Friday, August 12, 2016

Lady Chatterly's Live-In

Laurel Saville, North of Here

Miranda Steward has lost everything. A succession of tragedies kills her brother and father, leaving her mother incapacitated. Unpacking family paperwork reveals her father’s investments were horrifically interlocked; having grown up rich, she discovers it was all paper, and she’s virtually homeless. Thankfully her family handyman, Dix, offers her solace in his Upstate New York cabin. Until a dashing stranger from her past barges in, threatening her recovery.

Laurel Saville’s third book, and second novel, reads like an incomplete draft presented for consideration in an MFA workshop. Were I critiquing this novel, I’d say: details matter. As it stands, this manuscript reads like an outline upon which the author intends to hang humanizing details later. Saville synopsizes massive time spans in one sentence, reveals character traits through narrative rather than action, and basically tells, not shows.

Lemme offer one example. Very early, Miranda visits a Matlock-like hometown attorney to unravel her late father’s finances. Saville writes: “Warren recognized her as someone who immediately, unknowingly, unintentionally, tapped into a man’s protective instinct.” Adjective alert! Since Saville’s description immediately preceding this sentence primarily illustrated Miranda’s looks, I remain unclear what this weird, looping sentence means. It tells us what to think about Miranda, but not much why.

This, sadly, characterizes Saville’s storytelling. Though she offers us tempting glimpses of Miranda’s handyman Dix doing weirdly nice things for abstract reasons, she interrupts this otherwise interesting moment for a lengthy narrative discursion on how he’s a great guy because he’s a great guy. He also, Saville assures us, doesn’t understand how his niceness makes him unusual, or why anybody should care. He’s just unremittingly nice.

Laurel Saville
The result is passive. Our reading is passive, because we don’t see characters do any thing and draw meaningful conclusions; Saville just tells us what those conclusions should be. The characters are also passive. Miranda, despite a college education, bobs helplessly through life, like flotsam. Dix does nice things because he’s a peachy guy. His generosity protects her from life’s frictions. Something always seems imminent, but nothing ever quite happens.

Well, until Darius enters. I think we’re meant to understand Darius’ spiderweb-thin connection to Miranda’s brother offers Miranda a chance to reclaim her former upper-class life. This despite Darius’ messianic back-to-the-land philosophy, whereby this son of upper-class privilege hopes to become artistically poor. He’s nailing a local girl on the side, a loveless affair that bespeaks sex as power struggle. The symbolism is ham-handed and unsubtle.

Darius comes across as some weird spoiled manchild with delusions of simplicity. Where Dix is truly rustic and undemanding despite his education and manifold skills, Darius is a college dropout, cack-handed repairman, and gadabout. Like bad boys everywhere, he has vague charm, but where ideals translate into action, he’s citified, blustering, hopeless. With Dix nearby for comparison, one wonders why Miranda doesn’t simply laugh

Except I’m misreading everything. These characters aren’t humans, they’re ciphers for a mythic exploration of Miranda’s long-postponed transition to adulthood. Dix represents honesty and work. Darius represents permanent adolescence. Even the Adirondack setting isn’t a realized place, it’s a fairytale transition space, like Cockaigne or Tatooine. I’ve praised mythic stories before, friends. But this one is so underwritten, so awaiting humane telling details, that it reads like a bedtime story.

Saville’s structure propounds this. Though I think she aspires to literary standing, her vague, low-friction story doesn’t permit sufficient introspection for this. But her very long chapters and block-like paragraphs are too imposing for pop bestsellers. There’s little sense who Saville wrote this book for. Except, perhaps, herself: I mentioned MFA workshops earlier. My grad school experience suggests student writers often expound their personal adulthood struggles.

In outline, this story has something to recommend it. I could imagine Saville transforming this into an interesting adulthood fable if she peeled away everything unnecessary, indistinct, or vague. A Maxwell Perkins-style editor with aggressive vision might’ve helped. He also might’ve warned Savill to kill amorphous, expendable sentences like this: “she cried so much over the next six months that she felt dessicated, like something left in the desert.”

Roger Ebert once wrote that, if nothing happens in a movie’s first reel, nothing probably will happen. One reel of film runs approximately eleven minutes, or ten percent of a typical feature movie. The equivalent, in a book this size is, if nothing happens by page 35, nothing probably etc. Sadly, in this book, nothing quite happens. Something is always about to happen, or happens off-scene, or happens in flashback. But never quite now.

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