DECEMBER 19, 2012
PICK UP A BOOK by Christine Schutt, and you’ll be struck straight away by her style. In two short story collections and three novels, she’s honed a language that feels wholly hers: a carefully cadenced poetic prose that warrants being read reverently, aloud. I’ll say it right now: I believe Prosperous Friends proves Schutt to be one of the finest stylists alive. Praised by the likes of Lydia Davis and John Ashbery, Schutt has been called a “writer’s writer.” Yet if her style is “writerly,” it’s not estrangingly so. She doesn’t indulge in insular word games, fashioned for a refined few. What she does instead is draw out a secret world of love and suffering, which, once it is revealed to us, we recognize as our own.
Schutt’s first collection, Nightwork (1996), disclosed these secrets with such disturbing directness that critics tagged it as “transgressive.” Broadly, it is a book about incest; its feral Freudian stories stage a return of our most repressed urges — those unacknowledged desires that underlie our relationships with our nearest and dearest. It is also a book born under the guidance of Gordon Lish, whose workshops Schutt attended and who later commissioned the collection for Knopf. Looking back, Nightwork seems stamped by what Lish demanded from his students: an arresting extremity of style and subject matter.
Lish’s influence can likewise be felt in Schutt’s first novel, Florida (2004), about an abandoned girl’s growth into adulthood, and her adoption of art — of writing — as a way of saving herself. As in Nightwork, the novel enacts a kind of confession: an articulation of private and painful experience. In workshops, Lish would urge writers to unearth their innermost “errors,” their failures, as sources of power on the page. Thus, Florida’s first-person perspective fully uncovers its narrator’s mind, so that, in reading, we relive her psychic losses and gains.
But in Schutt’s second novel, All Souls (2008), something changes. The shock tactics of Nightwork are gone, as is Florida’s self-consciousness. An omniscient narrator mediates All Souls’s action, lending a sense of distance to Schutt’s story of two schoolgirls. Prosperous Friends continues this trend, observing its characters’ lives largely from outside. Where secrets were once spilled onto the page, here they are withheld, or else merely whispered. To me, though, it seems that Schutt’s early concerns have only grown more movingly present — all the more present for their apparent absence. The more they recede, the more their mystery deepens. In short, Schutt has mastered an intricate indirectness.
After all, Schutt’s art is, in part, about unspoken emotions, and the clandestine life of the body. So we could say that with each new book this embodied, emotive life is ever more expertly buried. Now it lives less in Schutt’s themes than in her forms, less in plots than in prosody. Difficult intimacies no longer need explicit confession. Instead they’re secreted in Schutt’s very sentences — coded in consonance, assonance, syllabic patterning. Another great writer and acolyte of Lish, Gary Lutz, has lectured at length on the “romance between letters” in Schuttian phrases like “her lips stuck when she licked them to talk” and “acutely felt, clearly flat.” This is why reading Schutt’s prose is like listening to music: beneath its manifest meaning, her language is full of other, ineffable messages, encrypted in rhythms and melodies. Literary critic George Steiner, writing about music, explains the effect better than I can:
The sensory, emotional data of music are far more immediate than those of speech… they may reach back to the womb. Music needs no decipherment. Reception is more or less instantaneous at psychic, nervous and visceral levels whose synaptic interconnections and cumulative yield we scarcely understand.
This is what it’s like to read Schutt.
It’s appropriate, then, that Prosperous Friends opens with its main character crying. As with a child, we hear her cries — a kind of primal music — before we come to hear her speech. Isabel Bourne’s “exorbitant crying” awakens Aura Kyle, proprietor of the B&B where Isabel has checked in overnight with her husband Ned. Straight away, Aura attempts to interpret the noises she hears. What could have caused her guest’s anguish? “Infidelity? Boredom?” No, there’s no way of knowing: this is a voice as it was before learning language, expressive only of emotion, of “purely announced sorrow.” Two sentences follow, forming a startling simile of the sort only Schutt could come up with:
Her swept, stripped crying was like an empty room, the boxy shadows on the walls, the unfaded parts against which beds and desks had pressed. Whoever had lived there, slept there, adjusted in front of a mirror there, was dead.
In a sense, Isabel’s inner “deadness” marks the difference between her and Ned. Her husband’s first word in the novel is “feel” — he’s involved in the world, “up for anything,” while Isabel is ill at ease. She looks out at others as if “through a window,” and is predisposed to “shift into remote.” As we meet these two, in medias res, their marriage already seems ruined. But Schutt refuses easy readings; like Isabel’s crying, we can’t reduce this couple’s collapse to a “cause.” Rather, the relationship’s dissolution is due to some unsounded undercurrent — an abstract “absence of event,” paraphrased at one point as “Isabel’s failure to make something worth regarding.” She’s a thwarted writer, and not only that: an abortion darkens her past, and an only-alluded-to “ashy collapse.”
What’s more, this couple’s sex life is more unnerving than anything in Nightwork. Ned tries his hardest to be inventive with Isabel, whether “rustling up her skirt” in a church, encouraging her to experiment with girls, or to “let me shave you.” For all his efforts, she “can only act excited,” and he finds her desires unfathomable. What would she like him to do for her, to her? “If only she knew, but she never.” Their vexed sex scenes end in deadlock: he needs to know what she needs, but there’s no way of knowing, for either of them. This is a subtler, deeper discomfort than that of Schutt’s more extreme early stories — like Dead Men, where a remembered lover has a “long reach for hard objects,” and declares, “you could take my fist, you cunt.” Now, the urge to abuse has given way to something worse: misguided bids to gratify. The writing that results is elliptical, but all the more excruciating:
“How do you like this?”
“Yes, well. No, not exactly.”
“How about this?”
“No. No, that hurts. That really hurts, Ned!”
Afterward, the only thing he could say was that he wanted to give her pleasure.
“Not that way, you don’t.”
She showered in a plugged-up tub, then sat growing colder in the scum that was water.
Isabel is far from frigid, of course, although her husband might make her seem so. She has burning needs, but they’re unknown, unknowable. And if a cloud of unknowing surrounds her desire, the same could be said of her depression. “I’m depressed,” she tells Ned, “but the reason? You don’t know the reason, not really.” For her, in fact, pain and pleasure are never completely distinct. “I like melancholy,” she claims, and later quotes The Great Gatsby: she’s “both enchanted and repelled” by the world, and by herself. Most of us know how she feels, at least a little. As psychoanalysts have long held, enchantment and repulsion meet and merge on the underside of our emotional lives. But Isabel is immersed in this netherworld, out of sight of the surface.
The consequence is that Isabel can’t articulate how she feels, only feel it. Thus, she identifies with a blind, deaf dog that Ned gets euthanized. She, like the dog, is “purely a heart […] a beating heart,” insensible but alive and in pain. In this, her condition recalls Julia Kristeva’s description of “melancholia.” For Kristeva, chronic depression is “incommunicable” — melancholics can’t connect feelings with reasons, can’t sum up their suffering in speech. Like Isabel, they’re locked out of “symbolic” language; their words slip away from fixed points of reference. Instead, their verbal world is what Kristeva calls “the semiotic,” where words are submerged in emotions, in inexplicable bodily drives. This is Isabel’s realm, but not only that; it’s also the place of what I’ve called, with Steiner, linguistic “music,” poetry. So if the plot of Prosperous Friends, the trope of a couple in nebulous conflict, sounds pedestrian to you, listen closer. Semiotic, not solely symbolic, the book’s beating heart lies hidden beneath its ostensible “sense.”
In Kristeva’s account, there’s clearly an ambiguity at the core of depression. In their inarticulate plight, depressives are like failed artists, blocked writers. But by accessing an inner world of poetic expression, each is also an artist in the making. This is why Kristeva claims that “depression is at the threshold of creativity.” If it “becomes creative,” she explains, “it is overcome.” So the condition contains the seed of its cure. One way of recovering from melancholia is to craft an “independent symbolic object” — a work of art. Seen in this light, Prosperous Friends tells the story of Isabel’s struggle to cross such a threshold. As we will see, her failure is brought into focus by others’ success.
The prosperous friends of Schutt’s title are two artists, Clive and Dinah, an older couple whose country home Ned and Isabel flee to during the dying days of their marriage. Isabel has a half-hearted affair with Clive; Ned finally leaves her for the latter’s niece-in-law, Phoebe. Clive is a painter, Dinah a poet, and each is forever engaged in fertile work of one kind or another: “Dinah had a garden […] Poems? They grew.” For all their flaws, their love flourishes too: they still have good sex, and have learned to accept each other’s infidelities. This isn’t to say that they’re free from sorrow: Dinah and Clive are as acquainted with pain as the novel’s younger couple, but they sublimate it into their everyday lives, and their art. One of Clive’s most well-known works depicts white horses, painted after an injury, “in response to a moment when pain felled him and the world was white.” Even if pain can’t be comprehended, it can be conquered in painting.
When Ned leaves unannounced in the night, Isabel has no such hope of coping. Once abandoned, she is “broken.” Her marriage, or at least its image, is all that has kept her from collapse. “From the girl most promising,” we learn, “she had not been a success, except outwardly in marriage. And now the marriage was over.” Without this symbolic lynchpin, she no longer knows herself — or, more exactly, she’s lost her excuse for believing she ever had. Her motives are now as opaque to her as they are to others. This crisis culminates in a car crash, after which Clive asks if she “drove off the road on purpose.” She replies, “I don’t know. I don’t remember feeling involved.”
Ultimately, all Isabel knows is that she’s “not turning into the person I wanted to be.” Her sadness at what she hasn’t become rings true to life, and feels tragic. But the real, irreparable tragedy is that this sadness is something no one can touch. Ned couldn’t, and neither can Clive, for whom Isabel is simply a “shape,” an inscrutable surface. By contrast, Clive and Dinah are open, not closed, to their own and one another’s limitations. They, too, are saddened by what they are not, but this sadness cements them together. People are imperfect, and such failings may be acknowledged. Hence, one of the book’s most moving moments comes when Clive quotes his wife’s poetry to her:
His recall for her work mostly pleases and when they come to the barn bench, he is still plucking lines, and she is listening to herself and how he hears her, and it wins her over that he knows, better than anyone else knows, the great divide between who she is and what she has done.
For couples like Clive and Dinah, divides and abysses are bridged, thresholds crossed, in these small acts of acceptance.
Prosperous Friends does end with a hint of hope for Isabel, who appears to enter into a relationship with Clive’s daughter, Sally. To be sure, Sally is almost as sad as Isabel, with her “happy pills” and AA meetings. But together these two show signs of being able to share their sadness, as Isabel never could with Ned. Isabel and Sally’s future together is uncertain, but we sense that it won’t be, or needn’t be, lonely. They’re still at the stage where, as Sally says of two strangers they see at a dance, “they might be anything to each other.” When we leave the two women watching those dancers — “they hopped and clapped, hooked arms, went in circles” — the novel seems to return to its source: a wordless world of musical movement and uncertain, bittersweet beauty.
Prosperous Friends is about how some lives take shape, and some fail to. It’s also a work of art about how art can give shape to our lives. It shows us how sharing, in life and in art, can overcome sadness. This thought brings us back to Kristeva, who says of despair that, “our job is to raise it to the level of words, and of life.” In this way, perhaps Schutt raises and redeems the desperate lives she portrays. She doesn’t plot those lives, but looks into them indirectly, evocatively. Her poetic sentences intimate the things they can’t say, disclosing ineffable love and pain. And all this is brought forth by the work in which it is contained.
A last allusion might underline this novel’s accomplishment. At one point in the narrative, Sally discovers a book about jigsaws. The book is real; it’s by Margaret Drabble. Read it, and you’ll find the following words:
Books, too, attempt to impose a pattern, to make a shape. We aim, by writing them, to make order from chaos. We fail.
It isn’t so much that Schutt succeeds in making order from chaos — she knows that she can’t, we can’t, no one can. So she says, once you’ve failed, go on living: make order from failure.