Monday, May 18, 2009

Liars and Saints, by Maile Meloy

Most serious modern novelists, having committed themselves to a marginal medium, feel the need to defend the virtues of prose against the film camera. So they tend to write books that show off what words can accomplish - with labyrinthine plots that could never be put on screen, for example, or long essayistic passages; baroque prose, language games, individualized 1st person voices - all ensuring that no one ever accuses them of writing glorified screenplays.

Which is fine and understandable, and some great work has been done – but there is also a self-consciousness about this attitude that robs readers of one of the primary pleasures of stories: escapism, immersion. Immersion itself seems, for many writers, something to be wary of, since it is one of the things that film can accomplish so easily, a lazy and dangerous pleasure.

So it’s good to remember sometimes that prose doesn’t need too hysterical a defense; its virtues can be apparent even in ordinary storytelling by a good writer. Here is a paragraph about a third of the way through Maile Meloy’s wonderful first novel, Liars and Saints. It is about a crumbling marriage. The husband, Henry, has run for a position in the California state legislature, won, and moved to the state capital. His wife Clarissa has been stuck in the house with their baby, Abby.
When Henry came home, with drafts of bills to read, she said that if they were going to make this marriage work, they couldn’t live apart. He was too busy and too tired to argue very long, so she went with him to Sacramento, and moved into the tiny apartment he kept there. She took Abby to watch the debates, and made friends with Henry’s colleagues, and met lobbyists in the halls. Henry accused her of flirting with them, but she was only talking about the bills – and if the lobbyists liked her, so what? It could be useful. They said she had good ideas. She thought about becoming a lobbyist, too; she might be good at the research and the persuasion. But on three different afternoons she wanted to listen to important hearings, so she left Abby playing on the lobby carpet, just outside the chambers, perfectly safe. And each time, someone found Abby crying in a marble hallway somewhere else, with a full cloth diaper, and took her to Henry in committee, and Henry came out of his committee to find Clarissa. The first time it happened he smiled and said, “I have a job, Clar, and it’s to stay in that meeting.” The second time he just said, “Diaper.” The third time he handed Abby over silently, with a dark look, and that was the end of Clarissa’s lobbying career. She moved back to Sebastopol, less happy than ever.
This is the story of several months in a paragraph. Films have tried jumps like this – think of Kane and his wife at the breakfast table, the marriage dissolving in three cuts – but these scenes inevitably come off as a sort of glib shorthand; we never really understand what happened.

Here, along with the three filmable scenes, we get Henry’s mood and the texture of Clarissa’s mind – “perfectly safe,” she thinks about the baby left in the hallway – along with some of Clarissa’s naiveté, written in just the words she would use herself: “she might be good at the research and the persuasion.” Still, obviously, a kind of shorthand – that’s what art is, after all – but for me much more satisfying. The marriage is inhabited, and the story is told with a naturalness that makes it clear that this is the only medium in which to tell it.

Much of Liars and Saints moves at this same pace, and with the same sense of ease. The novel manages to cover three generations and more than fifty years in 260 pages; I can't imagine it being successfully filmed, even with its tight and involved plot. But I was lost in it; I read the book in great gulps over three days, anxious to find out what happened, and only stopped occasionally to let out little shouts of admiration. (How did Meloy write something this good this young?) The book is the story of the Santerre family: Teddy and Yvette, the father and mother, their two daughters Margot and Clarissa, and their marriages and children. Over the course of the story, which treats the points of view of various characters in short chapters, Meloy writes convincingly as a WWII pilot (Teddy), an old French-Canadian woman (Lenore, Yvette’s mother), and a fidgety adolescent boy, along with several others.

The story moves at a breakneck pace – with pregnancies and incest and deaths – and covers so much time that the events don’t feel as unlikely and melodramatic as they otherwise might: wait long enough, after all, and something huge will happen to you. The book doesn’t feel formless or arbitrary, either – there is a sense that the writer has discovered the shape of the narrative while writing; certain connections suggested themselves and pushed the book where it needed to go.

The story's disturbing implications only become apparent slowly; Meloy rarely steps in and spells anything out. As things go increasingly haywire for all of the characters, one gets the sense that – for all of the decisions these people get to make – the actual control that they have over their lives is pretty minimal. Genetic inheritance, family decisions, the historical moment, their own compulsions, bequeathed to them from God knows where – one starts to feel the truth of just how compelled most actions are.

Even the simple fact that Yvette passes on her beauty to her two daughters – as Clarissa, in turn, passes it on to hers – entirely changes the course of all of their lives: they are constantly in the path of other people’s desires, and so many of the events in the book would not take place if someone’s face happened to be differently proportioned.

That’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it? And this sort of determinism tends to make for dark and not entirely satisfying books; people expect (quite reasonably) change and personal agency from characters. And Meloy gives us some near the end, and it doesn’t feel wholly implausible – after all, I hope some sort of growth is possible over the course of a long life.

But still, something feels off about the later parts of the book, although the galloping plot certainly maintains interest. Meloy introduces the rather annoying voice of a child struggling with religious concerns (the whole family is Catholic, which is significant throughout) and can no longer hold back the urge to lay some ideas on us: evil is inextricably tied to good in life, etc. There is also a confrontation between two characters that has been waiting to happen for half the novel and comes off as completely false. The whole last chapter is a bit of a life-goes-on shrug.

But enough complaints. It's been a long time since I read a new first novel that was this good. Everyone should go out and read it and feel happy that such good stories are still being written.

A last note: Meloy wrote a sort of sequel to this novel called A Family Daughter, where one of this book's characters, from a similar but not identical family, turns out to have written Liars and Saints. The novel is not quite a disaster – she is too good a writer for that – but it is a real step down in inspiration. I gave up about halfway through. I felt like Meloy was blowing on embers that had already burned themselves out quite brilliantly in this novel. And A Family Daughter ends up scrambling the world that Liars and Saints creates so memorably.

The book, along with her collection of stories, also showed how Meloy's interest in the ramifications of beauty - so well-handled in Liars and Saints - can become limiting. Throughout her work, she seems to be almost exclusively interested in lovely people and their various entanglements. She likes things to happen quickly and it's easier with good looking people, I suppose. Meloy's primary obsession as a writer is sexual desire and the mess it can make of things - a worthy theme, certainly - but I'll admit that, as I've read more of her work, I've gotten slightly jealous and then occasionally bored with how monotonously desirable all of her people are. Even her older characters were invariably once beautiful, so the only loneliness in her books is the kind people feel when they've done everything and haven't found what they were looking for - and this is certainly not the most common variety.

Anyway, I'm hoping the sequel was an aberration, because if Liars and Saints is representative of her talent - and if Meloy can broaden her interests to include some different sorts of people - I think she will be one of the great writers of this generation. I’m looking forward to her new book of stories, which is coming out in a month or so.

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