Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk
Distortions by Ann Beattie
I've been recommended Moore's fiction by a few people and this is one of the odd instances where my friends were underselling the recommendation. In short, Moore's slim volume of stories is as close to perfect as short fiction can be. Now I understand why she's held in such high regard. Only a single story in the entire bunch, "Go Like This," failed to thrill me to the same level as the others, but even then, it's still great. The best pieces in the collection take the form of a "how to," in second person, direct address (eg. "Meet in expensive beige raincoats on a pea-soupy night..."). The formal ingenuity brings a sparkling multi-dimensional feel.
Cusk's The Bradshaw Variations is... a varied experience if you will. For every beautiful phrase or miraculous insight, there's a simile that doesn't work or a plodding moment of inauthentic introspection. I took a few notes and quotes while reading this. Let's begin with a simile that feels so artificial, so forced, as to beg a question—was the simile invented before the object? was the object invented for the simile? On page 41: "The lawn at the back of the house is undulating: it rises like a woman's body into two mounds with a soft sloping space between them." Yuck. I was stunned by this comparison—what an inelegant and unnecessary moment. Similes, I believe, aren't simply for art's sake; these tricks and features should illuminate an aspect of the narrative, the character, the themes, anything; similes should work organically to produce meaning, not to lay there on the page like a beautiful dead fish gawping for water. The focal character in this instance isn't articulated through the simile; the simile tells us nothing about the scene, the character, the setting, anything. It's, as I said earlier, inelegant and off-key.
Later, Tonie, one of two protagonists, is at a cocktail party with her friend, who has been asking questions of a man. This is how Cusk describes the interrogation: "She asks him one thing after another, like a mother spooning food into a baby's mouth: when she comes to the end of one question, she is ready with the next" (89). Again, yuck. I admire the reversal of the simile: we usually expect questions to extract something (info), not to insert anything, and there's artfulness in this opposite. But it clangs and stumbles, like a toddler maneuvering a new space.
But, not all the similes are duds. Just as many soar and hit their mark. On page 129: "Her dogs were the same, quivering like compasses around her," a gorgeous turn of phrase. I'm not sure if the simile does any heavy lifting in this sentence, but when it's that lovely, we should be more willing to forgive.
A final example, my favourite of all, on page 94: "When they talked Tonie had the sense of something big and bounteous nearby, as the sea can be sensed when it is still just out of sight." The context only deepens this beautiful sentence: she and her future husband, the second of a pair of protagonists, have begun their romance, which has all the potentiality for beauty and darkness as the sea itself, a tumultuous and scary thing, but gravely gorgeous nonetheless.
The rest of the novel, aside from the prose itself, is just as I described Arlington Park but more so: pinched and caustic without ever being about anything other than the vague sense that a living human being is an existence defined by sorrow. Characters come and go without ever making any impact on each other. Tonie's erotically charged encounter with a visiting lecturer feels like the only narrative incident to propel the characters (in that she eventually sleeps with a different person hitherto unknown to her). The rest of the cast wander their surroundings feeling both incredibly disconnected from each other (a theme) and oddly hyperarticulate about their inner lives in relation to others. Never before have I read a 21st century novel in which the entire cast are superheroically attuned to each other's interiority. In Arlington Park, this heightened perception produced lovely thematic resonance; in The Bradshaw Variations, it yields an endless void of authenticity and hollowness.
Again, I worry I'm being unduly harsh. I did like this novel, but after two of these exercises in miserabilism, I worry that Cusk and I don't have the same goals in literature. I don't want just formal elegance and aesthetic beauty but something more, something more than empty vessels paradoxically overstuffed with interiority careening around each other for ~250 pages.
Distortions is not my first collection of Beattie stories. I've been reading the collection of New Yorker stories for about a month now, dipping in and out. There's a level of overlap here, of course, but with one story, I decided to reread it—partly because I hardly remembered it and partly because Beattie is such a joy to read. I have little to say about this other than the usual caveat emptor: there's always going to be a few lemons in a collection of stories, but at least there were only one or two in this book. Highly recommended.