I’ve been a bit quiet about In This Our Life, Ellen Glasgow’s soap-operatic look into the sordid (but not especially compelling) lives of a down-on-their-luck family from somewhere in the Upper South (Virginia?), and that’s for two reasons. One is that I’ve been busy enough (and uninterested enough in the book) that I haven’t made a ton of progress on it, although recently I’ve gotten further in, close to the book’s half-way point. The other is that it’s hard to say much about the book, which is largely failing to be bad in an interesting way.
The main focus of the plot, which I addressed myself to earlier, is on the relationship of the father, Asa Timberlake, to his daughters, Roy and Stanley, which is strained by his inability to understand this wild and unconventional young generation, and by the weird fact that although it’s absolutely crystal clear from the information available that Stanley will ditch her fiancé and run off with Roy’s husband, no one (least of all Asa) seems to see it coming. The only secondary plot of note is about a young African-American man named Parry, who is ambitious and whose skin is very light in color, and his attempts to get Asa’s family’s support as he intends to make something of himself (Parry is associated with the family’s long-time black servant, Virgie, and may I think come from a family that the Timberlakes once owned). Veterans of this blog will recognize, I think, that the first plot is associated in some ways with Early Autumn, 1927’s winner which reflects on infidelity and fidelity over a couple of generations of a down-on-their-luck family in New England, and a woman’s relationship to her daughter. And the second plot might as well be carbon-copied (at least at this summary level) from the relationship between Toussaint Vaiden and Colonel Miltiades Vaiden in 1933’s winner, The Store. Glasgow hasn’t done a bunch with either plot at this point—Stanley has, at least, run off with Roy’s husband, so now the cat’s out of the bag, but it’s not clear she has any notion of what to do about this or where to go now that the tension has been set loose. Parry, poor soul, just keeps showing up to ask a white man for help, and gets some nonsense—in some cases, nonsensically kind but useless suggestions about “helping if I can” when the speaker clearly can’t, and in other cases nonsensically racist and condescending crap like “there are plenty of white lawyers to help black folks in trouble if they haven’t done any wrong, so why get uppity notions about being a lawyer when you can have a happy life as a postman or something?” The wheels are spinning for characters and reader alike. Given that, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on why the plots aren’t working here, in a book that will avoid the bottom spots on my list only by mostly avoiding crass offensiveness, when they worked moderately to very well in two books that currently rank 5th and 8th out of 22 (soon to be 23) Pulitzer winners.
To take Early Autumn in hand first—the lesser of my two “good” examples—I think what Glasgow is missing is a sense of context and broader significance. In Louis Bromfield‘s book, I got the sense that I was seeing events that went beyond the family in question (in his case, the Pentlands): their diminishing social stature was tied (however subtly) to changes in America and the region they lived in, and the family’s sense of itself and its history helped add a certain grandeur (however decaying) to the anxieties of the older generations as they dealt with the family chaos. Conversations between characters add to what we already know about the situation as people reveal (or conceal) their emotions in recognizably human fashion, and when in the later stages of the novel the characters confront each other to express hard truths about love and their relationships to each other, I felt the talk was somehow “earned” by having been built up to. Glasgow’s book, by comparison, gives us a Timberlake family whose moorings are unclear—there’s a lot of talk about wealth in the book, and it opens with Asa looking forlornly at his family’s old home, now lost to their poverty, but none of the characters seem to have walked away with any ideas about the family and what it means to be a Timberlake. The book (for the sake of the plot) contrives at some pre-existing tensions and relationships but they all feel hollow—I can’t believe that the characters I see in front of me could believably have behaved in the past in such a way as to make the backstory real. As a result, all the back-and-forth between Asa’s generation and Roy and Stanley’s feels odd—the parents and elders don’t feel like they have much added perspective (other than commenting all the time about “how different these young people are!”) and the young people seem sometimes terribly old. I think Glasgow is driving at some pretty heavy attacks on modernity and what it does to love and youth (especially for these poor helpless young women, if I may paraphrase the vibe I’m getting from her), but it’s never clear what’s making all this happen, or where these people came from. Furthermore, as I’ve complained before, the characters wear everything on their sleeves, saying almost everything they might be thinking out loud and to the people they feel it towards—the only exception being explicit mention of the affair between Stanley and Peter. Anyway, since no human being actually acts this way all of the time, and most of us never act this way more than 5% of the time, it’s irritating to navigate through, since the characters feel like felt puppets bobbing their way through a script. Some parts of the script are plausibly interesting—Roy, for example, and her feelings about the way she wishes people would treat her after her husband runs off with her sister—but I can’t buy into the emotions because they don’t feel authentic. Bromfield’s novel is, oddly enough, able to make me feel far more by telling me far less.
T. S. Stribling‘s book, The Store, really is the book Glasgow wanted to write, although it’s much smarter about race than hers is, with livelier characters and more complicated and interesting interpersonal relationships. The Vaidens of Stribling’s book, though, have fallen down from somewhere specific, and it’s easy to see how that’s affected them and what it pushes them to do. Even the relationship between the Colonel and his wife (one of the few things I complained about with this book) is more nuanced than Asa’s relationship with his wife, Lavinia—at least I am forced to work out their relationship to each other and try to make sense of it, rather than read the narrator flatly telling me things like “Asa no longer loved his wife, and could not believe that he ever had, but now adopted an attitude towards her as of a stranger, although one who felt obligated to care for her.” I mean, what’s the point of writing a book when you can give it all to me in synopsis form? Anyway, to dial in on the racial subplot in Glasgow’s novel and contrast it with Stribling, Stribling makes the world of freed slaves and their descendants a living one. People have fights with each other, are complex enough to be both wise and foolish, saintly and sinful, and ultimately it’s not always clear how we’re supposed to take them. Toussaint Vaiden, the upwardly mobile, light-skinned black man of Stribling’s novel, is so ambitious as to be almost a scoundrel in some ways, but his arrogance and confidence make sense because of who he is and where he comes from, and they do not diminish the sympathy his character rightly gets from the reader in the novel’s tragic conclusion. By comparison, Glasgow has given us a poor man’s copy in the figure of Parry Clay—a young black man who never loses his temper or speaks out of turn, who studies hard and merely needs a loan (which he will pay back! every penny!) to get his schooling to become a lawyer. Parry never feels as urgent as Toussaint, and he arises out of almost nowhere in Glasgow’s novel, which treats the African-American characters as a real sideline—despite this novel being set 40ish years after Stribling’s, the black characters seem more obsessed with the lives of the white family they know, and more unmoored from any larger African-American community, and it feels like laziness (or impoverished imagination) on the part of the author, rather than any kind of real statement about the fracturing of communities, etc.
Anyway, I could go on, but given that I’m comparing a novel no one has read to two other novels no one has read, this is more for my benefit than anyone else’s, I suppose! All I really need to do for those of you who, for reasons best known to yourselves, follow my aimless path through the Pulitzers is to tell you that I’ve read another 100 pages or so of a book I wish I didn’t have to read, and that once I’ve read another 300 pages or so, I’ll never have to pick it up again. I may post again on this one if I manage to get anywhere worth relating, but something tells me I may just take my medicine as fast as I can and then write a review when all’s said and done.