Book Review: Tale of Two Short Story Collections, Schutt and Ortese
Schutt’s is an example of the kind of fiction that is being taken seriously in too many quarters in this new century, but that is not nearly good enough.
By Roberta Silman
Years ago at a dinner with Grace Paley (my teacher and friend) and her friend Don Barthelme, the subject of book reviews came up. They didn’t really believe in reviews and thought books should just be announced to the world. As I remember it, Don said something like this: “Tell the readers about the book, maybe quote some sentences, and let the reader decide if he/she wants to read or buy the book.” Then he added, “Writing a book is an arduous enterprise, and writers should be respected even if their work is not to your taste.”
I have never forgotten that evening and have tried to review books I am enthusiastic about. When a book doesn’t appeal to me, I don’t do it; the few times I have given books lukewarm reviews have been because an editor needs a review and I didn’t have the gumption to refuse.
With Pure Hollywood I find myself in a unique position. Christine Schutt is a well-known writer, her books have been runners-up for both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and she is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.
I have never read any of her books, but they are clearly respected, and the blurbs and prepublication reviews of this new book of short stories have been outstanding.
So I approached this collection with great anticipation. But I was sorely disappointed, and the reason I am choosing to share my reaction with Arts Fuse readers is that I think this is an example of the kind of fiction that is being taken seriously in too many quarters in this new century, but that is not nearly good enough.
There is absolutely no one in these stories that I could root for, no heart in this writing, no sense of real commitment to these characters. I grant that some of these people are awful, and not too smart, and more careless than Tom and Daisy Buchanan, but a writer chooses whom to write about, and the really wonderful writers in our American tradition, like Hawthorne and Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, made even their flawed people come alive.
Moreover, the prose, which has been praised to the skies, is not anything more than skillful. Schutt’s sentences have no air or light in them; indeed, this kind of writing is what I call “workshop prose.” It moves from character to character and from the present to the past with ease, but there is nothing striking or particularly imaginative in the language or the plots. These stories are more like exercises: Now let’s write about a suburban woman in a terrible marriage who drinks and ends up in a ditch, or a couple on vacation who aren’t attentive enough to their child and suffer for it, or what about a crazy story about a dumb “wannabe actress” woman with a lot of baggage who ends up marrying a homely comedian forty years her senior. And on and on.
Some of the shorter stories — and some are very short — read more like notes for a story, jottings, with the details still to be filled in. Not every word counts, and I had the sense that sometimes Schutt didn’t really know what to do, thus resorting to some quick tragedy at the end, either a red herring or something so predictable that all I could do was sigh. And hovering above them is the stink of money and class that gives them a contemporary feeling in this era of Trump, but there is no intimacy, no grace or compassion for these characters who seem like parodies of those we knew and loved in Fitzgerald and Cheever and Updike, whom Schutt has clearly read.
To give you an example of what I am talking about, here is a quotation from the long story that gives the book its title when the son of the Jewish comedian who married the very young woman asks after his death, “What did you and my dad ever have in common?” And she answers, “He didn’t really like his kids and neither do I.” This is not literature, this is Borscht Belt kitsch.
And here is another from the story, “The Hedges,” about those careless parents:
Jonathan, on the beach, gouged the sand with a shovel he held like a lance. His father fell asleep. No one saw the little boy walk off, although even Lolly claimed she heard him, and knew he was lost. What crying!
* * *
“But I am,” Lolly said. “We are,” she insisted. She was standing in the buffet line at dinner. Her pert dress had bow-tied string straps and matched the flowers on her sandals. Washed hair, lipstick. Her pale skin was mesmeric and slick under the light of netted globes. Jonathan was not with them. He had been found, bathed, pajamaed: he was asleep. “Lucky us,” Lolly said, and then the Hedges ate in silence.
For some readers this kind of terseness may have a post-modernist feel and be to their taste. For me, it falls far short of the more heart-felt and genuine contemporary fiction we find in the work of Kent Haruf or Alice McDermott or Hosein Amid, among many others.
But publishing is filled with surprises. In the same package as the Schutt was a slender book of prose that has been resurrected from oblivion by New Vessel Press: Neapolitan Chronicles by the little-known Italian writer Anna Maria Ortese (1914-1998). Unlike Schutt’s pastel, forgettable characters, Ortese’s people are all in primary colors, so vivid that they jump off the page. Moreover, it is splendidly translated by two masters of their trade, Ann Goldstein and Jenny McPhee.
Anna Maria Ortese was born in 1914 in a family of six children. When she was nineteen years old her brother, Emanuele Carlo, died while in the Italian Navy during “a maneuver off the island of Martinique.” What mattered was not how it happened but that he was gone. As she put it,
The effect of this news was at first a kind of inferno, but then a strange silence. It’s like an amputation: a part of the soul is gone forever. . . That silence, at least for me, who was always alone . . . lasted several months, and I couldn’t see any way out. Finally, one day—rather, one morning—I suddenly thought that, since I was dying from it, I could at least describe it.
Thus began a writing career that began of necessity, to reference Rilke, first with poems, then stories and essays, the pinnacle of which was Neapolitan Chronicles which was published in 1953 and made Ortese famous.
The book is a mixture of three stories and two essays, the second very long and, really, a memoir of coming back to Naples after the Second World War. By then Naples has been ruined, and its people are desperate, resorting to all kinds of terrible acts just to stay alive. After Ortese portrayed the state of this once proud and important city, she was awarded prizes but also vilified by those she chose to write about: editors and friends she had worked with on the avant garde magazine Sud and other folk she had known and observed, as well. But before that there are three beautifully crafted short stories about family life that reveal Ortese’s unique voice.
Here Ortese shows us the life of Neapolitans who have had what, at the time, were called “reverses.” Who cannot buy a pair of needed eyeglasses for a near-blind child except for the grudging generosity of an aunt, who harbor hopes of a better life than caring for a large family and going from “house and shop, shop and house.” But, in the end, they are disappointed and will continue to live lives of sacrifice and resentment. Stories that would be bleak and depressing, but for the compassion and attention to detail that reveal these figures in all their flaws and virtues. Here is an example of how Ortese works at the end of “The Gold of Forcella,” in which crowds of people mingle in what seems a huge pawnshop, revealing characteristics and circumstances that are beyond description, yet able to experience a moment of grace in the midst of misery:
[While] stares of deep hatred were aimed at the bank windows and at the ceiling, where all could see the local authorities and the government promenading among the spider webs, . . .
All of a sudden, there was a great silence, then a murmur of astonishment, of childish surprise, ran through the three lines waiting in front of the New Pledges windows.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked the clerk, peering out his window, but no one paid any attention. Somehow or other, a brown butterfly with a profusion of tiny gold stripes on its wings and back had entered through the door leading to the stairs and was flying over that melee of heads, hunched shoulders, and anxious stares: now it fluttered . . .rose up …dove down…happy…careless, never making up its mind to land in one place.
“Oh!…Oh!…Oh!…” murmured the crowd.
….There, look at the garden!” a woman said to her newborn, who was crying softly, his head on her shoulder. Near the door an old crippled woman, her mouth full of bread, was singing.
The next tale, “The Involuntary City,” looks at two buildings that housed the homeless and displaced after the war; it contains a creepy and soul shuddering description of people jammed together in utter anguish, rivaled only by Charles Dickens’ portrayal of Marshalsea Prison in Little Dorrit.
But the most famous part of Neapolitan Chronicles is the story/memoir in six parts which Ortese calls “The Silence of Reason.” In it, she revisits old friends and lovers and acquaintances, unmasking them as she engages them in hard conversations about the past, about their failed aspirations, and their inability to function in their now unrecognizable yet still beloved city. She also visits old places and concludes that enigmatic, once beautiful Naples has been reduced to a shard of itself after the atrocities of war, just as its once vibrant people have been reduced to shadows of themselves. “Everything here smelled of death, everything was profoundly decayed and dead, and fear, only fear, accompanied the crowds from Posillipo to Chiaia.”
Ortese did not endear herself to Neapolitans with “The Silence of Reason” when was published or when it achieved a measure of fame. She no longer felt welcome there and, except for one short trip back, she did not return to Naples. She also seemed blocked after its publication and spent the rest of her life — she lived until 1998 — at odd jobs, writing or copy editing and living in other cities in Italy. Perhaps she had said all she had to say. It is reported that she is the one who inspired Elena Ferrante (whoever she is) to write her books about Naples. Thus this book will be of interest to Ferrante fans. But Ortese is worth reading for herself. Her mixture of the surreal and the real in all of this work is original and compelling. An example of prose that has lasted and will continue to do so.
Roberta Silman is the author of three novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows, is available on Amazon. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at email@example.com.