The weird thing about The Able McLaughlins is that, having established a story that revolves very much around the singular problem of Wully’s marriage to a woman who will bear a child less than nine months after the wedding, Margaret Wilson dispenses with that plot point by waving her hands and noting that no one cared very much. And then moves on to a remarkably extended conflict between Alex McNair and his new bride which seems to be a joke about how stingy a Scotsman is…only strained and belabored over several chapters. It’s as though we have fallen into the land that reason and logic forgot.
I suppose I know what she is trying to do. She thinks this little society is fascinating, and that the everyday scandals and troubles of it (“Can you believe she would wear such a hat to church?”) will be utterly riveting. There are a number of problems with this. If you’re going to write that kind of light-hearted fiction, you shouldn’t open with 120 pages that explore essentially one relationship (right now, more than halfway through the book, I could not name for you a single one of Wully’s siblings other than his dead brother–the cast of characters remains about six, plus a bunch of nameless or nearly nameless folk who provide color, I guess). And if you’re going to attempt that kind of episodic and not-too-tense approach, I think you almost have to be brilliant at interesting dialogue and good characterization…if the plot doesn’t grip me, then I ought to feel as though I’m close friends with the central figures. But I’m simply not…Wully’s not even an acquaintance, really. More a fellow I was introduced to at a party, once, who refuses to stop talking to me when we happen to run into each other in a bookstore.
Who does this well? Off-hand, I’d say L. M. Montgomery, at her best. Anne of Green Gables and its sequels (at least the first five or six: after that I stopped reading) are exactly thus—interesting characters whose problems consist of wearing bright colors to church and fearing that their house will never be as nice as Mrs. So-and-so, though of course Mrs. So-and-so is an old biddy so it’s not so tragic after all not to have ended up as her. I find them sweet (sometimes cloyingly so, I’ll admit) and I like the main characters in general (and Anne in particular…my wife is fortunate that Anne Shirley wasn’t real, although my wife tells me I’m lucky Batman isn’t real, so it’s a wash there I suppose). But no one could mistake Anne’s House of Dreams for The Age of Innocence, and even if Montgomery were an American novelist, I wouldn’t put her best book up for a Pulitzer. It’s not that kind of writing: it doesn’t do what great novels do. It does what a talented storyteller does, which is altogether different…and honestly, it’s really a young adult’s story, throughout.
That Margaret Wilson won a Pulitzer for a (much) lesser version of an Avonlea novel is therefore unsettling. I fear what lies ahead. I suppose I’m glad, at least, that I am not angry at it anymore. I’m just tired of it—something like listening to a poor student at a music recital whose out-of-tune rendition of Go Tell Aunt Rhody leaves you staring at your watch, willing time forward with your mind. I think this tells me something about writing, and about what I believe a novel should do or be. But I’m not sure of myself there, not just yet, and will save those thoughts for the next post (which, depending on how fast I can swallow these last spoonfuls of cod liver oil, may be the review).