The Michael Furey Problem

Shulevitz and Truax

The Michael Furey Problem

Shulevitz and Truax

The Michael Furey Problem
New books dissected over email.
Dec. 10 1998 1:46 PM

Shulevitz and Truax

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Dear Judith,

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Although the pace of our correspondence is practically killing me, I'm also feeling a bit forlorn that this is my last letter to you. It is weird that all three of these novels raise this issue of first love, so I wanted to begin with your last letter's question: "Do we still believe that loves formed in our impressionable youth haunt us into middle age? Is that our failure to be fully alive, or a tired trope we ought to abolish?"

While all three of these books are driven, to some extent, by the emotional power of a first love, their view of such romances is wary, to say the least. In Joyce's story "The Dead," the middle-aged protagonist discovers one evening, when his wife seems remote to him, that she is thinking of Michael Furey, a boy who loved her so much when she was a young girl that he planted himself outside her window for several nights in miserable weather and caught pneumonia and died. Who could compete with that? It's apples and oranges. Minot, McDermott, and Cunningham all take this problem--which is a fairly interesting problem on its own, I think, about innocence and experience, sense and sensibility, etc.--and complicate still it further.

In McDermott's novel, after all, the love was a lie; the enduring romance between Billy and Eva existed only in Billy's head. Revealingly, Billy had not really planned much for their future together, beyond getting Eva back from Ireland and taking her out to Long Island for their Edenic honeymoon in Dennis' stepfather's cottage, and there are also indications that he was well on his way to becoming an alcoholic even before the suggestively named Eva dumped him. In other words, one could argue that Billy needed that lie so badly that he almost called it into being. So perhaps McDermott is saying that we're haunted when we need to be haunted, when we need a myth to give some grandeur to our failures.

In the case of the Cunningham, I don't think for a minute that you are supposed to believe that Clarissa Vaughan should have ended up with Richard, the poet, or even that she, in her heart of hearts, believes she should have either. (After all, this is Woolf territory: In the context of The Hours, a fleeting conviction, no matter how passionately felt, is always about to be replaced by another.) But now Richard is dying; he is no longer the vital man that Clarissa has been fighting with and adoring since that summer in Wellfleet, when she crossed the threshold into adulthood 34 years earlier. He is lost to her now in several senses, so now she can bask in the luxury of regret--or in the luxury of imagining another life for herself--for a minute or so. But I don't think that she is portrayed as less than fully alive for that. (Indeed, I think that it was Clarissa Dalloway, who sacrificed her sexuality, to some extent, for her autonomy, whereas Cunningham's Clarissa has not.) Furthermore, Clarissa Vaughn acknowledges that the very nature of being young is part of what invests those relationships with such portent: "Maybe there is nothing, ever, that can equal the recollection of having been young together. Maybe it's as simple as that. Richard was the person Clarissa loved at her most optimistic moment." When you're 18, nothing matters more than the present, and yet your future is still before you: a pretty heady combination.

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Another interesting wrinkle here is the nature of the lost love in question: a sexually problematic marriage between two bisexuals. One of Cunningham's clever jokes here is that he names Clarissa's tempestuous lost love Richard, not Peter, although Peter is the one who "gets away," so to speak, in Woolf's novel, and Richard is Mrs. Dalloway's husband. I think Cunningham is suggesting that Richard the poet is, in many true senses, Clarissa Vaughan's husband.

Although I have more to say about The Hours, I want to get onto the Minot, which we're not giving its due. Evening faces the Furey problem head-on, in that the love in question--this passionate affair between Ann Lord and a young man at a weekend wedding on an island off the coast of Maine--feels authentic while its happening, and is unequivocally over when it ends. And certainly this affair inflicts lasting damage on Minot's heroine, although we're clearly not supposed to imagine that Ann's been mooning over this guy for forty years. The opposite, in fact; she simply puts this nightmarish experience away--just as she puts away her wedding souvenir, the balsam pillow that brings these memories flooding back--and this, I think, is her folly, rather than having the affair in the first place. I don't think that Ann's private catastrophe, or her repression of that catastrophe, is presented as an excuse for her behavior, but as an explanation, and I think that this attitude is similar in all these books. All three novelists are interested in both the romance of our failures, and in the psychology of those failures; they acknowledge the tragic dimension of these lives while observing them with some irony and (in the cases of McDermott and Cunningham) humor.

From the reader's point of view, the early romance functions in an unusual way in the Minot. For me, the parts of the novel which describe Ann's dying were almost unbearable: the fear and loneliness of it, the physical pain, the confusion, the dreaded future, and then all that compounded by the meaninglessness of much of her life and her inability to make some sort of sense of it. I found Minot's portrayal, in the main, both convincing and instructive, and yet I never could have made it through the book--by far the bleakest of the three, I think--if half of it hadn't taken place in the crystalline atmosphere of that long-ago Maine idyll. And yet I never would have accepted the Maine half of the book without the other half; it would have seemed far too nostalgic and enchanted. But as a preserved-in-amber memory, recalled by a woman now at the other end of a poorly-managed life, I bought it. I also respected Minot for, as you pointed out several days ago, highly qualifying even the nature of the early romance--like our heroine, we never know exactly what to make of the gentleman in question, we only know what he meant to her. Yet at the same time, now that Ann has paid a lifetime for the mistakes she made in part as a consequence of that romance, she can take some comfort in remembering its glory and intensity: She can stand among the ruins of her life, close her eyes, and smell that balsam pillow. Well, again, fair enough. I won't begrudge her that.

Getting back to your earlier comment about influence, certainly Evening wouldn't exist without Virginia Woolf. In fact, I think that while Cunningham takes care not to write against Virginia Woolf's style (and even attempts to evoke particular passages of Woolf), it is Minot who plunges in and attempts to make Woolf's use of stream-of-consciousness and indirect freestyle her own. She is not always successful, but stylistically, perhaps, she is more courageous. Like The Hours, Evening plays with the juxtapositions of different times and places, and while I find The Hours, finally, more structurally accomplished, there is a depth to Evening that is lacking in the other.

Finally, however, I want to return to The Hours: Your favorite target, after all! I guess I can't criticize you for using Woolf to knock Cunningham, because you can't write a book based on Mrs. Dalloway and not expect the comparison (when I first realized that Cunningham was going to quote from Mrs. Dalloway in his book, even I, a fan, exclaimed, "Watch out!"). And I'm certainly not claiming that Cunningham is, to put it crudely, Virginia Woolf's literary equal; my guess is that he wouldn't, either. But that doesn't mean that I didn't love his book.

To me, The Hours is a valentine. First, a valentine to all of us, who, like him, found our lives in some way transformed by Mrs. Dalloway. It brings us back to the original, and also gives us new lenses through which to examine the original, and I loved that. It's also a valentine to artists in general, I think, and to that solitary and sometimes maddening and often despair-filled struggle. (I loved, incidentally, the way in which the value of Richard's work is finally pronounced: by a reader rising up out of the past, but who also seems, in some way, like an emissary from future generations.) And finally, of course, the book is the author's valentine to Woolf: an offering that enfolds her life, art, and suicide into a celebration of the profound influence she has had on so many of us, across decades and continents. In the shadows cast by failure and madness here, I found that offering very moving. Cunningham launches his valentine with Woolf's own arrow--shot back to her through time--and it is with this passage from Mrs. Dalloway, which he quotes in The Hours, that I would like to end:

Did it matter then, she asked herself, walking toward Bond Street, did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely; all this must go on without her; did she resent it; or did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely? but that somehow on the streets of London, on the ebb and flow of things, here, there, she survived, Peter survived, lived in each other, she being part, she was positive, of the trees at home; of the house there, ugly, rambling all to bits and pieces as it was; part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist, but it spread ever so far, her life, herself.

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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.