From my 2012 MFA work. Responses are more focused on craft, less review.
Response to The Book of Ruth by Jane Hamilton, Night by Edna O’Brien, and Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro.
My initial focus this year, in reading novels for analysis and response, is to focus on writers with a woman’s point of view (POV). My hope is to gain additional insight into an authentic female POV and to a large extent I will ignore techniques and insights that I have explored in some depth last year—although I will touch on these techniques in passing.
Hamilton’s first novel is certainly from a female POV. It uses the first person, which makes it feel fairly personal and the language used is very conversational, as if she is talking to you directly: “I didn’t think about what I was saying. He made my dinner thrash around inside of me. I couldn’t stand the sight of him gripping his change purse, but after I spoke like a snide prom queen my knees went shaky and I felt a little sorry. (100)” This illustrates the voice fairly well, but it also illustrates something that is a component of many female POVs—the ability to feel guilty and sorry about some small thing and feel sorry for a guy who is hitting on you, even if you are disgusted by him. Indeed, the ability to love and empathize with a man who is fatally flawed is a big part of the book.
One technique, which has its dangers, is to slowly build for an entire book to one scene. The climax scene, where everything changes and where the reader is hit very—brutally—hard does not take place until page 293. This scene is too long to quote in its entirety, but part of what makes it stand out is that it is so powerful compared to the rest of the book. It becomes deeply intimate, versus conversational. The narrator shifts rapidly in a chaotic scene:
I swear that when I looked into Ruby’s eyes they were the yellow of a sky right before a fierce summer storm. He looked at me without seeing my face. He saw absolutely nothing but the blazing fire in his own mind. Perhaps I have it wrong and in Ruby’s eyes there was only the reflection of my blind stare. We clawed him; we clawed and snarled until Ruby grabbed the broom, the broom that was May’s dancing partner sometimes. I had always thought of it as a friendly object. He started to whack me with the handle. […] After a few clumsy strokes I could see him looking around for something better. He stuck the handle at my neck to pin me to the wall, and while he was still holding on he grabbed the poker from the fireplace. It’s short and thin and comes to a sharp point. Then he tossed the broom aside and came at me fresh. The power in that old poker was marvelous. I wondered in slow motion how a skull could tolerate the blows. Was my poor head going to topple off my shoulders and go spinning down the hall to the kitchen, look for some dog food? Ruby pushed me to the sofa and beat at my fingers and wrists as if he’d been wielding a stick all his life – I leaned down, over my lap, to hide and he struck the back of my neck and my shoulders. He jabbed at my ear, tried to spear straight through the brains. (293)
This goes on for another five pages, getting more chaotic, more violent, with of course a death—the fatal flaw mentioned earlier is indeed fatal. I chose this partial paragraph, it is a long paragraph—something I generally avoid, but Hamilton uses a lot of –because it bridges the scene from beginning chaos to overwhelming destruction where the protagonist cannot escape nor even think coherently, focusing on strange things or little things. This technique, I believe, could translate to some of my writing for my current work, where the protagonist drifts from partially drunk to fully drunk, or in some of the scenes where she will be in a bad situation with gang violence. It is, as I mentioned earlier, the contrast to most of the book that makes this scene so shocking, so powerful. I would not use this long a contrast (293 pages) as I tend to prefer a book that moves forward faster, but the technique is worthy of exploration.
The contrasting of vagueness to detail works in many ways. One way Hamilton uses it is when she wants the reader to feel that an event was important and well remembered by the narrator. She takes us from a vague summer and the problems of raising a kid with a slightly wacko husband and low income, to a slightly more specific July, to “On July 18th Ruby started across the street, and all of a sudden he had to stop in mid-step to look at the texture of the road. The small asphalt bumps looked like California foothills, and of course the pickup truck didn’t expect him to stop. It rammed into his leg and knocked him over. (244-245)” Ruth is not present at the scene, yet it is her POV. We feel it is accurate due to the specificity and from earlier projections of empathy, of understanding her crazy husband. But, what makes this a bit more feminine is that she reproaches herself for her own reaction, similar to my analysis of the first quote. Ruth continues with, “I stood in the door weeping when the driver delivered Ruby, complete with his freshly mangled leg. I have to tell the truth: I cried not for Ruby, but because I knew our vacation was out of the question. (245)” The reaction is normal, but the addition of “I have to tell the truth” shows us that she feels guilty about it.
This guilt and empathy carries through to the last pages and the correct analysis that although Ruby was the executor of the fatal flaw that she (Ruth) and her mother were fatally flawed too and that she is still linked to him. We are horrified by what Ruby has done, but we understand the relationship. She is at her aunt’s house, healing, “I had to say his name over and over. The jewel. Ruby. My Ruby. I saw us playing jungle kitten and jungle tom; I saw him flipping a pancake so exuberantly, and then I saw his whole body turning black, limb by limb, in the dank prison cell. Only his eyes were blue, staring at me. (322)” This has a bit of extra power due to the reference of the eyes. Notice too how the language has become more passive than the brutal scene, the “saw” versus “see” the immediacy is gone again. The entire book is a reflection, from this last scene, and only the brutal scene is immediate in its language.
Ultimately, with my goals in mind, I am not sure that this was powerfully a woman’s POV. I did not go into detail how there was a special warped mother-daughter relationship as while the relationship explored is probably only mother daughter, the POV and techniques were not necessarily so. With Hamilton, if there is a unique woman’s POV and voice to this book it is subtle. nn
With O’Brien, the first thing worth mentioning is the first sentence. We, my business partner and I at New Libri Press, are a bit into first sentences. One book that we edited, we spent a day discussing the first sentence for an author’s book. O’Brien’s first sentence is plain fun and grabs you, “One fine day in the middle of the night, two dead men got up to fight, two blindmen looking on, two cripples running for a priest, and two dummies shouting, Hurry on. (3)” While not within my focus on women’s POV, this first sentence had to be quoted.
Edna O’Brien was recommended as an author having a great woman’s voice—by several at a dinner table with Judith Kitchen. The caveat upon reading the book is that it has a certain Ginsberg poetic rhythm to the language, which hardly makes this a fast read, “I have had unions, tête-à-têtes, ripping times, gay collisions. All sickeningly predictable, like a do-re-mi-fa. Simply did the start up the perturbations, the springtime spawn, the yea-ney, the boogie-woogie. Ruls, more blasted birth or more blasted arrested birth. (5)”
The technique of this beat poetry is actually multi-layered. The woman is tossing and turning in bed, not quite dreaming, but the rhythm could be said to mimic the tosses and turns and she thinks to herself. Returning to the POV and voice of a woman. This is a mature woman. She may be lusty and may want love, but she is mature. She speaks of her mother, “Of course she did not die without a long illness, mothers never do. (15)” She goes on to discuss her nursing of her mother, grudgingly and with pangs. This mature woman does not think back on her loves, lovers, bedfellows with much romanticism, “I’ve had my share, even lumberman from Scandia with a very radical thrust. A motley crew, all shades, dimensions, breeds, ilks, national characteristics, inflammatingness, and penetratingness. Some randy, many conventional, one decrepit. (23)” The insight here is that mature woman, even one craving love, do not have to have romantic thoughts of their past. She remembers threesomes and here, I think, we see some of the uniqueness of the feminine POV. She drifts quickly from her thinking of the man to how the woman—who was part of the threesome—was “prancing about like an old lioness” and the other woman “Comes, half comes, quarter comes, struggles at comes… (24)” A man’s POV might have focused more on the opposite sex, while woman is focusing a bit more on the competition. She focuses on another threesome immediately afterward and that too has a rather strong bend toward examining the other woman, her personality, how she interacts with her husband. How at the end of the tryst the other woman does not want the husband to see her out the door, to “get my own fucking taxi. (27)”
Night receives a recommendation from John Updike on the back. This is not surprising as the prose has a certain similarity to his. I read Seek My Face last winter and he uses a single interview with a reporter to have a woman reminisce about her entire life, in much the same manner as O’Brien is using one sleepless night. These techniques are fine for reminiscing books, looking backward, but unfortunately are not the style I generally use for my own writing. I like to move forward, to unfold a story, not scattergun the story through a backward looking glass.
The threesomes never seem to end and the similarity in observation tends to echo the previous one, including theme of focusing on the other woman. “I was curbing my jealousy. Her legs were tight, thighs sealed, her very modesty a summonizing more welcome than welcome. (51)” The Ginsberg and Kerouac influence continues also. The paragraph from which the above sentence is quoted goes on for three and a half pages. This is not popular fiction!
The rhythm and repetition of the book, mimicking a poem, also never ends. We end on the last pages with “Oh, star of morning. Oh, Connemara; Oh, sweet mauve, forgotten hills, stay with, bide. (115)” and the last paragraph, two pages later, “Oh, star of morning, oh, slippery path, oh, guardian angel of vagrants, givvus eyes, lend us a hand, let’s kip down on some shore, let’s live a little before the awful all-embracing dark enfolds … (117)”
The poetic technique is something I cannot replicate and while I can appreciate its art, I feel it adds another layer to the story and POV that feels slightly artificial.
My trio of female authors ends with Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, a collection of short stories. Munro’s writing is certainly excellent, but she does focus on short stories and her POV tends to be omniscient, or distant and her voice is succinct and unsentimental. Additionally, most of her stories are rather old fashioned, for want of a better term. This made it harder to cherry pick interesting techniques to utilize in my own current work, but nonetheless there is always some kernel with a good writer.
In the title story of the book the main character Johanna is very self-aware of her looks and it is this self-awareness and accepting nature of her own plainness that take up the beginning of the story, “’The suit feels fine,’ Johanna said. ‘There’s nothing the matter with the suit.’ The woman’s face changed in the mirror. She stopped smiling. She looked disappointed and tired, but kinder. (21)” The mirror is an technique here, taking up several pages. Generally, mirrors are cliché, so they should be used with caution, but since we have a distant omniscient view already, we don’t need the mirror to see Johanna, thus we know the mirror is being used for other things. The avoidance of saying things directly, but reflections of what the two women might want to say to each other. This avoidance of anything directly is mirrored (pardon the pun) in that the clues we have up to that point soon become clear, she is heading out west to get (possibly) married, but doesn’t really know the man she is going to marry.
The twists come with the multiple POVs –or is it omniscient, it is not clear as sometimes the POV shifts from paragraph to paragraph, which can be distracting. Regardless, Munro is using a plot technique—allowing the reader to think one thing, from one major POV and then turning what we know on its side with another POV. There is a certain pattern to the POV shift that is interesting, very camera like. As one character moves through a scene and encounters another, the POV baton is often passed to the new character. This can be distracting when it is two characters only in the scene and the baton gets passed back and forth repeatedly.
The insights into feminine voice and POV from Hateship remain fairly consistent with O’Brien’s and Hamilton’s work—even though the women in this story are younger and coming of age. There is a constant reminder of competition between the women. The cruelty of one woman to another is almost always psychological. Even your friend is competition, “when she leaned over to pick up her glass of iced coffee, which was on the floor, she displayed a smooth, glowing cleavage. Breasts. They must have started growing before she went away, but Edith had not noticed. Maybe they were just something you woke up with one morning. Or did not. However they came, they seemed to indicate a completely unearned and unfair advantage. (70)”
One final note on Hateship, is the technique of using letters, correspondence. This is hardly a new technique, not even the use of substituting one letter for another, but it is certainly key in this story, indeed it is the plot technique that makes this story work, the characters themselves are too quickly sketched—as often happens in a short story. The ending feels like where the story idea came from, Edith, one of the girls who had been substituting letters, is translating Latin, “Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi—(103)” which means, roughly it is not for you to ask what the gods have in store for you (or fate). This is, of course, the point of the story. For a short story this can be a great technique, an idea, a punch line, and a story that revolves around it. With this story it is a bit heavy handed and blatant, but the technique can work with a novel also.
I don’t delve into the other short stories in this collection, in the interest of time. I would say that this collection has The Bear Came Over the Mountain, which was made into a film (Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage is also being made into a film). Bear is from a man’s point of view and explores love from the end of life and is worth reading.
Like most humans, I look for patterns, often finding them where they do not exist. The pattern I see between all three authors, from different parts of the world and with different writing styles, is that when giving voice to a female character and her POV, these authors all look toward other women as competition, threats, even when they are a friend. This jibes well with recent studies and research I have perused, the research focusing on evolutionary reasons for this and the long term effects of the psychological scars that young women inflict on each other.
Hamilton, Jane. The Book of Ruth. New York. Doubleday. 1990. Print.
Munro, Alice. Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. New York. Vintage Books. 2002. Ebook (epub format).
O’Brien, Edna. Night. New York. Farrar Straus Giroux. 1987. Print.