to after trying to get through Janet Mock’s interesting but horrendously written memoir in the past week. And yet – particularly as the plot or rather the protagonist’s life story unravels (or develops), the book’s previous flirts with cute sentimentality (“And yet I think: nobody comes from nothing.”) become more of a foregrounded stylistic element or annoyance, depending on your taste. Yet even that is reflected in the book itself, which is on many levels a metafictional exercise about how to write the life of a woman in 21st century America. Thus, narrative structures in the text come to be equivalent to family structures in the plot, for example and it becomes hard to see any sentimental streaks in the novel as having an existence beyond signifying the stylistic element “sentimentalities” for the literary discourse of the novel. It is all very interesting, and in many ways very accomplished and honestly intermittently moving, even, but to me, it sometimes also felt like a very dull undergrad MFA course on how to write and not to write a novel about female experience in our time. I cannot tell from the author’s bio whether she’s ever taught a course like that, but this novel feels like a very didactic (but very nimble) result of a course of that nature. The way the novel looks at life, love, nature, family and art with the same didactic lens that it then also turns upon itself feels greatly like some 18th and 19th classics in the very development of the genre. So. Is this a good novel? Maybe? Will I read a new book by Strout? Probably not? Here’s where I stand: it does what it does pretty darn well. I may not care a ton about what it does. But a lot of people love it. You may too. I liked it. I think.

The split that passes right down the middle of the book – of intellectual thinking and sentimental wallowing is something that has been part of literary history for a while. There’s this recent-ish study on the legacy of Charlotte Smith by Claire Knowles that is very insistent on the difficulties of female writers and poet to deal with the charge of sentimentality and the attempts to get out from under it. The result can sometimes be a meatless over-structuring, as in Valeria Luiselli’s novel(la) Faces in the Crowd (see my review here). Writers like Anne Tyler, who dive deeply into the rich emotionalism of female life stories are on the other side of the divide, I suppose. And in the middle are books like this. Toward the end, the protagonist’s daughter says: “Mom, when you write a novel you get to rewrite it but when you live with someone for twenty years that is the novel and you can never write that novel with anyone again!” The last fourth of the novel is full of those kinds of remarks, peppered with “my dear daughter” and “my most tenderhearted daughter” – and despite all the emotional or sentimental value of these remarks, they are also serious comments on structure and on female life writing. After all, the novel’s very title invokes unreliable narrators like Moby Dick’s (who starts the novel with the invitation: “Call me Ishmael”) and a whole genre of biographical fiction. The split I feel dominates the book – it’s also right there in the book’s language. Much of it is clean and sharp, shepherding the book’s many small stories and memories into short chapters that never extend long enough for sentimental whimsy, but sometimes, usually compartmentalized into individual paragraphs, the book blossoms into small, warm, emotional dictums, analogies or just pure declarations of emotional loyalty. None of this really breaks with the overall structure and narrative, until the last fourth of the novel, which, in turn, is specifically framed as a text with a freer relationship to structure. And yet, despite this intellectual framing of everything, most of the stories in the novel are filled with life, plausibility, warmth, the kind of storytelling skill that Luiselli’s book lacked.

All of this is extraordinarily well controlled, in part, one feels, as a way to combat the generic expectations of this kind of book, the (feigned) autobiography of a female writer. In her study, Knowles cites a movie review by Philip Hensher, mediocre novelist in his own right, who reviewed the movie Sylvia. Hensher disapproves of the treatment of the two poets as equals with, perhaps, Plath coming out on top. “Hughes’ [story],” he writes, is “too complex and rich to be reduced to a weepy narrative.” Plath’s own life, however, isn’t granted the same complexity by Hensher. This critical suspicion is, one feels, one of the impulses driving My Name is Lucy Barton‘s construction, and at the same time, Strout isn’t giving in to the gendered critique – she offers an écriture that is both feminine and intellectually sharp enough to escape the charge of being a mere “weepy narrative.” In this, I feel, the main intertext here is The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. In Tolstoy’s classic novella, a terminal illness leads the protagonist to reevaluate his life. His relationship to his family, to his own life, to progress, all of these things get an airing, and none of these things fare well as Ivan Ilyich shambles towards death. Yet as he comes to accept his family, comes to see his life and theirs with compassion, the fearful presence of death disappears. The central conceit of Strout’s book is also a mysterious illness that ties Lucy Barton to her bed and forces her to reconnect with her mother. Most of the novel is set in the hospital room, with the relationship to her mother as the main storytelling impetus. Much like the elements of the room, the illness and the restricted choice of visitors shapes Lucy Barton’s life, these same elements shape the novel. The shortness of chapters, the sharpness and sometimes simplicity of the writing, the resistance to sentimentality, they can also be read as symptoms of the cautious, insecure relationship of the protagonist to her mother. In other words, the cagey, resistant kind of writing may reflect a resistance towards a certain relationship with motherhood and feminity, and as the character connects with her mother, so the book connects with a different literary tradition, leaving critical suspicions behind as we, in comparatively few pages, catch up with the rest of Barton’s life.

This, of course, also has a literary tradition. I believe it was Teresa de Lauretis who coined the term “the maternal imaginary” for the wave of books of fiction, poetry and literary criticism that explored the relationships of female writers with their mothers, often explicitly meant to provide a counternarrative to Harold Bloom’s Portnoyian obsession with writers and fathers. In one of her last books, Barbara Johnson suggested that poetry is an attempt to hear the voice of the mother, and it is surely no accident that My Name is Lucy Barton is a story about a woman writing her life, who, in the story, meets a writer who teaches her some fundamentals about writing, and who, for the largest portion of the book, finds herself locked into a small room with her mother, forced to talk to her, listen to her, re-assess her memories of herself, her life and her marriage. And in a book that isn’t exactly short on metafictional narrative devices, the central one is one of the most famous ones: a serious lingering illness. Susan Sontag wrote a whole essay about the way illnesses are misused as metaphors for all kinds of things, including narratives of “strength and weakness.” Particularly relevant to Strout’s novel are a few remarks by Sontag regarding illness and cities: according to Sontag, “[b]efore the city was understood as, literally, a cancer-causing environment, the city was seen as itself a cancer.” This connection of city life with a false, unsustainable, unconnected, unnatural life is maintained in Strout’s novel, as well. That’s also where the main connection to the “maternal imagery” of the novel is from: Barton is originally from a poor rural area, and many of the stories her mother initially tells are stories about people “back home” – reconnecting Barton not just to her mother, but also to her community roots, and, later, to a more natural, unrestricted kind of writing. There are more themes like this, the way the curious way the novel treats gay people and HIV, the way it works with insider/outsider figures, but after a while one returns to the initial impression: there’s a lot of stuff in here, and the book certainly has enough material for a whole book of undergrad essays, but the sum of it all, the controlled, hyper-determined way all the levels of the book appear to be examples and mirrors for other elements of the book on lower/higher levels, it feels too much like a textbook for an MFA course.

And going through reviews, this impression of mine may be my own problem. Certainly, many people only read the book on an emotional, emotive level. But that would, I think, underrate the author’s considerable achievement here. I don’t know that I like this book a lot – but I can certainly admire its execution. If this sounds like equivocating – it is. I wish I had stronger emotions about this book, positive or negative, really. But, apart from admiration for its craft, I don’t. I can appreciate it as a book in a long tradition that books like Claire Knowles’ have illuminated, and I can appreciate the nuance in Strout’s prose, but there’s a limit to my appreciation. I’m sorry if this has made my first review after a longer break a bit of an odd read but there you go. I think you should read this novel, if you care at all about the themes I laid out. That’s it.

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