In a 2010 two-article series for The Guardian, numerous authors were asked to provide their “ten rules for writing”. Of course, the nature of writing is such that even the most wizened of scribes will have a unique (and perhaps non-replicable) way of getting the words onto the page than one is accustomed to. (In the digital age, it’s hard to imagine many writers following this rule by Margaret Atwood to the T: “Take a pencil to write with on aeroplanes. Pens leak. But if the pencil breaks, you can’t sharpen it on the plane, because you can’t take knives with you. Therefore: take two pencils.”) As a consequence, even sage advice from a respectable writer might not be applicable to one’s methodology.
A good example of this is one of the rules offered up by Jonathan Franzen: “Write in the third person unless a really distinctive first-person voice offers itself irresistibly.” Given Franzen’s proclivity for a certain kind of kaleidoscopic, generation-spanning narrative, it’s understandable that his preference is toward the third person. However, it’s in reading a novel such as the debut by Amy Grace Loyd, The Affairs of Others, that one can see the truth in what is otherwise an over-universalizing piece of advice.
Loyd’s graceful and warm prose, spoken through the voice of a woman called Celia Cassill, is a reminder to anyone who enjoys reading or writing that the first-person narrative is not something to undertake lightly. Loyd clearly knew this in constructing The Affairs of Others; more than anything, even above the twists and turns of Celia’s story, it is Celia’s voice that lingers the longest after the novel has run its course.
Though The Affairs of Others marks Loyd’s novelistic debut, she is no stranger to fine writing. During her tenure as Playboy‘s literary and fiction editor, Stephen King became a contributor to the magazine, and Denis Johnson wrote his scathingly funny Bakersfield noir, Nobody Move, as a four part serial, a rarity in the contemporary magazine landscape. But rather than take her extensive experience and knowledge and funnel it into an ostentatious debut, Loyd opts instead for a small but nonetheless resonant world with The Affairs of Others. The only world the reader knows is Celia’s, but what a world it is to get lost in.
The emotional heft of Celia’s narrative comes in her attempt to recover from the loss of her husband to cancer. As Loyd told Redbook, “Celia lost her husband young, before they’d had a chance to see fault in one another. Their married life was still full of plans and possibility.” Here we can return to Franzen’s advice on perspective: Loyd’s choice to have Celia narrate the story is not merely because her voice is “irresistible” (though it most certainly is), but also because her perspective itself creates the story’s structure.
The Affairs of Others is both about how a woman tries to recover from grief and the mental world she constructs as a result of her loss. The distinction between mental and physical worlds is one that underlies the whole novel; as Celia puts it, “Death wasn’t an abstraction. I’d done more than watch my husband vanish into it.”
The physical world Celia occupies is Brooklyn, New York, where she owns a building where she serves as landlord. Despite the hustle and bustle of New York around her, her home is fundamentally a lonely place. In one memorable passage, she says:
In English, in french, Spanish, languages I’d studied, they dared to call [New York] beautiful. Yes, Fifth Avenue, the skyline, the Bridge, Central Park, what was left of the Plaza, the consuming energy, the efficiency of commerce even after 9/11. But I always wanted to correct them. Explain that they did not see what we saw every day—before and after the towers fell—or smell what we did and wear that smell on their clothes, in their hair. If there was beauty for its everyday citizens, it hid and threaded through the ugliness.
Yet no matter Celia’s best attempts to construct a solipsistic universe for herself, other variables inevitably come into play. This story is titled The Affairs of Others, after all; Celia’s job as a landlord ensures that other people will come into her life, in spite of the barriers she puts up for herself. When a woman named Hope comes to sublet the apartment of one of Celia’s tenants, George, Celia’s world starts to change in ways she never would have foresaw. Such interactions, she soon realizes, are inevitable. As she wisely puts it, “It exhausted me, the effort, made me feel too acutely that so much of human life is deciding when to resist and when not to, when you can be carried and when you cannot, cannot afford to be.” It often happens in life that one must “choose what you cannot help but choose.”
The choices Celia faces are numerous, nearly all of them weighty. Hope begins an affair with a man who psychologically abuses her, which Celia discovers when she hears their loud lovemaking from her apartment. One of her older tenants, Mr. Coughlan, goes missing. The Braunsteins, a married couple, are in a regular state of marital strife. Celia’s goal to maintain a respectable apartment building, where everyone is accorded their necessary privacy, is already a tenuous goal at best, given the various problems her tenants are facing. But Celia herself ends up exacerbating this problem when at one point she “lets herself in” to the Braunstein’s apartment and starts poking around in their closet. As it frequently happens in the political realm, the need for stability and security comes at the cost of privacy.
Part of the balancing act that Loyd has to pull off with such an intimate first-person narrative is that the reader’s insights into the people Celia encounters are strongly biased towards her perspective. For example, Celia’s sneak trip into the Braunstein’s apartment happens after she discovers evidence that the husband is having an affair; ostensibly, then, her trip is motivated by a desire to get to the bottom of a potentially explosive issue. The issue here, however, is that Celia’s voice is the only one we hear. Because of this, it’s difficult in many cases to see the building for the apartments. But because Loyd’s prose is so intoxicating and Celia’s insights give the reader a lot to think about, this balance between the dominance of Celia’s perspective and the reader’s ability to ascertain the context in which Celia lives is successfully pulled off.
There are times, however, when Celia’s voice does prove overbearing. To use her own words, “We all are writing and rewriting—so that we might be acceptable to ourselves and others, especially others.” The Affairs of Others isn’t a long read, but the emotional and intellectual depth Celia provides to the reader is such that it feels like she is writing and rewriting a much longer story. The high degree of intuition that Celia displays often gets to the point where it seems that she has absolute clairvoyance. Because her voice so envelops the narrative, the reader can’t know to what extent her insights into people or her environment (or her uncanny ability to smell every aspect of a meal from far away) are accurate. There are times when it’s easy to wish that The Affairs of Others would get out of Celia’s admittedly beautiful and melancholy world.
Yet it says something about Loyd’s ability to conjure up so vivid a world that even the limited perspective the reader is afforded nonetheless hints at even greater depth. Even in some of the minor storylines, such as the disappearance of Mr. Coughlan, one can’t help but want to find out more about his disappearance. The fact of the matter is that any narrative form has trade-offs. In the case of the wide view of the third person narrative that Franzen so loves, it’s easy for the broad view to gloss over what might be consequential details. For the first person perspective, the folly can be that the perspective is too limited and unable to provide a comparative perspective. Put another way, it’s easy for the affairs of others to feel more like the affairs of just one person.
Celia’s point of view doesn’t fully account for the complexities of the situation that surrounds her, but at its best it feels like it does, due to the rich depth that Loyd imbues this novel with. There are passages, such as the stunning final part of the chapter “Consenting Adults”, that move with such rich poetic fluidity that one might have to set down the book and breathe after it’s done. Loyd’s ambrosial prose makes The Affairs of Others a beautiful and heartbreaking read.
“It’s never easy to separate the living and the dead,” Celia says in the novel’s final moments, “We living are in some part best expressed by our dead.” Celia’s late husband remains an invisible specter throughout the entirety of the story, but he’s present in nearly all of Celia’s thoughts and motivations. This is perhaps where Loyd comes closest to addressing Celia’s limited perspective directly: no matter how isolated a world a person can try to construct for herself, the ghosts of those we’re trying our best to live without will always remain with us.
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