The Book Club

Irony or Tragedy?

Dear Alice:

I would read Charming Billy again, with pleasure. I didn’t want to like it, because I find the National Book Award committee so darned self-righteous, but it’s actually one of the most luminous novels I’ve come across in a long time. Also, McDermott’s plain-shoe realism and subtle shifts in narrative perspective demand more rigorous analysis than I could give them the first time around. There’s the question of the narrator. In his review of the book, Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post called her the novel’s one false note. Who is she? She’s the daughter of the man who told Billy the lie that wrecked his life. (The lie, in brief: that a young Irish woman Billy’s madly in love with has died while visiting her parents in Ireland. Actually, she’s run off with a former lover and with the money Billy borrowed to bring her back.)

Here’s what else we know about CharmingBilly’s narrator: She lives in Seattle, across the continent from the characters she’s telling us about; she’s come back to Queens for Billy’s funeral, which constitutes the present tense of the book; she’s married to the son of a minor character in the story; she has children. Emotionally, personality-wise, she’s a blank. She has no name. She’s there to talk about her parents’ generation–about a past she couldn’t possibly know about, not as well as she seems to. She shifts repeatedly into her father’s and Billy’s points-of-view. She repeats word for word stories told in Billy’s widow’s voice. She possesses an almost omniscient insight and compassion; she makes us see and feel the disastrous outcomes of acts undertaken with the noblest intentions. I have my own opinions about her, but I’m curious to know what you think. Is she a cheap device? Or is there a reason she downplays herself, her life, her generation?

Here’s the second question I’d reread the book to answer: What are we to make of the alcoholic Billy? Are we to admire and pity his fierce loyalty to what turns out to be a false ideal, the girl he believes to have been ripped untimely from life? Everyone in the book seems to admire and pity him for it. Are we meant to believe that the sacrifices he has demanded from them–from his wife, from his best friend (the narrator’s father), from his friend’s stepfather–are worth making, because Billy’s kind of pure love is worth sustaining? Or are we meant to see him as a tragic failure, a man who needed to live inside a romantic fantasy and destroyed everyone around him to do so?

As for Evening, I’d read it again to answer a remarkably similar question (something else the books all have in common, in fact, is some variation on this question): Does Susan Minot understand just how selfish and awful her narrator, Ann Lord, has allowed herself to be, also in the name of a great, tragic, long-lost love? Or is Minot a sucker for her own romanticism? Is this book a romantic tragedy or rather deeply ironic and anti-romantic?

(To flesh out your excellent summary of the book: The main event in the “largely unexamined and unhappy life” Ann Lord reviews on her deathbed is a three-day affair with a stranger on a Maine island roughly 40 years ago. This, the sole period of intense sexual passion she seems ever to have known, took her by storm, seemingly unprovoked. The man was engaged to someone else, and may well have been toying with her. But just because the experience was short and possibly unrequited doesn’t mean it isn’t the most important thing that has ever happened to her. On the contrary, it prevents her from ever feeling deeply about anyone else. Even her own children seem unreal to her.)

I am reading The Hours again, mainly because I didn’t like it much, and know you did, and am trying to understand how you and most other critics (including the New York Times Book Review’s Michael Wood) could have found it so compelling. You said, “the felt experience of the characters was generally able to stand up to the self-consciously artful aspects of the work, and provide a necessary counterweight.” I found that true for Charming Billy and Evening and untrue for The Hours. The book is artful all right. It’s another romance–this time with a book. It’s a meditation on the ways in which a great novel can reach out across time and changes lives. Its main point seems to be: Stories are real, and structure the way we see and experience.

So yes, the book is artful, but I don’t agree that the characters balance the artfulness with the weight of reality, and I think their failure to do so makes the whole conceit collapse into artful nothingness. Stories seem real only if the characters affected by them seem real, and they didn’t seem real in the slightest. They seemed like pure 1990s literary cliches, all very romantic, none very fresh–the suicidal female artist (Woolf herself); the suicidal female artist trapped inside the body of the frustrated 1950s housewife (a character who reads Woolf, and tries with great obviousness to find a Room Of Her Own); the great lion-like poet dying of AIDS, whom I found pretentious and annoying; Clarissa Vaughn, the latter-day Mrs. Dalloway, a sweet, gentle, mildly misunderstood, middle-aged lesbian. I wanted to see this as an hommage to Mrs. Dalloway, but I could help suspecting it was more like theft, a rehash of all of Woolf’s characters and her inimitable breathless phrasing.