Monday, September 25, 2006

Old New York, New Wyoming: Two Short Story Collections

It seems impossible to credit, but after more than a year of blogging, I have yet to talk about Edith Wharton, whose two most famous works, The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth, are, in my opinion, two of the finest novels in the English language*. Since reading and falling in love with the latter some two years ago, I've been meaning to make further inroads into Wharton's bibliography. Last week, I finally got around to doing so, first with the novella Ethan Frome--bane of American high school students--and then with The Muse's Tragedy and Other Stories, which selects twenty of the 83 short stories published by Wharton over a career that spanned four decades.

Ethan Frome is a famously atypical story for Wharton--it is set, not in the opulent New York drawing rooms and sun-drenched meadows of country retreats which make up the scenery of most of her writing, but in rural Massachusetts, and among poor, hardworking farmers. The stories in The Muse's Tragedy, however, return to Wharton's more familiar setting, and to her more familiar topics--a panoramic view of old New York's high society, its cliques and customs, and the way in which they frustrate and confine individual passion. While The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth were tragedies, the stories in this collection run the gamut of emotional modes. There are tragedies here, to be sure, but also comedies, satires, and even ghost stories, all reflecting the underlying theme of Wharton's entire writing career--the relationship between the individual and their community.

There are some stunning pieces in The Muse's Tragedy, which rival Wharton's novels for complexity and emotional effect. In "Autres Temps...," a middle-aged divorcée returns from her self-imposed Florentine exile when her daughter leaves her own husband for another man. Fearing the same ostracism for her child that she had been forced to endure years earlier, the heroine instead discovers a more relaxed moral standard, and allows herself to believe that she too might be able to resume a life in society. At the end of the story, however, it becomes clear that "My case has been passed on and classified: I'm the woman who has been cut for nearly twenty years. The older people have half-forgotten why, and the younger ones have never truly known: it's simply become a tradition to cut me. And traditions that have lost their meanings are the hardest of all to destroy." In "Souls Belated," a woman who has run away with her lover is granted a divorce, and must decide whether to remarry. Over her lover's uncomprehending objections, she exclaims
"don't you see what a cheap compromise it is? We neither of us believe in the abstract 'sacredness' of marriage; we both know that no ceremony is needed to consecrate our love for each other; what object can we have in marrying, except for the secret fear of each that the other may escape, or the secret longing to work our way back gradually--oh, very gradually--into the esteem of the people whose conventional morality we have always ridiculed and hated? And the very fact that, after a decent interval, these same people would come and dine with us--the women who talk about the indissolubility of marriage, and who would let me die in a gutter today because I am 'leading a life of sin'--doesn't that disgust you more than their turning their backs on us now?"
Upon this declaration of principles, Wharton constructs a moral and emotional dilemma--in spite of her own better impulses, the heroine allows herself to 'pass' as her lover's wife, only to be brought face to face with her own hypocrisy when another woman in the same situation enters her newfound social circle. Among its many fine qualities is the fact that "Souls Belated" manages to convey to a modern reader, for whom divorce and remarriage have long since lost the taint of sin, the crushing vice in which the main characters are trapped--forced to sacrifice either their life together or their personal integrity.

Taken cumulatively, however, the collection has a rather wearying effect. This is partly the fault of the comedic and satirical stories. A few months ago, I was browsing through a bookstore while the owner listened to a radio show about 50s stand-up comic Lenny Bruce. A recording of one of Bruce's performances was played, in which he repeatedly, and with some exaggeration, used profanity (well, what passed for profanity in the 50s). I was mildly amused; the audience was in stitches. Nothing ages quite so badly as humor, especially the satirical kind, and most especially a satire intended to poke fun at a society that doesn't really exist anymore. In spite of the fact that the social conventions they lampoon have, in most cases, merely metamorphosed into contemporary equivalents in our society--in "The Descent of Man," an exasperated scientist writes a parody of inspirational religious fiction which is then taken seriously, becoming a massive bestseller; in "Xingu," a self-important reading group and their officious visiting author are taken in by their most uneducated member when she dares them to admit their ignorance of the titular subject--the passage of time has rendered most of the comedic stories in The Muse's Tragedy brittle and not a little bit obvious. The sole exception is "The Mission of Jane," in which a neglectful husband agrees to adopt a child for the sake of his simple, unloved wife and in the hopes that the infant might strengthen his marriage. The child turns out to be domineering prig, and unites her parents in their exhausted terror of her moral rectitude and unrealistic expectations.

Even ignoring the unsuccessful comedies, however, the collection is problematic, not because of any flaw in the individual stories but because, taken together, the world-view they present is so obviously one-sided and untrue that it begins to dull our appreciation of Wharton's gifts of observation. After the publication of her second short story collection, Crucial Instances, Wharton received what she termed "surely one of the tersest and most vigorous letters ever penned by an amateur critic. 'Dear madam,' my unknown correspondent wrote, 'have you never known a respectable woman? If you have, in the name of decency write about her!'" I can't tell you how tickled I was to come across this quotation in the introduction to The Muse's Tragedy, as it so succinctly sums up a problem I often have with literary fiction (I might not have bothered to write 2,000 words about the novels of M. John Harrison if I'd known that a 19th century reader had expressed the source of my dissatisfaction in a svelte two sentences). Unalloyed misery and complete moral bankruptcy are no more believable as a portrait of society than candy-colored happy endings and tales of virtue triumphant. I suspect that taken individually, Wharton's stories might pack a greater punch, but there are only so many unhappy marriages, so many reluctant elopements, so many disaffected lovers one can take. Halfway through the collection, I was longing for a palate cleanser--some indication that there were still decent, honorable, loving people in old New York, not because Wharton's jaundiced view of her society was depressing me, but because her unrelenting pessimism was starting to take on the patina of self-parody, making it impossible for me to care about her characters.

I followed The Muse's Tragedy with Annie Proulx's collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories (or, as my version has been retitled, Close Range: Brokeback Mountain and Other Stories). Proulx's writing is no less dense than Wharton's, but with its powerful cadences and deceptively folksy tone it made for quite a stylistic departure from the quietly detached, wry but (to my modern sensibilities) slightly overwritten prose in The Muse's Tragedy. And, of course, there's the sharp change of scene between the two collections--from Wharton's wealthy, privileged upper class to Proulx's dirt-poor and uneducated farmers, ranchers, and farm-hands; from Wharton's close interiors to Proulx's wide open spaces; from Wharton's urban society, carefully regulated by manners and conventions to Proulx's loosely distributed individualists, living alone or with a few relatives and governed only by self-interest and sometimes a loosely defined code of propriety.

Nevertheless, it strikes me that there are huge similarities between these two collections and their underlying themes. Both collections are in many ways travelouges--introductions to societies separated from us by space and time, whose customs, conventions and attitudes we are likely to find entirely foreign. Proulx's stories are reactionary in a way that is very similar to Wharton's. Just as Wharton sought to undermine the myth of gentility and manners in high society, Proulx is also working to overturn a cliché--in her case, the calm and gentlemanly West, the peacefulness of the countryside, the kindness of country people. As Proulx describes it, Wyoming is a harsh and unforgiving landscape, and life on the land is both bleak and hard:
Dangerous and indifferent ground: against its fixed mass the tragedies of people count for nothing although the signs of misadventure are everywhere. No past slaughter nor cruelty, no accident nor murder that occurs on the little ranches or at the isolate crossroads with their bare populations of three or seventeen, or in the reckless trailer courts of mining towns delays the flood of morning light. Fences, cattle, roads, refineries, mines, gravel pits, traffic lights, graffiti'd celebration of athletic victory on bridge overpass, crust of blood on the Wal-Mart loading dock, the sun-faded wreaths of plastic flowers marking death on the highway are ephemeral. Other cultures have camped here a while and disappeared. Only earth and sky matter. Only the endlessly repeated flood of morning light. You being to see that God does not owe us much beyond that.
More importantly, like Wharton, Proulx's underlying theme seems to be the question of how an individual is shaped, restricted, and governed by their surroundings. Proulx focuses more on physical surroundings whereas Wharton concentrates on social ones, but the difference strikes me as largely semantic. Both writers talk about individuals trapped in landscape.

It is therefore not at all surprising that, by the time I reached Close Range's final stretch, I was feeling the same fatigue I had felt at the end of The Muse's Tragedy, the same sense of disbelief. Again, there are some stunning pieces in this collection (although I think that Proulx's construction work leaves something to be desired, especially when compared with Wharton's--several of the pieces in the collection veer off in too many subplots and have unsatisfying endings)--"The Mud Below," about a young bullrider, which manages to make compelling the utter insanity of a punishing and ultimately unrewarding lifestyle; "Pair a Spurs," a portrait of the dissolution of a rural community through the stories of several of its members; "Brokeback Mountain," of course--but their cumulative effect is, once again, wearying. Missing amongst these portraits of poverty, defeat and despair--impoverished farmers and ranchers, abused wives**, unloved children--is a lining of triumph--something to cut the bitterness and provide a hook for our empathy.

It is for this reason that I believe "Brokeback Mountain" is the finest story in the collection (although obviously it is entirely possible that I'm biased, having seen the movie and read the story several times before picking up Close Range). Almost alone among the pieces here, it gives the impression of wanting to tell us about its characters first and its setting second. As I wrote a few months ago when discussing Ang Lee's beautiful adaptation, both the story and the film work hard to make it clear that the love between shepherds Ennis and Jack falters not because of society but because of Ennis and Jack. Their prejudices are, obviously, shaped by society, and their choices are limited by economic hardship, but ultimately it is the individual, not the landscape, that is at the heart of "Brokeback Mountain," and the story's bleakness is undercut by the almost palpable love between the two main characters. And it is precisely that glimpse of love and the possibility of happiness that make "Brokeback Mountain" as powerful and as heartbreaking as it is--far more powerful than a story about hopeless characters proceeding apace to their doom could ever have been.

Similarly, the finest stories in The Muse's Tragedy are the ones in which the black and white absolutes in which Wharton cloaks old New York society are shown to conceal a myriad shades of gray. When the protagonist of Wharton's "Souls Belated" refuses to marry her lover in the scene from which I quoted above, he simply responds "You judge things too theoretically. Life is made up of compromises." The fact that he loves this woman and that that love might--or might not--be enough to support them in social isolation is what lends immediacy to their moral quandary, and along the same lines, "Autres Temps..." is heartbreaking because we genuinely like its protagonist and because even in her isolation, she has just enough contact with society--through her daughter and through a potential lover--to impress upon us the fullness of the life being denied to her. When Wharton holds society in complete disdain, when she mocks it and belittles its gifts, our sympathy for characters who desperately try to avoid being cast out of it can only be limited. When she suggests that society is worth being a part of, because there are among the phonies and hypocrites also good people and art and music and love, we ache for her characters.

It is a hallmark of the human condition that we are capable of holding on to and believing in mutually exclusive notions. Stealing is wrong but I'm still going to download this movie. Marriage is sacred but I'm still going to have a one-night-stand. The best stories in both The Muse's Tragedy and Close Range are the ones in which the characters personify this fundamental truth, and in which the authors embrace compromise and reject their theoretical excoriation of a society in favor of a more human subject. It is through these fully human stories, combining decency and depravity, happiness and despair, that we gain a truly believable view of old New York and new Wyoming, and it is because of this humanity that we fully appreciate the tragedy of the restrictions that these two very different cultures place upon their members.



* They also share the distinction of belonging to that tiny and rarefied group of genuinely fine, meaty novels whose adaptations to the screen have been both artistically satisfying and faithful to their source material.

** It goes without saying that, in a society in which life is hard for the men, the women are going to have it even harder, and if there's one meaningful strike against Close Range it is that the stories within it rarely engage with the plight of women in these tiny Wyoming settlements. Out of eleven stories in the collection, only one has a female protagonist. In another story, the protagonist unthinkingly, almost mechanically rapes the wife of a friend. He is later criticized for this crime, but only, we are told, because it is symptomatic of his refusal to fully engage with life, to choose love over cheap gratification. In a third story, a woman is harassed by her husband's friend, who threatens her with rape. She turns to her husband for help, but he ignores her. I don't doubt that Proulx is accurately describing women's inferior status in the societies in which her stories take place, but I'm troubled by the fact that she is clearly uninterested in exploring this prejudice or commenting on it in any but the most perfunctory of ways.

2 comments:

Ilana said...

Wow.

I want to write like you when I grow up. :)

Alison said...

I just bought that Proulx book yesterday

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