Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Kim Edwards, and Starting Out in the Evening, Brian Morton


My students often asked me, "Ms. S., why do we only read depressing things? Why does a book have to be such a downer in order to be considered great literature?" My answer was always something along the lines of how human nature learns through tragedy and suffering and tends to just absorb joy. Unfortunately, we're not wired to learn from joy, unless it's tempered by pain. It's just who we are.

But man alive, these two books take the cake in the "depressing downers" category. Basic gist of both books: "You're going to die. Period. And you'll probably lose a lot of your dignity in the process. Oh, and all that time you're living before you die? You're basically alone, even if you think you're not. You're going to make major mistakes, float aimlessly most of the time, maybe thinking that what you're doing has some significance in the world. But you're most likely wrong. Maybe you'll be missed when you're gone; maybe you won't be. But you won't know either way, because you'll be dead. Have a nice day!!!"

Not entirely fair, of course. Each book has it's moments of inspiration and hope. But when you're writing a book that is essentially about mortality and what one leaves behind based on the steps they take during life, it's hard not to present a melancholy bleakness to the reader. Hell, only Shakespeare was ballsy enough to toy with the idea that he was made immortal through his writing. The rest of us kind of know, though we don't think of it during the day to day, that we've got a limited amount of time and influence on this earth.

But when you cram that experience down into 300 pages, litter it with hugely bad mistakes like giving away your newborn because she has Downs Syndrome and then telling your wife that baby died, you are concentrating the misery and futility of life into such a small space, it pretty much sucker punches the reader constantly.

I liked both books immensely; I clearly have a soft spot for the gloom. Edwards' Memory Keeper's Daughter takes you through the life of Dr David Henry, starting on the night that he delivers his twins, one of whom has Downs Syndrome. That night changes the course of his life in the most unimaginable way, as he gives his "defective" twin away and tells his wife that the little girl died upon birth. The story that follows weaves the tale of his own family's inevitable disintegration and the story of that cast-off child and the woman who becomes her mother.

I was never able to understand David Henry, or forgive him for the choice he made, beyond rationalizing that he so desperately wanted to create a world of perfection for his wife and a child with special needs marred that image so completely, he had to erase that factor to preserve his ideal. The results are disastrous for all involved (with the exception, ironically, of the Downs child herself and those involved in her life). It was so difficult to watch the unraveling of his family knowing that it all hinged on one bad choice, in one moment of his life. How awful to know that one's entire existence is marked irrevocably by a split second.

Brian Morton's Starting Out in the Evening is about exactly that. Not only is it a title of the main character's unpublished book, it is the idea of examining one's life, while nearing the end of it. At least that's the case for Leonard Schiller, a fallen-by the wayside author, once great, struggling to live long enough to finish his last novel. The others in the novel, a graduate student writing her thesis about Schiller, and Schiller's daughter, are also, though younger, struggling to etch out their identities, to make sense of who they are and what they want in life before it is too late for them.

The book is marked by a sense of such loneliness and the futility of life that I was often surprised by how much I loved the characters. They were so beautifully crafted and rich, I had a hard time always liking them because of their authenticity. When I taught high school, especially the advanced classes, where the literature was more complex and the characters multi-faceted, my students used to struggle with that absence of a clear "good guy" and "bad buy". They wanted the clear cut characterization of the Greasers and the Socs, but they got Gatsby instead, so flawed and sketchy, even though he was our "hero". I tried to explain to them that great literature doesn't draw one-sided characters--there are no "all good" heroes in great writing--what would the challenge be if you knew from the beginning who was going to "win"?

I saw this in Morton's characters. Heather Wolfe, the graduate student, is so well-meaning and desperate to make a good impression, but also is entirely caught up in her own ego, in her attempts to immortalize Schiller through her analysis of him, as though he had ever asked for her attention in the first place. At times I liked her, but at times she made my skin crawl with her phoniness and her need to "fit in" to her niche as an intellectual. But isn't that exactly the struggle of a young, ambitious graduate student (or any young person starting out in their chosen field)? To say and do what one needs to in order to solidify her name among those who can further her purpose while at the same time preserving the innocent passion that drew her to her chosen field in the first place? So, not always likable, but flawlessly drawn.

I loved both books, even though each left me feeling a bit of emptiness and a sense of "well, what does it all mean, then?" Each story was careful to leave the reader with a glimmer of hope and "all is right with the world, even though it will all end and you'll most likely be forgotten". I guess, though, that's the hardest, most painful, lesson for human nature, in all it's arrogance, to absorb and, if my theory holds, that's what makes it great literature in the first place.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Birth House, Ami McKay

It WAS a good read, but it was not all that I was hoping for or expecting. I think Ann Enright's The Gathering has ruined me for good in terms of expecting great things in every book I pick up. And as a side note, I heard an interview w/ Enright on NPR a week or so ago and was again mesmerized by the tale of Veronica and her brother, Liam. I am tempted to go read the story again, even though it was only a month ago that I finished it. Enright mentioned bits of symbolism I'd not picked up on (hence the "frustrated" in "Frustrated English Teacher"; I'm losing my analytical edge big time with these episodes of Dora the Explorer and hours at the play ground).

Anyhooo, back to McKay's Birth House. It was an interesting and enjoyable read, but I expected far more from the struggle between Dora Rare and the male obstetrician set on demolishing the tradition of midwifery during the early 20th century in rural Nova Scotia. What I got instead were a few examples of fiesty midwife spunkiness, one potentially explosive situation that is defused when Dora runs to the safety of Boston, where she mingles with her brother's love, who is a suffragette, and her artistic friends (this would be fascinating if it weren't for what Dora leaves behind her in Canada).

Initially I was very hopeful. The writing is beautiful, if not made of the same ethereal melancholy of Enright. We find Dora Rare, the only girl born to the Rare family in decades, learning the tradition of midwifery from the enigmatic Mrs. Babineau. There are hints that Mrs. B. fluctuates in the town's opinion from miracle worker to witch, a common dilemma faced by midwives throughout history. But even Mrs. B. gives up without much of a fight and Dora's thrust into the struggle against modern medicine on her own.

Far more time than I was hoping for was spent on Dora's personal life, or lack thereof. Had the story not held the promise of the great battle between the age-old tradition of women catching babies and the modern practice of child-birth as medicine, perhaps Dora's craptastic marriage and quest for a man to love her and for becoming a mother in her own right, would have been enough.

But as a woman who ended up with a c-section after only 9 hours of labor, and who sometimes still wonders "what if...", and who bristles against the idea that pregnancy is a medical condition and needs to be treated as such, I really wanted to see the midwife kick some serious OB ass. And it was just too neat a finish for me. No knock down, drag out, fight to the finish for the hearts and uteri of the women of Scot's Bay.

I did love the merry coven of knitters that Dora surrounds herself with and how they bond over cups of tea full of what essentially amounts to RU-486, circa 1919. After years of dropping babies left and right because their husbands can't respect their bodies well enough to leave them alone two days out of the month, the women take matters into their own hands. I loved that. And I loved how Mrs. B and Dora, in their roles as midwife, become the secret keepers of the town. They are vaults of the secret truths of the town's women; even those who scoff at them in public privately rely on them in times of trouble. These relationships were the most redeeming part of the book.

I will say I learned some interesting factoids, too; perhaps I'd been living under a rock, but I had no idea that vibrators were used in the early 20th century as a treatment for the diagnosis of "female hysteria".

To that end, I will say one other thing for McKay's book; it does a FABULOUS job of making the obstetrician look like a completely ignorant dumbass, and I loved that. He misses what is, though it is never called such, clearly a case of impending pre-eclampsia that made me twist in my seat with anxiety.

Had there been a little less about the marriage and a little more intensity in the struggle of midwife vs doctor, this book would have likely been one of my favorites.