15 May 2009

Ur-story: Desperate Housewife (Pt. 4)

[continued from last posts]

It takes a certain artistry to be able to enter the persona and perspective of a fictional character. I've called it 'method writing.' And, in this, I agree with James Wood in his How Fiction Works. Yet, there are other artistries. The history of the novel is not, as he suggests, simply the history of the development of the free indirect style. William Gaddis in Carpenter's Gothic (as well as his other novels) is a case in point.

CG, like all his novels, is a busy canvas. Yet, the principal character of Elizabeth Booth emerges through the clamor of what seems like the world crashing in around her.

To apply another analogy, the text is like a tightly woven fabric: textile, if you will. And if you unravel one thread, wondrous things emerge. Here, I want to worry one thread: Liz throughout the book is writing a novel.

One of the prurient reasons we read novels is to see what other people are like when they're by themselves. To eavesdrop on their privacy, their aloneness. In CG, every chance Liz gets a quiet, private moment she settles in to work on her unfinished novel; yet, just as she's starting to get into it, the world, in one of its multiform ways, interrupts. She becomes, as Eliot famously says, "distracted from distraction by distraction." Still, a few bits of her novel show up in the text of CG. Let's follow the thread of her novel through the book; here's our first hint:
"No I'm fine Edie honestly, I'm fine I just told you nothing's the matter, I've been...I haven't no, I mean it was going to be sort of a novel but I haven't worked on it since we got here I haven't written a word I haven't even looked at it I've, I've been so busy with, with people here a cancer charity..." (35)
This states the theme carried through CG by the motif of her novel. There is no rest for Liz. The matters of the world prevent her from being able to focus on her writing. There is no quietude. If, as Franzen believes, Gaddis is an angry writer, this seems to be his chief complaint.

No one listens to Liz. Except for one brief moment, Edie is the only sympathetic ear she finds in the whole story.

Writing, for Liz, seems to serve two purposes. One, it helps her to imagine that her life could be different than the way it is. And, two, it provides her an escape from the clamor that surrounds her. She dreams of escaping. At one point, she asks her husband:
"—Paul do you think I could, maybe I could go away for a few days?

His hand closed on her breast. —Where.

—Just, somewhere I...

—Too much going on here Liz, you know that...his hand laboured her breasts, —just get things off the ground we can take a week someplace.

—No I meant, I meant just me." (54)
She fantasizes about a late-night TV rerun of Orson Welles's Jane Eyre while her husband makes love to her and, later, her fantasy of escape through the movie is throttled by lashing rain and lightning striking a large tree (also on TV). (55-57) She cannot escape Paul, it seems. So she fantasizes a different existence:
"Digging under scarves, blouses, lingerie in the top drawer she brought out a manila folder riffling the score or so of hand written pages, crossings out, marginal exclamations, meticulous inserts, brave arrows shearing through whole paragraphs of soured inspiration on to the last of them abandoned at what it might all have been like if her father had married a schoolteacher, or a chorus girl, instead of the daughter of a stayed Grosse Pointe family, or if her mother, lying silent even now in the cold embrace of a distant nursing home, had met a young writer who...

She was up for the moment it took to find a pen and draw it firmly through young writer who, take up rapidly with man somewhat older, a man with another life already behind him, another woman, even a wife somewhere...his still, sinewed hands and his...hard, irregular features bearing the memory of distant suns, the cool grey calm of his eyes belying...belying? She found the dictionary under the telephone book, sought for bely and could not find it.

—Mrs Booth?

—Oh! She was up..." (63-64)
McCandless, her landlord, interupts. Soon, he leaves, and it's back to her novel:
"Up the stairs she paused to run the bath, down the hall undoing her blouse with the worn address book still tight in her hand she'd barely lit the bedroom and slipped off her shoes, barely come down among the papers on the bed bent over the last of them, the cool, grey calm of his eyes belying...her lips moving, when the downstairs toilet flushed." (68)
But Billy, her brother, has arrived. Another interruption. Still, he poses the right question:
"...why don't you pack up. Pack a bag and get out of here Bibbs, listen. I'm going to California I'll wait for you. Tonight, pack a bag and I'll wait for you.

—I, I can't.

—Why not why can't you. Leave him a note tell him you just have to clear some this bullshit out of your head, this broken down house the whole wet gloomy everything dying out there in the sun, get a look at it. Why can't you.

—Because I, it wouldn't be fair..." (89)
She's a good person. Perhaps the only scrupulous character in CG. Billy, a naif, soon leaves and it's back to the:
"folder spread open on the bed where she came down to the last page taking her pencil straight to a man somewhat older and drawing it through another life, writing in other lives; through another woman for other women; through somewhere, for a wife hidden now in Marrakech, biting the nub of the eraser over his still, sinewed hands when the phone brought her upright.

—Yes hello...? No, no he's not here who is it, if he calls I can... Well yes he was here briefly Mrs Fickert, but he had to turn right around and...pardon? Well he, well yes of course he's married. I mean I'm his wife. Do you...hello?

The train [on TV] sped toward her and she caught the towel together at her breast up fetching Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, and it roared right over her as though she'd gone down on her back there between the tracks. Opened to the Ds now, licking her fingertip past dogtrot, dive, her finger ran down dishevel, dishpan hands till it reached disinterested, where the precisely incorrect definition she sought was confirmed in a citation from a pundit for the Times, she drew a line through indifferent and wrote it in, worrying at calm with faint prods of the pencil point: the cool, disinterested calm of his eyes belying? She hatched calm in a cuneate enclosure, licking her finger paging back to the Cs for cunning, past cut-rate, curt, running down from cuneiform and held, abruptly, at cunnilingus. She was reading it slowly, finger back to her lips pp. of lingere, more at LICK, when the phone rang again.

... [some further brief interruptions]

Knees drawn up she pulled the towel round her bared shoulders and a shiver sent breath through her, staring at that page till she seized the pencil to draw it heavily through his still, sinewed hands, hard irregular features, the cool disinterested calm of his eyes and a bare moment's pause bearing down with the pencil on his hands, disjointed, rust spotted, his crumbled features dulled and worn as the bill collector he might have been mistaken for, the desolate loss in his eyes belying, belying..." (93-95)
Apparently, she works through the night. Paul, her abusive husband who practically holds her prisoner here and who she found out in the above excerpt is having an affair, recalls that she likes to writer and asks Liz to clean up a fraudulent letter he plans to use for PR, make it sound more feminine. She refuses and Paul gets irate, accusing her of being unsupportive:
"—Write a novel you make up these different characters? put them in these situations getting rich, getting divorced, getting laid where they're talking to each other you pretend you're these characters so they sound real? Same God damn thing Liz, sit down for ten minutes pretend you're this good loving Christian mother Sally Joe writing a nice letter to..." (112)
Paul leaves for a few days. Liz & McCandless make love—vividly. Billy leaves with McCandless to go into the city. She turns on the television—yet another big distraction. And it's back to the novel:
"Those hands disjointed, rust spotted, crumbled features dulled and worn on the page right where she'd left them, she spread the manila folder open on clean sheets, reached for a pencil and found none, and then came back slowly on the fresh pillowslip stilled in the ashen flush of those silenced lips contorting soundless syllables on the [TV] screen which gave way, as the light at the windows gave way, to a lady playing the piano, to a man playing golf as the room grew darker, to leafy vistas and soldier ants in grim procession, to shell bursts brightening the walls for an instant, dimming with stretcher bearers, men loading a howitzer, firing a mortar turned away stopping their ears against the pounding, pounding, she was up, her feet off to the floor, reaching for the light, calling out—I'm coming! to the pounding on the door below, hesitating and then sweeping the folder up from the bed and back into the drawer under blouses, scarves, before she made way down the dark stairs, got the light on under the sampler, got the door open." (198-99)
At the end, the house is broken into. Liz collapses in Paul's arms, and he promises to take her away from all this. She comes upstairs. The drawer where she keeps her novel—her secrets—has been ransacked;
"She came in slowly picking things, dropping them again with a sense of something missing but apparently none of what it might be, finally settling to gather up the pages as though, righting them in their folder, here in her own hand at least lay some hope of order restored, even that of a past itself in tatters, revised, amended, fabricated in fact from its very outset to reorder its unlikelihoods, what it all might have been if her father and mother had never met, if he'd married a chorus girl instead or if she'd met a man with other lives already behind him, crumbled features dulled and worn as a bill collector on through the crossings out, the meticulous inserts, the wavering lines where her finger had run over cut-rate, curt, in pursuit of cunning and on to collisions of only days before, seeking the spelling of those Jack Russell terriers running down jackleg, jack mackerel to trip on jack off (usu. considered vulgar); seeking, for some reason, loose for its meaning as slack here cited in the sex roles of shorebirds with the author's name misspelled; confusing rift for cleft, and there waylaid by the anal ~ of the human body or here was livid, bypassing ashen, pallid, for the perversion she sought and found licensed by a sensitive novelist as reddish (in a fan of gladiolas blushing ~ under electric letters) for this livid erection where her hand closed tight on its prey swelling the colour of rage when she looked up sharp, straight before her: the television was gone." (247-48)
Then, after Liz dies, Paul finds her novel:
"And he stood there filling the doorway until the undistinguished grey car turned down the hill, knocking over a broom leaning there against the staircase and picking it up, standing there looking up the stairs and finally dropping the broom back to the floor and climbing them, down the hall where scarves, sweaters, papers, the chest's drawers themselves still lay flung out on the bed, on the floor as he'd found them, and the manila folder where he'd found it spread open on the bed to pages in a hand he knew spelling little more than bread, onions, milk, chicken? here drawn out in whole paragraphs and crossings out, marginal exclamations, meticulous inserts, her tongue tracing the delicate vein engorged up the stiffening rise to the head squeezed livid in her hand, drawing the beading off in a fine thread before she brought him in, surging to meet him for as long as it lasted, standing there numbed and then replacing it carefully in the folder, and then he stooped to pick up his shoes and hurried from the room, down the hall where his same numbed look met him now in the mirror over the basin, the white wisps he'd found there dangling from his hand as though he didn't know what to do with them before he turned on the water full and held his head under the tap, finally coming out shaved, scarred and shirtless where a movement no more than the flutter of a wing caught his eye through the glass at the foot of the stairs, someone on tiptoe, peeing in, and he came down them." (257)
For the first time in the story, Paul is speechless. Spinless. He's devastated by what he's found. This passage mirrors precisely Gaddis's narration in Chapter 5, where Liz and McCandless make love, where, it seems, deep speaks to deep, and where he betrays her.

There are many such threads, and one of the great pleasures of this (and just about any other Gaddis novel) is unraveling them. The illusion of systematicity: this is Gaddis's greatness.

And, as if to emphasize the importance of this particular novel-within-a-novel thread, Gaddis mirrors it. McCandless, it seems, has published a pseudonymous novel. It is, at least according to one accusatory character, a veiled account of McCandless's own life and time in the CIA—that is, a roman a clef. At one point, between the time he first meets Liz and their tryst, Gaddis gives us a short, revelatory, because italicized, passage:
"I distrusted romance. See, though, how I yielded to it.

A man, I suppose, fights only when he hopes, when he has a vision of order, when he feels strongly there is some connexion between the earth on which he walks and himself. But there was my vision of a disorder which it was beyond any one man to put right. There was my sense of wrongness, beginning with the stillness of that morning of return
... while from the kitchen, the chords of Bach's D major concerto heaved into the room around him and settled like furniture." (150)
Now, whatever connection we are meant to draw by virtue of the fact that McCandless spells 'connexion' in the British way and Gaddis consistently spells 'colour' and 'labour' in the British way throughout I'll leave to educated speculation. Some have suggested McCandless is a stand-in, a cut-out, an alter ego for Gaddis. He's a novelist (of sorts) and a prankster, the mysterious owner of the house. Possibly insane, he has an affection for Liz. And his desire for order, reflected in this passage, is what he finds in Liz

There are any number of similar interwoven threads for the reader of Carpenter's Gothic to worry. All of them insightful to this complex book, all of them profitable. And, to me as a writer, this is the most demoralizing aspect of Gaddis's supreme artistry: it seems an almost insurmountable task to accomplish such a feat. Yet, this seems to be the tragic message of Liz and her aborted novel: whenever she gets the chance she works on her novel, but is constantly being interrupted, disrupted, distracted; she tries to pick up wherever she left off, but it is difficult; still, she is constantly, ruthlessly revising, trying to get it just right; to this end, she incorporates and fictionalizes aspects of her own life; but she dies before she can finish.

And it is this last which brings us to the artist's ur-story. Gaddis recognizes that the artist's work is perpetual and perpetually at odds with the world. CG is an artist's book. There is his vision of order and disorder—though it is beyond him (and certainly beyond Liz, or any of the others whose interiors are a jumble of good intentions) to put it right. And there is his sense of wrongness, clearly on display in such figures as Paul, Rev. Ude, Sen. Teakell, Dr. Kissinger, Lester, Billy, even McCandless. This is the connection between the artist and the earth upon which he walks.

Then there is the inevitability of the artist's dying. What, then, is lost? Death robs the writer (righter) of wrongs of the ability to fully articulate his vision, because not only is the world constantly interrupting, it is constantly changing—as is his relationship to it. Truth disappears in the spin. Justice favors the powerful. And death, likewise, never gives him the opportunity to set things aright. CG is less a work of anger, than a statement of the writer's desperation. It is that desperation in the face of his pervasive consciousness of the sense of loss—that ur-story—which, to my mind, elevates Gaddis's work to the first rank. And CG, though short, is certainly no exception.


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

"And, to me as a writer, this is the most demoralizing aspect of Gaddis's supreme artistry: it seems an almost insurmountable task to accomplish such a feat." <-- It seems our blogs have similar aims - and leave us with similar sentiments. Though my readings seem *shallow* after having read only two of your penetrating studies - which has been VERY instructive.

AND you've made a convincing case for your theory on Gaddis' POV.

Gaddis' seamless transitions from action to dialogue to excerpts from Elizabeth's novel... somehow it all works. And WELL - even in excerpts and out of context.

Demoralizing, insurmountable, indeed.

Another great post!

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

Also, this phrase - "in a hand he knew spelling little more than bread, onions, milk, chicken" - is so affecting. Powerful characterization.

There are definitely echoes of Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" in Carpenter's Gothic, from what I can tell - Elizabeth's being kept from her writing and by her husband confined, oppressed recalls Gilman's speaker's and own experiences, in which she was told by a doctor to "Live as domestic a life as possible. ...Have but two hours’ intellectual life a day. And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.”

Of course, the characters were kept from writing in disparate ways - Gilman and her speaker only allowed to rest, Elizabeth never allowed a moment's peace.

My reading list is getting REALLY long....