On Passing Literary Muster

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout has concocted in this book a series of thirteen short stories, eponymously connected to the title character. Let me begin by giving you something akin to the one page synopsis that agents and publishers ask from aspiring writers:
Elizabeth enters from Crosby, Maine-first and foremost, as it turns out, as the wife of Henry Kitteridge, a pharmacist. But she’s also a schoolteacher, or ex-schoolteacher, depending on your place in the story. Next in the Olive pantheon is her son, Christopher, a classic underachiever, who has fumbled his way through life successfully enough to become a podiatrist.
Olive is the stern, stoic sort one would invent as a Maine schoolteacher, but her irascibility hardly fits the mold of New England stereotypes. Mostly, however, she bites her tongue regarding the things that bother her: Henry’s all-too-forgiving nature with others, Chris’ laissez-faire attitude toward life. She grinds her molars at most everyone else, too, but we wouldn’t know it if it weren’t for Strout’s superbly constructed narrative, which lets us know what’s a-boil within Olive, the venomous frustration she randomly unleashes on those around her.
At the root of it, Olive is, of course, a deeply insecure person, which Strout masterfully charts, perhaps best depicted by her dismay as Chris klutzes his way through a first marriage and into another one that seems to work. It betrays nothing here to reveal that Henry dies, while Olive attempts to keep a brave face. If the reader doesn’t get Olive by then, he/she will when Olive submits near book’s end to a seventy-something , oh-so-cautious semi-romance with Jack Kennison, whose wife has also recently died. But as Olive steps cautiously with Jack from a dinner date to a few light meetings of the lips, she’s appalled to discover he’s a Republican, and dismayed that his daughter is a lesbian.
Okay, I think I detect a few perplexed looks out there in my readership, even a frown or two. I know, I know, this seems like family life in Everytown, USA. Perhaps Everytown, Earth. Common people doing common things: Projecting their failed aspirations onto their children, even their friends. Coping with a family death or two. And having affairs, the storyline chestnut popular since Grace Medalious’ Peyton Place, which took place, by the way, just down the road in New Hampshire.
Such banality is and has always been the stuff of modern day writers such as John Cheever, John Updike, Philip Roth, and Wallace Stegner. And Strout has the writerly chops necessary to make her anemic people and their lives glow entertainingly. She’s tweaking noses here, the noses of characters with little self-awareness, as they’re born, live, die. Her depictions of these folk are as capably handled as I’ve seen in print. Her prose is impeccable, her voice in this string of thirteen stories consistently forged. She’ll no doubt expand her audience with this book – she would have, I think, even without the prestigious Pulitzer – and her writing skills are as deserving as those of the above-mentioned literary lineup.
But something troubles me here:
Taking on such unimposing people and taking them through their ordinary paces seems all too easy somehow. Not to mention a trifle elitist. Yes, Strout manages her characters’ lives with a balance of sympathies: humor and pathos. But is her superbly capable treatment of such lives worth the effort of a novel?
Her audience will grow, because her audience surely reads largely for escape; insecurities and the petty life conditions that spawn such insecurities demand it. The US of A is full of people such as Olive and her fellow travelers. These people will read Strout’s book, will chuckle smugly in the certain knowledge that the author isn’t writing about them. Strout knows this, of course, knows these people will look into her mirror and fail to see themselves, which makes the latent snobbery here even more delicious.
But why not do more: force them to see? Why not construct extra-ordinary situations that will demand that these characters wake up, see their foibles, and begin the slow, agonizing process of correcting their flaws? Isn’t this what literature is supposed to be about, particularly humor, however subtle?
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t begrudge Strout her growing fame, her ability as a writer, nor the Pulitzer. As a writer, I’ve learned tons from her technique. But I can’t help but wonder what she might have made of bolder circumstances for her characters, of trying to tweak her readers’ noses a bit instead of those of her characters.
As I said, creating Olive Kitteridge seems all too easy somehow. It’s a gifted author playing it safe. And for a person of her obvious skills, this book seems to have a weak handle on the emotional integrity readers have a right to demand from writers if said writers are to pass literary muster.
My rating: 3 stars out of 5

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2 thoughts on “On Passing Literary Muster

  1. Hi, Bob,Oh, good, I finally get to disagree with you! 🙂 I think your questioning the aim of literature — awakening us — is dead on, but I am not sure people dont see themselves in Olive. In fact, if anything, the danger may be in this novel that there is in most banal reality shows today, the way that banal lives are uplifted to celebrity or bestseller status, not because they are tragic heroes but because they simply do stuff. Daily stuff. I think the same problem America has with its stars and is politicians could be said for its literary heroes: they must be just like us. Common. (Take that in every sense of that word.) So I would argue that most readers see themselves in this mirror and might even mistakenly find Olive–and themselves–heroic. Theres the mistake. But the portraiture? I think its laudable. I think writers must paint the mundane landscapes, the banal tragedies, the daily mistakes. I dont think Macbeth or Lady Macbeth is in many of us and so, where is the art of the Creator (or the Devil) for us to see? Can we only look at Presidents and thanes, or, ordinary people in horrible circumstances? Is the only story from great upheaval, or is it from the day-to-day trudging through life when a spouse dies? I found the ending of Olive Kitteredge truly moving, perhaps because I saw myself there one day in her shoes and wondered what kind of a show Id make of myself on my paltry little stage. The danger is when I think Olive a heroine for what she does. Nobodys better, in my mind, and Lady Macbeth doesnt get gold stars for being so obsessively desirous of the crown and Duncans blood. I dont think youre saying some characters are better than others…but perhaps, some plot situations are more meaningful?Lyn

  2. And a fine job you did of disagreeing, Lyn! Im with you on the issue of the dignity of common folk. Thats my heritage, thats the multifold characters I have still to write about, the type of people I find relevance in.My issue isnt in what Olive might have been or done, or even what readers imagine her to be after reading this book. Its in the way the author depicted her. Literature has two ways of allowing us to see the depths of the human condition – its collective soul, if you will. An author can depict a character in depth, plumbing his or her personal conflicts, to show WHY the character might have acted a certain way – say following the death of a spouse. For instance, James Joyce did a fine job of this in both Dubliners and in Ulysses.Or some authors give us a skimming look at many characters in a panoramic way that gives us an idea of what makes a culture in a given era tick. Such as Tolstoy did in War and Peace, or as Pynchon did in Gravitys Rainbow.I dont think Strout did either. I think she picked a situation so common to all of us – aging and the death of a spouse – that the mere mention of it pushes our buttons. This is merely living and dying, with little to understand its poignance, except to say that a given character went through it. Thats why I said the plot (if you can say this book had one) and its protagonist were too easy. Strouts gift is in saying in a very eloquent way that we live and die, and that such things are poignant, without giving us a real window into why, encapsulated in a character.So no, I think plots and characters are both meaningful. One can be weak if the other is strong, but both cant be superficial if the writing is to be considered literature.

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