It is a cliche universally acknowledged that women's fiction, both by them and for them, is about one of two things - romantic love and families. More than occasionally it is about both things at once. This is one of those bogus truisms that simply refuses die, up there on a par with the idea that all women love shoes. On the one hand it is undeniable: walk up to the 3 for 2's in Waterstones and read the backs of 10 books marketed at women. See? On the other it is clearly ridiculous: turn left into genre fiction and read the blurbs of 10 SF or crime novels, by women and bought by them in their thousands, and the story is entirely different. The cliche is both alive and dead at the same time, which makes it all the more frustrating to counteract.
I admire the neatness of Lauren Groff's solution to the problem (because it is a problem) in her debut novel, The Monsters of Templeton. If you can't beat the cliche, then you may as well jump on in and leave your footprints all over it, writing a novel about romance, adultery and the cracks in family life in as weird and offbeat a manner as possible. If you do it well, like Groff patently has, then maybe, just maybe, both Stephen King and Laurie Moore will give you praise quotes for the cover and you will know that you've passed out the right side of innovation.
Willhemina Sunshine Upton, the only daughter of a former hippy (hence the 'Sunshine'), is 'bright as all get out' , writing a PhD at Stamford on the earliest humanoid migration into Alaska. The first woman to win a place in the front-line of her specialism, she is chosen to accompany her supervisor, Primus Dwyer, to the primary dig site. It is the first step on the way to a vaunted academic career. That is, until Dwyer fondles her knee on the plane and she makes the worst decision of her life:
I had two choices then. One: I could have very politely placed his hand on the armrest between us, and continued my sentence, and we would have had a very nice trip together, and I would become an honorary man for the summer, and good buddies with all the Harvard boys, and when we returned the conquering heroes in the autumn, they, feeling brotherly, would have done everything in their power to help me along in my career. Two: I could have raised an eyebrow back.
Inevitably their affair is discovered - there is only so much you can hide while living out of a tent with a dozen other people in the middle of nowhere - and, caught in the act, Willie is forced to high-tail it back to her home town, Templeton, to nurse her wounded pride. She knows that she has made the most fatal mistake that a professional woman can make: she has admitted that she has a sexuality. And the worst of it is yet to be discovered - she is also pregnant.
Unfortunately, home isn't the haven she remembers. Her mother, the stiff-backed crotchety Vivienne, has disavowed the liberalism of her own youth, taken up with an evangelical preacher and decided to confess her sins. She has some revelations of her own for her daughter, no matter how inconvenient the timing. As if things weren't bad enough, it turns out that Willie isn't who she thinks she is. She is not the result of a drug-fuelled liason with an anonymous hippy as she had always been told. No, not a bit of it. Instead, her father is a respectable resident of Templeton, although her mother refuses to admit precisely who. He could be almost anyone. In the absence of anything better to take her mind off her enormous screw-up, Willie submits to her curiousity and armed only with a vague genealogical clue from her mother, sets off to 'discover' who her mystery father really is. If she can't dig up the bones of the first human, then she can at least unearth the man who made her.
At the same time, in the self-same novel, a dead monster, some sort of prehistoric Nessie, surfaces on Templeton's lake Glimmerglass:
The fog was still deep when Dr. Cluny found the monster on his morning row. I imagine how it went: the slide of the scull's knife across the lake, the oar heads casting rings on the water, the red bow light pulsing into the dark. Then, sudden, looming over the doctor's shoulder, an island where there had never been an island, the vast belly of the dead beast. Gliding backward, the doctor couldn't see it. He neared; the bow-ball of his boat pushed into the rubbery flesh like a finger into a balloon; the pressure of boat versus skin reached a tensile limit without piercing anything; the boat checked its bow-ward motion, and jerked to stern. The doctor turned but he was only prepared for the possible, and didn't at first know what was before him. When he saw the large and terrible eye still milking over with death, the good doctor blinked. And then he fainted.
Willie, whose ancestral home backs onto the shore, is there to watch it dragged towards land; is there to reach out her hand and touch it in the quiet moments before the world's media descends on the scene. Rising up out of the water, it is like a myth passing into reality, or the herald of one type of fiction becoming another: post-romantic crisis fiction turned sharply into genealogical fantasy. It is quite the natty transformation. As the novel unfolds it is patterned with the tropes of both chick-lit and genre fiction, it is less and less surprising to find Willie - romantic lead; budding historical investigator - in the presence of both her ghostly ancestors and her ageing prom date, dealing with both immortal apothecaries and her best friend's real-life illness. The veil between mimesis and magic turns out to be very thin indeed.
This brand of fictional stew-pot isn't new, exactly. Not at all, in fact. Magical realism is a mainstay of the contemporary repetoire, and the children's section of any bookshop is piled high with stories about teenager's dealing with divorce and faery invasions at the same time. Buffy graduated from high school and served fast food on the hell mouth. Not to mention the fantasy literature genre itself, and the New Weird, and all that jazz. Kelly Link has been writing stories like Groff's for a decade. This accumulation of forebears can claim some credit for the reality-fantasy mind-meld at the heart of The Monsters of Templeton. But there is still something exciting about telling Willie's kind of story - this stereotypical 'woman's story' - in this way. It is the cliche and not the cliche; the story that makes and breaks the myth. I can see why the Orange New Writer's judges went for it. It is more than a little transgressive in context.
That Lauren Groff can actually write is of added benefit. Sometimes, at least. The Monsters of Templeton is a novel told in numerous voices - Willie's primarily, but also those of her ancestors, through letters, diaries and, with a post-modern nod, their own fiction. Templeton is modelled on Groff's own home town, Cooperstown, and Willie's ancestors are loosely based on the family of the writer, James Fenimore Cooper; many of the genealogical mysteries the novel explores are real ones. Groff is determined to have all the thematic fun she can from this conceit. Characters from Fenimore Cooper's most famous novel, The Last of the Mohicans, emerge as 'real' figures in Willie's ancestral back story, before being written into the fiction of Groff's analogous Jacob Franklin Temple, who is himself a fiction of her own. As if it were not enough to blur fantasy and reality, she also begs to exacerbate the tension between history and fiction.
There are others narrators as well: the 'Running Buds', Templeton's jogging club, who speak with the single voice of the town itself, and even the Glimmerglass monster, which has its posthumous say. On the whole the gear shifts between past, present, singular, multiple, living and dead narrators are well executed, although it would be true to say that Groff is a better ventriloquist of some voices than others. Unfortunately, the weakest of them all - Willie's self-deprecating monologues - dominate, while the best amongst them are shorter and farther between. There is a definite correlation, for example, between Monsters' best bits and its historical sections - the parts of the novel in which Willie's ancestors, who played a vital role in the founding and shaping of modern Templeton, reveal themselves in their own words are very good indeed. Lauren Groff writes tolerable, if slightly portentous, prose for a contemporary writer, but she hits the nail square as a historical novelist. The past will bear verbosity and the heaviness of fate much better than the present. It will absorb all sorts of omens and foreshadowings that will sit like lead in the context of the 21st century. Which is not to say that it is any less subtle, only that it demands a different sleight of hand: Groff can pitch the cadence of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries rather sweetly, but she struggles with the sentiment of her own century. So that this excerpt from the fragmented diary of Sarah Franklin Temple Upton, Willie's fey, half-mad great-grandmother, works:
...days pass, days pass, dark then light, Templeton glowing in the fog, the brilliance of noon... so many ghosts in the water I see now, everyday day I go down, press my ear close to the water until I drench the small hairs on the lobe... beseeching, mournful. The men have bloated skin, and the women's hair has come loose and floats cloudlike behind them, sunnies and pumpkinseed-fish scattered in it... a man with my father's face, wrists blooming roses of blood... two brothers with frosted lashes an lips, ice skates on their feet, pounding at the surface as if it were glass... small Indian girl who looks at me with serene and unforgiving eyes as she floats, naked, bruises like plums on her thighs... young men in boater hats... Yes: everyday I see more of them, the drowned ones. It is perhaps not madness; they are so clear...
While Willie's description of swimming in the same waters, just a hundred years later, doesn't quite sit level with her modernity:
I felt an overwhelming sadness, a sudden memory of one time in high school when I slipped to the country club docks at midnight with my friends, and, giggling, naked, we went into the dark star-stippled water, and swam to the middle of the lake. We treaded water there in the blackness, allof us fallen silent in the feeling of swimming in such perfect space. I looked up and began to spin. The stars streaked circular above me, my body was wrapped in the warm black, my hands had disappeared, my stomach was no longer. I was only a head, a pair of eyes... even on that long-ago night, I could feel a trememdous thing moving in the depths below me, something vast and white and singing.
The difficulty is not the quality of the writing, per se, but its appropriateness to its subject. The syntax is slightly off, given the text around it, and the constructions are archaic - 'my stomach was no longer'? No longer what? Like too many contemporary writers, Groff has a tendency to conflate nineteenth century syntax with meaningfulness, turning word order into a cheap signal of mystery and otherness.
It irks me particularly because there is enough emotional power to be found in Willie's situation without pumping in the adjectives. This is difficult to believe, I know. The plot is heavily contrived - what mother in the world would encourage her adulterous daughter to work through her problems by chasing up her great-grandfathers at the local archives? Not many, I imagine. But the idea of Willie's missing father is in the right place, and allows Monsters in to the heart of the difficulty we all have identity and belonging. How delicate is that balance between our independence of spirit - our reckless tendency to raise that inappropriate eyebrow; our own carefully tended ambitions - and our yearning for roots, our desire to point backwards to the place we came from and feel that, yes, that is also part of me. We march out into the world...
And yet, we cling to these things. We pretend to be able to understand. We need the idea of the first humanoid in North America though we will never find him; we need the mass of ancestors at our backs like ballast. Sometimes, we feel it's impossible to push into the future without such a weight behind us, without such heaviness to keep us steady, even if it is imaginary. And the more frightening the future is, the more complicated it seems to be,the more we steady ourselves with the past. I looked at my father...and felt an impossible relief. If it didn't matter, not really, that I had him at last. It didn't matter, and yet, in my illogical, unfathomable heart, it did. It was glad to have his real, breathing self on that long road behind me. I was glad to know he was there.
We are all glad to know where we came from, I think; either that or we wish to know. There is a reason why family history is now a multi-million pound industry - we place a high premium on digging up our fathers.
(NB: This post brought to you in spite of internet goblins, a computer virus and a geriatric laptop. Apologies for spelling mistakes or syntactical weirdness, I had to 'shoot the bridge' and rush to the finish line before everything went permanently kaput.)