1942: In This Our Life, by Ellen Glasgow

Literary Style:

This novel was a strange trip for me—at various times over the course of reading the book, it becomes really distinct and different stories.  Is it a romance?  A reflection on aging and generational values?  A “problem novel” grappling with race and class?  A sort of bildungsroman for young women in the late 1930s?  In the end, it does none of these things really consistently or well.  A more charitable reader might argue that the novel is intended to be complex, and to straddle a lot of different kind of stories in order to represent “this our life” in all its multiple guises.  This reader thinks it’s a poorly managed novel that shows just how important it is for a novelist to not only have talent at the sentence level (that is, crafting nice turns of phrase, etc.) but at the level of the plot outline.  Now, you can get away with a plot that isn’t really well plotted and still create art, if you are a genius doing something totally daring and non-linear—if you are, say, Umberto Eco, or Italo Calvino, maybe David Foster Wallace.  But if this novel proves anything, it’s that Ellen Glasgow and Italo Calvino should not be mentioned together in any sentence.  Other than that one.

So, what is this work?  I’d argue, based on the ending, that Glasgow ultimately decides she wants to be writing an existential novel—the universe she finally articulates is cruel and meaningless.  There are essentially two kinds of people in the book: selfish people who steamroll everyone around them in the name of finding their own happiness, and the selfless people who get walked on as a result.  The selfish people find the happinesses they achieve to be so fleeting and hollow that they ultimately would have been better off never aiming at it in the first place.  The selfless people find that sacrifice brings nothing but heartache and the realization that they will never even know fleeting happiness.  I can’t remember the last time I read a bleaker novel, a book more thoroughly pessimistic about the human condition and its hopelessness.  When, by the book’s end, one of our more “selfless” characters walks out into the night because she cannot imagine how to go on living, or what to go on living for, within the confines of the novel’s picture of reality, I honestly think she’s right.  In a world that looks like this one, suicide is probably the best option—she may not avail herself of that outcome, but someone else does, and it’s hard to argue that they aren’t luckier than most of the people Glasgow kicks around in the whole last half of the book.

Søren, you look like a candy striper when compared with the Timberlake family by the end of this novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Søren, you look like a standup comedian when compared with the Timberlake family by the end of this novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, existentialism is a proud tradition—you might be thinking I’m being pretty narrow-minded and unfair to bash this book because it’s existentialist.  But I really have to emphasize this: I don’t think this is good existentialism.  I’ve read some Kirkegaard, and some Sartre.  They’re not necessarily my cup of tea, but they were grappling with something real, and however tough it might be to handle what they say at times, they’re never as pointlessly abusive as this book gets.  It’s not clear to me that Glasgow had any real purpose for this project: it certainly doesn’t start out existentialist.  Like I said, she goes through a ton of novels as the book progresses—she starts all sorts of threads that just get dropped or badly “wrapped up” in the final chapters.  Somehow she wrote herself into an ending that’s just ugly to slog through, with a bunch of characters being vile for no real purpose that I can see, and with absolutely no attempts on her part to try to really illuminate any of this and help us understand anything more usefully.  It would be one thing if the novel was a clear attempt by a novelist who sincerely wants to dramatically explore the idea that “man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains”.  But it’s something very different to feel like you’re reading a book written by someone who was either uncreative enough or depressed enough (or both) to end up chaining all the characters down accidentally, and who decided to just ride that train to the very bottom of the valley and see how dark it could get.

At least three of these characters would make my list of the 10 worst human beings I’ve encountered so far in the 20+ Pulitzer winners I’ve read, and that’s despite the fact that (at most) only one of them is responsible for the death of another human being.  And I’ll take the criticism openly that I do prefer novels where I find something to admire in the characters—that’s true, and it’s certainly a bias that operates.  But I think it’s only fair for me to argue that truly meretricious characters, characters whose lives really are cruel and heartless and almost irredeemable, are characters that the novelist at least needs to explore.  You want to make a 20 year old girl into a monster, someone who has been so spoiled by her family that her insatiable appetite for pleasure destroys the lives of everyone she touches?  Fine—but make her real.  Force me to see how she might get that way, what it might be like for her to sincerely see the world that way.  Let me learn something from having known her.  Don’t just make her a cardboard character so awful I cringe whenever she shows up and practically boo and hiss her “off stage” until she disappears.  I can name plenty of bad, even evil, characters in fiction that I think are great to read, and whose books/plays/poems I think are fantastic.  Those characters are written in a way that Glasgow can’t manage.  In the end, as I said from early on, too much of this is soap opera—unworthy of the Pulitzer brand, and unworthy of most people’s time.

Historical Insight:

I’ll say this much—I think that a lot of the issues this novel raises were real issues in the 1940s.  Racism covered with a (very thin) veneer of alleged “open-mindedness”.  Licentiousness, infidelity, broken families, suicide, alcoholism, homicide.  The works.  And I think it’s useful for a society that has idolized that particular generation (this so-called “Greatest Generation“) and that has cloaked that era in sepia-toned awe of the beauty of middle-class American life in its golden age to really confront what it was like then.  I know from researching my family’s history (and my wife’s) that we only think that our “modern” social problems started with the Pill and rock’n’roll and hippies, or whatever it is that America’s moral scolds want to wave around as the reason American culture and American families are the way they are today.  All of those things I listed at the beginning of this paragraph are in our two family trees (well, I may be wrong about homicide, but certainly the rest) from 1960 stretching back to 1860 or so.  I’ll credit Glasgow with writing a book that doesn’t sugar-coat what it’s actually like to live in Virginia in the late 1930s.  But it’s really weak where it should be strong—while the problems are there, the novel is too shallow to really try to make sense of what they are or how they come to be.  The suicide, for example, involves a character we do not know well, whose inner life is never explored, and the suicide occurs well “off screen” several chapters after the last time we saw the character.  We do get at least some kind of realistic contemplation of the aftermath of suicide on an allegedly respectable Southern family, but too much is unexplored.  Racism should be the perfect topic for this book to address, given the events that occur, but the novel only wallows in (and, to some extent, reinforces) racist ideas and attitudes, and never really confronts race, much less provides any African-American character with psychological depth and importance.  In the end, the novel raises some really useful questions about our image of America in the 1930s/1940s, but it does very little to shed light on them.  Certainly it gets better marks here than other novels do, but it’s well below the best in this category.

Rating:

By my unscientific scale, I give this a “Why bother thinking harder about these characters than the author did?”  There are some good moments in the novel, a couple of which I’ve written about earlier.  And I think there could potentially be some value in trying to work with the existential crises that grip our two most central characters late in the novel.  But really, I had to read a long time before I hit anything worth my time, and I felt the final chapters were terribly constructed, a forced ending that waves its hands screaming “Isn’t this oh so very deep and provocative?!?” but without really earning that kind of serious reflection.  Ultimately most of the characters are too thin to serve as anything but cutouts for the plot, while the plot itself is too threadbare and slapdash to provide any real satisfaction.  The ending, furthermore, undercuts what little energy the plot has at that point, by sabotaging the novel’s few options for a meaningful resolution of any of the book’s central conflicts.  So I wouldn’t waste my time if I were you.  I can recommend many better Pulitzer winners (to say nothing of the non-Pulitzer-winning novels) and I hope you’ll spend time with one of them instead.

The Last Word:

By custom, the review finishes with Glasgow’s words—her final appeal (admittedly, one curated by me) to win you over if she can.  Here’s a passage from relatively late in the novel that at least captures some of the depth I think Glasgow was trying for by that point: Sidney Timberlake (the aforementioned monstrous 20 year old girl) is in a tense conversation with her father, Asa.  He’s just returned from seeing their rich relative, Uncle William—he was supposed to ask William for money so that a heartbroken Sidney can travel the world and “forget her problems”, but Asa has to deliver the news that William is unwell, and unable to accommodate her request.  Asa says,

“Wait until he’s himself again, and feeling his oats.  There are times, though you’ll never believe it, when waiting is the best policy.”

“You don’t know,” she cried angrily, and burst into tears.  “You don’t know how it feels to be wasting your life.”

There was a sudden chill in his heart, a streak of ice, as he looked at her.  With all the piled-up agony in the world, with all the pain and the bitterness and the destruction which she had caused, had nothing ever made the faintest dent in her armor of egoism?  Is there any hope for humanity? he thought.  Is there any hope of making a civilized world so long as we are imprisoned in a multitude of separate cells?  “Why are you so sure?” he asked.  “How do you know what I have felt?”

Her face quivered, and she looked up at him through a rain of tears.  “You’re cruel.  Oh, you’re cruel, all of you!  Even Mother, who used to love me best, has turned against me since I came home.”

The chill melted within, and the old irrational softness invaded his thoughts.  She would always win in the end, not with him alone, but with other men also; and she would win, he told himself, not through strength, but through some inner weakness, whether her own or another’s.

“Nobody could look at you and not want to stand up and face what is coming.”

Holy crud, people, it finally happened.  Two characters in In This Our Life had a real conversation—a talk in which they did not say everything a novelist could wittily think up for them to say given all the time in the world, a talk in which their moments of candor are really vulnerable and even unexpected, a talk that does not simply reveal the next nine plot twists without either of the characters figuring them out.  It comes almost 250 pages into a novel that is a little under 500 in total, so it’s much too late in the game to salvage the book’s reputation with me entirely.  But it’s a start.

Here’s what’s up—Roy (whose husband, Peter, has left her) and Craig (the man who was engaged to Roy’s sister, Stanley, until Stanley left him in the lurch to run off with Peter) have been seeing more of each other, and this point in the book is the first time we’ve gone off and actually followed them into the world.  They’re an odd pair in some ways—Roy is ridiculously sensible, to a fault, really, a hard-headed gal who buries her emotions and who initially finds Craig a bit frivolous.  Craig, on the other hand, is a passionate idealist, the sort of fellow who attends lecture series and political rallies and talks about fighting the capitalist plutocrats.  They initially share nothing other than their status as survivors, crawling away from the blast zone that was Roy’s marriage and Craig’s near-marriage.  But they’re coming to love each other in a fragile, fractious way that feels really honest, and their conversation reveals it—Craig singing out some idealism about how the two of them could have a real marriage that they could both rely on (one of his remarks is this post’s title), and Roy smacking him down out of an intriguing mixture of practicality and fear of her own feelings.  They stop on their drive and have a talk with a simple fellow who farms out in the sticks, and runs a filling station on the highway to make a little cash for seed-money.  Roy remarks on Craig’s easy ability to relate to working men, and reflects inwardly about what it reveals about Craig (and how it contrasts with other aspects of his personality).  Ultimately their conversation doesn’t really resolve their underlying tensions—some promises are made, but not really binding ones, and both of them aren’t playing all their cards just yet.

Where the heck was this author for the last 248 pages?

What’s maybe most strange is that her early dialogue is full of over-shares and characters being much too forthcoming, in ways no person ever really is even with their closest loved ones, but now that Roy and Craig really have developed an intimate relationship (intimate emotionally—not physically, not yet at least), we finally get a dialogue where people are holding back and behaving cautiously.  There’s not much else to say right now—the other subplots are either terrible (in the name of all that is holy, will Asa just leave his terrible wife and go be with his friend’s widow who actually treats him like a human being? those wheels have been spinning for hundreds of pages without getting ANYWHERE) or almost forgotten (the poor young black man, Parry Clay, is finally re-emerging thanks to a commitment Craig is making towards Parry’s education, but I swear we’ve seen the kid for maybe 2 pages of the last 180).  There isn’t really a novel here worth reading.  But I at last know, at least, that Ellen Glasgow did have the talent available to her to write something decent, which reduces a little of my ire at the selection of this novel.  Depending on how much more of that she can bring to the surface, this book may climb out of the most wretched depths of my ranking of the Pulitzer winners.  Grapes of Wrath this ain’t, though, and frankly it would take a lot of work for it to rise even to the level of Arrowsmith.  Onward and (hopefully) upward.

“Not for anything in the world would she exchange her lot for her mother’s.”

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.

en:Louis Bromfield photographed by en:Carl Van...

Hey, Louis, is there any chance you could come in for a re-write? I’m losing steam with this one, man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

“No one, not even her husband, had ever heard her utter a disagreeable word, and seldom a true one.”

Edith wharton face

Edith, you have GOT to come and save me from this book. I will pay you a large sum of money (for your time period) if you’ll rewrite this novel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The quote that serves as this post’s title leads me right into what my ongoing problem is with In This Our Life by Ellen Glasgow—as I suggested in my first post on the novel, she simply doesn’t trust us to understand what she’s doing.  As a consequence, she labors over events that should come naturally, over-explains situations, and generally weighs down the novel with too much exposition.  Take this quotation, then—it’s clever, isn’t it?  I think it’s a good indication of the kind of writing that Glasgow can do when she’s on her game.  In one sentence, we get a nice sketch of a character we don’t know much about—this is Maggie, the wife of Asa Timberlake’s son Andrew, whose geniality is captured in a turn of phrase I think is pretty well constructed.  There’s an edge to it that’s slightly Whartonian: the woman whose desire to please is so excessive that she’s totally unreliable.  So, you say, why do I raise it as a complaint?  Because it is immediately followed by this sentence: “But, as with most persons who see only the best, her vision was usually short-sighted and often inaccurate.”

ARGH.  She just (pardon my metaphor) craps all over the nice little sentence she’d crafted.  Instead of letting the quick cut go by nicely—“and seldom a true one” gives the image of the kind daughter-in-law a cheeky little twist, after all—she stops and explains what “and seldom a true one” means in excessive detail.  I learn nothing I didn’t already basically know, but now I feel like I’m being treated like a five year old.  This happens in every single paragraph.  Characters have long conversations, spurred by nothing other than the narrator’s (author’s) desire to make sure we can’t possibly miss the point.  The first three chapters, for instance, refer again and again to the awkwardness Asa feels over the fact that he and his family have been forced to rely on the charity of his wife’s Uncle William.  I must have heard on at least six occasions about how hesitant Asa is to ask for help, but how they really couldn’t manage without him, and how strained the emotions are around the house as a result.  And then, after all of that, Asa comes home and has a lengthy chat with his daughter, Roy (again, his daughters’ names are Roy and Stanley), in which Roy explicitly complains about Uncle William, remarks on how his character dominates family gatherings, regrets that the family is forced to live in a house William owns, REITERATES (for crying out loud) that William really does own the house (doesn’t he Daddy?), notes that she should feel grateful to him, adds that instead she resents him, and then observes that in fact probably she resents the fact that she has to feel grateful.  All of this takes place in a three-minute conversation on a random weekday evening, apropos of nothing (certainly William hasn’t done anything of note that day, or that week, as far as I am aware), and all of it explicitly and rapid-fire.

This kind of exposition is so unbelievably tedious, it makes me wonder why Glasgow had such a great reputation as a novelist.  I can see that she has a flair for writing under the right circumstances, but conveying plot details or the inner life of characters seems to be incredibly difficult for her: as an essayist, a woman of letters perhaps, even a poet, I can envision how her talents would be put to good use.  But the Glasgow writing this book is a novelist at the end of a long and successful career.  How could she think that people talk this way, suddenly relating years of backstory and the fermenting unspoken feelings of their hearts to someone they’ve spoken to every day of their lives, as though they just realized the camera was running?  And why does she think we need to be given all of this in carefully typed dialogue, anyway?  Can’t I already make plenty of inferences about the family’s attitude based on the information I have?  Aren’t there, in fact, a lot of ways for helping me understand the complicated balance of feelings between gratitude to a generous wealthy family member and resentment over the need for that gratitude that do not involve me having to hear one character explain it to another?  Much of the time, we’re even unaware of that kind of thing ourselves—great novels draw this sort of thing out over time, and if a character does ultimately make this kind of revelation, it comes at a cost, and it’s spoken at the right moment because on some level it needs to be said then, and to the right person.  This chat, by comparison, is just Glasgow trying to get us from Asa warming up leftovers to him checking in on his invalid wife.  There’s no setup or payoff, and barely any emotion to it.  It’s like saying to your cashier at the supermarket “has it been a busy day?” while you’re pulling out your debit card, and having her say “well, not really, but my mind’s been occupied with the question of whether or not I can finally forgive my father for driving my mother into the alcoholism that killed her”.  Sure, the revelation is a sad one objectively, but in the moment you’re not really sure why you’re hearing it, or what prompted it, or whether any of this is real.  No matter what happens afterwards, you’re not going to respond to that news the way you would if you had first become invested in this woman’s life on any level.

The frustration is compounded, then, by the fact that, although 98% of this novel is obvious information that gets pounded away at us so that we and all the characters know exactly who is holding what cards at each point in the game, the other 2% is mind-blowingly stupid and implausible in its attempts to hide from at least the main character (if not the reader) a totally obvious fact.  Again, remember that these characters say every important emotional thing on their mind to each other at all times, and that the narrator fills in any gaps with flat assertions about who believes what and how they feel about it.  The following events occur — Asa is walking home when a car speeds by.  He notices that the car is driven by Peter (Roy’s husband of two years), but for some reason the passenger is Asa’s other daughter, Stanley, who is engaged and will marry a man named Craig later that week.  Asa notes briefly that it’s odd that Peter should be driving Stanley around, especially as A) Stanley owns her own car and can drive it, and B) Roy has been feeling a little down lately and would probably appreciate a nice drive out.  He gets home to find Roy down in the dumps.  She keeps talking about how stressed she is, and emphasizes that she wants Stanley married as soon as possible.  He asks why she’s unhappy, and she literally says “I can be happy as long as I know I have Peter.”  He replies, “Well, obviously you do have Peter since you’ve married him, so that’s that.”  (Seriously.  “So that’s that.”)  She gives him an odd look, and continues the conversation.  Later on she says, again apropos of nothing, “Peter has his freedom.  I told him that from the beginning.  If he doesn’t want to be with me, he doesn’t have to be.”  And Asa says, well, that’s fine I guess, you and he are clearly both honest with each other.  He asks where Stanley is.  Roy says she’s “visiting Aunt Charlotte”.  He asks where Peter is.  She says he’s “working late”.  Asa does not comment at all on the car that passed him.  Roy then goes off depressed to deal with Stanley’s wedding gifts.  Asa goes upstairs where his wife tells him, among other things, that Stanley is flighty, that she doesn’t seem to be all that in love with Craig anymore, and that she’d be kind of surprised if Stanley wasn’t getting ready to dump her fiance before the wedding that Saturday.  Now, I know I’ve narrated a ton of events here, but I wanted you to see what’s going on.  When did you first suspect that Peter and Stanley were cheating with each other?  Okay, and then when did you decide you pretty much knew that they were?  Well, old Asa has no idea.  He keeps asking himself (and others, occasionally) what’s wrong with Roy, and can’t figure it out for the life of him.  I’d submit to you that this entire subplot is totally implausible—not the cheating, obviously, but the fact that I’m supposed to believe that this guy cannot connect these dots.  Furthermore, I’m supposed to believe that Roy, who shares all her emotions in clinical detail with her father, can bring herself to say (effectively) “I think Roy will leave me, I’ve told him that he can make that choice, and it’s making me sad” but without actually saying “Roy and I are likely to get divorced”.  I just can’t figure this book out.  Who are these people?  On what planet do events like this occur or characters like this live?

There’s a whole racial thing going on too that I can’t even get into yet.  So far I can’t work out how much of the terrible racism is the characters’ racism (which would be accurate for the time and place) and how much is the narrator asserting “true” things about black people (which I really don’t stand for).  At this point, the novel is turning out to be a lot like The Store except really bad at all the things that T. S. Stribling managed to do well.  I fear I’m going to continue dismantling it in public the rest of the way, but I hear that my “takedowns” of novels are more fun to read anyhow, so perhaps you all don’t mind as much.  I certainly mind having to read it.  We’ll see if Glasgow can figure out a way to make the thing tolerable, at least, in the chapters ahead.

“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.