The Old Left: “Conscience” by Alice Mattison
By Lisa FetchkoAugust 25, 2018
Conscience by Alice Mattison
We lived on the top floor; a couple in their 30s lived downstairs: the woman, who was Vietnamese, spoke little English and always looked frightened; her husband, who was white, was a Vietnam vet who would periodically get drunk and beat her. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to do so had I been living there alone, but my roommates often called the cops, who would come and intervene. My neighbors weren’t the first people I knew for whom the war in Vietnam hadn’t ended — I had friends in Pennsylvania whose older brothers had come back, completely changed. My stepfather, a mild-mannered neurosurgeon who had been a doctor in a busy MASH unit, would occasionally belt back a couple of drinks and fly into an inexplicable rage. I was curious about these people, wondered about the experiences that haunted them. But the war, and the protests surrounding it, seemed remote, something I would never comprehend in the way that we can’t really comprehend things we don’t live through, experiences whose most intimate details we will never know.
In Alice Mattison’s new novel, Conscience, we meet two characters for whom the war has not ended either. The novel, which is set in present-day New Haven (where Mattison lives and often sets her stories), is Mattison’s 14th book, her seventh novel in a long, distinguished career as a writer and a teacher. In an author’s note, she explains that the book grew out of her curiosity about an idealistic young woman she met in the ’60s who later “turned violent.” Among other things, the novel poses some interesting questions: How long does the past linger? What’s the value of rehashing it? How can we honor, forgive, or live with people who have done difficult things?
Mattison tells several stories in Conscience, and watching them grow and intersect is one of the greatest pleasures of the book. The first story begins in the mid-1960s, in Brooklyn, with three young women who become involved in the antiwar protests: Helen Weinstein, a serious girl who drops out of Barnard after she is radicalized; Valerie (Val) Benevento, a popular girl who will eventually write a successful book about Helen’s life; and Olive Grossman, Helen’s best friend, an editor who now lives in New Haven with her husband, Griff, the hard-working principal of a school for troubled kids, a gentle man who is marked, like Olive, by a violent incident that happened in the ’60s. Helen is the most compelling character in the novel, and it is Olive’s need to make sense of Helen’s life that moves the story forward.
Several other plot lines unfold over the course of the novel: Olive and Griff face an impasse in their marriage; the complex arcs of several female friendships are explored; and Olive finds the courage to tell the truth about her relationship with Helen, getting past what Virginia Woolf famously called the “angel in the house,” that dreadful expectation that women should be sweet and charming, avoiding conflict at all cost. Finally, there is the more contemporary story of a slightly younger woman named Jean, who runs a homeless shelter in New Haven. Her friendship with Olive dominates the second half of the book.
Conscience is told in alternating first-person voices. The shifting perspective works well, as a chorus of “I”s (there are three of them — Olive, Jean, and, to a lesser extent, Griff) helps build a collective sense of the collateral damage of the war and the noisy overlap of friends, family, and lovers that make up a community. At a certain point, the voices seem to blend and merge, becoming almost one, a tactile illustration of some of Mattison’s larger themes: family, friendship, community. The alternating voices also give the reader an intimate view of Olive and Griff’s marriage. Personal space is an important concern in the novel (especially for its female characters), and there are interesting issues related to the architecture of Olive and Griff’s house. Originally a duplex (Griff lived upstairs and Olive downstairs during a time of marital separation), the two units are now connected, but to some extent, the separation remains. Olive, who has a home office she never uses (strange since she is always craving solitude), spreads her work over the kitchen table, which annoys and pains Griff, who retreats upstairs or leaves the house. They often eat alone. As each character recounts their version of this conflict, the reader, like a couples’ therapist, pieces together their troubles, sees the misperceptions and the self-deceptions, and feels the loss of what might have been. In another example of Mattison’s clever use of shifting perspectives, Val’s book, which we learn about as Jean reads it, offers a different perspective on Olive’s and Griff’s versions of Helen’s story.
Most of the plot elements fit together neatly, something we have come to expect from Mattison, who is very good with form. But characters, like Olive and Griff’s oldest daughter, are sometimes brought in to serve the plot, never to return. And some of Mattison’s plot twists feel improbable, especially the ones that are centered around Zach, a young pediatrician who was once involved with Olive and Griff’s daughter and is now involved with Jean. The New Haven story doesn’t have the same intensity as the Brooklyn one, and the friendship between Olive and Jean is not as convincing as the one between Olive and Helen.
But Conscience is a curious book. Every time I wanted to object, Mattison pulled me back in, some of which, I think, is connected to the book’s pacing, which is wonderfully slow and lush. Fiction tends to move at a fast clip these days — it’s full of fragments and ellipses, abrupt shifts that reflect our accelerated, decentered lives. But Mattison refuses to give up the rich, mundane details of domestic life — people talking, cooking, washing the dishes. It’s where her stories live.
Many of Mattison’s characters are well drawn: from important figures like Jean and Zach to minor characters like Eli, an older activist who sleeps with everyone (“[p]utting his hands on both our shoulders, he drew us into his apartment”), and some of the people at the shelter where Jean works. The youthful portraits of Olive and Helen are full of poignant details: from the windy walks they take in Brooklyn to get away from their families to Helen’s growing indifference to money, food, and hygiene. Mattison’s honesty about the less-than-noble motivations that sometimes drive the actions of her characters — to please a friend, to have sex, to get away from their parents — is refreshing. She doesn’t idealize; there are no heroes in this book — on the contrary. Mostly, we see the toll the war takes, the way each character struggles with the dictates of his or her conscience as the government continues to send young men off to war, continues to bomb and kill in Vietnam. As Olive says, “Being preoccupied by the war was something like having such a bad cold that you didn’t care what happened in your life.”
Several of the characters turn to violence. Some of them are destroyed by this and some of them repudiate it, but all of them feel guilty about what they did and didn’t do. Trying to make sense of the choices Helen made, Olive asks some questions that haunt the book: “What should she have done — what should I have done — to end the war? What should we have done instead? To say ‘nothing’ would condemn us to complicity.” Mattison never condemns the characters who opt for violence, but in the present-day story, where characters like Jean and Griff work tirelessly to help troubled kids and the homeless, she offers us a compelling alternative. The most interesting character in this regard is Griff, the agnostic son in a long line of New Haven clergymen, whose youthful act of violence changed his life. Unfortunately, we don’t understand as much about his choice as we do about Helen’s although we see the ways in which his life is circumscribed by it. Every decision he makes involves a painstaking consideration of the potential harm it may do to others, which causes some problems with Olive, but Griff’s condemnation of violence allows for no exceptions: “What’s wrong […] is wrong. What is destructive […] [d]estroys.”
From her earliest work, a 1979 poetry collection called Animals, Mattison has been invested in telling women’s stories, giving women space on the page. The female characters in Conscience are part of a long line of women — working women, sexual women, family women, thinking women — whose lives Mattison has lovingly captured and explored. Her portrayal of the men whose lives intersect with the lives of her female characters is usually nuanced and complex; they are sweet, distant, sexy, needy, human. But in Conscience, this isn’t always the case, which has to do, I think, with the character of Olive and the outsized role she plays in the book.
As a young woman, Olive is a little neurotic, the kind of girl who worries about being “liked” by other girls, a “secondary character,” as she once calls herself. Her political activism takes a back seat to Helen’s; her desire for approval eventually leads her to be used and burned by Val. As an adult, Olive is lonely; she feels abandoned by Helen, exhausted by the hard work of carving out a space for her career within the confines of marriage. Mostly, though, she’s angry at Griff, whom she blames for many of her problems, in ways that are sometimes tedious, even absurd. Griff can be a tough character, inexpressive and inflexible, but Mattison never succeeded in convincing me that Olive’s problems are his fault, and he comes off as a passive foil, a stand-in for the traditional inequity of male-female relationships. At a certain point, Olive’s critique of Griff is so egregious that I thought the book was going to be about how she recognizes and addresses this, but Mattison’s sympathies remain firmly with Olive. At the end of the book, when Olive agrees to a kitchen renovation that will create a space where she and Griff can coexist, it’s meant to signal love and acceptance, but it really feels like she’s throwing him some crumbs.
You could argue that Griff gets second billing because he’s a male character in a book about female empowerment, but Griff is also black, one of several black characters in the novel, none of whom have much of a voice, and this disparity becomes increasingly apparent as the novel unfolds. Over the course of her career, Mattison’s work has often been set in the world of social justice, including the Civil Rights movement, but her tendency — the old left’s tendency — to divide the world along the lines of race, gender, and ethnicity (black, Jewish, male, female) doesn’t serve the part of her story that takes place in New Haven in the 21st century.
Underlying the problems between Olive and Griff is the pressing question of how men and women (especially women) can live together with autonomy. Mattison, who places a great deal of value on family and community, can’t quite wrap her mind around it, but the novel hints at an intriguing solution. For years, I was married to an architect who had a theory — a convincing one — that many people’s problems are actually architectural problems, problems that can be resolved with architectural solutions, and I followed the architectural trail in the book eagerly. The repurposed duplex, Olive’s unsuccessful quest for a secluded work space, the third floor of Jean’s shelter that controversially offers “private space” — space to read or think or nap — to homeless people in New Haven. In Conscience, Olive and Griff are trapped in a marriage — and in a house — that doesn’t suit them. Could it be that some couples can’t coexist, at least in the traditional ways that couples have always coexisted in the Western world (another issue the ’60s tried, with limited success, to address)? Besides, Olive is a writer, and most writers, male or female, need solitary conditions to work in, conditions that often clash with family life. Mattison is hesitant to liberate Olive and Griff from a traditional marital structure, one that has created a terrible choice for them — a stifling marriage or an unhappy solitude. But what if that dichotomy were false? What if there was another solution, one that occurs, at one point, to Olive, almost as a joke: bring back the duplex!
In Conscience, Alice Mattison gives us an intimate portrait of the struggles and sacrifices of the men and women who protested against the war in Vietnam, some of whom, for better or worse, put their lives on the line. She also reminds us of what it is to have, and act on, a conscience, what it is to make a choice and accept the consequences. As Olive, trying to explain those difficult times to Zach, says, “The sixties weren’t—’ I didn’t know how to put it. ‘We were serious.’” As a new generation of protestors fights to defend our democracy against a different kind of threat, it’s good to remember the long, successful legacy of protests in this country, important to reflect on the risks and rewards of dissent.
It takes a long time to make sense of things, to paint a full picture of an important moment in history, especially one as fraught as the war in Vietnam, but this is the luxury (and, perhaps, the responsibility) of literature. And it should be applauded when it’s done well, as Mattison mostly does here.
Lisa Fetchko has published essays, fiction, reviews, and translations in a variety of publications including Ploughshares, n+1, AGNI, and Bookforum. She teaches at Mount Saint Mary’s and Orange Coast College.
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