The Small Paradoxes
The four short novellas of Andre Dubus collected in We Don't Live Here Anymore are great examples of Wittgenstein's famous comment about solving all the problems in the world and still being left with the couple. Relationships here are a mess, and though three of the stories are interconnected ('We Don't Live Here Anymore', 'Adultery' and 'Finding a Girl in America'), there is the sense that the messiness is an ontological given meeting the historical. The stories are very much of their period (written in the seventies), but also capture a more general dissatisfaction with the nature of relationships, as if liberal times opened up a deeper problem of human feeling. If Dubus only reflected the period he would have offered a useful piece of sociology, but an inadequately existential work, but the novellas capture well a comment from Norman Mailer in Cannibals and Christians. "Postulate a modern soul marooned in constipation, emptiness, boredom and a flat dull terror of death. A soul which takes antibiotics when ill, smokes filter cigarettes, drinks proteins, minerals and vitamins in a liquid diet, takes seconal to go to sleep, Benzedrine to awake, tranquilizers for poise." "It is a deadened existence, afraid precisely of violence, cannibalism, loneliness, insanity, libidinousness, hell, perversion and mess, because these are the states which must in some way be passed through, digested, transcended, if one is to make one's way back to life." Here is the social reality, but Dubus wants to give it the sort of density Mailer associates with certain artists: "those who see associations and connections everywhere, tend to live in a psychic medium which is heavier, more dense than the average man's. It is harder for them to move because there is more conscious mind for them to move."
It is perhaps why all the stories are prefaced with a comment from writers and or philosophers, as though Dubus is trying to find aesthetic density in the socially trivial, trying to find a way of being in a world of living. One always senses here that the characters and the prose serve a bigger and broader question than can be readily contained or answered. The sort of emotional messiness the characters get caught in isn't then merely life, but a mode of being within life. We notice this especially in the last story in the collection, 'Finding a Girl in America', where the central character, novelist and creative writing teacher Hank, has long since split up with his wife, and gets into relationships that go nowhere. However, the latest girl, Lori, seems a little different. "What he does not understand is why Lori loves him, and he prefers not to try, for he is afraid he will find no reason strong enough for him to rely on." He reckons "it is not the age of his body that makes him wonder. In the past three or four years, love handles and a bald spot have appeared, and all his running has had no effect on the love handles...but it isn't that." He says "It is the fettered way he is thirty-five," as if echoing Mailer's claim that "habit is a psychic structure. What it's composed of literally need not concern us, but since it is a construction of mind which sits in authority upon the body, we can think of it as a law which is intangible but more or less absolute..." Hank's routine left no space for his previous lover, who claims "You worry about your writing first, your daughter second, money third, and I'm last."
Yet the importance of the writing isn't an automatic habit, perhaps, but an existential necessity, part of being and not only living. In 'Finding a Girl in America' Hank quotes Conrad, from Heart of Darkness. "No, I don't like work. I had rather laze about and think of all the fine things that can be done. I don't like work - no man does - but I like what is in the work - the chance to find yourself. Your own reality - for yourself, not others - what no other man can ever know." Dubus here seems interested in the habits of mind meeting the needs of novelty; of the problem of one's needs and one's desires, and tries to finds the density of meaning out of this paradox. Hank is a character who likes a high degree of regularity, and more than a smidgeon of novelty, and years before, touched upon in the story 'We Don't Live Here Anymore' and in 'Adultery', but explored in 'Finding A Girl in America', he had one particular affair that damaged his marriage to Edith irretrievably. It wasn't the woman, especially, more what it revealed about Hank's attitude to marriage. As his wife cajoles him in 'Adultery' into telling her about a young French woman, Jeanne, with whom he has been having an affair, he reveals that he does not believe in monogamy, but still very much believes in marriage. "He was a faithful husband. He had been discreet, kept his affair secret, had not risked her losing face. He loved her and had taken nothing from her." Hank sees no reason why he cannot have casual flings and a meaningful marriage; that he can have the family life with his wife and child, the writing, the running he insists upon, and the occasional affair. It is part of his attempt at living densely.
Is he wrong - and when we say wrong do we mean morally or ontologically; do we mean he lacks decent values, or fails to see the reality of his situation? The quote that prefaces the story perhaps explains the problem: Simone Weil's claim in 'Waiting on God' that "...love is a direction and not a state of the soul". At a certain point for his wife, Edith, love seems no longer capable of moving in the direction she wishes it to move, and she starts an affair with Hank's friend and running partner Jack. Eventually the marriage collapses, and in 'Finding a Girl in America', Hank moves from one relationship to the next, never quite finding what he had in a marriage he never wanted to end, but constantly undermined. "Five years ago," we're informed in 'Finding a Girl in America', "when all his pleas and arguments and bargains and accusations lay on the living room floor between them (he actually felt he was stepping on his own words as he paced while she sat watching)...he knew that she really wanted him to leave" And though Hank may believe there is injustice in this - they had both over the years had affairs - it was Hank who initially damaged the marriage, and even more Edith's well-being. In 'Adultery', after she becomes certain that Jeanne was Hank's lover, "all day she knew what madness was, or she believed she was at least tasting it and at times she yearned for the entire feast...she could not stop the voices in her mind." Is it not likely that however dedicated a wife she was that she might retreat from such a marriage, a marriage that could drive her half crazy? Consequently the affairs she has changes the direction of her feelings, and she falls, albeit ambivalently and guiltily, in love with Jack. While for Hank the density is necessary for living a full life; for Edith his affair drives her half mad. Her own affair kills the marriage as she cannot retain intimacy with two men at the same time.
Hence the chief difference between Edith and Hank is the nature of habit and the direction of desire. Hank wants the love he has for Edith to be contained by the habits they share, while the excitement can be found with younger women. Edith, however, cannot so casually demarcate herself, and the habitual nature of the marriage becomes a sham. As she talks with Jack during their affair, she says in 'We Don't Live Here Anymore', "I wanted to know where we were [Hank and her], what Jeanne meant. Now that I have you I know what she meant: that he doesn't love me. You love the person you're having the affair with. But it doesn't matter now, I can live with him like that, on the surface." But can she - the affair may end with Jack, but then there are other lovers; as though she cannot turn back, cannot redirect her love towards Hank, even on the surface. But maybe Hank never quite turned away from her, and this is why he tries so hard to save the marriage: his habits run deeper than his desires; maybe for Edith it is the opposite: the desire redirects the habits.
"The work was his," Hank thinks, no matter if he liked other people's novels often better than his own, "...and its final quality did not matter so much as the hours it demanded from him. It made the passage of time concrete, measurable. It gave him confidence, not in the work itself, but in Hank Allison: after a morning at the desk he had earned his day on earth." This is from 'Finding a Girl in America', as it is the work that makes Hank essentially himself. But for Edith in 'Adultery' it lay in Hank as her husband. "When there had been nothing to lie about in their marriage and she had not lied, she had always felt nestled with Hank; but with everyone else, even her closest friend, she had been aware of that core of her being that no one knew." If for Hank the essential lies within himself, and for Edith in the arms of another, isn't it inevitable that Edith will leave the marriage rather than Hank leaving it when it becomes a sham?
This is an example of Dubus using the adulterous narrative form not simply to say isn't contemporary living hopelessly untidy, though it may be, but to wonder what approach one must take towards life to live it as freely as possible. A moral life isn't in itself more constraining than an amoral one: there will be married men as unhappy as divorced ones, adulterers, happier than some caught in a celibate marriage and so on.
What interests Dubus is emotional paradox. Now Kierkegaard in Philosophical Fragments says that "one should not think slightingly of the paradoxical; for the paradox is the source of the thinker's passion, and the thinker without a paradox is like a lover without feeling." Where Dubus's contemporary, John Updike, in a collection of stories on the one couple, Your Lover Just Called, details the decline of bourgeois marriage underpinned by religious, moral purpose, Dubus is more attracted to existential and thus paradoxical feeling. When in Updike's story 'Separating' the father tells his son that he and the boy's mother are splitting up, he says "this last hour, waiting for your train to get in, has been about the worst of my life. I hate this. Hate it. My father would have died before doing it to me." It is the case that Updike doesn't present this as facile failed moral obligation by the father: there is a sense that he is denying even emotional responsibility by dumping it on the son, as the narrator adds, "he had dumped the mountain on the boy", but the frame of reference is still a moral one, and the father's inadequacies chiefly those of failed moral expectation. Updike's paradoxes tend to come in the details, not in the marrow of the story. At the beginning of 'Divorcing: A Fragment' Updike describes the wife "sat couched on what had been their bed, telling him, between sobs, of her state of mind, which was suicidal, depressive, beaten. They had been living apart for a year and a half, and the time had achieved nothing, no scar tissue had formed, her body was a great unhealed wound crying come back." There is frequently in Updike's work a brilliant sense that the emotion serves the language; in Dubus that it serves the problem. "...it was not that he [Hank] was a writer...she loved him because he had found his center, and it was that center she began worrying about in her ninth month. For how would a man who didn't want to spend a night with his lover be expected to move into a house with a woman and then a baby?" Updike offers a commonplace emotion well-phrased; Dubus in this passage from 'Adultery' opens up a problem - a paradox.
It is the absence of paradox perhaps that Mailer sees in Cannibals and Christians when he takes apart Updike and other writers of his generation. "The trouble is that young John, like many a good young writer before him, does not know exactly what to do when action lapses, and so he cultivates his private vice, he writes." How does one do more than merely write on such occasions, and we could answer by saying one problematises, or at least do what Mailer so admires in Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky's world is not a society, "but a series of individuals we remember, each illuminated by the terror of exploring the mystery of themselves." At the point where Edith is nine months pregnant and looks like she will spend her life with a man who may not even want to live with her, she comes across her own paradox: the threshold where self-meaning must take responsibility for itself. How can she live this contradiction; a problem that would be absent if she hadn't loved Hank for his centre - and indeed his self centre? Three of the stories - 'We Don't Live Here Anymore', 'Adultery' and 'Finding a Girl in America' - all work around paradoxes of feeling, trying to find modes of existence and not simply a language of description.
When Martin Amis in the War Against Cliche attacks Iris Murdoch's prose style - her "train wreck adjectives", "a hectic, ragged thing", "it is non-writing, unwriting, anti-writing" - he concludes that Murdoch's theme of love in The Philosopher's Pupil is "far too strong a force to tolerate the thwarting intercession of art." For a prose stylist like Amis, a novel or a story has a subject rather than a theme, and that is the limitations of his work just as he sees Murdoch's prose style a limitation in hers. Amis would probably say that what matters is no more than that one finds a subject to serve and explore the language, evident in his claim on J. G Ballard that the point of his vision isn't to explore the problem of high rises and the social problems that come out of them, but "the point of his vision is to provide him with imagery, with opportunities to write well." What Mailer attacks Updike for; Amis defends Ballard over. Amis is looking for descriptive language concerning the subject; Mailer, the meditative language concerning the problem.
We are not making huge claims for Dubus here. He is not a great writer of the problem as Handke happens to be, or, Duras, or Kelman, or Coetzee, or Bolano. He offers what we will call external problems rather than internal ones, but these are problems nevertheless, and prose serves them rather than prose simply serving description. Where Handke, for example, will work with problems so internal that they can barely be released on the text's surface, and creates a mystery in the manner so described by Mailer in relation to Dostoevsky, Dubus is a fine writer of the everyday paradox: the type of paradox that anyone involved in a stale marriage, a job that is easy but none too challenging, a sense of ambition not quite being met, and feelings never quite received, is likely to have. Edith and Jack are in this sense characters of the paradoxical everyday. Their affair is not especially singular, and Edith captures its predictability by thinking that "all adultery is a symptom." Even Hank's insular perspective still seems close to the social surface: when one lover didn't read his work "he was baffled. He could not understand why she would make love with him when she was not interested in his work. Because to him, he believed the work was the best of himself." Handke's characters are rarely so close to the surface of themselves and their problems with others and to explain and explore this difference a couple of passages from 'Child Story' in Slow Homecoming can help us here, as well as saying a bit more about Amis's limited take on what fiction can be. "His child, by birth and language a descendant of murderers who seemed condemned to flounder for all time without aim or joy, metaphysically dead, would learn the binding tradition, would go her way with others of her kind, and embody that steadfast, living earnestness which he, who had been rendered incapable of tradition, knew to be necessary but forfeited day after day to frivolous caprice." "He knows that every mystical moment carries within it a universal law, which it is incumbent on him to formulate and which will be valid only when given in appropriate form." Handke creates spaces between the thought and the act, so that the act dissolves into the thought. If Amis insists on the well-written description of the narrative event, and Dubus injects into the narrative the space for reflection that puts the marriage into a broader existential realm, Handke starts from the existential realm as narrative void, and fills it as best he can.
A writer like Amis seems to assume the world exists as it is: it merely needs to be described in all its formal containment, evident in his claims when writing on Updike. "Life. Some people seem very keen on stressing their approval of this commodity, almost as if the rest of us had no time for the stuff. Updike, who likes fiction to believe in 'improvement' and a 'better world', crucially asserts that "by a novel we understand an imitation of reality rather than a spurning of it."" "But what's the difficulty", Amis adds, "life goes on regardless and reality won't mind if a novel spurns it." Where Mailer's problem with Updike is that he is too fussy and sometimes ignores the marrow of life; Amis doesn't care for the marrow and looks for impressive form and prose. That is what fiction is about: not life.
Dubus may not go as far as a writer like Handke in searching out the void, a place even beyond what Amis would call suspiciously 'life', but he does concern himself with the sort of emotional complications that are not merely plot twists, or curious character contortions that keep a reader engaged. When Amis talks of fiction he seems interested in its formal shape: a character isn't a person but a personage, an embodied formal conceit, which might help explain Amis's love for 'literary' names: for creating characters whose designations smack of literary self-awareness more than of the civil register: John Self, Keith Talent, Guy Clinch, Pharsin Courier, Hugh Sixsmith. What's in a name? Literature rather than life Amis might reply. Dubus's naming has none of Amis's literary bounce, but neither does he move into the abstractions of a Handke, where in 'Child Story' the central character is unnamed and his daughter always referred to as the child. Dubus goes for blank, functional names: Hank, Jack, Edith, Alex, June, Terry. They are denotatively vivid but they deliberately lack the literary connotations Amis seeks out, where the naming calls attention to literature as engineered form; not as extraction from life. If Handke often eschews naming the characters, it is because he is searching beyond even 'life' - as if trying to find a kernel of existential experience: a position from which life can be salvaged, made sense of, redeemed. Therein lies his greatness.
Dubus's small but very significant talent resides in giving paradoxical vigour to the day to day realities, without quite slipping into literature as Mailer talks of Updike's fine sentences, nor the minutiae of life that would leave the text plausibly descriptive, but lacking any existential vigour at all. Dubus' skill in the collection comes in this combination of existential vigour and immediacy of detail. In the first story in the collection, 'The Pretty Girl', and the one that seems to have no connection at all with the other three, Dubus describes how the characters got into 'bad habits'. "Sometimes they smoke marijuana too, and at slumber parties, when the parents had gone to bed, they drank beer or wine bought for them by an older friend or brother or sister. But cigarettes were their first and favourite wickedness, and they delightfully entered their addiction, not because they wanted to draw tobacco smoke into their lungs, but because they wanted to be girls who smoked." In 'Finding a Girl in America', the narrator says of Hank, "instead of losing a good woman, he had been saved from a bad one. He knew all this was like Novocain while the dentist drilled; but no matter. For what he had to face now was not the loss of Monica; he had to face, once again, what to do about loss itself. He put a banana, wheat germ, a raw egg and buttermilk in the blender. He brought the drink downstairs and sat on the front steps." In each instance, the existential question accompanies the concrete detail.
There is none of the literary fussiness one often finds in Updike's digressions, evident when Richard Maple says to his wife that he went to a porn movie. "He felt her disappointment; he hadn't conveyed the fairytale magic of the experience: the darkness absolute as lead, the undercurrent of snoring as from a single dragon, the tidy way men had spaced themselves like checkers on a board. And then how he had found a blank square, had jumped himself, as it were, into it, had joined humanity in stunned witness of its own process of perpetuation." The visit to a porn theatre isn't really about Richard's experience; more about Updike utilising character to describe an experience. This is a literary endeavour; not an existential one. In other words Updike doesn't want the words as a means to an end (the experience), but wants the experience to justify the literary means. There are a few clear signs: the three similes in the one sentence: absolute as lead, as if from a dragon, like checkers on a board. Then there is the leap into metaphor, as Richard finds a blank square. This is image-making as an end in itself, and Richard's existential experience disappears under the literary language as Updike ends up doing exactly what Mailer many years earlier insisted limited his writing.
Dubus uses words as means, he trusts them as Handke would not, but doesn't glorify them as Updike so often insists upon, and Amis sees as the very raison d'etre of literature. Dubus' observations do not build into literary crescendo, but flatline until the feeling becomes vivid. A good example comes from 'Finding a Girl in America'. Hank is with his daughter and his girlfriend. "At the dune's top the sea breeze strikes them cool but not cold, coming over water that is deep blue, for the air is dry, and they stop. They stand deeply inhaling the air from the sea. On the crest of the dune, his eyes watering from the breeze, holding Lori and Sharon's hands, breathing the ocean-smell he loves, Hank suddenly does not know what he will do about last year's dead fetus, last night's dream of her on the summer beach with him and Sharon; he cannot imagine the rest of his life. He sees himself growing older, writing and running and teaching, but that is all, and his tears now are not from the breeze." The imagery serves the mood, the angst of existence as the tears move from the situation to the existential, from casual description to reflections on the problem of being alive. This is literature serving life; not simply life serving as an excuse for literature.
© Tony McKibbin