Monday 28 September 2009

Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge: 'Muscle' and 'Felicity' Enough

One of the features of this blog is discussion of works of fiction that are psychologically significant, that is, that enhance readers’ social understanding and self understanding, and exercise our perspective-taking capacity. Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, this Spring’s winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, does all of this and more – and impressively. Strout presents thirteen stories from the perspectives of the inhabitants of the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. The careful individualization of the personalities, juxtaposed and re-juxtaposed, across the stories is a nice work-out in perspective-taking. This arrangement allows the reader to empathize to different degrees not only with different characters, but also with the same character in either a close-up or a background role. Flashes forward and back from one character’s perspective have a similar effect. These stories are burgeoning with individual epiphanies, and each one is presented with an insistent adherence to the truth of emotional experience, which is not necessarily consonant with our beliefs about what emotional experience is like or about.

The title character, Olive Kitteridge, is a retired teacher of math, considered disagreeable and controlling by some and clung to as a raft of hope by others. She is married to a very kind and socially aware, but rather reticent, pharmacist, Henry, with whom she has a son, Christopher. And she has been known to ease her way through a delicate moment in a pivotal conversation with an intimate by inquiring, “What in hell ails you?”. Olive is the person in the stories about whom we learn the most, and whom we see most learning about herself. But there’s also the musically gifted Angela O’Meara, never able to act on the offer of a scholarship to music school because her mother couldn’t let her go. There’s the beautiful young woman with anorexia, admired and reflected upon by the middle-aged Harmon, who is ready for a change in his life. There’s Marlene, whose husband has just died, who has learned something she didn’t know about him while he was alive. There’s suffering and more suffering and sketches of emotion in its raw state, before it is construed, interpreted, pitched, or spun.

During the break at a church concert, for example, two retired couples are talking and Jane Houlton learns that her husband had gone to Miami on one occasion without telling her. After the concert, she and her husband are talking:
In the car, in the darkness and the silence of the car, she felt some knowledge pass between them. And it had been sitting there in church with them, too, like a child pressed between them in the pew, this thing, this presence that had made its way into their evening.
She said, quietly, “Oh, God.”
“What, Janie?”
She shook her head, and he did not ask again.
A traffic light up ahead turned yellow. He slowed down, drove slowly; he stopped.
Jane blurted out: “I hate her.”
“Who?” His tone was surprised. “Olive Kitteridge?”
“Of course not Olive Kitteridge. Why would I hate her? Donna Granger. I hate her. There’s something creepy about her. Smug. Your bunny rabbits [she had said]. I hate her.” Jane actually stamped a foot against the floor of the car.
(pp. 134-135).
The emotion arises from her still subconscious suspicion concerning the purpose of her husband’s trip to Miami. That is the “knowledge” at the emotion’s inception, which Jane experiences first as a living, breathing human being, but one who is immature, and insistent in its need to be attended to, as a child. In its transformation from “knowledge” to feeling, the experience becomes a “thing,” and a “presence.” Then anger erupts. She aims the initial surge of feeling at the messenger who had informed her, in mixed company and in passing, of her husband's whereabouts. “In the silence that followed, Jane’s anger grew; it became immense, swelling like water around them, as if they had suddenly driven over a bridge and into a pond below – stagnant, cold stuff filled up around them.” (p. 135). Only later, through confusion, then anguish, will Jane arrive at pity… for her husband. Strout’s depictions of the course of an emotion and the transformations from one emotion to another, are masterful.

Some schools of creative writing would have one talk all around an emotion, but never name it. Strout is not afraid to name an emotion, or to allow the inchoate texture of the emotion to suffuse the moment before doing so. She is also extremely good at portraying emotions about emotions. Shades of schadenfreude feature in several of these stories, and it is in her handling of this multi-faceted emotion that Strout’s skill shines. When Olive, whose life has recently taken some very difficult turns, attends the wake of the town’s grocer, she is sitting and half-listening to the conversations, and gazing at Marlene, the grocer's widow.
And Olive, watching all this, feels – what? Jealousy? No, you don’t feel jealous of a woman whose husband has been lost. But an unreachability, that’s how she’d put it. This plump, kind-natured woman sitting on the couch surrounded by children, her cousin, friends – she is unreachable to Olive. Olive is aware of the disappointment this brings. Because why, after all, did she come here today? Not just because Henry would have said to go to Ed Bonney’s funeral. No, she came here hoping that in the presence of someone else’s sorrow, a tiny crack of light would somehow come through her own dark encasement. (pp. 171-172).
What we find again and again in these stories is an unrelenting honesty about emotions: what they look like in others, what they look like in ourselves. Alain De Botton, in his engaging book How Proust Can Change Your Life, quotes Proust in the chapter entitled “How to Express Your Emotions,” which is also very much about how to really feel one’s emotions in the first place: “Our vanity, our passions, our spirit of imitation, our abstract intelligence, our habits have long been at work, and it is the task of art to undo this work of theirs, making us travel back in the direction from which we have come to the depths where what has really existed lies unknown within us” (p. 103). Elizabeth Strout’s take on the civilizing forces on emotions and the real discontent that ensues is resonant of Proust. In an interview with Tom Ashbrook, host of NPR’s “On Point,” Strout expressed herself quite passionately on this question, and I conclude here with her words:
I think that from a very young age, we are taught to use language in a distorted way, and therefore our feelings are distorted. For example, if a little child says, in anger or frustration, “I hate my brother!” then of course the mother says, “You do not hate your brother.” And I’m not saying that she shouldn’t be admonishing the child. We are trying to live in a civilized way. But what I am saying is that this happens again and again, for years and years and years, until our feelings that we have expressed at a young age in their most primitive form, they have been retaught...and I think what happens is that we end up not really knowing what we feel sometimes, and not really knowing our emotions, and therefore not being able to be fully compassionate to somebody else, because if we don’t know what we’re feeling, then we’re going to have trouble knowing what somebody else is feeling. So I really do think that we go to fiction or poetry or literature to find that sentence that’s either muscular enough or felicitous enough to return us to the truthfulness and clarity of what we did once know about human emotions in ourselves and then in other people.


Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much, Rebecca ... I did not know about Elizabeth Strout. I'll go and buy her book right away.

Rebecca Wells Jopling said...

I think you'll like it, Keith. It's easily one of the finest works of fiction I've read in the past ten years. Enjoy!

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