The Language of A Crush

Shulevitz and Truax

The Language of A Crush

Shulevitz and Truax

The Language of A Crush
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 11 1998 8:40 AM

Shulevitz and Truax

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Dear Alice,

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I'm sorry this is ending too, because you're a pleasure to talk books with. Your take on these novels is both generous and persuasive--a rare combination. You make them seem more textured and interesting than they did when I read them. I go back to the books curious as to whether I'll find the same things you did. I don't entirely but I do somewhat. Which is enough.

Take Evening. When I called you up and asked you to do this exchange, I knew you'd reviewed the book favorably and I planned to disagree vigorously with you. I thought the novel was maudlin, Minot's account of her heroine's love-at-first-sight Harlequin Romantic: "He was wearing squarish dark glasses so she couldn't see his eyes. She noticed his mouth was full though set in a particular firm way, the combination of which affected her curiously. She felt as if she'd been struck on the forehead with a brick.

The person's face seemed lit from within."

Or again: "He was mysterious and the otherness of his life suddenly struck her. She wanted to be thrown onto his back and hauled off."

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I mean, really. She had a crush. They happen to the best of us. We get grandiose, we do stupid stuff, we're embarrassed, we get over it. How could Susan Minot/Ann think three steamy days with a total stranger, with a minimum of conversation, hold the key to life, love, and sexuality? That's not love; it's having read too many bad books.

But ok, I agree that Evening is much more complicated and insightful than those passages would seem to indicate. For instance, it's clear that the dying woman is not just remembering the affair, she's hallucinating it too, and why should we be surprised if her hallucinations are tinged with the purple prose of potboiler fiction? Oddly enough, we never doubt that what she describes happened; but there is an intensity about her memories which I chalk up not just to their previous repression and liberation by way of balsam pillow but to the morphine the nurse keeps injecting her with. Ann Lord does a lot of flying, surreal metaphor-making, and slipping in and out of childhood scenery whenever she isn't reliving those three days in Maine. In their crystalline clarity and hyperreality, they're an escape from the endless muddlement of dying (which, I'm embarrassed to confess, I found fairly hard going, rendered as it was in repetitive detail). By the time of her death, we understand that the affair has been an out for her all her life. Even if--as you say--she's folded the memories up and put them away, they've nonetheless drained the vitality out of everything else. She's given up, and at some level she's told herself this is why.

So, yes, the novel succeeds in distancing itself from Ann's deluded romantic obsessions, her Michael Furey problem, and becomes less an apologia to romance than a critical examination of it. At least it does at the level of narrative. But what about at the level of voice? A large part of my response to the book had to do with its tone, and there, too, you have hinted at the problem: It's humorless. Worse than that, it's heavy-breathing. The sentences quoted above are among the most ridiculous, but there are plenty more that are almost as bad: "You don't mind, he said. Do you. She could not answer. A force whirled through her. Who is he, she thought as a warm langour swept through her. Who is this Harris Arden?" Now I admit that if you're going to write about a crush you have to use crush language, but still, you might leaven it a bit. You might let us know that you know there are other ways of looking at things. Minot never does. There's not a single moment in this book where Minot or Ann grants us a jot of ironic perspective on the whole thing. Some might call that kind of singlemindedness courageous. I call it oppressive.

As for The Hours, I feel we've been over it so many times it's a good thing we're calling it quits. You admire its modest ardor, its willingness to be slight and derivative. I think, why bother? Your description of it as a valentine is moving and lovely. I wish I could be so generous. I feel Woolf (and Woolf lovers) deserve better than these inadequately felt, insufficiently realized stereotypes of gay and literary life; this careful, thoughtful, strained, thin, and vaguely familiar prose; these clever, artificial, and unconvincing conceits--the stolen lesbian kiss that occurs generation after generation; the gay in-joke in which finally, Clarissa gets to marry her adolescent love Sally and keep Richard as her ersatz husband too. The final test of a book like this, to me, is whether it gently enters my view of Woolf and alters it irrevocably, the way a great biography or critical essay can. The Hours didn't. Sorry to engage in the obvious comparison, but after all, Cunningham insists that you do it: The minute I began rereading Mrs. Dalloway I was able to dispense with Cunningham and his watery brew of allusions. Woolf's prose is strong stuff, and overpowers the imitation labels easily.

Hey, at least we agree about Charming Billy.

Until the next time, which will, I hope, be soon.

Love,

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.