“The street was darkened by a smoky sunset, and light had not yet come on in the lamps near the empty house.”

So begins Ellen Glasgow‘s In This Our Life, the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel for the year 1942.  The opening scene of the darkening street and the empty house quickly features our main character, Asa Timberlake, an aging Virginian scion of a great family laid low, a man trapped in a marriage he cannot abide and a career he’d sooner lose than keep.  He reminds me in many respects of the more exotically named Colonel Miltiades Vaiden, the man at the heart of most of the plots in T. S. Stribling’s The Store, but where The Colonel was interesting as a schemer and a man constantly drawn into the lives of those around him, Asa Timberlake is disappointingly uninteresting, thus far.  He has somewhat strained relationships with his daughters, Stanley and Roy—yes, those are the names of his daughters, and no, as far as I know the plot will not feature them moving to Las Vegas and starting up a magic act—and a feeling of hapless melancholy more or less pervades everything else he touches, from what I’ve seen.

In many ways, the novel’s opening chapter suggests I’m in for another of Pulitzer’s Worst Hits—it’s almost textbook “bad writing”, so much so that I feel I must be judging it too harshly.  We start with aging Asa looking at his old family house being demolished (symbolism, much?).  An unimportant character appears out of nowhere, and extricates Important Plot Points question by question, like a Socratic parody of how to communicate to the audience.  The conversation goes something like this:

“Is that you, Asa?  Aren’t you supposed to be at Significant Job?”
“Yes, it is my job for Reasons Important to My Emotional State Which I Will Reveal to You, a Stranger.”
“Well, my job now is knocking down this house. Say, isn’t it your old house where Important Family Event occurred?”
“Ah, yes, Important Family Event about which I will mention just a few more Revealing Details.”
“Yeah, that was right before Incident I Will Stop Short of Relating Out of Propriety, since I assume the narrator will handle it in a moment, wasn’t it?”
“Yes.”
“And then Antagonist bought it right out from under you when Other Important Family Event made that a necessity?”
“You remember my entire backstory with almost omniscient precision, which is weird, since we’ve never met, and I only vaguely knew your grandfather.”
“Well, that’s my job. That and knocking down this Obvious Metaphor you used to live in. It’s surprisingly hard to demolish!”
“That’s because the house represents Something Significant about the Past. Also we hired a good architect.”

(I promise you, I’m exaggerating only slightly—reading it was like looking closely at a paint-by-numbers Mona Lisa.  It’s like reading the plot of the first novel an alien wrote after studying our literature in secret—it knows the notes, but not the music.) Eventually, the unimportant character disappears, and almost all of the rest of the first chapter consists of our omniscient narrator Telling, Not Showing us who Asa is, what all has happened over the first sixty years of his life, how he feels about it, how that affects all his relationships, and what kind of straits he feels he’s in now. It’s as though Glasgow doesn’t trust us for a minute with her story, and has to front-load all the symbolism and significance so that we can’t possible misunderstand the events of the plot or use them to reach any truths she may not have intended.

Ellen Glasgow, 1906

Oh, Ellen Glasgow, we don’t have to be enemies, but you’re going to have to meet me half-way. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll grant that Glasgow has more skill on a sentence level than the worst of her predecessors, so at any given moment the book can give some pleasure.  That first sentence, for example, is a pretty serviceable opening—the scene itself is cliché, but the way she describes it is at least slightly unconventional.  That’s the pattern so far, with decent rhetorical execution of really bad plotting and character development.  I’ll give it credit: if we continue in this vein, it will be an entirely new way for a Pulitzer reading experience to go bad.  It gives me more respect for her talent, I guess, than decently plotted stuff that is terribly written, but frankly the other kind of stuff is more fun to read, and this one’s long, so I’m not really looking forward to how this goes.

Reasons for optimism?  Well, I was skeptical about The Store at first too, and I ended up getting a lot out of it—as I said early on in this post, I feel like we could possibly get similarly interesting stuff out of Asa.  The raw material’s there to work with, anyway.  If she can stop using the third-person narration to announce how every character feels and why, and start writing some meaningful dialogue, that’ll help, and if this book can be about anything but his bad marriage and his daughters’ bad marriages (or be about them in an interesting way), there’s hope.  But I’m not clinging to that hope with any degree of confidence.

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3 comments on ““The street was darkened by a smoky sunset, and light had not yet come on in the lamps near the empty house.”

  1. Nerija S. says:

    “Well, that’s my job. That and knocking down this Obvious Metaphor you used to live in. It’s surprisingly hard to demolish!”
    “That’s because the house represents Something Significant about the Past. Also we hired a good architect.”

    Love it 🙂 Seems we’re still going through the Pulitzer’s growing pains… I love that opening sentence (“The street was darkened by a smoky sunset…”) and the mood it creates…for some reason, it reminds me of James Joyce’s “Araby”… but I guess that’s where the awesomeness ends? That’s a shame.

  2. Camilla P. says:

    The fake conversation you “reported” is hilarious!

    Anyway, I don’t think I’ve ever commented here, even if I follow your blog since a little bit – so, let me take the chance to say I really love what you’re doing here, it’s an amazing work.

  3. segmation says:

    I love paint by numbers!

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