Friday, October 29, 2010

Michael Cunningham writes another beautiful novel.

I rushed to get Michael Cunningham’s latest novel when it appeared. This writer just gets better and better.

By Nightfall

Michael Cunningham’s By Nightfall (238 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25) tells the story of middle-aged angst and how it nearly destroys a loving couple. Peter and Rebecca Harris are in their early forties. They are both involved in the New York art scene. He runs a very good gallery, but of course he worries that it might be better. She edits an art magazine with a certain reputation, and in the short space of the action of the novel, it is almost bought out by a billionaire in Montana.

Peter and Rebecca are busy, and Cunningham does a great job of suggesting how their days are spent and what they do while they are at work. He spends more time with Peter, and it is Peter’s mind that we see from the inside; and for this, Cunningham has mastered the rhetoric of the art world and the anxieties that might beset an idealist gallery owner when he finds himself selling art that he is not even sure he likes.

Peter is unsure about a lot of things. He worries about what he will ever accomplish. It seems that although his gallery has had some successes, it is not of the first rank; and he is getting tired of waiting for the genius to come along to make him feel that this has all been worth it. Instead, he works with artists whom be admires but who also leave him wondering what he is doing.

Luckily, Peter has a German assistant Uta, who is fond of him--they almost had an affair some years before--and who does not tire of reminding him that it is not wrong to make money at this venture. When money-making schemes do come along--like an artist whom he might take on because a friend is giving up her business--Uta has to talk Peter out of the guilt he might feel.

Into this complicated world comes young Ethan, who is twenty years younger than his sister Rebecca, herself the youngest of three sisters. Ethan, known in the family as Mizzy, for “mistake,” is a rather feckless young man, in and out of school because of his involvement with drugs. Since college he has been hopping around the world hoping to find the meaning of life. When he turns up in New York to stay with Peter and Rebecca, Peter takes an interest in him, seemingly for the first time. He is constantly confronted with the naked, or semi-naked, young man, who seems nothing if not unselfconscious; but still Peter can’t get him out of his head.

Peter’s interest in the boy seems to take the shape of wanting to save him. After all, he is a beautiful and potentially talented young man, but the drugs are taking so much of his concentration that he could be said to be throwing his life away. Peter feels that he loves the boy because he is in so much trouble and also because he is so very beautiful and open and young.

Needless to say, an affair between Peter and Ethan is something that none of the characters, not even the principals, really want. The novel brings us to the brink of release, disaster, some kind of major change, but I won’t say what really happens. Anything could happen, and the greatness of this novel its ability to make us wonder.

Michael Cunningham

Get a copy of By Nightfall at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Stephen McCauley writes a charming tale about playing with the truth.

After reading McCauley’s latest, I decided to go back and read a few from the last twenty-some years during which this novelist has been producing.

True Enough

True Enough (314 pages, Washington Square Press, $14) appeared in 2001. In it, McCauley tells the story of two frustrated middle-aged characters. Jane Cody is a producer in the fraught world of Boston Public Television. She produces a show that is called “The Conversation,” which mimics a dinner party in which guests discuss issues of pressing public importance. The show is a success, but still she has to scramble to get the right group together for each taping. She has an able—perhaps too able—assistant Chloe, who is always ready with suggestions and who seems vaguely prepared to disapprove of Jane’s last minute, frantic rush to pull things together.

Jane has a maddening young son, whom she loves, but who torments her with his long-suffering angst about experiencing the world. He already seems world-weary at six-years-old, and she is always looking for things to entertain him. Her loving second husband, whom she can barely tolerate, reminds her that their son is only six, but that isn’t the way she sees it. Jane is also emotionally, and at times even physically, involved with her ex-husband, but she is also in denial about how much that man means to her. She attends weekly therapy sessions, but she finds she can’t bring herself to tell the therapist what really is going on.

Meanwhile, Desmond Sullivan, a forty-ish gay man living in New York with a handsome and amusing lover, is having something like a mid-life crisis. He has written one successful biography of a mediocre celebrity, and he is halfway through another, on a singer known as Pauline Anderton. His trouble with this biography, along with some frustration in the relationship, which he hardly acknowledges, leads him to take a temporary teaching job in Boston.

Once in Boston, these two confused and misdirected characters meet, and each sees the other as the answer to the current dilemma. Jane thinks Desmond’s mediocre biography subjects might make a great TV series, and Desmond feels that TV might be the answer to all his feelings of being stuck. Of course, neither of these things is exactly true, but the two still help one another enormously.

Each gives the other the perspective needed to begin to cope. For Jane that means facing up to her unhappiness and recognizing how much her husband really loves her. For Desmond, self-acceptance means finding a way back to the partner he came close to abandoning in New York. It is not easy for either of these characters to get to this place, and McCauley tells a great tale of false starts and misdirections.
But in the end, everything works out very touchingly. These characters both recognize how much love they have in their lives, and that somehow gives them the energy to make sense of everything else.

Stephen McCauley

Get a copy of True Enough at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Lan Samantha Chang contemplates the lives of poets.

I am certain that it was the subject matter of this novel—following a group of poets in a Creative Writing class—that caught my attention. A fascinating work, to be sure, even if it is not exactly what I had expected.


All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost

Lan Samantha Chang’s new novel, All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost (208 pages, Norton, $23.95), tells the story of a group of aspiring poets who meet in the class of a woman who is herself a distinguished poet. Teaching at a campus in the Midwest, Miranda Sturgis is a mystery to her students. In the poetry seminar, the students are ruthless with one another’s work, but Miranda sits above it all, only dispensing her reactions—at times not even specifically related to the poem in question—when she thinks the students have gone too far.

Among the students are two young men whom we come to know fairly well. Roman, a handsome twenty-eight year old who has come to the Creative Writing Program after recognizing that he could not fulfill his poetic destiny working in a bank, is aloof and defensive, and he craves praise from the other members of the writing seminar, even as he holds them in contempt. Bernard, a younger bespectacled fellow-student, whom Roman imagines is a serious poet, befriends Roman and shares with him an almost overwhelming awe of their accomplished teacher. There are several women in the class too: Marleen, Lucy, Phoebe, and others. We hear about their poetry, and we hear what they say about the poetry of the others in the class. We also see them at parties and other social events, especially during the first (of three) sections of the novel, the section concerning the years while these students are pursuing the graduate degree in Creative Writing.

The seminar itself is truly miserable. The students snipe at each other, and they are all jockeying for Miranda’s attention. When Bernard’s poem—an account of the early French explorers in Wisconsin—is read to the class, he fairly quakes with nerves as his lines are criticized. Roman holds out until the last week of the seminar to allow his poems to be discussed, and when the women in the class attack the poems as overly aggressive, even sexually violent, he tries to remain unaffected. He feels that he gets a little recognition from Miranda, and that is enough for him.

Shortly after this seminar experience, Roman and Miranda begin having an affair. This teacher-student affair, never really a good idea, in this context makes Roman even more vulnerable. He is desperate for praise from the older woman, but she wants him to challenge himself even more in his poetry. There is a kind of intensity to the relationship, but there is also, depressingly, an almost total absence of love. When Roman moves on, because he receives scholarships to study in California, he doesn’t think twice about leaving Miranda behind, and later, when he receives a distinguished prize for younger poets, he is suspicious and angry when Miranda turns out to the judge who determined the prize. Because of his early relationship with Miranda, he feels more unsure of himself than he otherwise might. But he is so fixated on his own worth as a poet, and the value of the work he is doing, that he loses sight of what other people might think of as a private life.

The second section of the novel takes place a decade or so later, when Roman is married to one of his fellow students and Bernard is struggling to finish his poem in a tiny New York apartment. Roman is less likable as a husband and a father, and his self-obsession in this section of the novel is almost grotesque. Bernard is even more pathetic than he was as a student, but Roman knows that he has written a really great poem. Roman's own poetry, even though it goes on to win great awards like the Pulitzer disappoints him in some way.

In the last section of the novel, Roman is alone once again, and as his friends and mentors are dying, he tries to figure out what it all has meant. He still does not have enough love, or even enough fellow-feeling, to see what those around him are going through, and I suppose this is his tragedy after all.

Lan Samantha Chang is the director of the well-respected Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and it is almost depressing to think that this is her vision of Creative Writing. No one can teach writing, Bernard opines at a key point in the narrative, and anyone reading this novel would have to imagine that the novelist agrees. What does that mean for all the hopeful students in classes like the ones represented here?

Lan Samantha Chang

Get your copy of All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost at Powell's, Vroman's and Amazon.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is a beautifully crafted meditation on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.

I was about to read Michael Cunningham’s new novel, but I decided I would like to reread his earlier novel, The Hours, first. Rereading that novel has been a pleasure.

The Hours

Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Hours (240 pages, Picador $14), builds on Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway in a number of ways. The novel follows three different strands. In the first, the earliest historically, Cunningham imagines Virginia Woolf in her study in Richmond, a suburb of London, as she works on her famous novel. As she imagines details of what will happen or not happen to her heroine, Clarissa Dalloway, she also deals with her husband, Leonard Woolf, their servants, and the young assistants Leonard has to help him with work on the press that they run. Cunningham does an astonishingly effective job of creating this world and giving it persuasive depth and texture. Anyone who has read Virginia Woolf with pleasure or has read either her letters or her diaries can be forgiven for feeling that she or he knows this extraordinary writer intimately. But only someone like Michael Cunningham can take us into Woolf’s interior thoughts and do so persuasively. This section of the novel is truly remarkable.

Equally remarkable is the world of Pasadena, California, in the late 1940s that Cunningham creates for a young mother and her darling young son. Mrs. Brown, as she is known, is a nervous mother who is not at all sure that she is up to the demands of mothering and being a wife to her loving but clueless husband. In a fit of almost reckless bravado, she leaves her son, the young Richard, with a neighbor, and takes off to downtown Los Angeles for a few hours of solitude and the peace to read. It happens that she is reading Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, marveling at the creation of the character and wondering about her own abilities. When she returns home, in plenty of time for her husband’s return from the office, she finds that her little boy was desperate for her return. This is a simple tale very beautifully told.

The third narrative is set in the late twentieth century. It concerns a woman called Clarissa Vaughn, who is trying to organize a party for her dear friend Richard, a writer and poet who is terribly sick with AIDS. Richard is about to receive a prestigious literary award, and Clarissa wants to celebrate his success. He has been her best friend for years, and being the witty gay man that he is, he has long ago christened her Clarissa Dalloway, which she bears only because she loves him as much as she does. As she pulls her own party together, with more than a little resonances of Woolf’s heroine, she finds herself caught up in the details of the street life of Greenwich Village.

The three narratives intertwine in various ways, and in the last few pages many loose stands are pulled together. Each narrative on its own would make a great story, but together they are simply breathtaking in their power.

Cunningham writes beautifully, as everyone says, but he also creates characters who are so deftly drawn as to be deeply moving just for being themselves. That is what happens here: we can hardly bear coming to the end of this amazing work.

Michael Cunningham

Pick up a copy of The Hours at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stephen McCauley’s novel from the eighties still has great resonance.

I have said that I decided to read some of McCauley’s earlier novels. This one was published in 1987.

The Object of My Affection

Stephen McCauley’s The Object of My Affection (320 pages, Washington Square Press, $14) tells the story of George, a feckless kindergarten teacher living in Brooklyn. George is good looking but badly, or idiosyncratically, dressed, and he has more or less lost faith in the possibility of a satisfying gay relationship. His one failed relationship, which we partly witness in the novel, is with a Columbia professor who was also his mentor. The relationship happens after George has left grad school, so there is nothing nefarious in its inception; but there is a problem in the personality of Jolie, the man with whom he is involved, and his inability to commit or even to pay particular attention to the person he lives with.

In flight from Jolie, George rooms with his old friend Nina, who is trying to complete a Ph.D. in psychology. Nina and George have a great relationship, taking dance lessons and sharing meals on the packing crates that stand in for a dining table in their apartment. But when Nina announces that she is pregnant—Nina’s on-again, off-again boyfriend is the father—George faces a whole new kind of crisis. Nina would like George to participate in her pregnancy and the birth of her child, and it even seems that she would like him to help her raise the child. She doesn’t want anything to do with Howard, but he finds out about the pregnancy, and he tries to become the active father. But Nina has other ideas, and she uses George to help her keep Howard at bay.

In the meantime, George meets in Vermont, where he has gone on an ill-advised weekend with his former lover, a wonderful young man, who is himself raising a young child from Central America. George almost falls for this guy, but he puts up defenses sturdy enough to make the guy think he isn’t interested. George returns to New York with the intention of following through with his commitment to Nina, but when he realize that cannot work, he returns to his Vermont fantasy, and the novel leaves him somewhere caught between the two. He’s living in Vermont, but he cannot stay away from Nina and the new life she has created for herself after the baby is born.

What I find fascinating about this novel is that it was written in 1987, at the absolute height of the AIDS epidemic, and although there are a few mentions of disease and even once or twice AIDS is mentioned, you would never believe that there is any greater crisis for George than whether he should live with a gay man or a straight woman. It strikes me that this may have been McCauley’s way of dealing with the crisis. The question in the novel seems to be: can George accept himself as a gay man. The seeming impossibility of gay relationships may be one thing that is scaring him away from them. Another, unspoken fear, though, might be the fear of AIDS. George would not have been the first person to “go straight” as the result of the fear of AIDS.

Whatever is true about McCauley’s underlying motivations here, this is a lively and entertaining novel. It bears McCauley’s stamp of humane humor that makes it a novel to treasure.

Stephen McCauley

Pick up a copy of The Object of My Affection at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.

John M. Bowers creation takes us beyond the ending of Forster’s Maurice.

This novel is written by a Professor of English at UNLV, and that was reason enough for me to take it up. That and the rave reviews I saw made me eager to see what Bowers had made of Forster’s ending.

End of Story

John M. Bowers provocatively titled novel, End of Story (228 pages, Sunstone Press, $22.95), attempts to add several chapters—a century’s worth, more or less—to E. M. Forster’s posthumously published gay novel, Maurice (pronounced Morris), which appeared in 1971. If the novel had not been published—Forster refused to published it while its clearly happy ending remained illegal in England—it certainly had been discussed, and there were many who went on record not quite approving of the ending. Lytton Strachey, famously, gave the happy couple, the young Cambridge-educated businessman and a groundskeeper, about six weeks, and many readers are puzzled by the coupling; they wonder why Forster does not dramatize their sexual relationship more openly; and they voice concern that Forster left the couple just when he might have pursued their fate together.

Bowers takes on all these objections. Clearly devoted to Forster and the novel itself, Bowers first sets out to posit various futures for Maurice and Alec Scudder, the lovers. Considering that the novel was written in 1913, it is not unimaginable to plunge them into the misery of World War I. He posits other possible endings to the novel, but he can never overcome, or suggests that Forster could not overcome, the barrier of class that would have obtruded in almost any situation.

Then Bowers imagines an alternative couple. He calls them Martin and Alan, and he makes them the models for Forster’s couple. But they avoid World War I by staying on its margins until it gets too close to them, enjoying themselves as they are in southern Europe, and when it does get too close, they take off for America and end up in Santa Fe.

This is a wonderfully imaginative choice, and Bowers has a great time getting his characters settled there. The English class issue hardly matters in this setting, and there are things for both young men to do. Martin keeps up his stock-trading and so on by telegraph, and Alan starts working the land and taking photographs. They both flourish.

At the same time, Bowers presents another couple, Morgan and Eddy, from later in the twentieth century, who experience the gay world that emerged during the 1970s. They live in the fast lane for a while, but when they settle down together, they try to focus on creating a life for each other. Morgan happens to be the son of another Cambridge man, an American, who was a famous rower and who had his own love affair with another student, his rowing partner, when he was at Cambridge. His story connects the men to Cambridge only because of a charming scene, a garden party, in which Forster sees and admires the young American.

Morgan and Eddy travel to Santa Fe themselves and there they meet Alan, who has survived Morgan by some years, and some of the other characters of that older world. They are changed because of their experience there.

This novel is imaginative and some of the descriptions of two men in love are wonderful. Bowers is best, I think, when he imagines the older world and the earlier couples. His contemporary gay men seem a little flat, as if they are filling out a thesis rather than living as real characters. This is a shame because Bowers shows real talent as a novelist, and I hope, if he does more writing, he can find a way to give the contemporary world the depth and richness of the past he imagines.

Get a copy of End of Story at Powell's, Vroman's or Amazon.