I’m excited about the books we’ve chosen–The Hours, by Michael Cunningham, Evening, by Susan Minot, and Charming Billy, by Alice McDermott–because when I first read them, I had no one with whom to discuss them, and I felt that there was a lot to talk about. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I reviewed both Charming Billy and Evening, favorably, for the In Brief section of The New Yorker .)
To describe them briefly and inadequately, Cunningham’s novel is an hommage to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway which follows three women–a middle-aged lesbian in the West Village, a discontented postwar housewife in the spanking-new suburbs of LA, and Virginia Woolf herself–over the course of a single day. Minot’s Evening is about a WASPy woman lying in her bed dying of cancer in Boston and reviewing, in alternately lucid and chaotic flashes, her largely unexamined and unhappy life. And McDermott’s CharmingBilly, which unfolds in the Irish-American community of New York’s outer boroughs, is a portrait of a much-adored alcoholic who unwittingly builds his identity around a white lie told to him by his best friend shortly after the second World War.
Although Cunningham, Minot, and McDermott stake out different ethnic and geographical territories, their books have a great deal in common–which is very satisfying, from our point of view, but I also feel the danger of being pulled off in too many directions at once. All three novels quite short (under 300 pages), and yet ambitious, both formally and thematically, adopting various narrative strategies loosely associated with “the modern novel.” Their authors make it clear almost immediately that they are as interested in how the story is told as they are in the story itself, and that something will be demanded of us in this regard. You cannot simply relax into these novels. At times I felt that I was a participant as much as an observer, because in a very conscious way I was always struggling to piece things together and figure them out. And yet, in all three books, I felt very engaged with the lives described: 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 did feel sympathy for all these people, in other words, even if I didn’t always like them.
I’m also fascinated that the protagonists in these books are all significantly older than
their creators. McDermott’s novel focuses on what I would assume to be her parents’ generation, Minot’s ailing heroine is sixty-five, and two of Cunningham’s three women are over fifty. And they are backward-looking books: concerned with death and dying, concerned with reputation, the nature of memory, the final meaning of a life–one’s own, or someone else’s. Books of reckoning. Sex and love and friendship make appearances, but they are usually being examined even as they assert themselves: How, exactly, does one love an alcoholic, and why? What does it mean that you can stroll across Washington Square Park in a glorious mood when your best friend is dying only a few blocks away? Etc. All three authors also set significant portions of the book in their characters’ past, so that while these books would never be classified as historical novels, they contain large chunks of eras beyond their authors’ direct experiences: a summer wedding in Maine in the early fifties, in Minot’s case, or the Woolfs’ life in Richmond in the twenties. The ambition of these sections was not the point of the novels, by any means, but that fact added to my pleasure in them, for some reason.
In any case, I think that these books all make large claims for themselves, with varying degrees of success. They all assert–is this fair, do you think?–that they could and should be read more than once. I know that you are less impressed with them than I was: Would you willingly read any of them a second time?