Post Road Magazine #15

Size Matters

Debra Spark

I wonder if anyone still reads Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Or even knows what it is. I first came across it almost twenty years ago on a boyfriend’s bookshelf. His family were fundamental Baptists, suspicious of Jewish me, so this seemed like a real find. When I flipped it open, however, I found more of a turn-of-the-century joke book than the dark, magical volume I’d imagined. The book collects Bierce’s newspaper pieces, which ran irregularly between 1881 and 1906. First published in part as The Cynic’s Word Book, the complete collection was republished in 1911 with its present title. Some of his definitions:

Bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
Congratulation, n. The civility of envy.

I wonder about The Devil’s Dictionary largely because I have been writing and teaching writing for more than twenty years, which makes me feel acutely my lack of knowledge in any concrete subject, any practical facts, dates, or even political theories, though I’ve got an idea about how to express knowledge about facts, dates, and political theories. But perhaps I’m overstating the case. Twenty years of teaching writing has made me an expert on something. It’s made me an expert on self-loathing and its many forms. Yes, that’s me at age twenty-eight standing next to my friend, recently out of a psych ward and a few years shy of winning a MacArthur award, as he dumps everything he has ever written in the trash. I’m not one to contradict a genius, but I do say, “I really don’t think you want to do this.” And yes, that’s me telling a distraught former student, “Man, you need something like fifty rejections from magazines before you even begin to consider that the problem is your story and not the readers of the story.” If I were to write a companion volume to Bierce’s, it would be called The Encyclopedia of Self-Hate, though it would function as a dictionary, and under, say, book there would be the definitions “1. Something I can’t write. 2. Something I can’t write, but when I do write it, no one will want to read it.”

And under relative there would be “1. Person with vaguely familiar facial features who says, ‘Sure, I think you can write. I just don’t think you have anything to say.’ 2. Person (see definition 1) making a very valid point.”

The Encyclopedia is one of those lifelong projects that, to fulfill its destiny, will have to be reviled by the public (the public consisting of five readers, all with DNA similar to my own) and then burned. I only mention my plan to draft the Encyclopedia today because I want to consider a particular form of self-hate by way of preface to my book recommendation.

Over the years my students—generally graduate students, but also undergraduates—have lamented their work’s lack of ambition. Not that they state it this way. Normally the complaint is, “Everything I write is so small.” Small as in “domestic,” or small as in “about the world at hand.” And here the fear is about the world literally at hand. Familiarity breeds contempt, and writers are bound to suspect that which they know best. Most often my students’ despair comes on the heels of reading a book that is undeniably big (like J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, or Edward P. Jones’s The Known World), a book that tackles a subject—like racism, war, or slavery—in an unusual and complex way and in a way that reaches to experience far, far beyond the reader’s (and perhaps the author’s) direct experience.

Of course, this self-criticism rules out much of the work that my students most love. Is Alice Munro big in this way? What about Lorrie Moore? Stuart Dybek? Virginia Woolf? We can’t all be Tolstoy; we shouldn’t even try.

Not surprisingly, my female students are the ones most apt to worry about their work’s smallness. In a 1996 interview Grace Paley said that early in her career she “felt like a lot of women often feel now: these are kind of domestic or kitchen stories or so forth and why bother when there are big things happening?”

Perhaps it’s no accident that there’s a derogative for female stories about relationships—chick lit—but no term for the male equivalent, which is, of course, “dick lit” and which, since I began by writing about The Devil’s Dictionary, I’ll define as

1. A “will I or won’t I get laid?” story. 2. A story in which the narrator is so high, drunk, or in some other way incapacitated that he just can’t help being a jerk.

There’s a feminist and a therapeutic answer to the fear of being small, and the answer is “Snap out of it.” Your experience is as valuable as the next person’s. When I was in college, my mother (who otherwise has been very supportive of my writing) did indeed tell me that she thought I was a good writer, but that I had nothing to say. Even then I had the wherewithal to think, But doesn’t everybody have something to say? Your job as a writer, as Jan Clausen argues in her wonderful essay “The Political Morality of Fiction,” is to show that what happens to people matters, and it matters desperately. How you go about that is your business. Or as Grace Paley, a writer committed to social justice, says, “In a sense, what any artist tries to do—no matter who she or he is, no matter what their politics—is to really illuminate what hasn’t been seen and just kind of look at what’s not known. And in the act of doing that, different lives are seen for the first time—almost no matter what the politics are—and in that way justice happens, because something new is told and is put back into the world. Something that is in the world is seen.” There’s something inherently big when “something that is in the world is seen” and a story honestly and effectively communicates that.

Even so, there are some books in which the principal characters intersect with something significantly larger than the self, and not in the way that all fiction does this—the individual as a representative of the whole, the world globing itself in a drop of dew—but through a true intersection. Elizabeth Strout’s second novel, Abide with Me, is such a book, and I admire it for being inarguably big, while nestling itself cozily in the domestic.

Abide with Me tells the story of Tyler Caskey, a Congregational minister in West Annett, Maine, in 1959, the year after Lauren, his young and troubled wife, has died. Tyler—a big, friendly, gentle man—is trying to carry on in the wake of his loss, but he’s not having an easy time of it. His overbearing mother, who thinks her son should buck up and get on with things, has taken over the care of his baby daughter, Jeannie. Katherine, his older daughter, has largely stopped speaking, and Katherine’s teachers are worried by her behavior—her screaming fits in the classroom, her declaration “I hate God” in Sunday school. As Tyler juggles his various responsibilities in the shabby church home he has been allotted and on a small salary taxed by his late wife’s extravagances, he falters, unable to fully honor the pettier concerns of his parishioners, and clear in his faith but not in himself. It has been a long time since he’s had “The Feeling,” an experience of transcendence, of fullness, of the world as God-saturated. Indeed, he fears “The Feeling” will never come again.

As the story moves forward, Strout’s omniscient yet intimate narrator offers a portrait of the entire town—Charlie Austin, the head deacon, protecting himself from his angry wife through a sexual relationship in Boston; Dorie Austin, Charlie’s wife, feeling largely underappreciated and in love, in her own way, with Tyler; Connie Hatch, Tyler’s damaged housekeeper, struck by how forgettable she is to others. Strout also looks back in time to offer a portrait of Tyler’s marriage, hobbled, as it was, by the frustrated expectations of an unstable wife from a wealthy and possibly incestuous Boston family. In his grieving Tyler is drawn to Connie. One afternoon he meets her eyes and feels “a fleeting sense of recognition . . . the sense of having glimpsed the other’s soul, some shred of real agreement being shared.” Tyler’s friendship with his housekeeper and Katherine’s peculiar schoolroom behavior become a source of gossip, and the townspeople, misled by their unmet desires and sensing perhaps some disdain in their distracted minister, turn on Tyler, eagerly speculating, especially when his housekeeper is charged with robbery and disappears.

This may not seem like the plotline for a big book. Indeed, the story might have been a small one, immersed in the smallness of a small town, instead of what it is: a novel about the narrow-mindedness of such a town, but also about human potential, God, redemption, and grace. At the close of his Washington Post Book World review of Strout’s novel, senior editor Ron Charles wrote, “She sees all these wounded people with heartbreaking clarity, but she has managed to write a story that cradles them in understanding and that, somehow, seems like a foretaste of salvation.”

That’s the kind of overstated compliment that one finds in book blurbs, so it’s easy to ignore, but in fact, Charles’s words are 100 percent accurate. The book actually offers something like a genuine experience of God. For this the book strikes me as enormous, and enormously moving.

So how does it do this?

The novel consists of three books. While it is always focused on the West Annett community as a whole, the plotline is with Tyler Caskey. “Book One” takes place a year after Tyler’s wife’s death, and it shows the muddle that Tyler is in. “Book Two” gives the complicated backstory of Tyler’s marriage and presents a reason why Tyler might be in need of forgiveness. “Book Three” shows everyone in West Annett, including the minister, moving away from God or failing in some important way to love one another, until the story’s end, when I felt that Tyler had been saved, that West Annett had been saved, and that I, too, might be saved. From whence this powerful feeling?

As with any novel, the whole experience of the book occasions the intense final emotion, but there are three things I can identify: the handling of belief, the novel’s central metaphor, and the depiction of human need.

Early on Strout writes, “The minister drove the back road to Hollywell, looking for God and hoping to avoid his parishioners.” This is the basic situation of the book; Tyler is aggravated with his parishioners—this one who wants a new organ, that one eager to psychoanalyze his daughter—and searching for God. The irritation is the easy thing to handle. What contemporary novel doesn’t convey it? But as for a search for God—one about which a contemporary reader can genuinely care—there Strout is on shakier ground. “Obviously,” Strout says in an interview, “we’re in a time when much of Christianity makes a mockery of God.” But Strout hasn’t set her book in our time. She’s set it in 1959, when we might trust Tyler’s beliefs, whether we share them or not. In the end, though, we’re persuaded by Tyler’s belief mostly because he thinks like a minister. He’s deeply interested in the life and ideas of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as Kierkegaard, Augustine, Tillich, and C. S. Lewis. We see him as he struggles to put his sermons together, as he remembers former conversations about God with his seminary teachers. Bits of scripture and liturgy float through his mind constantly. When he tells Connie that sometimes he thinks he might like to go south and work for civil rights, we’re told:

Connie nodded, stared at her coffee mug. “Well, I’d sure miss you,” she said.

Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. “Yes,” Tyler said, “I don’t think you need to worry. I’m not going anywhere.”

To write the novel, Strout says, “I had to immerse myself in [Tyler’s] reference points.” Strout did her homework: she visited the Bangor seminary, she read course catalogs from the 1940s, she went to lectures in New York, and she carried a thin book of the Psalms with her on the subway, but none of this research shows in the novel in a self-conscious way. The temptation was “to want to get this in and to want to get that in,” but she says, “I want to be writing about people. I don’t want to be writing about ideas.” All this pays off. We are convinced, emotionally and intellectually, by Tyler’s belief and his struggles.

Second important technique: the book’s central metaphor. Throughout the novel one is always aware of light, and by that I mean the light of the sky. There’s rarely an important scene when we don’t know the weather. Indeed, the light is the very first thing Strout has us note when she dips into her narrative: “So begin with a day in early October, when it’s easy to think of the sun shining hard, the fields surrounding the minister’s house brown and gold, the trees on the hills sparking a yellowy red.” This is Cold War America, so there are things to worry about, but it is also a day so “lovely in its sunny brightness, the tops of those distant trees a brave and brilliant yellowy-red,” that it is “the kind of day where you could easily imagine the tall minister out for a walk, thinking, I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills.”

Light in this book—lowercase l light—is always attached to the Light. And uppercase Light is connected to God and goodness. Western readers may make this link anyway. When we’re in darkness, we’re presumably in confusion, and when we’re in light, we’re in understanding and maybe some blessedness. But the book reminds us of this, again and again. And again. In the salad days of Tyler’s marriage his wife’s eyes seem “lit from behind so they shone like dark cedar chips with sun on them.” And lest we doubt the light/Light connection, even the room in which he views her eyes is full of “a sharp, beautiful August sunlight,” and “the air was not merely air, it was the presence of God—you could feel it as distinctly as you would feel the water around you if you were swimming in a lake.” When the characters are confused or bored, the sky is “gray,” “aluminum gray,” “naked,” “watery,” “gray galvanized tin.” And when the book’s characters are most cut off from one another, least able to love, the sky is “as dark as dusk.” At one point Tyler looks out a nighttime window and wonders why God has hidden his face. Later Tyler’s own eyes become “tiny pins of light.”

The central metaphor works because on some level we believe it; we are awed by light. It makes us think of that which transcends us, and in Maine, where this novel is set, and where I live, the light can be particularly moving. It is also true that we all have seasonal affective disorder. As Strout herself says, “If the sky is a certain color, everything is a different color. You live differently when the sky is low.” True enough, and as it goes for us, so it goes for Strout’s characters.

I admire so much about Strout’s writing, but what I admire most is her eloquence about emotions, her painful exactitude. In her novel’s final book Strout brings her characters to a point of incredible loss. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do,” Charlie Austin thinks when he realizes his affair is over. He’s not alone. No one in this book knows what to do. Spiritually empty, they lack sympathy for one another, as evidenced by their gossipy willingness to go after Tyler, but also by Tyler’s gloomy take on his parishioners.

Meanwhile, the sky is a mix of colors, and the characters are both most confused and most ready for transformation. What has been a theme in the book—cheap grace versus costly grace—becomes an issue of cheap or perhaps immature love versus costly or more mature love. In the end the characters see what they truly need; they grow in just about every way, but also in their relation to God. It is only because the characters are in genuine human need, though, that Strout is able to make this transformation. This works, of course, because we recognize the need. We’ve felt it ourselves.

Though this transformation is significant, Strout has used a minimum of means to achieve it. The narrative design is connected to the book’s central metaphor and the movement from darkness to light. This is the movement the sky makes, the movement Tyler makes, the movement that (almost all of) the people of West Annett make, and, as a result, the movement the reader makes.

Big? Yes, the novel feels enormous . . . and enormously consoling. Why, people can be good! What a thing for a book to make us believe, here in the messy beginnings of the twenty-first century.


Debra Sparkís most recent book is Curious Attractions: Essays on Writing.

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