Sunday, September 25, 2005

More Homework: Kate Walbert and the “We” We Need

I’m glad I decided to persevere with Kate Walbert’s novel-in-stories, OUR KIND. I had been starting to overdose on the collective narrator thing. And Walbert’s opening story, “Intervention,” depicts a bunch of middle-aged, affluent women in love with their alcoholic real-estate agent. I worried that the book would be yet another example of Suburbia Lit, exploring the emotional bankruptcies and addictions of people-who-are-not-like-me. The problems of affluence are legitimate, certainly, but don’t always engage me.

What kept me reading, then sucked me in fully, is Walbert’s voice. Each sentence is a meandering musical path, each story an unpredictable, rerouting river. Her sense of comedy is akin to Lorrie Moore, that clever/giddy/quirky punch-in-gut feeling. But where Moore’s stories have a sharp sense of narrative control (to me, anyway), Walbert’s collection reads like a dream, or a wandering mind, or an unbridled memory.

Seems an odd choice to pair this kind of freeform story shape with the semi-gimmicky conceit of a collective narrator. But here’s why I think it works.

Backtrack a little: the collective narrator is a group of about ten women old enough to be my mother. Their kids have grown and moved away, their husbands have left or died. The women have lonely homes and time on their hands. So they turn to each other.

It sounds like a recipe for the gossipy viral thinking Tova Mirvis explores, or the proto-fascist groupthink Steven Millhauser suggests. But Walbert doesn’t go that way. Her narrator is more like a collective unconscious, and what glues these women together isn’t their passivity, or their conformity (not by a longshot), or their need to scapegoat problems. The glue is memory, of both shared experiences and individual ones reported back. The women band together out of necessity—to battle loneliness, to lend support, to pass time. But time itself is fluid in Walbert’s world, as are boundaries between selves.

Instead of exploring the darkness of “we,” Walbert plays with the other big thing that forges group identity: love.

Love. Damn. So simple, I wish I’d thought of it sooner in this discussion. Here is a “we” that requires no opposing “other.” Shared experiences of coming-of-age, motherhood, and death forge a bond much stronger—and perhaps even more interesting—than the lurking forces at work in the other stories I’ve examined. The cautionary tale is absent. Sure, there are layers of belonging in the group: some join later, some are the group's longtime core. But belonging itself (and its subtext—exclusion) is not the subject. Individually the women are flawed, but together, they form a heroine, in the traditional sense; they are a collective role model. And by ascribing this power to a group, rather than a shining individual, Walbert keeps the characters human and puts a novel spin on an old idea.

Walbert uses the same “we” mechanics as Tova Mirvis in THE LADIES AUXILIARY, and Jeffrey Eugenides in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES: the group is first person, but individuals are third person. It implies a spokesperson, but doesn’t identify one. I’m getting used to this convention and no longer find it distracting. Makes me wonder if early examples of first-person singular fiction were hard for their first readers to assimilate as well. But along with my growing familiarity comes a need for more: the “we” gimmick is not enough to keep me intrigued. And Walbert provides that needed thing with her manipulation of time.

The “now” of the stories is loose, flows freely into memory and back. One stark example of this technique is in “Come As You Were,” in which the gals have a goofy party in their old wedding gowns. Mixed in with the splitting seams and hilarity are snapshots of their younger sexual selves, some spoken, some thought, time going back and forth seamlessly. One of the women, Gay, remembers hiding in a hotel armoire on her wedding night, and her husband coaxing her out:

"I can do it,” she said.

"Great,” he said.

She was sixteen years old; she was twenty-two; she was fifty-three. It didn’t matter. She didn’t know a thing.

"I can do it,” she said.

And even in the midst of Gay’s memory is another, older one, a longing for her sister. The memory interrupts her first sex, throwing a wall between her and her husband.

She steps out of her high heels, out of the dress around her ankles; he is not a criminal. This he will say the next night, and the next. “I am not a criminal,” he will say. “This is legal, Gay,” he will say, articulating her name in the way one does the name of a child, or a particularly deaf relative when summoning patience.

Walbert organically tosses in the future tense, even as she throws time back. She doesn’t rely on space breaks and other flashback conventions to provide clarity. Clarity isn’t the goal. The meaning of a moment in time is enveloped in other moments.

A clue to this time-inside-time theme emerges in “Sick Chicks,” where the women sit in on a book club at a hospice. One of the friends, Judy, is among the dying. Another, Viv, has volunteered to lead the group. Viv gave up a promising academic career years ago. She has brought notes, and, her memory fresh from last month’s ULYSSES fiasco, is trying desperately to reign in a discussion of MRS DALLOWAY (another text playing with memory-in-now):

She looks at the group, then down at her notes. What has she written? What does it matter? On this page she’s copied, “This moment of June.” On this, “irony?” She can no longer recall what she intended to say, only the feeling of reading this book.

Viv has lost her academic chops, and her private regrets bleed in.

"This moment of June,” she says to fill in the silence, the incessant frothy dribbling of the fountain, the heat and smell of the Sunshine Room. She cannot bear this place, animals grazing on the lawn.

"Why ‘this moment’?”

"Is there any other?” says BeBe McShane, usually so quiet. The group turns to look at her.

"I think she means there’s no other than this. No future, no past. Only present.”

Viv is grateful for BeBe’s insight, but primarily because it focuses the discussion. Distracted by her own memories, she doesn’t quite get the meat of BeBe’s statement, but the collective unconscious has a clue. There aren’t any moments but this one, at the hospice, at the crossroads between nostalgia and death, having a chaotic discussion about something they all shared, the very book held in laps “like so many hymnals.”

Each of the moments in OUR KIND has the same kind of weight. Light, because it is only now; heavy, because now is full of other nows. And the collective narrator is the keeper of this knowledge, which is the source of its power.


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