The Great Love of Everybody's Life

Shulevitz and Truax

The Great Love of Everybody's Life

Shulevitz and Truax

The Great Love of Everybody's Life
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 8 1998 5:26 PM

Shulevitz and Truax

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Dear Alice:

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Your defense of Charming Billy incorporates all the ways I think the novel's wonderful too, so I'm reduced to silent agreement. Well, almost. I'm not sure what you mean about the novel only passing judgment on Billy "in the private sense." Me, I pass judgment on Billy in a public sense--by which I mean I think he's a public menace. As the title tells us, Billy's a charmer, and without even trying he's always getting everybody to do for him in ways they really shouldn't. His wife does for him and does for him, which allows him drink himself to death. The narrator's father does for Billy too--among other things, he tells that whopper to protect the guy from the ugly truth, and then feels terrible about it for the rest of his life. I could give a million other examples. I think your friend 's wrong: The narrator isn't being too forgiving--she's pretty free with the blame, and most of it goes to Billy.

Let me propose a thesis I hope is even more controversial. I feel McDermott goes to some lengths to establish parallels among 1) Billy's fixation on the dead Eva to the exclusion of the world around him; 2) the family's fixation on the fixated Billy to the detriment of themselves; and 3) the Catholic fixation on martyred saints and heaven--on bliss in the world to come--to the exclusion of the world that's here. The case McDermott's gently building against Billy is also a case against certain aspects of lace-curtain Irish-Catholic life. There's no question that we feel the powerful charms exerted by Billy, by Billy's fantasies, and by certain kinds of Catholicism--think of the priest who visits Billy's widow after the funeral to offer platitudinous consolations, swooping in and out of the house like a rock star--but I think we're meant to perceive them as dangerous. After all, you can use a charm for ill as well as for good.

As for Evening, the quick parenthetical you tossed off at the end of your entry has made me rethink the book entirely. Here's what you wrote: "(My guess is that Minot's book is an attempt at imaginative forgiveness--an attempt to understand what happened to a certain type of not particularly sympathetic woman in our parents' generation.)" I was all set to disapprove of Minot's lovesick heroine, just as I did of Billy, but now I can't. I think you're right. Why? Well, I haven't read Minot's second novel Folly, but I gather it's almost exactly what you describe--her effort to imagine her way into the mind of a woman who might have been her grandmother. Coincidentally, given our discussion of The Hours, she's sort of a Mrs. Dalloway figure, only set in Henry James-era Boston: a woman whose emotional life is awakened by a careless lover who leaves her, and put back to sleep by a dull husband who goes all obnoxious on her.

Maybe that's the Minot project--to help us understand all those seemingly blank women of her mother's (and grandmother's) generation, the upper-class WASP-y housewives who seemed to have checked out of their lives long before we met them. To show us the passions brought to life and then murdered in the womb by careless, careless men.

So everything's men's fault, is it? I wonder. Moreover, understanding Ann Lord's great tragedy doesn't make her any less irritating. Let's face it: The chick thinks with her, well, her hormones. Like Billy, she turns a totally sexual crush into the great love of her life, then uses it as an excuse to freeze out people who have the nerve to try to love her--other men, of course, and her children. You call them shadowy, but everyone but Ann is shadowy in this book, even the great crush, whom we discover at the end of the novel we have barely known. He's a cad, of course, but what makes him tick? Why does he toy with Ann? Who knows? Who cares? We're so deep inside this narcissist's head we'll never find out, and in the end, do we want to?

You haven't yet explained what you like about The Hours, so I'll give you another reason it gets on my nerves: That goddamn kiss beside the pond that is the great love of the lives of our latter-day Mrs. Dalloway, the Greenwich Village lesbian, and her brilliant, brilliant poet dying of AIDS. First of all, I don't believe that at the age of 52 Clarissa Vaughan is still spending a quarter of her waking life mooning over that kiss, which took place when she was 18; and second, I'm getting pretty sick of the great loves of everybody's lives. Why is that the key to everything in all three of these books? Doesn't that make you just a wee bit skeptical?

Yours,

Judith

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Judith Shulevitz is the New York editor of Slate. Alice Truax is an editor at he New Yorker. This week they discuss Michael Cunningham's The Hours, Alice McDermott's Charming Billy, and Susan Minot's Evening.