Archives for posts with tag: Pulitzer Prize

There is a lot of pain between the covers of Eudora Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, and so much of it runs beneath the surface. Laurel, or Polly to those who’ve loved her the longest, walks around the flowers, rivers, and mountains of her childhood, listening to the past through her bedroom wall, and feels the hands of her dead mother, and her dead husband, running through her hair and over her back, as she tries to face down a future without them.

I picked up this book, without knowing anything about it whatsoever, because last summer this advice column made my heart quicken. Sugar gives invariably difficult advice, but only because life is difficult, and to say that there is an easier way out of the mess of being human is sophist at best and flat out an insidious and life-negating lie at worst.

I was anticipating some heart-wrenchingly beautiful prose, bone clean and real. I was not disappointed.

This was the first piece of American fiction that’s pointedly Southern that I read this year. It’s hard to read work from the South because it seems like I can’t help but sort of tie the stories up with a bunch of non-related ideas I have, the free-floating concept, of the Southern US. Ideas about magnolias, and okra, and flies and, if we’re being honest, fried chicken and heat. And politics and oysters. These were, of course, not the underpinnings of this novel of love and loss.

The Optimist’s Daughter is a bit of a difficult book to pin down, without giving everything away. It’s organized into four books and each of them marks the days and interior life of Laurel in a very specific way that I think is sort of akin to the way that grief is made up of so many different components. The structure of the story compartmentalizes the events of the plot nicely, in that each book can detail a precise moment of being for Laurel. As each of the books comes to its end, the reader gets a little closer, Welty’s free indirect style becoming a little less free. Laurel’s father’s second wife Fay, similar to her only in age,  acts as a foil for the ways in which grief can be a selfish thing, neither woman knows what to make of the situation and they both do the best they can the only way they know how.

I was torn apart by Fay. She’s Texan, where as the other characters are Mississippian, and Fay is very much an outsider. Her brashness and vanity make for a strange bedfellow to Laurel’s methodical and thoughtful father. Laurel’s dad reads the classics and answers letters, having been both a Judge and the Mayor of Mount Salus. Fay obsesses over shoes, spills nail polish on uncluttered desks, opens walnuts with a hammer. Fay cries out loud, screams her discontents, and often says things like “why is this happening to me?”. Laurel is quiet, almost emptied out. The events of this book are so far removed from her daily life of textile design in Chicago that they almost slip away from her like a nightmares–she is not her self in her home town. Fay is always and only herself, and always on the look out with the paranoia of a megalomaniac; she is a permanent second wife that causes the other townsfolk to raise their eyebrows.

The trickiest and best thing that Welty does with the negotiations of these two women is to have Laurel set Fay up as a child, as a silly woman, to have her sweat with the attempt to withhold  the judgement she has already made, and by the time we get really close to Laurel we can see her own silliness, her own childishness, in her inability to let go of the world for an hour or twelve and really get into the mess of grief. When she does break down, it happens like life itself: beautiful and all at once.

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Technically, I’d only read one of Philip Roth’s books before, The Breast, but I somewhat charitably decided that it didn’t really count.  So American Pastoral was the first one, then. And it was great. And it was also not so great.American Pastoral book cover


What I liked:

i. Prose that felt legitimately tied to the story

Y’know how sometimes, in , say, Delillo, or Ondaatje, there are these completely beautiful little aphorisms, fantastic constructions that illuminate the world, open it up, and that are beautiful on the page. American Pastoral had a few of its own, but rather than flying out of the story they were carefully and subtly embedded in the fabric of the life of the famous protagonist, of The Swede.

ii. Work, as a subject and as a way of life

I loved how this was a novel about, in many respects, work. How the characters have occupations, and how Roth lovingly renders the business of making gloves, or raising cattle. How the joy of doing is one that shapes each character. Especially Dawn, who’s resume complicates her ability to relate to the world and to understand herself. I think this is one of the huge discrepancies between the ‘Old boy’ era of Roth (and Updike etc.), and our contemporary MFA-driven literary world. It seems like newer books are entirely psychological and emotional, that characters are writers or artists or academics, that characters think more than do. Or maybe my working class roots are showing a little here. But still, I enjoyed the way that Roth handled the business of business in rounding out this work.

iii. The remove

The book is a book within a book. So, yeah, this is technically marginally about a writer. But it works here.  The first of the three sections sets the story up as a bit of a Tale, and Nathan Zuckerburg is our handily unreliable narrator. From what I understand, Zuckerburg authors lots of books within books by Philip Roth. Anyway, I think it really worked here, because so much of the novel’s thematic content, political violence, the dissolution of American values, the diffusion and dilution of religious, especially Jewish, values, has already been thoroughly mass-mediated. The key events in the novel are situated in the late1960s, and the book was published in the late 1990s, so Roth knew that he had to somehow make it new.  Putting Zuckerburg between the story and Roth, or between The Swede and the reader, changes the dynamic in a very pleasurable, if sometimes frustrating way.

What I didn’t:

i. The misogyny

I know that Roth is a writer from “that generation” and that he wrote a book about a man who wakes up as a walking human milk sac, but still. This won the Pulitzer prize! How is it that every female character in the novel becomes emotionally stunted, a cold bitch, a pathetic alcoholic, or a soft spoken wife? Though there were some particularly sexist snippets of dialogue in the beginning, the ending reminds the reader that women are always the source of pain for men, that even gloriously goyish–American!–, manly men like the Swede are broken down by the follies of females.

ii. The ending

The last section of this book takes the form of a tragedy of manners, and what bubbles up in the characters during a dinner party doesn’t match really with the beauty and pain that came before. The structure of the end feels somehow misaligned to the form of the rest of the story, and the last thirty pages are particularly sluggish. There is also no return to Zuckerburg, no symmetry in the denouement, and the lackluster finale didn’t leave me so emotional or heartbroken that I forgot about him. In fact, I wanted to read his afterword, to give the ending a second chance! To be honest, the ending was a big, really big, letdown. I think it was kinda like Roth’s prose had carried the book so far, but then by the end the whole thing sort of caved in on itself. Like a faux leather bag that starts to peel on the way home from the store.