|Sunday, Sep 21, 2014, 05:05:06 AM|
Thursday, January 06, 2005
Books: Florida by Christine Schutt
By John Ziebell
The fiction category of this year's National Book Award generated a lot of noise surrounding not the nominated texts themselves but the fact that the committee ignored a celebrity-rich field--for literary fiction, that is--in favor of five obscure female authors from New York City. The decision spurred novelist and essayist Tom McGuane to observe that, with so narrow a set of attributes, this year's NBA might be renamed "The Municipal Book Awards." Although novelist Lily Tuck took home the prize, much of the literary attention was focused on Florida, the first novel by teacher and short story writer Christine Schutt, whose 1996 collection Nightwork drew critical accolades.
Florida is not so much a novel as a collection of vignettes that follow the fractured path to maturity of its narrator, Alice Fivey. Florida is a psychological rather than a physical place, the name Alice's mother uses for the foil-lined suntanning bed in which she spends her winter days, the dream destination of a young, whole family. But Alice's father died in an accident--or killed himself--when Alice was 5--or 6, or maybe 7; while the details are inexact, her continuing obsession with his absence is overpowering. Her mother, after whom she is named, is institutionalized when Alice is in her early teens, leaving her to be shuttled between the homes of her wealthy relatives, a childless aunt and uncle and stroke-ravaged grandmother.
Alice is not facing an easy path. With no friends her age, she seems cursed to forever measure her worth by the inconsistent responses of the adults in her life. Her best friend is the family driver and handyman; her greatest influence is a high school teacher, Mr. Early; the only lover Alice discusses in any detail is 20 years her senior; her father continues to die in her dreams. In the novel's most poignant passages, the relationship with her mother that she always longed for is finally restored, but sadly coincides with the beginning stages of the older Alice's physical and mental deterioration.
As far as language goes, Schutt privileges poetry over exposition, most often successfully. But lyricism is not automatically its own reward; some of her sentences resemble a figurative steeplechase, and a few--"Roses red forever were embedded in the door knobs noiselessly turned"--squat like elegant little sphinxes on the page. Consider the sentence that begins "Mama had used overcooked bacon for a bookmark or a hair pin..."--sure, we know what this means before we reach the period, but why would a writer as exacting as Schutt not offer readers a more graceful construct?
Another issue lies in the elliptical nature of the storyline itself. What made Ray Carver better than other so-called minimalist writers was that he almost always understood exactly what needed to be left out of a story, the precise image or idea or moment that the reader had to fill in. Schutt lets readers intuit perhaps too many things. We can assume that Alice finds enlightenment and some sort of salvation in books, for example, but it seems that we should also get some specific insights from a troubled girl who grows up to be a teacher. Alice might be successful as a template for every kid who had a troubled childhood, but as a character seems frustratingly incomplete.
Every novel is a collage of fragments, but some works function differently than others. In the world of spare, lyrical fiction, we expect the fragments to develop cohesion out of chaos; reading the story is, in a way, like assembling a jigsaw puzzle of an Impressionist painting. Schutt's book, while marvelously poetic and emotionally evocative, is more random than chaotic, its pieces sharing only a limited relevance. No matter how hard you work, what's left is simply a bunch of pieces; they might be individually striking, and similarly patterned in blues and yellow, but there's simply not enough of them to re-create the picture of the bridge on the cover of the box.