Monday, July 8, 2013

From the Coldest Reaches of the Heart

Howard Norman, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place

Howard Norman knew he wanted to write early, but didn’t actually enter the business until fairly late. On the road to becoming his mature self, he suffered several important setbacks that laid the foundation of his later work. Now he recounts these stories in five short essays, ranging from Michigan to Vermont to northern Manitoba. But he does so in a way that frustratingly keeps readers at arm’s length.

Five times, Norman sets a good stage. In his first essay, he begins the transition to manhood, linking a strange sexual initiation with the first time he confronted his deadbeat dad. Later, he writes about the struggle a white Jewish folklorist encountered trying to transcribe the Inuit myths that would populate his earliest novels. His final essays address his attempts to create an artistic life in today’s fragmented world.

Yes, five times Norman sets a good stage. Then five times, he stumbles around it, desperately trying to find a through-line. With each essay, Norman starts off strong, and I feel a swelling heart, like I have something profound to look forward to. Most readers will agree that Norman is a good writer, with an eye for apropos detail. But he inevitably loses that initial momentum, vanishing in the haze of his own highly constructed memoir.

This isn’t helped by Norman’s overwhelming awareness of himself as an artist. In the first three essays, he repeatedly correlates, say, young Paris Keller’s lack of sexual compunctions, or an Inuit shaman’s increasingly aggressive curses, with his fumbling writing apprenticeship. His final two essays, set after his writing career began, name-drop confidences shared with David Mamet and Rita Dove, interviews with NPR, and his wife, poet Jane Shore.

Norman intersperses what could have been tight, muscular essays with sudden philosophic diversions, allusions to psychoanalysis and literary theory, and non sequitur quotes from Auden or Keats. He saps the energy from his prose, leaving us narratives that unfold with a complete lack of haste. I can’t discount the possibility that somebody prefers this languid pace, but I wonder: who?

I see similar artistic fingerprints when Norman tells his story nonsequentially. Events that happen successively get told pages apart; effect precedes cause. Sometimes he declares the payoff before telling the actual story, as when he announces that the woman he loves will die before recounting the affair. This gives Norman leeway to intrude his ruminations, but I kept thinking: Joseph Conrad did it better a century ago in Nostromo.

Throughout, Norman keeps using distancing language to hold the story at arm’s length, as though he doesn’t want to invest too deeply. His first essay culminates in a confrontation with his father—and then stops. No context, no fallout, nothing. Surely publically challenging his father created ripples beyond one conversation. I’m left to wonder whether this really happened, or if this confrontation represents the way Norman wished the story played out.

Likewise, in the final essay, about when a poet housesitting his DC address killed her son, then herself, Norman keeps referring to the poet as Reetika Vazirani, always like that, full name. Never by her first name or her surname, always the full name, like he’s talking about a figure in the news. He shows greater intimacy with a nature photographer whose friendship lasted a week, over a decade ago.

These and other examples show Norman not permitting himself to feel deeply about his narratives. While I don’t doubt these events actually happened (at least in their core), he describes them in a tone only slightly less dispassionate than a police report. This feels especially disappointing in light of his solid, engaging premises. He seemingly wants to explore the underbelly of his experience, but doesn’t want to join us there.

Such willful dissociation and conscious artistry remind me, time and again, that Norman stands between his audience and his narrative. Unlike, say, Anaïs Nin or Frank McCourt, Norman does not invite me to participate in his experiences. Rather, he invites me to marvel at him, the author; he, not his story, matters. Maintaining that gulf makes sense if Norman is writing primarily for the tenure committee.

The end product isn’t bad, as such. It’s just cold. Norman purports to revisit the crucibles that forged the most formative moments in his life, then once we’re in, he turns down the fire. It’s frustrating, because I keep feeling like we’re getting close to something important, something true and unique to him, then with the reckoning upon us, Norman inevitably flinches.

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