Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sue Miller writes a powerful tale about 9/11.

Sue Miller’s most recent novel was recommended to me by a friend whom I trust. I wasn’t sure I was ready for another 9/11 novel, but this one was as good as I was promised.

The Lake Shore Limited

“The Lake Shore Limited,” the play from which this novel takes its name (The Lake Shore Limited [288 pages, Knopf, $25.95]), is written by the character Billy (Wilhelmina), who lost a boyfriend in one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It has taken her a long time and a lot of misdirected soul searching in order to write this play; but in it she confronts the very lack of feeling that she felt for Gus, the guy who was killed, and the false position she feels she has been placed in by his sister and others who loved him.

Gus was a bright and handsome guy, a teacher in a Boston area prep school. He and Billy met on a ferry from Boston to Provincetown, and they were really still in the process of getting to know each other when the tragedy struck. It would be unfair to say that Billy felt liberated by Gus’s demise, but she felt something more complicated than simple grief, and it took her a long time to be able to write about it, as she has learned to write about everything that happens to her, in the form of a play.

The play itself, or at least one remarkable performance of it, is at the center of the novel. In one of the last previews, several crucial things occur. In the first place there is Rafe, who is playing the main character Gregory, whose wife might have been lost in a terrorist attack on the Chicago area train called the Lake Shore Limited. As Gregory waits for news of his wife, he goes through a range of emotions, and just before the play ends, he commits himself to her—setting aside a woman with whom he has been having an affair—or her memory. At his most profound moment of self-realization, she walks through the door. At the performance in question, Rafe surprised himself and everyone by weeping as the play reached this climax.
This is a personal breakthrough for Rafe, whose own wife is struggling with the late stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. He feels that he has cheated in some way, but he also knows that he has made the play a success.

Sitting in the audience and watching this preview, the playwright herself is moved almost to tears, and she quickly talks to the director about being sure that Rafe does this in the ensuing performances. She tells herself, and the director, that Rafe was probably so much better because she allowed herself to sleep with him, which she did, but she backpedals quickly when the director questions her.

Also present at this performance were Leslie, Gus’s older sister who was perhaps most destroyed by his senseless death, Leslie’s husband Pierce, and their friend Sam. Sam is a divorced middle-aged architect, with whom Leslie almost had an affair some years before. Now she has invited him to this performance of Billy’s play and arranged that they all meet the playwright afterward for drinks.

The play—especially the power of Rafe’s performance—affects them all profoundly. Leslie hardly knows what to say. Pierce is protective, and Sam is confused. Bringing her own confusion into this mess, Billy feels utterly awkward with her friends, and she becomes even more awkward and almost resentful when she realizes that Leslie is trying to set her up with Sam.

The novel is told from each character’s perspective in turn. In the end, all these complications are worked out satisfactorily, but Miller doesn’t make it easy. I think she does a wonderful job of suspending the resolution till the last possible moment.

Sue Miller

Get a copy of The Lake Shore Limited at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

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