When I was a kid in the late 70s and early 80s, it seemed like all of my friends’ parents were getting divorced—it was becoming commonly accepted as a regrettable but perhaps necessary option, a newly acknowledged cultural fact of life. I felt worst for my childhood best friend Daniel Yoshikawa, though I don’t think I ever told him so or tried to address the subject, even though I occasionally saw, firsthand, the damage it was doing. I also remember feeling slightly guilty, slightly proud, and enormously confident in the fact that my folks were still together.
In 1986, that fell apart, and I started hearing stories of infidelity and quietly-growing emotional distance, witnessed arguments, saw the holiday displays of hostility and quelling-by-substance of nerves—all of it wrapped up in the once-love relationship between two people, a relationship that for whatever reason died. My grandmother and grandfather divorced. My aunt divorced. Another aunt divorced three times. Close friends of the family had affairs, split up, lost it. So many of my friends’ parents broke up, and finally, so did mine. What’s strange to me now, looking back, is I realize that after my folks separated and eventually divorced, for years I didn’t hear of anyone else I knew splitting up—until recently, when a handful of my dad’s friends from the airport have left their wives and kids. It’s back, and maybe it never left.
So now there’s this anthology gathered by Caitlin Shetterly, a beautiful assembly of the expressions of the fragmentation that has littered American society intensely for the last 25 or so years. Thankfully, it’s not self-help, it’s not cathartic, and it’s not a place to go for comfort—I happen to believe those motives would have little to do with truth in this matter. “Healing oneself” is a lie. Comfort is a lie. Closure is a lie. Putting it behind us is a lie. Blaming others, fate, heredity, wanderlust destiny, is cowardly.
The fact is I have a scar on my left hand from a fall onto the corner of my father’s open red toolbox when I was eight. It doesn’t hurt anymore, but the memory of that experience, and the stitching that followed, does. I don’t look at that scar and say, “Ah, that time is behind me”. I don’t say, “Damn him for leaving the toolbox open” or “Damn the cord that I tripped over” or “Damn me for being a little kid and running around the garage”. I don’t caress it lovingly, and it will never leave my hand. It will stay, and I will always say, “Yep, there’s that scar” and then I’ll do some dishes.
Part of Shetterly’s goal is to reveal the “architecture of a family—both real and symbolic”. In doing so, she creates her own architecture of loss with three sections, titled “What Falls Apart”, “The Children”, and “The Afterlife”. The first dish, however, is broken in the prologue with John Cheever’s “The Season of Divorce”.
“They wept together, for the things they now knew”.
Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” chronicles a couple’s deepening awareness of each other during nightly power outages (an apt phrase) in which they decide to simply “say something to each other in the dark”, something they’ve never told before. As we are drawn in by the nightly dose of extra darkness, candlelight, and confession, the couple begins to open up to each other and their past. It ends with Shoba leaving her husband Shukumar and his cruel revelation of their stillborn child’s gender, something previously unknown, and something of a comfort, to Shoba, and the crushing sentence, characteristic of the entire anthology “They wept together, for the things they now knew”.
That’s one of the more impressive and appropriate things about the majority of these stories: their endings. Sudden, harsh, uncomforting and often revelatory, they are deliberate nails. John Updike’s “Separating” ends with a son moaning to his departing father “the crucial, intelligent word: ‘Why?’ Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness. The white face was gone, the darkness was featureless. Richard had forgotten why.” Whether a painful epiphany or the sudden loss of knowledge, this kind of unflinching finish often assures a story’s integrity.
Updike’s story is also to be admired for its quick and uncomfortable dialogue, musically prophetic phrases (“the lovely waste light of high summer”), and functionally ambling sentences that build suspense: “Then, the party over, they, the two of them, who nineteen years before would push her in a baby carriage along Fifth Avenue to Washington Square, were to walk her out of the house, to the bridge across the salt creek, and tell her, swearing her to secrecy”. It’s refreshing to read a sentence that makes me impatient, yet realize that same impatience is a part of the story of an old couple breaking the news of their divorce to their grown kids, a kind of functional delay. And he also touches on the problem of memory, how a wife’s old habits—“long chore lists and financial accountings and, in the days when he first knew her, her too-copious lecture notes”—now reveal “an edge of false order, a hidden plea for control”. What one is to become can seem so apparent in retrospect, a kind of foreshadowing in hindsight.
That’s what I learned from my father.
Selective memory, as attached to emotional memory, makes an appearance in Sherman Alexie’s “Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at Woodstock”, one of the richer stories in that it comments on a variety of issues, both philosophical and social, without diverting from the characters’ lives:
My father’s mind always worked that way. If you don’t like the things you remember, then all you have to do is change the memories. Instead of remembering the bad things, remember what happened immediately before. That’s what I learned from my father. For me, I remember how good the first drink of that Diet Pepsi tasted instead of how my mouth felt when I swallowed a wasp with the second drink.
Because of all that, my father always remembered the second before my mother left him for good and took me with her. No. I remembered the second before my father left my mother and me. No. My mother remembered the second before my father left her to finish raising me all by herself.
There’s an interesting cultural distinction, which at once touches on history, social violation, and protest: “On a reservation, Indian men who abandon their children are treated worse than white fathers who do the same thing. It’s because white men have been doing that forever and Indian men have just learned how. That’s how assimilation can work.” And there’s a great scene, which could’ve easily fallen into cliché, where the narrator and father are driving through a snowstorm listening to Hendrix, and the conversation turns towards war/peace and the son’s knowledge of his father, eventually leading the son to “figure music just might be the most important thing there is”, having turned his father into a “reservation philosopher” and containing “powerful medicine”.
... a contemporary and ancient example of social death
In poet Nathaniel Mackey’s book of criticism Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing, he discusses how various writers, musicians and indigenous people conceptualize music (and in a way, language too) as referring to what is left out of “normal” discourse, as a kind of weeping and transformation, and having its roots in “social death”, the denial or shattering of kinship and community. This theory isn’t just relevant to Alexie’s story but the entire anthology. It’s not so much that divorce has marginalized people, but it—along with murder, suicide, parricide, desertion, adultery, abandonment, orphans, genocide, rape—is both a contemporary and ancient example of social death. One way of addressing it is through some type of performance, be it literary or musical, solitary or communal, and this book is much of that.
Continuing the issue of performance is Michael Chabon’s “The Halloween Party”, where an adolescent’s crush on his eccentric and big-boned neighbor funnels into Halloween’s celebration of the ritualistic transformation of identity through mask, costume and dance. The finale is a kind of understated climax, where Nathan Shapiro, who has dressed up as someone in the process of having a good idea, has asked his neighbor Eleanor to dance. He takes her hand and covers his eyes, covers her eyes with his palm and says “Guess who I am now.”
It’s fitting that in Alice Munro’s “The Children Stay”—which is my favorite story along with Peter Ho Davies’ “Small World”—Pauline, a young mother vacationing with her two daughters, husband and his parents on Vancouver Island, and Jeffrey, the young professor she has an affair with, are respectively star and director of a small-time production of Anouilh’s “Eurydice”.
Briefly, the story goes something like this. Orpheus (the mythological grounding of the word “orphan”) is an extraordinarily talented musician, so powerful he can charm animals. His lover Eurydice, in one version, is bitten by a snake while playing in a field and dies. Grief-stricken, Orpheus decides to go down to the underworld and, with his music, charm the gods into letting him return to the mortal world with his love. The gods of the underworld agree on the condition that as the two are ascending, with Orpheus in front, he may not look at back at Eurydice until they are above ground. Not surprisingly, Orpheus cannot resist and, just a step or two away from mortal bliss, turns around, and looks at Eurydice, who fades from his sight. After this loss, Orpheus only grows stronger with music.
Guess who I am now.
This mixture of theater and myth, aside from tightening the connection to Mackey’s theory, not only avoids being overdone or artificial, but adds a profoundly classical and wider, vaster perspective to the crumbling lives of two people on a small and remote island. It continues to play with power dynamics and gives an indirect nod towards, once again, music—and after reading Mackey, I cannot help but associate music with absence, with loss. It is an exceptionally moving scene as Pauline walks with her daughter in a stroller, reciting “a speech at the end that was giving her trouble” which goes “You are terrible, you know, you are terrible like the angels. You think everybody’s going forward, as brave and bright as you are-oh, don’t look at me, please, darling, don’t look at me-perhaps I’m not what you wish I was, but I’m here, and I’m warm, I’m kind, and I love you. I’ll give you all the happiness I can. Don’t look at me. Don’t look. Let me live.”
Her story also has some great extended metaphors in descriptions of the tide, the beach, drying sand, continental mountains being mistaken for peaks on the island and somehow, in drawing connections between the geologic and the intimate, avoids becoming obvious. It’s probably because of how crucial place is—Vancouver Island is a gorgeous and evocative setting for “The Children Stay” and is completely tied up in the people’s lives there, and this happens through the anthology; so many stories make a point of referring to specific places: Boston, southern New Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, New York city, Chicago, Mexico. On one hand, I kind of wish there was more of a tendency towards the placeless, but on the other, it suggests that geography is an integral part of human relationships, both spiritual and physical.
The first sentence of “The Winter Father” by Andre Dubus goes “The Jackman’s marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days, they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying” and keeps moving viciously for several paragraphs, a jaw-dropping display of momentum and literary force. Coupled with this is a subtle and precise portrait of routine: “When he reached the town where he lived he stopped at a small store and bought two lamb chops and a package of frozen peas.” Along with a later description of Peter’s jogging routine these domestic details are the emblems of isolation, another small everyday thing, like geographic location and geology, that is so basic (and often unnoticed, unattended to) that it becomes a kind of background melody for dissolution.
... the nationally-televised confession of failure
One paragraph of Russell Banks’ “Queen for a Day” ends “Grabbing up his suitcases, in silence, without ever looking over once at his wife or back at his children, he left the apartment” and the next begins “For good.” This brutality, like the vicious procedure of Andre Dubus, is typical of the better stories here. Based in the early 1950s, a kid constantly tries to nominate his mom for a TV show that celebrates women’s struggles. It’s funny, ironic, and uncomfortable in that the show’s appeal is essentially in its cycle of public embarrassment, the nationally-televised confession of failure (sort of like “This Is Your [Shitty] Life!”)—“Somehow your letter describing the candidate has first to move Jack Bailey, and then your candidate has to be able to communicate her sufferings over television in a clear and dramatic way.” Even though it’s such a twisted performance, young Earl has most of his hopes tied up in it, and each time he is denied, he seems to fall further and further in to the desire for oblivion-“flopping onto his bed face first, he wishes he could keep on falling, as if down a bottomless well or mine shaft, into darkness and warmth, lost and finally blameless, gone, gone, gone.” It’s not unlike participating in a play or putting on a mask at Halloween—it’s a wide variety of lenses we can look at ourselves through and frames we can pose in and it’s often the younger people, the children of these stories, that get destroyed by those image-makers.
The cause of all this is Earl’s father’s leaving. At one point, Earl’s mom has talked to a minister and discusses his advice with her son: “he told me it’s not right for us to be going on like this, without a father and all.” The language and relationships imply a god, whether it’s a Heavenly Father or mortal head of household, which leads me to questions of patriarchal dependence, or the genuine need for, simply, a man (or simply a god).
The great thing is I often forget these are all “about” divorce—the theme doesn’t dominate the stories (the passenger doesn’t slow the vehicle), which retain their autonomy (most of the time) as they illuminate the issue. Also notable is the anthology’s lack of contributors’ notes page, as if bios were irrelevant which, in many cases, they are. The anthology’s presentation is modest, a refreshing contrast from its potentially sensational theme; it’s just a short introduction, followed by 22 short stories.
Alice Elliott Dark’s “Close” fiercely orbits around a man debating with himself whether to leave his wife, pregnant with their first child, for another woman. The other woman is what he seems to want deep down, but he acknowledges that staying is the honorable, right thing to do; it’s the “higher” choice. In a sense right there we see the conflict of Apollonian and Dionysian urges, the ordered, calm, reasoned versus the irrational, passionate, intoxicated, and that’s exactly the tennis match that goes on in many people’s minds concerning affairs. Ironically this inner debate (perhaps predictable irony but no less powerful) plays out during a business trip which takes him back near the neighborhood he grew up in, and the house he grew up in, where yes, his folks divorced. He marks how the neighborhood is changing, how the new neighborhood children will be changed by that change, runs into an old friend, awkwardly asks his advice (this friend’s parents had divorced too).
The story “Close” resembles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (this very connection is noted in the story) as the character Wallace revisits his past, but while Scrooge runs out Christmas morning ecstatically wishing everyone well, a decidedly changed man, Wallace is left in a bumbling desire for advice from his father. First in an awkward, hesitant telephone conversation, and finally, in his anonymous, transient hotel room, literally and figuratively in the dark, he asks the room aloud for a sign, but the room remains “still and silent, absent of even the whisper of a passing car.”
It has to be consistently confronted, acknowledged, met.
Maybe this is the most, or only, way to approach this topic through literature—without solutions. Poet Yusef Komunyakaa longs for poems to end with something more interesting and evocative than resolution. Some of the best episodes of 70s sitcoms like All in the Family, Good Times, or early The Jeffersons end at the height of crisis, and do not give the audience a readymade, easily digestible closing. The only closing is death, and even that’s up for grabs (that might not be the end-end). This issue, and more importantly this act, this trend, cannot be folded up and put into a drawer, or boxed up in the attic. It has to be consistently confronted, acknowledged, met.
I seriously doubt there will come a time when no one gets divorced anymore—but why aren’t “regular” break-ups considered just as bad as those of marriages? That answer might lie in the combination of social law, a spiritual power, and procreation, the children, the future!, that is made and maintained within marriage. When that trio is shattered, well, the future of our species, the bonds of our society, and the vast, ancient “higher” force that many believe surrounds us, grounds us, is symbolically cracked. But we can, and do, live with fractures; we can live with scars. The great thing about cut-open hands, broken legs, the embarrassing fall in public, the awkward goodbyes, or any physical, emotional or mental mishap, is that they lead to stories, and some of them are like new monuments to our own crippling failures, destructive urges, our dissatisfaction with the present, our often-insatiable desire for more, or for else, or for other, for the grass on the other side. Couldn’t we let the work of art be the surrogate for our experience? If we have these great stories, we won’t need to have affairs, we’ll take care to fulfill ourselves even as we enter relationships of sacrifice? Like I say, I doubt it. The Iwo Jima Memorial or the Wall at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial hasn’t ended human conflict. But we do need those memorials, and we need these stories, if only to look at the names that hover in the shimmering black surface.
"The language and dialogue in his latest novel, The Whites, gives away his identity -- and that's a good thing.READ the article