Some Luck

some luckWhen I first began this blog back in 2006 I had scarcely read any American fiction. I had had a shameful but unrestrained passion for Sweet Valley High books in my early teens and had loved Nancy Drew and Peanuts just as fervently as a child. The first blogging challenge I ever undertook was a summer of reading American literature, and one of the first books I read for that challenge was Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres. I thought it was magnificent; a retelling of King Lear set on a midwest farm where people might so easily go a little crazy at the mercy of the elements, the uncertain income from crops and the judgemental gazes of their all-seeing neighbours. It introduced me to the American style of storytelling: simple, direct, vivid, powerful.

Now Jane Smiley has returned to farming territory with her new novel, the first in a trilogy spanning the last hundred years of American history. Some Luck follows the fortunes of the Langdons from 1920 to 1953 with a chapter for each year. If this sounds schematic, it isn’t. It’s a brilliant device deployed with Smiley’s deft, clever insight into the way stories work. Shifting perspective continually through the numerous heads of the Langdon clan gives us a taste, as sharp as vinegar and as strong as black coffee, of the flavour of each year, as the fortunes of the family interact with those of the world around them. Books are three-dimensional object – they take time to read – and as the chapters pass so we feel history as it burgeons and blossoms. We pass through the long, dusty years of Depression, aware in a newly vivid way how long that dreadful slump lasted, and through the Second World War. When the book ends, McCarthyism is in the air, all set to impinge on the family in ways we can already anticipate with a shiver.

The story starts with Walter and Rosanna Langdon growing accustomed to their new, mortgaged farm, and their new, lively son, Frank. Frank is bold and stubborn, even as a toddler, and over indulged by his mother according to Rosanna’s sister, Eloise, living with the family to lend a helping hand. Rosanna’s next son, Joe, is the product of a difficult birth and is altogether a more withdrawn character, easily hurt, rarely happy. Mary Elizabeth is good but doomed, Lilian an angel child, her mother’s favourite, Henry a book worm, Claire the best-loved of her father. Eloise leaves to further her education in Chicago where she becomes caught up in Communism. Rosanna turns to religion for support in a life that seems ever more hostage to fortune. Frank is naturally adept at fixing bullies in the playground, but torments his own younger brother. Rosanna cannot help but tell Lilian that a miracle has occurred, when a well that seems to have run dry produces more water again. She knows Walter would disapprove of such fanciful thinking. The farm horses are finally retired in favour of the tractor, electricity arrives at the farm. So life runs on in the novel. Events arise, some world-shaking but seen only out of the corner of a character’s eye, so to speak, some local but devastating. As the family grows, so the story becomes more complex, more gripping as we grow attached to the characters, who have ever more at stake.

In many ways, though, rich as the patchwork quilt of this novel is, the standout character is Frankie. Strong and fearless, restlessly seeking something equal to his talents, Frankie is a beautiful paradox. A young man with the whole world in his grasp and who eventually needs a war to find himself. He becomes the occasion for some of Jane Smiley’s most profound insights into character and circumstance. When Frankie’s headmaster recommends him for college, Walter reads the letter with a great deal of reluctance:

It was not that he felt the world would damage or hurt Frankie in any way, it was much more that there were plenty of things out in the world that Frankie would learn about, and that he would then have no scruples at all.’

Rosanna is also forced to ponder the enigma that is her son:

As soon as she looked at Frankie, she wondered what motherhood was for. Everyone said you could not ask for a better son than Frank – successful, personable, and so handsome. Even Walter was satisfied with him, at last. But Rosanna knew better, Frank didn’t care a fig about any of them, not even her, his adoring mother. But did every child have to be a loving child? When they were your brothers and sisters, you accepted without hesitation that they had reservations about your parents.’

Families are the crucibles of culture; they are where the political, economic and ideological buck stops. In the family, the most powerful changes out in the world are gradually filtered down and experienced as daily life. What Jane Smiley manages so effortlessly and so engagingly to bring together is this sense of forces colliding in family life. Frank is a great case in point; he isn’t just the product of his parents and his upbringing; he becomes a man with a whole new sensibility that is shaped by the changing tide of history. We don’t see everything with Smiley’s structure – much happens off stage, beyond the margins of the page. But everything we see has an impact on how the family lives and loves, who the children become, and we fear for the future, having some knowledge of what it holds. Amazing storytelling, in a novel that I think will have to end up on my best of the year list.

Last Minute on Friday

I am so sorry for my absence from the blogworld this week; things have just been really busy around here. But I’m hoping that next week will be a lot better.

I must just tell you a funny story, however. Earlier in the week, Mr Litlove had to go to the Groucho Club in London for a work do. He was approaching the entrance when he saw the footballer, Rio Ferdinand (? I know nothing about football and no need to enlighten me) going in ahead of him. Mr Litlove did not say so when telling me the anecdote, but I imagine he was so busy watching this guy that he tripped over the threshold. Noticing, he says, a lady behind him who in stature, hairstyle, etc, resembled one of his mother’s friends, he turned around and advised her to take care with the step (or I believe the way he jokingly phrased it was that he’d stumbled just to warn her of the possible danger) only to find it was Margaret from The Apprentice!*

That’s my boy; he falls over only in the very best company.

 

* The Apprentice, for those outside the UK, is a reality game show in which young people with personality disorders and a strong desire to appear on television compete in a series of staged entrepreneurial tasks for a ‘coveted’ place working with business mogul, Sir Alan Sugar, a man who seems to me to be the epitome of a nightmare boss. It’s best to erase the word ‘why?’ from your vocabulary when watching. Alan Sugar, when deciding who to hire and fire used to have two grey-haired and bespectacled henchman with him, one of whom was this Margaret. It has to be said that the henchmen provided a welcome burst of sanity and normality in an otherwise crazy parallel universe.

Wish I Could Be There

wish i could be thereThe feeling of panic that overwhelms the sufferer of a phobia must be one of the most unpleasant feelings that we are routinely forced to endure. I think that being set upon from behind and strangled must be akin to it – the increasingly laboured fight for breath while the heart hammers in terror, digestion deliquesces, vision dims and dizzies, sound is cut off and comes from far away. But worst of all, the urge to turn and run, fuelled as if by the energy of a nuclear explosion, has to be ignored. The phobic must sit and smile and try and look normal, while inside chaos rages, the Titanic sinks, great earthquakes rent the foundations of the self. Oh yes, I speak from personal experience.

Which is why I had to get hold of Allen Shawn’s amazing memoir, Wish I Could Be There, as soon as I heard about it. A composer, pianist and writer, Shawn is also an agoraphobic, afraid both of entrapment in subways, tunnels and lifts and the wide open emptiness of fields, car parks and bridges. He has a lot of trouble travelling on a road he has never taken before and struggles to get on a plane. Having fought against it for most of his life and not really got very far, he decided to write about the experience of being phobic and about some of the possible circumstances and causes that might have produced it. The result is one of those rare books of insight and compassion, utterly clear-sighted about the condition and a piece of admirable literary non-fiction as well.

Shawn says an awful lot of very useful things about phobias, not least that they have only a passing relationship to anxiety or nervousness. He points out that in his regular line of work, he often has to cope with the sort of public performance that scares the pants off most people. A phobia is quite different: ‘to describe the reaction simply as a mental phenomenon is misleading. By the time it constitutes a ‘problem,’ it has become a habitual response of both body and mind, as automatic as an allergic reaction and equally impervious to willpower.’ It’s provoked as much by physiological changes in the body – often almost imperceptible ones – that are ‘mistakenly interpreted’ as threats to our survival as it is by the symbolic or associative properties of an experience. ‘I remain dumbfounded,’ Shawn writes, ‘at how automatic, instantaneous, and severe my reactions are, not to mention how trivial the triggers can be.’ And it has been tied to certain personality traits:

phobics tend to be perfectionists, they tend to have an exaggerated need to please others, they tend to seek certainty and… many of us have in common the “need and ability to present a relatively placed, untroubled appearance to others, while suffering distress on the inside.” This describes me rather well.’

Yup, Allen, like looking in a mirror for me, too.

Whilst I found the more theoretical parts of this book full of interesting insights, I have to say that it’s Allen Shawn’s descriptions of his family that really engrossed me. He writes so well, with such generosity and tenderness, about a family that was shockingly unique and awkward to live in. Shawn knows that his father, an editor, suffered from similar phobias and that his mother may have done too – genetic inheritance is very much a part of the phobic landscape. But there were other factors that he believed may have had an impact. He was born with a twin sister, Mary, who had some severe form of autism compounded by other psychological problems that resulted in her removal to a care home when they were both eight. This was the fifties, and so nothing was said about the sudden and irrevocable absence of Mary. She was there one day and gone the next, and from then on they visited her very rarely. Allen Shawn was aware only later in life of the deep impact this had on him.

As someone who had grown up trying to decipher my mysterious sister, I was exquisitely attuned to implicit messages about how I should behave. The result was that I held in my feelings and my problems, and they grew without my even knowing it.’

To add to the underlying tensions and stresses of the household, his father kept a serious long-term mistress of whom they were abstractly aware in the form of their father’s odd double life: ‘it wasn’t uncommon for him to eat, or at least, attend, four or five meals a day to accommodate all the important people in his life.’ Something more, then, to keep under wraps, more seismic, churning emotions to be denied in the very act of living alongside them. ‘Cheerfulness that masks hidden anguish can be even more frightening than the messy truth,’ Shawn writes.

From my perspective now, the idea that as a child I felt the presence of dragons at the end of each corner of the known conversational world seems relevant to the development of my agoraphobia. That so much was off-limits seems pertinent to my current dread of exploring the unknown.’

Yet he is quick to defend his family from blame, too, insisting on the large number of cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents, who all suffered from phobias of one kind or another, without such family circumstances to generate them. These are factors that in hindsight seem to have had a part to play, but his implication is that if you are born with a phobic mindset, you’ll find the reasons for that strange underground fear one way or another.

Ultimately, I think we have to see phobias as existing in the same existential constellation as dreams – overdetermined places where the knotty pathways of mind and body meet, a strange and sometimes sadistic way of processing more fear and dread than we have words for, a process whereby false correlations take on the power of divine judgements. And yet another curse on the heads of those who are sensitive and creative: ‘If they didn’t cause so much suffering, we could come to appreciate these strange revulsions as touching evidence of the human imagination,’ Shawn suggests, ‘spontaneous projections from our inner selves.’ If you are phobic then I strongly recommend this beautiful book, for all sorts of surprising and comforting ways of looking anew at a crippling problem.

 

 

 

House Party

When I was a very small child and happened to be off school for the day, my mother and I would watch a television programme in the early afternoon that was called House Party. There would be one lady hosting and all her friends would come round and make stuff in different rooms of her house. In the dining room several people would club together over some raffia work or macrame. In the kitchen there’d be baking going on, and as a semi-permanent fixture in her lounge someone would be sticking seashells onto a lamp base. Seashells seemed to feature a lot; it was the seventies after all. I cannot tell you how much I loved this programme. I thought it was the height of sophistication and depicted an utterly desirable lifestyle.

Well here at Litlove Towers we have been enjoying a variation on the above theme for the past week, which might be described as House Party in the Internet Age. Mr Litlove is spending the week in New York for work purposes, and I can’t say I was looking forward to it. Apart from anything else, I find it very hard to sleep when he is away, and thought it was quite likely I could go for a whole week without speaking to anyone else in his absence. It just so happened that after he’d told me, the phone rang and it was my friend, Caz, and after moaning to her about his trip she said, ‘Would you like me to come and stay with you?’ Caz works from home too and we’ve been friends since we were 11, so she’s been through the chronic fatigue years and knows my little ways. Then my son got in touch to say he thought he’d come for a visit. And so we have been hanging out together with our various projects, sometimes one to a computer, sometimes employed in more unusual and eccentric ways.

See, Caz is a keen (and brilliant) photographer who likes to extend her skills whenever possible. At the start of the year, given that she never liked taking selfies, she set herself the challenge of a self portrait a day. When she arrived she said to me: ‘You’re not shy, are you?’ in a way that was evidently rhetorical, and so I have ended up taking part in them too. On Tuesday, I was very proud of us as we tackled the woodburning stove (usually Mr Litlove’s domain) and managed to get a fire started despite insufficient supplies of newspaper and cardboard. This gave Caz the idea for a face-down-Tuesday picture, which she set up before the eyes of my entirely unfazed son, who commented that he knew the ways of the internet and was therefore not surprised to see his mother’s friend gracing the carpet. I thought back to House Party and wondered how surprised those old party-goers would be to see how far we’ve come from the days of macrame and seashells for entertainment.

Yesterday was Adventures with Pumpkins day. Caz had brought her jack o’lantern with her and we spent a fair part of the afternoon carving the beast up and boiling two enormous pans of pumpkin cubes for the required mush. It’s that part of the recipe that says, ‘take 250g of pureed pumpkin’ without reminding you it requires three hours of work to even reach that stage of readiness. However, it did provide an occasion for another selfie. I grated some pumpkin for muffins that afternoon, and today or tomorrow we’ll bake a pie.

Mr Litlove has been skyping us around lunchtime (early morning for him in New York). Yesterday he had an all-day conference that began at 8.30 and ended with a party in the evening. He said there was an intriguing moment during the mid-morning break when a rapper had been commissioned to give a guest appearance. The first rap did apparently contain some appropriate words for those in the industry of targeted advertising, but the second was obviously more his own personal work about getting by in the ghetto, which Mr Litlove thought provided an interesting contrast to the business of the day. Mr Litlove had eaten his body weight in finger foods and sushi, without any more substantial meals passing before him, and the party had been a lot of people packed sardine-like and yelling at one another over the top of the loud music. He did sound rather hoarse this morning, it has to be said. Usually he has a ball on his work trips while I have a lonely, sleepless time. I could not help but feel that on this occasion, I had by far the better end of the deal with my house party, and we haven’t even begun with the seashells yet.

 

(You might also like to see Caz’s photo a day project, featuring some amazing details from the walks she’s been taking around the area.)