[15 January 2014]
Lee Smith’s Guests on Earth is a book to get lost in. It’s a book that makes readers think, just for a moment, that the year is 1940 and that they are in North Carolina watching Zelda Fitzgerald choreograph a dance, or on a patio in the French Quarter, eating beignets.
The book opens with an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: “The insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.” And while perhaps some of the book blurbs suggest this novel focuses on Zelda Fitzgerald, the time she spent at Highland Hospital in North Carolina, and the mysterious fire at Highland Hospital that killed Zelda and eight other women, the book actually has a much broader scope.
The narrator is Evaline Toussaint, who introduces herself and the book by stating “For years I have intended to write my own impressions of Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald…This is not my story, then, in the sense that Mr. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was not Nick Carraway’s story, either—yet Nick Carraway is the narrator, is he not? Is any story not always the narrator’s story, in the end?” Evaline is very good at telling other people’s stories. Her story also slips in, but perhaps it’s not surprising that Evaline, essentially a musical prodigy, is always the accompanist, never the soloist.
Evaline has her share of the somewhat expected trials and tribulations—she witnesses her mother’s drug use and death and has a disastrous love affair—both of which bring her to Highland Hospital, an exclusive and progressive institution for nervous disorders. Here she meets not only Zelda, but a score of other women (along with a few men) each with their own story. Some of these people are patients (although the staff prefers the term guests), but mental issues are not necessarily reserved for those required to spend time at Highland Hospital.
One guest, Jinx, tells Evaline her story in almost slumber party style with popcorn—a somewhat interesting combination considering Jinx’ history involves being raped at gunpoint by her uncle. Of course, as Evaline notes, Jinx lies about everything, and Evaline considers Jinx’s tale (although not in a judgmental way) simply one version: “Perhaps any life is such: different stories like different strands, each distinct in itself, each true, yet wound together to form one rope, one life.”
Another patient, one of the male guests at the Highland Hospital, talks about his father’s brutality and his own time as a soldier. Early on in the book we briefly meet two young women suffering from eating disorders. Then there is Dixie, a debutante, who, on the surface, seems to have a good life but is still spending time at Highland Hospital. There is no common thread between these patients. Their stories involve fathers, mothers, husbands, children, death, alcohol, and sex. Sometimes just being a little different seems to be enough.
One of the employees at Highland Hospital says this about Zelda’s condition: “But I don’t think she was schizophrenic, not for one bloody moment, pardon my French, I don’t. I think she didn’t fit in, that’s all, and they didn’t know what to do with her… She was too smart, too or-i-gin-al… That’s the case with half of them, the women that come here. They’re too privileged, too smart…”
So the story of Zelda becomes the story of women—rich women, poor women, young women, old women, nervous women, brave women, professional women, mothers, daughters, wives, friends—and what it means to be sane. To go along with this is the hospital itself. With the theatrical productions, art classes, and hikes, it seems, at times, more like a summer camp than an institution. But then there is the top floor of the hospital—where guests are forced into insulin-induced comas and given shock therapy, where the doors are locked and the guests drool and convulse.
Still, to some, Highland Hospital isn’t a hospital at all. At one point, Evaline describes it as her home. For others it is an “intermezzo”—“just a short and removed period of time in their actual lives, an interlude”. Another guest, Amanda, fakes depression to return to the hospital and escape her husband, who she asserts is not only a sex fiend but also crazy. Amanda arrives “prone” via ambulance, but “the minute the emergency crew left, [she] jumped up to hug Dr. Schwartz. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you!’ she cried. ‘I can never thank you enough.’”
Guests on Earth is full of these somewhat eccentric but often very likeable characters, thoughtful storylines, and probing questions. These things, along with the softly elegant language, strong sense of place, and delicately placed research, all combine to make Guests on Earth a memorable book.