I FIRST READ Mona Simpson’s work in graduate school when my MFA workshop teacher assigned her early story “Lawns,” which begins: “I steal. I’ve stolen books and money and even letters. Letters are great.” “Lawns” was published in 1984, two years before Simpson’s first novel, the acclaimed Anywhere But Here. It is, in some ways, an even more astonishing piece of work.
Designed to startle and intrigue, the first lines of “Lawns” draw us into a world where the narrator’s immediate problem, tampering with the mail, turns out to be a comparatively minor crime. A college freshman, Jenny has bigger problems. In particular she has one really big problem: her father. When he shows up unannounced in her dorm room, pulls her onto his lap, and begins “bouncing” her, we should probably suspect what’s going on; but I, at least, pushed that knowledge away as long as possible. Later, in the expensive hotel he takes her to, Jenny wakes up in the middle of the night, “my nightgown worked up like a frill around my neck and my legs hooked over his shoulders,” and it’s impossible to pretend anymore.
“Lawns” was not the first incest story I ever read, but it was the most complicated and the most shocking — shocking, in large part, because of its banality. The father’s desperate, wretched abuse coexists so casually with lawn sprinklers and messy dorm rooms. Also, the story refuses to portray the dad as a simple monster. He is a monster, certainly, but he’s also a pathetic guy who won’t stand up straight. Plus, he loves his daughter. Jenny, for her part — if she can’t escape him — tries at least to get something back. She can’t stop the sex, but she can make him buy her a nice bike and take her to Chez Panisse for dinner. Love, in this story’s universe, is as likely to hurt you as to protect you. Families are complicated, and they aren’t safe.
The dark and hidden contours of family life have been Simpson’s territory ever since. Anywhere But Here, which won the author a Whiting Award and a big following, is the story of a divorced mother and her daughter who leave Wisconsin in a stolen white Lincoln Continental in search of a glamorous life in Hollywood. Simpson’s next two novels, The Lost Father (1992) and A Regular Guy (1996), both focus on father-daughter relationships — not as dangerous as the one in “Lawns,” but fraught with rejection and abandonment. In all these books, women trying to escape such families pin their hopes on men: they long for men; ally themselves to men; passionately believe that men will save them. Often marriage — preferably to a man of means — is seen as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. As the mother tells the daughter in Anywhere But Here, “You’ll have everything a teenage girl could want. […] I just have to meet the man and catch him.” Not only will marriage save the woman, it will save the child, too.
Of course, Simpson’s characters are hardly alone in this conviction. Marriage has long been the ambition and perceived salvation of fictional heroines. As Rebecca Mead points out in My Life in Middlemarch, “The novel that ends with a wedding was conventional in [George] Eliot’s time, and has become only more conventional since.” Jeffrey Eugenides brought the lit-crit term “the marriage plot” into the vernacular with his eponymous novel about a young woman writing her thesis on Eliot, Jane Austen, and Henry James. While Eugenides’s heroine finds love significantly messier in life than in fiction, she surely knows that in Austen’s novels marriage is generally synonymous with a happy ending, while in the work of Eliot and James the chances of a good marriage are significantly lower. A century later, for Simpson’s women, marriage seldom goes well. Still they keep trying. If only they had read “Lawns,” they might know better.
In 2000, Simpson published her fourth novel, a very different beast, titled Off Keck Road. Where the earlier books are sprawling, this one is slim and concise. Where the others traverse the country and even the globe, this one is set exclusively in Green Bay, Wisconsin. When it first came out, I was captivated by its quiet, elliptical, unconventional qualities, and — although I often forget what happens even in books I love — the story stayed with me. In this particular case, the memorable premise has more to do with what doesn’t happen than with what does: Off Keck Road centers around two women, neither of whom gets married — neither of whom ever even really comes close.
This spring I decided to find out if the book was as good as I remembered. I wasn’t sure why it was tickling my memory. Maybe it was because of the resonance with current conversations, articles, and books about women choosing to delay or forgo marriage. Maybe it was because of research I was doing into Barbara McClintock, the Nobel Prize–winning maize geneticist who never married. Or maybe it was because — walking into town past lawns patchy with gray snow, or driving down I-95 to visit my parents — I was listening to a recording of Middlemarch.
Unlike Mead, whose book is an account of her love affair with Eliot’s novel, my own relationship to Eliot’s masterpiece has been mixed. I was 19 when I first began reading it, during what I had imagined would be a romantic month in Paris. Even in paperback, Middlemarch is large and heavy. To the horror of my traveling companion, I kept ripping out the pages as I finished them and throwing them away — once even out of a train window. In addition to lightening my load, I think I wanted to make a point about it being the content of a book that mattered, not the object. Whatever my reason, the practice — like the trip itself — proved to be a mistake. I only made it about a third of the way through before I got bogged down. A few years later, when I was ready to try it again, I had to buy a new copy. This time, however (24, and wondering when my boyfriend would marry me), I loved it.
Talk about a novel bursting at the seams with marriages! In the course of its 700-plus pages (36 recorded hours), Eliot exhaustively explores what makes a good match, laying out at least half a dozen marital specimens for us to contemplate and compare. It’s hardly an impartial or dispassionate accounting. Though I hadn’t noticed it at 24, this time through (I am now 49 and have been married to that boy for decades), as I listened to one instance after another of Mr. Casaubon’s coldness, and particularly of Rosamond’s indomitable will (“poor Rosamond,” the narrator disingenuously calls her), I felt the dice being quietly loaded. Could anyone really be so selfish and unfeeling as poor Rosamond? Eliot seems to do everything in her power to make Lydgate’s choice of wife a doomed one — torturing him, one can’t help inferring, because he marries for beauty. Lucky Dorothea, who also makes a poor choice of spouse, is at least granted a second chance. Marrying a man for an intellect he does not possess proves less damning in Eliot’s universe than marrying for looks. (Good-hearted, feckless Fred Vincy is the most blessed of all the characters in the book because he loves a plain woman.)
Before Eliot, marriage was usually the happy ending of the story. In Middlemarch, by contrast, marriage is the beginning: the event, in fact, that sets the stories in motion. Some of these are happy; others are not. Trouble being the precondition of drama, the unhappy ones naturally get the most page time. Indeed, Mead deliciously calls Eliot “the great artist of disappointment.”
By the end of the last century, the literature of marriage and its disappointments had only expanded. Once exalted as a woman’s highest aspiration, marriage was by then so thoroughly debased that it can be hard to think of a good one in the annals of great 20th-century fiction, though bad ones abound: Tom and Daisy Buchanan. Edna and Léonce Pontellier. Humbert and Charlotte Haze. … And then there are all those miserable couples in Updike. Simpson’s early work fits nicely into this paradigm, but in Off Keck Road she carries the artistry of disappointment one step further. The novel is not about the disappointments and angst of married life. Rather, here the disappointment precedes marriage — precludes it — so that marriage is never achieved. Simpson’s subjects — failures and limitations, near misses and turnings away — are attended by their own particular quality of poignancy. With a nod to Eugenides, let’s (or “we might”) call this narrative gambit the “anti-marriage plot.”
Published a decade and a half after Anywhere But Here, Off Keck Road is in many ways the earlier book’s inverse, as though the stories were the two sides of a reversible coat. Anywhere’s Bay City is a version of Keck’s Green Bay, and many of the characters in the second book are so similar to those in the first that, although they have different names, you feel you already know them. Both books feature a dead-end street, way out beyond the town limits, scattered with shabby houses and surrounded by beautiful land. Anywhere But Here tells what happens if you have the chutzpah to leave this place; Off Keck Road is the story of those who stay.
The central characters in the later novel, Bea Maxwell and Shelley, come from different strata of Green Bay society. Bea grows up in a big house in the best part of town, goes away to college, then moves to Chicago to work in advertising. However, only a few years later, she returns to Green Bay to help care for her mother, who is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, and takes a job selling real estate for Bill Alberts, a womanizing Jewish real estate tycoon and amateur jazz drummer. (“Bill Alberts had told [Bea] that there were an inordinate number of great Jewish jazz drummers. It seemed to be his only source of pride in his heritage.”) For a while, Bill, who is married, pursues Bea — sort of. He plays records and dances her around the office, half-kissing her. He suggests they run away together to New York. Though attracted to him, Bea demurs — at least partly because she thinks he’ll keep asking. But a year later, he is pursuing her best friend June.
Bill is just one of several men with whom Bea doesn’t end up. First there is a boy in high school she secretly loves and with whom she once shares a bus seat on an overnight trip to Michigan: “His arm had flung around her — or was it just resting on the top of the high bus seat?” Questions like this plague Bea, who never seems interested in the right people in the right way. What about her dear friend the Catholic priest — could anything happen there? Or the married boss in Chicago? Is there a reason all the men who interest her are unattainable? And if so, is the problem inherent to her, or does it maybe have to do with her mother? Hazel Maxwell, the mother in question, worries about this too. Early on she thinks that Bea is “oblivious to the whole underworld of flirtation, as if she were missing the receiving wires.” Later she worries that it’s her own fault, that in raising her daughter to cherish her virginity, she’d “done too good a job […] was it altogether natural for a girl to be so moderate?”
Shelley’s situation is different. Born into a big poor family out on Keck Road, she is one of the last people in the country to develop polio, contracting it from the live vaccine. It’s only a little polio, though: “so little it seemed it was something about herself, and not the polio, that made her strange to other people.” Unlike Bea, Shelley knows early on that life will be different for her. When her mother explains sex to Shelley’s pretty sister, the sister, feeling singled out, points at Shelley: “What about her?” The mother frowns:
“Don’t you let anyone fool with you, Shelley,” she said quietly, but stern. “Some boy may try, but it’ll only be to laugh at you for it later.”
Nevertheless — again unlike Bea — Shelley is neither unhappy nor sexually unsatisfied. She initiates a secret relationship with George, her neighbor and employer, which lasts 13 years, until George’s wife bullies him into moving to Florida. After that, Shelley becomes close to Bill Alberts. Her life isn’t conventionally shaped by marriage and children any more than Bea’s is, but this doesn’t seem to bother her.
Bea does try to adjust. In her 30s, she goes out and buys the silver service she’ll never receive as a wedding gift: “A small step to settlement in this life.” Later, she reconsiders an older model of marriage, “not much in favor now, based on an exchange of work and gifts, a system of gratitude.” Later still, looking at laundry hanging neatly on the line at Shelley’s parents’ house, Bea tells Shelley that she guesses their marriage was based on love. Shelley, who has a way of seeing to the heart of things, replies, “Round here, back then, there wasn’t much else to get married for. None of thems had any money.”
Growing older, Bea increasingly questions her own — and society’s — obsession with matrimony. “Weren’t there other things that could matter?” she wonders. “Why was that the only thing, marriage?” The year is 1984, but feminism has barely touched provincial Green Bay. Even in the more sophisticated locales of her other stories, Simpson’s work shows that, despite the Pill and concomitant cultural changes, some things are resistant to change. In My Hollywood (2011) and Casebook (2014), her post-Keck novels, Simpson turns her attention to 21st-century women who do have “other things that […] matter” — they work as mathematicians and composers. Nevertheless, they too crave love and marriage. The heroines of these books inhabit a world rife with anxiety about “having it all.” What seems to me so radical and daring about Off Keck Road is that its characters have — on the surface at least — so little. Quiet and circumscribed, their lives are characterized by what is missed rather than what’s achieved. It’s the very ordinariness of the novel’s preoccupations — its determined resistance to the old familiar plots — that gives the book its grace.
Given the lack of such conventional machinery, what actually happens in the pages of Off Keck Road? Caretaking, ice cream eating, flower arranging, knitting. Real estate gets developed and a swimming pool gets dug. A few town secrets are revealed. People die, quietly. And of course, they talk. They gossip, analyze, recount. Sometimes they even discuss books. Here is a short scene between Bea and Bill Alberts, quoted in its entirety:
One Thursday morning in November, she told him her favorite novel was Middlemarch. She’d first read it in college and was reading it again. It was her favorite because the two best people never got together.
“Realistic,” he said.
By “the two best people” I assume Bea means Dorothea and Lydgate, though she never actually says. In my own opinion, the two “best” people in Middlemarch (as distinct from the most interesting or most complexly drawn characters) are Mary Garth and Mr. Farebrother, who also don’t get together, so maybe Bea means them. But I doubt it.
Like Bea and Shelley — and unlike almost every other character in Eliot’s behemoth — Mr. Farebrother never gets married at all. Early on he declares he can’t afford to. Later he helps Fred Vincy win Mary Garth’s hand, even though he himself loves her: that’s how good he is. With his natural talent for sidestepping matrimony, Mr. Farebrother might have found himself very much at home off Keck Road.
But it’s Jenny, from “Lawns,” whom I find myself thinking of. Jenny is pre-med — she wants to be a doctor. But she also, naturally, craves romantic love. For a while, in her mail-stealing phase, she has a nice boyfriend whom she adores. But when she tells him about her dad, he breaks up with her: “He said it had nothing to do with my father but he’d been feeling a little too settled lately.” Her roommate, Lauren, on the other hand, takes her out for pancakes and tries to help her stop blaming herself. And eventually her distant lawyer mom comes through. It’s women, Simpson seems to be saying, here as so often in her fiction — only women — you can rely on. Friends and mothers, grandmothers and aunts. As for fathers, boyfriends, and husbands: there danger lies.
“Marriage, which has been the bourne of so many narratives, is still a great beginning,” Eliot writes in Middlemarch, “bourne” meaning a destination, or an ending. In Off Keck Road, however, marriage is neither an ending nor a beginning. It’s a chimera, flickering at the edge of vision, which — when we turn to look at it — suddenly isn’t there.