The State of the Novel: Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

I blame Charlie Rose for my reading of Lauren Groff’s latest novel, Fates and Furies.  He spent a full half hour interviewing her on his esteemed eponymous talk show one recent night, and I was instantly stricken with a severe case of writer’s envy.  Here was a young, thirty-something, mildly pretty, slightly cross-eyed woman I had never heard of (though I vaguely recalled the title of her previous novel, Arcadia), trading urbane repartee with Charlie (surely the ultimate promotional interview “get”) and talking about the repressed “fury” of women with a breezy, assured manner that radiated Ivy League (Amherst, it turns out), bookish privilege, and years of academic writing programs.  She’d won the O. Henry Award and the Pushcart Prize and was short-listed for the National Book Award.  And more impressive (to me), she got a half hour on Charlie Rose, during which she managed to drop the name of James Salter, one of my favorite authors.  Had to read her stuff.

Had to read it, if for no other reason than out of sheer generational envy, to see how this kind of blinding literary success was being accomplished by the generation following mine.  My wife, also intrigued and a voracious reader, pushed a button, and Amazon (it’s true) promptly delivered Fates and Furies, with its furiously busy blue cover, to our doorstep.

This is the place to say that as a reader I am tainted not only by generational and vocational envy of younger, successful authors, but by being a writer.  I read novels that are close in genre or style to what I might write – hence Fates – as an act of reverse engineering: to see how the author did it, the way an auto mechanic might strip an engine.  And of course, in the process I’m comparing my own work at fiction (thus far resoundingly unpublished) with what the world has pronounced to be excellence in the form.

So my reading of Fates was both annoying and oddly comforting.  Annoying because I was once again convinced that what passes for literary excellence these days is a crabbed and shrunken version of what it once was; and comforting because, hey, that’s a standard I might meet!

Each half of Fates and Furies tells the story of a marriage from the perspective of one of the spouses (and, rather randomly, several other characters, including, briefly and unaccountably, a house cat). This Rashomon trope is an annoyance right off the bat, because you know that the author is holding back truths (or, worse, wants you to know there are none), and that of course when you get to the other spouse’s point of view you’ll find that what you’ve read in the first half is bunk or delusional or fatally mistaken. This tends to undermine our investment in the narrative and, more importantly, in the protagonists, who are, moreover, startlingly unsympathetic: the husband is a reckless narcissist whose overwhelming charm is proclaimed but never convincingly portrayed, and the wife is a beautiful, vengeful schemer whom we’re intended to forgive because she is that supreme figure in women’s fiction, the damaged but indomitable survivor.

Nowhere does writerly affectation announce itself more loudly than in the choices of names for a novel’s characters, and Groff’s are comically literary:  Antoinette, Ariel, Mathilde, Chollie, Aurelie, Land. None of these names is found in nature, and for all of them to be in one book screams academic artifice. The couple’s dog is named God, for God’s sake. One yearns for a Susan or a John, and there is a Sally and a Leo, but of course she must be spelled Sallie and he must be gay and die quickly (he is and does).  The critic Anatole Broyard once took James Salter to task for naming the protagonists in Light Years (Salter’s own marital saga) Nedra and Viri, to which Salter tartly replied, “Come on, Anatole?” But Salter was an amateur of exotic appellations next to Groff. The husband in Fates, in what would be dismissed as girlish amateurism in someone who hadn’t won the Pushcart Prize, is named Lancelot Satterwhite (Lotto for short, doubling down on the cutesy). The wife starts out as Aurelie but becomes Mathilde. Come on, Lauren.

But we sally onward. The novel opens with bad weather (another emblem of amateurism, if only in the unpublished) – “A thick drizzle from the sky…” (where else would drizzle come from?) – and soon presents a fifty-thousand-foot perspective on the couple whose joint and separate lives we will follow for the next four hundred pages:  they scurry around in some sand dunes, couple, are in love.  They are, of course, stunningly beautiful, the husband soon to become an improbably successful playwright. From within her fussy editorial brackets, with all the subtlety of a traffic cop, the author instructs us to “[Suspend them there, in the mind’s eye….We will return to them. For now, he’s the one we can’t look away from.  He is the shining one.]”

This officious intrusion of the authorial voice deserves reflection. In effective third-person narrative, the author, omniscient though she might be, conspires with the reader to paint the scene, conjure the character, visualize the action. A story about others is being told; we are seduced into listening. We want to be seduced. If she succeeds, the author disappears into the narrative, allows us to believe we’re co-witnesses to something real rather than an audience to the author’s performance.

In Fates, Groff constantly interposes herself, dictates rather than conspires, like a librarian shushing rambunctious readers in the stacks; it’s her way or the highway.  Hence all those brackets, where she corrects our misimpressions, directs our attention, deflates our expectations, foreshadows outcomes.  She either doesn’t trust the reader, or can’t help drawing attention to herself.  She’s not just omniscient, she’s fascist.  As a result, we resist her; and a reader’s no always means no.

The lofty remove of that initial scene sets the vocal tone of the novel: smug, academic, vaguely condescending, writerly, pedantic.  In a wink at her fellow English majors, Groff opens an early chapter with a paraphrase of Melville in Moby-Dick: “From the sun’s seat, after all, humanity is an abstraction.” No one you could ever care about names their dog God (though it allows Groff to write wry sentences like “God grumbled at the door, having been banished”), and one suspects that Groff doesn’t care for these people either. They and their lives haven’t been deeply imagined; they’re artifacts, representations of ideas.

From the title on, Groff seems at pains to display her excellent education. There is the godly perspective, that Greek chorus commentary in brackets, a character so minor she needs no name but is nonetheless named Xanthippe, quotes from Shakespeare, a lengthy play-within-the-novel based on Sophocles’ Antigone (one of many such synopses jarringly dropped into the narrative as signposts, we are to suppose, for Lancelot’s advancing genius but which read like warmed-over notes from Groff’s playwriting class back at Amherst), and so on. The plays come off as advertisements of the author’s own talents (“See what else I could do if I wanted to?”) rather than illustrations of her protagonist’s tortured brilliance.

Which is not to say that Fates and Furies isn’t genuinely erudite, clever, for the most part beautifully written, and ultimately (if belatedly) engaging.  It is all those things, as well as craftily commercial, despite its constant references to the classics and its other head-fakes toward literary seriousness. At its core, Fates is what the publishing biz calls upmarket women’s fiction: a well-written novel of doomed love, peppered with sex (some of it mildly kinky, but none of it the least bit erotic because it’s described in the same safe, bloodless, arty prose as the rest of the book), limned in reliable clichés (the grasping southern mother, the drunken playwright, the deprived childhood, the kept woman, the dreamy artist-husband who would have come to nothing but for his mercilessly practical wife, the tragic young hipsters in New York City, definitively done thirty years ago in Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and in no need of repetition), and drenched in melodrama (abortion, prostitution, suicide, sterilization, private investigators, abandoned children). It’s positively Dickensian. Groff’s protagonists embody such extremes (in looks, achievement, neuroses, backgrounds) that they could exist only in soap opera or, well, women’s genre fiction. It’s to Groff’s credit that she manages to make much of this entertaining and plausible, but no one could mistake it for what we used to call literary fiction; the book’s pleasures are mostly guilty ones.

I lost what little credulity I’d clung to when Lancelot, wildly famous by this point, makes an unintentionally sexist speech at Stanford and, embarrassed, in despair, and having lost his wallet, proceeds (of all possible choices) to walk from Palo Alto back to San Francisco, where the beautiful Mathilde waits in a Nob Hill hotel. Now anyone who has lived in the Bay Area or has even a passing familiarity with it knows that, for reasons having more to do with local infrastructure and topography than distance, walking from Palo Alto to Nob Hill is virtually impossible, let alone in the span of mere hours that our boy Lotto accomplishes it.  Was this clumsy riff on the Odyssey a sudden lurch into magical realism, however unearned and inconsistent with the rest of the novel, or just a blatant lack of street sense on the author’s part, after all her preening erudition on other topics?  Whatever it was, it made me want to throw the book across the room.

What’s fascinating about all this is that Groff is, undeniably, a wonderful writer. I say this with honest, undiluted envy. Her command of language is deep and sure, she can snap out a simile with the best of them, her descriptive powers are considerable, and her dialogue is believable.  What seems to be lacking is heart, or courage, or vulnerability, or even humility; a quality that would soften the mechanistic clanking of her showy prose and allow us to believe in and care about her protagonists. It’s too easy to imagine that, in her portrayal of the shallow, self-centered, over-educated coterie of aging hipsters that populate the book, Groff is writing about the life she’s lived, in which extraordinary luck of class and genome assumes the guise of merit, and the rewards of that luck have all the momentum of inevitability.

What does the existence and resounding success of Fates and Furies tell us about the state of the American novel, and publishing in general?  Surely that, because what passes for literary fiction has become a bastard child of the entertainment industry, even the most erudite and potentially serious novelist must become a genre slave and serve up the exotic, the sensational, the palpably unreal.  Certainly that, because it’s increasingly women who buy books (and who, for that matter, edit, market, publish, and review them), women’s fiction, with its deep roots in melodrama, has become the novel’s dominant ecosystem.  Arguably, that the range of successful fiction writers and their life experiences, formerly rooted in the real working world, has narrowed to the bandwidth of an MFA program in writing. And surely that these forces are crowding out the kind of novel that Updike’s and Salter’s and Richard Ford’s and the late Kent Haruf’s reputations were built on: the novel of the sacred everyday, the divine domestic, the luminously quotidian, what Salter called “the glory of certain moments in life,” illuminated and made extraordinary not by a quirky, clockwork plot or outlandish characters, but by the author’s deep understanding of and compassion for the prosaic lives that we and his characters live.

As a writer, I learned something important from this novel.  I’m a defender and, I hope, a practitioner of “good writing,” a proponent of character over premise, a lover of metaphor and adjective, cadence and meter, the music of language for its own sake. Like my heroes Updike (to whom all sex scenes in novels owe a lasting debt) and Salter (who, it’s been said, could break your heart with a sentence), Groff is utterly proficient at a certain kind of writerly craft, and I should have loved this book. Yet Fates and Furies proves that craft is not enough, that you can be brilliant, beautifully educated, wonderfully fluent, know all the tricks of narrative and story structure, be steeped in the canon, and write lyrically, and yet, over four hundred pages, never touch the reader’s heart.

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