Monday, May 22, 2017

Reading Notes: Elizabeth Strout's Amgash novels (My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible)

Elizabeth Strout's new novel, Anything is Possible, is a kind of sequel to Booker-nominated My Name is Lucy Barton. Both books, unsurprisingly for works by the accomplished Strout, have been critically acclaimed, and are already being touted as important additions to Strout's slim but culturally significant canon.

While reader reception of Lucy Barton was strong (and the book did find its way onto last year's Booker longlist, although disappointingly failed to shortlist), on the whole, Anything is Possible is exciting much greater reader devotion. I am interested in why that might be, so I thought a paired review of the two books could be revealing.

The first point to make is that when I say Anything is Possible is a "kind of" sequel, I do so intentionally. While Anything is Possible is set in the same, or overlapping, locations as Lucy Barton, and features many of the same characters (including Lucy herself), it is in many ways a parallel story rather than a sequel. Lucy Barton is an intimate first-person narrative of one woman's life, with reference to the environment that gave rise to her (both familial and cultural). Anything is Possible is a linked ensemble story that revolves around the community Lucy left behind and the actors in it, moving the focus in an intricate dance through several connected intimate third-person micro-tales. In this regard, Anything is Possible is more like Strout's biggest hit, Olive Kitteredge, in its overall affect - although it changes POV characters regularly, the overall sense of the larger story being told in the dust of daily life is very present.

One thing both books share, however, that is very interesting to me as both a reader and a writer, is a resonant and powerful treatment of class and white poverty in contemporary USA. Lucy Barton, the narrator and protagonist of the first book, is a successful writer living in New York City, but she is from desperately poor roots, growing up in Amgash, Illinois, itself a depressed community but where the Bartons stood out even there as next-level poor. Lucy phrases it thus:
While it is said that children accept their circumstances as normal, both Vicky and I understood that we were different. We were told on the playground by other children, 'Your family stinks,' and they'd run off pinching their noses with their fingers... (p 11)
Lucy's story is one of survival, transcendence and moving past the circumstances of her early life; told from her perspective, My Name is Lucy Barton is her journey to try to understand her parents, particularly her mother, and locate them, and her childhood, within the context of her high-achieving literary life, her marriage, and her own motherhood. Poverty, in My Name is Lucy Barton, is an albatross around the neck that poisons the well of everything else - relationships, sociality, attainment. Lucy digs her way free via her intelligence, imagination, and luck - a lot of luck.

There are ways in which I found Lucy Barton quite reminiscent of another recent (and wonderful) novel about contemporary  poverty in the US - Marilynne Robinson's Lila (the final book in the Gilead trilogy). Lila is also a desperately poor white woman eking out a borderline existence, albeit 30 years earlier than Lucy and her family, and in a more itinerant fashion. Both novels have something powerful to say about the impact of being breadline-poor in a society where those around you are, on the whole, not, and what impact that has on girls and women in particular.

I think it is important to note, however, that what books like Lila, My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible, and even some of the works of writers like Anne Tyler, are picking up is the experience of being white and poor (in most cases, white, female and poor) in rural and regional USA. That class, and poverty, are very substantial vectors of lack of privilege, seems like an obvious thing to say - but none of these writers fall into the trap of universalising the experience, or erasing the magnitude of the extra challenges faced by POC in these same circumstances. They are writing, somewhat like Steinbeck before them, the story of the white underclass - and these are stories that should be told, but never reified as the whole picture, or the "true" story of American life. They are one kind of truth, yes. By themselves, they are very far short of the whole. This is not intended as a critique so much as a caveat, as I have read many a lyrical review claiming, especially for Anything is Possible, a kind of universalised applicability.

Lucy Barton is also, to a significant degree, about writing and the writer's life, and I wonder if this is where the reader connection may slip a little. There are some moments where I think Lucy, or more particularly her writing teacher Sarah Payne, becomes a bit of an author mouthpiece for Strout, and that can sit a bit awkwardly in the context of the story overall. Not that there are not some gems to arise from that as well, such as when Sarah tells Lucy: “We all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.” This seems extremely synced with Strout's own words in interview:
“You can’t write fiction and be careful. You just can’t... So many times students would say, ‘Well, I can’t write that, my boyfriend would break up with me.’ And I’d think ...” she sucks her teeth, “‘Well, OK, I’m sorry, I don’t really have much more to tell you.’ You have to do something that’s going to say something, and if you’re careful it’s just not going to work.” (Hermione Hoby, Elizabeth Strout Interview, The Guardian, 20 February 2016) 
By contrast, Anything is Possible, which takes up the tales of many of Lucy's contemporaries who stayed in or near Amgash, takes a much broader palette of lives and occupations (and preoccupations), and unfolds itself like the proverbial flower, following characters through the chain of connection to reveal their sad, damaged, hopeful, desperate, gentle hearts. Starting with Tommy Guptill, a minor character from Lucy Barton (he was Lucy's high school janitor), the stories of  the people of Amgash unfold, all connected back somehow to Lucy and her family, all unique, all full of private pains and public troubles. I think that it is both the variety of stories, and the intense skill with which the linkages are made, that sets this book a little above Lucy Barton; it really feels like lifting the lid on an anthill or a doll's house and seeing the secret made known.

Anything is Possible moves through the stories of janitor and former dairy farmer Tommy Guptill; Lucy's brother, the still-dirt-poor and so desperately damaged Pete Barton; high school counsellor, and one of the characters from Lucy Barton, Patty Niceley; Patty's sister, Linda Peterson-Cornell, and her revolting husband (Linda is indeed a case study in the proposition "there are worse things than being poor and look, here is one of them"); Charlie Macauley, who is not what he seems (but who of us is?); Mary Mumford, who left her husband in her seventies and went to Italy to marry an Italian man, and her sad youngest daughter, Angelina the teacher; Dottie, one of Lucy's even-poorer-than-we-were cousins, now running a bed and breakfast house; Elgin Appleby, whose secret was nothing but pain; and finally, most heart-rendingly, Dottie's brother and Lucy's cousin Abel Blaine, who has created himself as a successful, wealthy business owner from the most dire beginnings, but who never quite stops being uncomfortable with himself:
even while most of him thought what he had thought for years, I will not apologize for being rich, he did apologize, but to whom precisely he did not know. (p 250)
The stories of all these people - quite ordinary people in almost all respects - become extraordinary because of the deftness of Strout's touch in revealing the inner worlds and things unspoken that lie behind everyday, and at times quite odd, actions. The connections that bind them all, in some cases so slight as to be a mere thread, in other cases unexpectedly profound, bolster the sense that Strout is really writing a story here about the ways in which people form a community, the secrets they keep and those they can't, the impacts on the ones who stay, and the ones who walk away.

Taken overall, I think both of these books are, and deserve to be considered as, major contributions to contemporary American literature, and in particular, the literature of class in the post-war world. While I would agree that Anything is Possible is, on a stand-alone basis, the stronger of the two books, I think both books are greatly enriched by reading them both. Part of the depth of Anything is Possible comes from the resonances created by stories started but not finished in Lucy Barton; seeing characters through different eyes, with greater regard to their motivations, is intensely interesting, and adds complexity to both stories.

So far, Elizabeth Strout, a late-breaking writer (she was 43 when she published Amy and Isabelle, her first novel, after many years of rejections - *perhaps there is still hope* whispers my unrequited novelist's heart), has graced the world with just 6 novels, but two of those - Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible - have appeared within the past 2 years. I am hoping that this may mean she is on a roll. After these two books, anything she produces seems likely to be a treat for readers and meat for critics alike.

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