For many years, Alison Lurie was the only American author I could say I had read with any thoroughness. I’ve read every single one of her novels and haven’t been disappointed by any. Enjoying her books encouraged me to try Anne Tyler, who quickly became another firm favourite (although there are books in her oeuvre that I care for less than others). I think the two authors are intriguingly alike, and before I began this I found myself wondering about the differences between them. I came to a tentative conclusion that Tyler is a metonymic writer and Lurie a metaphoric one. That’s to say in Tyler’s works, plot is organised by a chain-like process of causality, and its tentacles can spread quite far and wide – across families or through generations. By contrast, Lurie’s characters perform an intricate little choreography on the spot, perhaps because she prefers a more restricted canvas, perhaps because she likes to explore all the repercussions of a central incident. But this is a cautious and imperfect conclusion – they are alike and I’m not convinced I’ve put my finger on the difference.
What both authors share is a similar adherence to what might be called old-fashioned mimesis, or a faithful representation of life as it is lived in a voice that presents reality without extra embellishment. When I say ‘old-fashioned’ I hasten to add that I don’t mean this in any pejorative way. In fact, although many people would disagree with me here, I think the most difficult skill in the writer’s repertoire is to produce clear, lucid prose that describes a recognisable contemporary landscape in which three-dimensional characters live, breathe and feel. To then wrap this around a shapely plot and extract satisfying meaning from the kind of situations people struggle with all the time strikes me as actually being very tricky to pull off. For want of a better term I suppose I’d call it intelligent realism and it’s a very naked way of writing; the slightest flaws in prose style are going to be glaringly obvious in a way they won’t be when an author uses a highly stylised voice. I’ve nothing against stylisation and experimentation – many works of that kind have given me a lot of reading pleasure – but sometimes I’m really grateful to a writer who will tell it to me straight.
So this holiday I took away with me Alison Lurie’s latest novel, Truth and Consequence, and I absolutely loved it. It revolves around the life of a middle-aged couple, Alan and Jane Mackenzie, whose otherwise happy marriage is being slowly corroded by Alan’s chronically painful slipped disc. Lurie is on familiar territory here as her previous novel, The Last Resort focused on Wilkie Walker, a man slowly ruining his quality of life with fears for his own health. In that novel the main protagonist believed he had bowel cancer and was too afraid to get it checked out. In this one, Alan’s slipped disc is a reality that he and his wife must live with every day and the experience has made him selfish, bitter and self-pitying, ashamed of his own behaviour and convinced his useful days are passed. Jane has in turn become a reluctant skivvy, economising on her own needs and desires whilst sadly contemplating the demise of a man she once revered and respected. This intolerable stasis is about to be destroyed by the arrival, with the new academic year, of a visiting professor, the acclaimed author Delia Delaney and her husband, Henry. Delia is a wonderful creation who just about manages to stay on the right side of caricature as the literary diva with endless charm and no scruples whatsoever about using it to get her way. Delia suffers from migraines and chronic disinterest in others, but she is a queen of emotional manipulation and before long her various campaigns secure her Alan as a useful ally. Yet however self-centred her intentions may be, her shameless flirtation gives Alan a new lease of life, and a renewed engagement with his own academic work (it’s unfortunate that the project he was working on when he fell ill concerned architectural ruins – a subject that now has painful connotations).
I found Lurie’s portrait of chronic illness to be particularly interesting, as it’s a topic that doesn’t get much coverage because it’s profoundly unromantic. People who suffer constant pain do not become noble and reach higher degrees of being, Lurie suggests; on the whole they lose all taste for life and drag down those who are forced to suffer alongside them. Yet the ever-resourceful Delia belongs to a long line of artists who manage to find in suffering a source of artistic inspiration:
‘”But you must feel that too, about your pain. It’s there for a reason. I mean, don’t you feel sometimes, when you lie there suffering, that images or messages are coming to you, ones you’d never find otherwise? I know some of my best stories began as those strange kind of half-dreams, half-hallucinations I have late at night, or just before dawn, when I’m totally exhausted with a migraine. Isn’t it like that for you too?”
“Sometimes,” Alan admitted, remembering that the idea of turning the Plaza Fountain into a picturesque ruin had in fact occurred to him as he lay awake in agony one black rainy night last summer.
“When my aura starts there’s no way of knowing what will come. Sometimes there are visions, sometimes nightmares, sometimes just blackness, oblivion.”
“There’s times I could use some oblivion.”
“Yes, but we can’t choose. In the end you have to accept your affliction as a gift. You have to ask, what is it trying to tell you, to give you? What has it saved you from, what has it brought you?”’
All of which led me to wonder whether it were possible for any experience to feed art and creativity, if the sufferer were sufficiently creative with it? There are also interesting implications for illness too; is it always the case that illness has a profound psychological dimension? Is illness always lived as an indication of what a life is lacking? The configuration of illness and art is one of the philosophical enquiries I most enjoyed in this novel, and Lurie adds to this brew the element of selfishness as well. The implication of the story is that artists need to be selfish to work, that in some ways selfishness will out, for any other stance indicates the presence of the amateur, or a performative mask. Illness in this novel brings Alan a level of artistic achievement that he never found in academic research. By the novel’s end his life, and that of his wife too, has radically altered, and I think this is one of the things I enjoy most about Lurie’s plotting; the events of her narratives have impressive, significant consequences, and her characters are always thrust into full-scale (marital, lifestyle) change. Nips and tucks are insufficient responses to life’s uneven progression, Lurie seems to be saying: only engagement and change are adequate answers to the impossible questions we’re faced with.
One final thought: I gave this book to my husband to read, and he enjoyed it but not nearly so much as I did. ‘It’s a woman’s book,’ he said, and when I got that blogging glint in my eye he recanted, changing his position to: ‘it’s written more from a woman’s perspective.’ I thought this interesting when it’s actually written from Alan and Jane’s alternating perspectives. I had never considered Lurie as anything other than a hermaphrodite author, appealing equally to men and women, but perhaps this is not the case? And if Lurie is more ‘feminine’ in her approach, then what makes her different from someone like Richard Russo? I’ll have a think about this myself but I’m very keen to know how other people respond to this….