Wednesday 11 January 2023

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William. 
William has lately been through some very sad events - many of us have - but I would like to mention them, it feels almost like a compulsion; he is seventy-one years old now. 
My second husband, David, died last year, and in my grief for him I have found grief for William as well. Grief is such a - oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you. 
But it is William I want to speak of here.
I'm not surprised people described themselves as "obsessed" with Strout's writing. Plain spoken and determinedly anti-atmospheric, Strout's writing has an obsessive tone, like a person who can't stop scratching their sores. The "compulsion" mentioned in these opening lines of Oh William! crops up over and over again: I need to say this though. I wrote about it in an earlier book, but I need to explain it more....

The voice is that of Lucy Barton, the title character of Strout's earlier book My Name is Lucy Barton, who also features in several stories in the collection Anything is Possible

My Name is Lucy Barton is set in a New York hospital where Lucy, the narrator, recovers slowly from a routine operation that has somehow become complicated. She is married, with some difficulty, to William, has two young daughters, and is visited for five days by her estranged mother, leading her to reflect on her painful, isolated and abusive upbringing in rural Illinois. Oh William! picks up several decades later. Lucy is now mourning her second husband, David; she is a successful author, still living in New York City; her daughters are grown and comfortably married; her mother and William's mother, Catherine, have both died and her first husband William is now married to his third wife, Estelle, and has a 10 year-old daughter, Bridget. Lucy and William remain companionably close, and lean upon each other.

Oh William! is narrated by Lucy, but the book's plot and her movements in the story are driven by her ex-husband William. Indeed, the question of whether we really make any decisions about our lives, or more  slide almost imperceptibly from the mental imagining of a path of action into its physical enactment is a core theme of the book:
I was thinking about the year before I left William how almost every night when he was asleep I would go out and stand in our tiny back garden and I would think: What do I do? Do I leave or do I stay? It had felt like a choice to me then. But remembering this now, I realised that also during that whole year I made no motion to put myself back inside the marriage; I kept myself separate is what I mean. Even as I thought I was deciding.
Oh William! centres on two things that happen to William: his third wife first gives him a gift that accidentally cracks open his family narrative, and then she leaves him. These events draw him and Lucy even more closely together, as she and their daughters support him through the grief of yet another marriage ending, and then a trip to research his mother's early life. While the action may not be determined by Lucy, it is her flow of consciousness we follow, as she weaves together the present moment and memories of her life, and her life with William and her mother-in-law. 

Lucy as narrator explicitly addresses us as reader, or witness, throughout the book - "I have already mentioned this ...", "What you need to know is ...", "What I mean by this is ...", "I have told you this before ...". Lucy's career and success are central to the unsteady sense of self-worth she has developed in her adult life, yet Strout keeps her career resolutely off-stage: while Lucy gives us details about the public life of an author - an unsuccessful event, being stranded on a book tour - at no point does she engage in the writing life in the book, say sit down to write something, talk to her agent. This contributes to the dislocated, or obscuring, or even wilful tone of the book:  
There is this about my own mother. I have written about her and I really do not care to write anything else about her. But I understand one might need to know a few things for this story.
Perhaps Lucy here is a writer off duty, able to tell stories not with the cleanliness and consistency needed for publication, but with the uncertainty and gropingness of real life communication:
Throughout my marriage to William, I had had the image - and this was true even when Catherine was alive, and more so after she died - so often I had the private image of William and me as Hansel and Gretel, two small kids lost in the woods looking for the breadcrumbs that could lead us home.

This might sound like it contradicts my saying that the only home I ever had was with William, but in my mind they are both true and oddly do not go against each other. I am not sure why that is true, but it is.
I find Lucy's voice to be deeply discomforting. "This is a delightful novel," one review I read concluded, "It rattles along so easily and agreeably in Lucy’s voice ...". There is no ease or agreeableness in Lucy's voice for me, but rather a combined relentlessness and panic. Lucy exists in a web of unearned pain from her childhood, and carefully nurtured hurts from her adult life. Every situation is picked over for the possible harm or slight embedded in it - only her daughters are spared. The massive shift in her life, from rural poverty to urban affluence, destabilises Lucy, and even in success and happiness she is plagued by a deep sense of her own invisibility:
Please try to understand this: 
I have always thought that if there was a big corkboard and on that board was a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for me. 
I feel invisible, is what I mean. But I mean it in the deepest way. It is hard to explain. And I cannot explain it except to say  - oh, I don't know what to say! Truly, it is as if I do not exist, I guess is the closest thing I can say. I mean I do not exist in the world. It could be as simple as the fact that we had no mirrors in my house when we were growing up except for a very small one high above the bathroom sink. I do not really know what I mean, except say that on some very fundamental level, I feel invisible in the world.
It is deep-set trauma and insecurity, to be sure, but traumatised people are hard to be around. Like a gimbal holding a moving camera, Lucy is constantly adjusting her viewpoint and her statements with almost a paranoid energy: as a result, there is no relaxation for the reader. The strength of the first person narrative is almost suffocating - Lucy expresses little curiosity and little joy: most characters are assessed according to her likes and dislikes, trust and distrust, and they disappear from the story once they exit her view. 

Oh William! is a short book, about many things - grief and loneliness, secrets and family life, social mobility and poverty, marriage and aging. It is at times almost brutally insightful. It suggests that deep love and great resentment are quietly normal states of any close relationship, neither remarkable nor contradictory. It is told in one of the most distinctive and accomplished tones I have read recently. It is not a book that gave me easy enjoyment, but it has lodged under my skin and got me thinking harder than anything else I've read this summer.

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