The Book Club

Narcisissism Has Its Virtues

Dear Judith,

I agree with you that McDermott does not portray her charming alcoholic as blameless for his bad behavior, but hers seems to me a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of a certain brand of Irish sentimentalism, not a condemnatory one. I guess what I meant about a private judgment was that it comes down to how much tolerance one has for people like Billy, generally, more than whether or not one should be tolerant of people like Billy: I think McDermott leaves that choice up to each of us, rather than trying to force it. Billy is a larger-than-life figure, and most people want to know someone like that, need to know someone who can embody some private myth they hold dear. Even Dennis, who suffers as much as anyone–except for Billy’s wife–over Billy’s drinking, has a flash of joy when he first sees Billy’s disfigured corpse and thinks that it has been misidentified, that Billy is still alive, after all. Life is far easier without infuriatingly romantic and self-indulgent and self-dramatizing people like Billy, but it is also far more boring.

There is a wonderful description in The Hours, in fact, of the thrill of knowing this sort of narcissist. Clarissa is thinking about her relationship with her best friend, Richard, the dying poet: “He is not one of those egotists who miniaturize others. He is the opposite kind of egotist, driven by grandiosity rather than greed, and if he insists on a version of you that is funnier, stranger, more eccentric and profound than you suspect yourself to be … it is all but impossible not to believe, at least in his presence and for a while after you’ve left him, that he alone sees through to your essence… . It is only after knowing him for some time that you begin to realize you are, to him, an essentially fictional character, one he has invested with nearly limitless capacities for tragedy and comedy not because it is your true nature but because he, Richard, needs to live in a world peopled by extreme and commanding figures.”

It is for this sort of observation (among other things) that I loved this novel–and I did love this novel–but I was also troubled by it because it seems so dependent on one’s familiarity with another book, Mrs. Dalloway. Of course, I couldn’t unread Mrs. Dalloway, and so judge how and whether Cunningham’s book could stand on its own, but I wasn’t sure that it could. So many of the book’s intellectual pleasures seemed to me to depend on the reader’s familiarity with its predecessor. Did you read Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres? That was the only other novel I could think of that raised similar questions for me, because even as I found it to be an utterly convincing description of life on a huge agricultural farm in the American Midwest, King Lear was in my face every other minute. In the case of both novels, the palimpsest effect is inescapable, and forms a large part of one’s reading experience.

I think that both of these books raise certain anxieties that are particularly American: How original should a work of art be? How unself-conscious should it at least appear to be? How intellectually independent? As an English friend of mine gently cautioned me when I was trying to describe my reservations about the “parasitic” nature of Cunningham’s book, almost all of Western Art is parasitic in some sense, and until about ten minutes ago it wasn’t a matter of great concern. Also, so as not to misrepresent Cunningham here, the book is not simply a retelling of the Woolf novel because he sets up two other narrative strands outside that retelling: the bored housewife in L.A., who one realizes quite early on is the dying poet’s mother, and the story of Woolf herself, languishing in the village of Richmond.

For me the occasional thinness of the individual narratives was more than compensated for by the energy generated among all these people and their circumstances. In other words, it may not be sufficiently interesting, in itself, that the housewife, Mrs. Brown, goes for a drive to escape the stifling boredom of her house. It becomes much more interesting, however, when it is set against Clarissa Vaughan’s walk across Washington Square, and against Virginia Woolf’s walk to the river in which she drowns herself. (The Hours opens with Woolf’s suicide.) You mention, in your first letter, the cliché of the frustrated housewife “who tries with great obviousness to find a Room of Her Own”–referring, I assume, to the moment in the novel with Mrs. Brown rents herself a hotel room for two hours to read her book. But you don’t mention that this scene is also heavily overlaid with intimations of suicide; a very different sort of room of one’s own than that cliche generally implies! And I don’t think that Cunningham is simply suggesting that the nineteen-fifties would drive any self-respecting creative person to suicide, either; after all, Woolf lived in a very different time and place. I think he is trying to get at something far more complicated. The Hours is riddled with such correspondences, vibrating, one after another, in the mind of the reader.

All of these novels, as I mentioned on Monday, demand a certain amount of active intellectual work, but lately I find myself trying to better measure the degree and kind of such work. I have also just finished reading Alice Munro’s The Love of a Good Woman, which you discussed in Slate a few weeks ago, and I was struck by how increasingly elliptical Munro has become–how her ever-widening gaps demand the reader to stretch further and further to grant the story significance. It’s as though the reader’s thinking becomes part of the architecture of the story itself. I think that both my elation and my unease about The Hours come back to a similar conviction: It is almost as if the novel only achieves its highest evolutionary stage once it has been read. And what’s more–and this is not true of Munro’s work–it should be read by someone who’s read another book. Only then can The Hours achieve its platonic form–not on the page, but, reconstituted, in the mind of the reader.

In many ways, The Hours is like a meditation to me–a conversation about art and life and death with several smart people I feel privileged to spend time with. I also find it quite funny. (At one point, Vanessa’s children prepare an elaborate funeral bier for a dead thrush in Virginia’s back garden: ” ‘That’s nice,’ she says, and surprisingly, it is. Virginia looks with unanticipated pleasure at this modest circlet of thorns and flowers; this wild deathbed. She would like to lie down in it herself.” And then, “It could be a kind of hat. It could be the missing link between millinery and death.”)

Certainly–to end on the sins-of-the-romantics category we touched on yesterday–Cunningham is the one, among these three writers, who really steps up to the plate. Because while we may be sympathetic to Mrs. Brown’s almost paralytic unhappiness, we also have a strong sense of the terrible toll that her subsequent choices (which, pace Judith, I’m not going to reveal here) took on her son. I still feel we haven’t quite finished with what I think of as our Michael Furey problem–you know, the problem of the lost love that life can never compete with, from the character in Joyce’s The Dead–but maybe tomorrow.