Colm Toibin’s prose is quiet and seductive. There are no major verbal fireworks, but Toibin hooks you and keeps you reading. There’s something very subtle about his storytelling. You find you care passionately about the characters—-though you can’t recall when you fell so deeply in love with them.
Toibin is a master of “show, don’t tell”. Other writers might declare that their characters are fascinating or mercurial or charismatic—-but there’s a failure to back up the claims with evidence. Toibin makes no such claims about his characters; he simply shows them going about their lives. It’s his attention to detail and his interest in his characters that keep you hooked.
I have to admit that the title of Toibin’s new book—-New Ways to Kill Your Mother—-was a major draw for me. What a fun and shocking stylistic choice! The idea seems to be that each writer “slays” his family in the process of creating a work of art. The writer’s family provides the source material, and the writer’s family is almost always butchered in the writer’s attempt to create a truthful and compelling story. The title evokes memories of a famous quote from Milosz: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
Let’s start with John Cheever. It’s no surprise that Cheever interests Toibin, given that he (Cheever) was a confused and semi-closeted homosexual. Cheever was a bit like Henry James, in this sense (and Henry James has been a major preoccupation for Toibin, for many years)…In any case, the Cheever chapter opens with a reading of “The Swimmer”. Toibin says that the main character in this story wants to transgress—-wants to escape or violate the stultifying laws of his wealthy suburban environment. Thus, he swims across many private swimming pools to get home from a party. (Toibin says that this is a bit like sleeping with an array of bachelors when you yourself are a married man; this was Cheever’s transgression, and he is trying to describe it—-symbolically-—with the character who swims through other people’s swimming pools.)
When Cheever’s protagonist finally arrives home, having experienced the exhilaration of doing something unconventional, he is distressed to discover that the house is boarded up, and his family is gone. Toibin suggests that this was Cheever’s own fear; he worried that, by embracing freedom, by following the dictates of his heart, he would lose all of the suburban and familial comfort that he had come to rely on. He was a gay man who wanted desperately not to be gay. This source of tension forever haunted Cheever, and it colored and inspired his writing. Without the divided soul, we may not have been given so many wonderful stories.
After Cheever, you can read a bit about Jane Austen and Henry James. Who doesn’t love these two? The point in Toibin’s essay is: James and Austen did away with “mother” characters in some of their major fiction. Why? Toibin suggests that James and Austen wanted their protagonists to be free—to have a significant amount of responsibility for their own choices, their own futures. Mothers have a habit of interfering; mother/child relationships are so complex, it might just be best to leave them out of your novel.
One common instruction about writing is: “Don’t try to write about your parents until after they are dead.” Toibin seems to evoke this cliché when he discusses James’s reasons for leaving mothers out of his major fiction. Toibin suggests that James’s relationship with his own mother was too complicated, too raw, for James to think about and dramatize. In place of mothers, Austen and James used aunts—some good, some bad, some indolent, some conniving, some prudish, some sexual. The aunts act as forces on the protagonists, but the aunts are not so suffocating, so complex that they prohibit the protagonists from moving about freely. (The aunts are less powerful than mothers.)
This essay is gripping not only for its insights into Austen and James, but also for its comments on novels in general. Toibin says that a novel is like a tapestry; each color interacts with every other color and creates a beautiful pattern. When you introduce a new character, it’s as if you’re introducing a new color in the tapestry. You’re adding a new “energy” to your work. When we read fiction, our job is not to decide which characters are, or are not, likable. Our job is to appreciate and try to understand the pattern the novelist has created—the beauty of the design. I hadn’t thought about novels this way, and Toibin’s insight is changing the way I look at not only what I am reading, but also what shows I am watching on TV and what art I am viewing.
Not every essay is so cerebral and so technical. Some of the essays are just big heaps of gossipy fun. Well, maybe that’s putting it too lightly: often, the writers Toibin describes endured a great deal of pain and heartache. However, given that many of these writers are long-dead, it’s possible to see their struggles with a bit of detachment, as if one were watching a soap opera. These are fabulous soap operas, because their protagonists happen to be major figures in the history of world literature—-and because all of the events described actually happened.
One of my favorite essays is about Tennessee Williams and the train wreck that was his personal life. Williams had an overbearing mother and a sister with a history of mental illness. The sister spent time in at least one mental institution, and underwent a lobotomy. She had a bad habit of masturbating in public. Williams, perhaps terrified of his own capacity for madness, perhaps determined not to turn into his sister, became engrossed in his work. There’s the sense that he was afraid to stop working—-afraid to relax or to contemplate what had happened to his sister.
Williams flirted with the possibility of checking himself into a mental institution at least once. He wrote his sister into his work; she is Laura in The Glass Menagerie and Blanche in Streetcar. Williams also found respite from his anxiety in the arms of men—-some of them prostitutes—-and he turned at least one boyfriend into an immortal character. (Stanley in Streetcar is a boyfriend of Williams’s… and Stella is Williams himself.) It’s fascinating to see all of Williams’s real-world preoccupations as they slowly transform and find new expression on the page. It’s also staggering to think about Williams’s career; this man did not produce a major work of art after The Night of the Iguana, and yet, year after year, just like Richard Yates, he kept on writing, kept on keeping the faith.
Another character who will stick in my memory is Samuel Beckett. Toibin writes about Beckett when he was in his early adulthood, and suffering under the oppressive influence of a rather provincial, rather narrow-minded mother. What to do with young Samuel Beckett? He was listless, rude, and self-loathing. He spent a great deal of time sleeping and loitering in the National Gallery. He claimed that he struggled to produce a single sentence; he thought of his work as “turds”.
Learning this, it’s gratifying to think about what this young man eventually did with his life, and it’s an inspiring story for any writer in his 20s (or 30s, or even 40s) who is panicking about the struggle to “find a voice”. This struggle is as old as time. Just because you’re taking long naps and feeling desperate today, it doesn’t follow that you won’t one day produce a Happy Days, or a Waiting for Godot.
There are many, many other essays. Synge, who wrote Playboy of the Western World, had a deeply neurotic and religious mother who seemed not to understand the extent of her son’s genius. James Baldwin and Barack Obama are both charismatic black writers who could have found a home in the black church, but instead chose to speak to entire nations. Brian Moore struggled to come up with another masterpiece after The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne but, of all his subsequent novels, Toibin suggests, only two were major works of art.
It’s useful to have some familiarity with the novels that Toibin is discussing, but I would argue that this isn’t absolutely necessary. I had never read anything by Hugo Hamilton, Roddy Doyle, or Sebastian Barry, and yet I was still interested in Toibin’s comments about their work. Granted, I preferred hearing about Cheever and Williams, but still, throughout, I was consistently entertained.
Toibin has a quiet sense of humor that I enjoy. For example, here he describes Yeats’s wife: “Like many women of her class, she was in need of a pair of homosexual men to confide in and gossip with, and these came in the guise of the playwright Lennox Robinson and the poet Thomas MacGreevy.” And here Toibin describes the need for pain and conflict that any literary artist experiences: “A happy childhood may make good citizens, but it is not a help for those of us facing a blank page.”
Also, Toibin can take a difficult feat of explication and make it look easy:
“Almost any imaginative writer who creates a set of motives and signature tones for a character from history ends by writing a sort of autobiography. Sometimes this can happen unconsciously; the character begins as a set of facts, and slowly melts into a set of fictions. The process is gradual and tentative; it may have its origins in speculative drafting, seeing how some new ingredient might work, realizing that while the main character need not be changed, some of the surrounding circumstances will not fit the drama. Gradually, the play, or the novel or the story, becomes a dramatization of an aspect of the secret self.”
It’s not terribly important that you understand the context of that observation. What’s worth noting is that Toibin can speak lucidly and simply about intricate problems. He describes the mystery of art without resorting to jargon, clichés, or impenetrable sentences. His prose is wonderfully accessible, wonderfully transparent.
So in sum, in New Ways to Kill Your Mother you get juicy gossip, memorable observations about the structure of a novel, notable connections between life and art, and a cast of stumbling, comic characters who also happen to be among the greatest writers in the history of the world. Toibin’s book is not “a beach read”, but if you find you have any secret stores of brain power in these sultry summer days, and if you’re at all curious about how fiction is created, then you may want to pick up a copy of New Ways to Kill Your Mother.
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