Alice McDermott has been called “the Alice Munro of novels”. In other words, McDermott writes as fearlessly and probingly as Munro but, unlike Munro, McDermott prefers the novel form to the short story. And what riches she has produced! Child of My Heart, That Night, After This — each invites a re-reading, and a re-re-reading.
Early in life, McDermott was in a class that required her to submit a short autobiographical piece. She got carried away, and invented a story that wasn’t quite true. But it was gripping. It had “the spark of life”. Her professor held her after class and said, “I’ve got bad news for you. You’re a writer.”
The rest is history. My favorite moment from that history is the publication of Charming Billy, a book I revisit fairly often. Charming Billy was up for a National Book Award against Tom Wolfe’s heavily-favored Man in Full — a novel that was featured on the cover of Time Magazine. When McDermott won, everyone asked, “Who’s that?”
An acquaintance had words for McDermott. He said, “This may not be your best book. But it’s about a man, and it has a man’s name in the title. And that’s why this particular book, or all your books, took home the National Book Award.”
Who knows if this assessment is accurate? Who cares? What’s worth noting is that Charming Billy kicks ass. It creates, via words, a 3-D community that seems more real than the world we actually live in. It’s full of mystery. It seems to come from a source that’s not entirely human, as if McDermott had some kind of link to the divine. It’s likely she would roll her eyes at that last sentence.
Anyway, memories of Charming Billy stuck in McDermott’s craw. She wanted to be contrarian. She wanted to write a game-changing novel that was emphatically not about a man, or even about an unusual person. So, eventually, she set out to write Someone, an account of the life of one utterly normal woman from McDermott’s mother’s generation.
Marie, McDermott’s protagonist, grows up in Brooklyn. She fights with her mother about soda bread. (“If I learn how to make it, people will expect me to make it for the rest of my life.”) She observes as a neighboring lady copes with the revelation that her new husband is actually a woman in drag. Years pass. Attitudes toward sex and propriety change. Marie’s brother, Gabe, who may or may not be homosexual, loses his priestly calling. Marie marries. Children are born. Neighborhoods deteriorate. Life proceeds in ways that are consistently both surprising and inevitable.
As Marie narrates, she’s looking back on decades of minor crises and shocks. She’s in a nursing home. Her mind jumps around, so an account of one day in childhood is preceded by a story about the indignities of old age. This is, indeed, how people attempt to make sense of their lives.
As I reflect on Someone, I’m reminded of a question that regularly confronts people in my profession, teaching. We’re often trying to put a label on a unique constellation of qualities that belong to a student. Is there an “attention deficit”? Does the child have “learning differences”? Is there a need for greater emotional support? This endeavor often seems slightly farcical to me, because we’re using past models to try to explain something that has never existed in the world before; namely, the phenomenon that is the child in front of us. No one can be reduced to a label. No one’s “essence” can be captured in just a few words.
Susan Sontag once argued that “a statement about a thing is different from the thing itself.” In other words, labels are, by definition, reductive. It’s the artist’s job to “reduce” as little as possible, and to capture, as scrupulously as possible, the complexity and weirdness of life.
McDermott works hard at this. She never tells us if Gabe is, in fact, gay. And is he suicidal? Did he ever really have a divine “calling”? Is his close male friend a lover, or something else We are left to speculate, just as, in life, we are often forced to speculate about other people. (Tolstoy enjoyed pointing this out. In War and Peace, he sometimes wondered aloud about his characters’ motives, as if he himself weren’t fully in control.)
I hope I’ve made a strong case, here, for reading Someone. It’s clear to me that I’m in awe of the book, and that I’ll go back to it a fourth and fifth time.
Also, it’s worth mentioning that Someone may evoke memories of another recent masterpiece: Alice Munro’s story, “To Japan”. In that story, a little girl lives through an impressive amount of trouble in one confusing train ride, and then gets off the train to see “whatever has to happen next.” And that’s the kind of adventurous spirit that animates McDermott’s writing. What a world we live in. And who the hell knows, or could even begin to imagine, what might happen next?