The blogosphere jury is decidedly split when it comes to Andrew Sean Greer's The Story of a Marriage. Mark Thwaite (he of Ready Steady Book and The Book Depository) has lambasted it as 'a tissue of cliches and clunky metaphors: it looks beautiful and accomplished (and it is exquisitely paced and sometimes wonderfully written) but is set up merely to "push your buttons"' Asylum's John Self concured: 'I’m reluctant to make this post into a simple catalogue of my criticisms of the book, though that might be inevitable, as there isn’t much I can think of that I liked about it.' Meanwhile fellow litbloggers Lynne (of dovegreyreader) and Kirsty (of Other Stories) have offered up enthusiastic praise. I can hardly resist wading (somewhat belatedly) into the frey to add my own feelings to the record. [NB: At which point, in the name of full disclosure, I should note that Faber sent me a proof copy of the novel several weeks ago.]
It is not quite a matter of I love and yet I hate - such heady emotions are rarely to be aroused. It is more, perhaps, that I enjoy and yet I heartily dislike. The Story of a Marriage is an exceptionally well-paced, decidedly well-written novel, a showcase of mannered prose that I could barely resist. I read it quickly in the garden, accompanied by ice-cream and cold beer. It was certainly not the least amongst these pleasures. But. But. As I gulped it back I became as aware of the book's demons beating down its better angels. So that, yes, it is beautiful and tender; at the same time, it is also a litany of tired morals and gender cliches. It has a terrible beginning - a disgracefully superficial first line: 'We think we know the ones we love.' - and a sweet, almost irresistible ending, with lots more of the terrible and irresistible in between.
Much has been made of the novel's plot and its set-piece revelations, somewhat (I think) to the detriment of the criticism of it. The mainstream media reviews tended to pad sheepishly around the narrative, saying barely anything at all because they couldn't properly engage with it. In an attempt to bypass the issue of whether or not Greer succeeds in drawing the reader into these piffly little mysteries, which are nothing but smoke screens for the real issues at hand, let me offer a bald, short synopsis. Look away now if you don't wish to be spoiled. Pearlie Cooke - narrator, dutiful housewife and devoted mother - and her husband Holland are black in 1950s San Francisco and quietly bearing the social ostracism that entails; their only son, Walter, is a sweet pliable boy, disabled by polio. They are relatively well-off, with a dog and a dishwasher and a car. Pearlie and Holland sleep seperately, but the arrangement seems to suit them both and they are a picturebook kind of happy. One day a well-dressed white man called Buzz Drummer turns up on their porch and, with an air of unreality, tells Pearlie that he was her husband's lover during the war. He brazenly offers her money - over £100,000 - if she will help him to win Holland back and thereby engineer the end of her own marriage. Believing that her husband is homosexual, and interpreting this as the source of their sexual distance, Pearlie agrees, perhaps a little too readily. And so the novel bowls along to its inevitable conclusion when Holland, a silent dark figure whose personality is entirely constructed for the reader by the interpretation of others, must decide whom he loves.
The mysteries, thus plainly reduced, are nothing but white elephants and trickery, rabbits pulled from a hat. Greer is addicted to subverting our expectations (or what he assumes to be our expectations). We think Pearlie is white because, well, if she weren't it would be in his first description of her, wouldn't it? Aha! Psych! We think Holland is straight because he isn't effeminate. How conservative of us! And then we assume he is gay and repressed because Buzz says so. So naive. We think Pearlie is making a selfless sacrifice. But wait, the narrative soon reveals otherwise. This is how it works on us: liberal readers enjoy the revelations because they reinforce their smug assumption that everyone else is too prejudiced to have spotted them coming a mile away (I must count myself in this group); conservative readers enjoy them because, really, at their heart they're not liberal at all.
Make no mistake, The Story of a Marriage is a singularly conservative novel masquerading as a new liberal fable. Everything about it - its length; its clumsily delineated setting; its gaudy 1950s of segregation and red panic - screams parable. It reinforces all of our assumptions about race and sexuality - that marriage is the building block of society; that being black and successful is all about becoming whiter at heart - while gesturing madly to its own daring for subverting them. It is a story about the triumph of traditional institutions - marriage and motherhood and the nation - over alternative lifestyles; about normality carrying the day over aberrant behaviours. Who does Holland choose in the end? Pearlie, of course, his dear wife and the mother of his imperfect but perfect child. Not Buzz, the cowardly scheming homosexual - the white devil must be, and is, cast out. Greer makes us complicit in this triumph of good 'ole family values. We think: how daring to choose tradition over controversy in such a open-minded novel. It is incredibly manipulative, cleverly turning us against our instincts and making us pleased with ourselves for it. Devishly insidious and, I must admit, ingenious; and all in under 200 pages.
Pearlie's voice is at the base of it, since she is our elderly narrator telling us the story of her life in retrospect. The best that can be said of the novel's conservatism is that it is a function of her character. She is a woman of her time: the central mystery of her life is her marriage, intimately tied to the esoteric workings of her man's heart. Being a wife is a species of spiritual vocation for her, a calling which is both grounded in her being and beyond her. 'What is a wife?', she asks:
If they take away her children, her husband, her house and belongings; if they send down a destroying angel to this female Job and tear one son from her arms and another from the schoolhouse so his textook falls to the floor with a thud, send agents to drag her husband from his home; if they take away the telephone table in the hall; the geraniums wilting in the flower box and the beans that have to be used before they go bad and the new hat that she hasn't yet figured out how to wear? If they take away the dog? If they take away her favourite wooden spoon? Her brother? Her ring? What is the smallest atom of a wife that cannot be split apart?
Pearlie's intimation is that there is something, some essential and transcendent wifeness at the bottom of being a woman. The Story of a Marriage is her narrative of its discovery. Like the many 1950s housewives of our imagination, Pearlie is sorely tempted by the idea of freedom. (This is allowed because Greer never misses a cliche - she is docile and giving; and repressed and yearning at the same time.) She almost admits to the reader that her motives for reuniting Holland and Buzz are mixed. Yes, she is being the selfless wretch, giving up her husband for his greater happiness - this is the image of herself that she likes the best - but at the same time she is dreaming of sexual liberty. Her conspiratorial meetings with Buzz are made more exciting for her by the idea of what people think of a handsome white man in earnest conversation with a black woman; her imagination is piqued by the assumption that they are having a transgressive affair. A late night taxi ride home from a dance, sans Holland, offers her the opportunity to dabble with adultery:
Here was my life alone. And the thought was so astonishing, so pleasant and free, that I started to laugh like a child and couldn't stop, all the way back across the bridge. Shorty would take my hand and smile at me and kiss me and once again I would convulse with laughter.
All of this is only a dalliance however, a flirtation with controversy, that will be shot down in the final pages of the novel by the actuality of Pearlie's long fulfilling marriage to Holland after the trials of Buzz are over.
Pearlie is also an adherent of the cult of the strong, silent black man. Holland Cooke is the epitomy of this stereotype: beautiful, yet taciturn; fatherly, and yet heroic; silent, and yet devoted. He has no voice of his own, but he hardly needs one as the reader is kept so busy making assumptions about him. This is Greer's intention, of course, and it feels sympathetic. Poor Holland, never able to tell us his own feelings! Poor Holland, endlessly put upon! I was apt to feel an empathy for him too, to share in Pearlie's exclamation: 'What a strange, sad thing to be a man'. But then it occured to me what a sinister empathy this was; and how quickly I had invested in the compassionate subjugation of the angel in the house. I reread a single paragraph several times over:
I turned my body to face Holland completely - my listening posture - and his face was as square and golden as an idol's, his eyes bright, his striped shirt undone beneath his cardigan, one button dangling from an unravelling thread. He sat and planned his words. What a strange and sad thing to be a man. How awful to be beaten by life as much as anyone and yet never be allowed to mention how it feels. To sit in your house that you have paid for with your labor, beside a wife who knows your youthful secrets; to have traveled around the world to escape the prejudices of home and find them, now merely whispered, in the neighbourhood around you; to have the past knock on your door in the form of Buzz Drummer. I cannot envy men their silences.
Here was the patriarch at rest, in the comfort of his home, with his doting wife by his side and the whole world attuned to his needs, even despite his blackness; and here was his wife, practically weeping for his vulnerability, devoting herself to his comfort and safety despite his clear social and economic advantage over her. Here was a sympathy that women have been misplacing for generations, and there I was, feeling it too. I had tuned straight into womens' instinct for self abnegation in the presence of their menfolk and, I swear, if I had had Andrew Sean Greer in front of me at that moment, I would have put my knee into his groin. Not gently.
I tremble at the thought of how easily and how charmingly the book turned me against myself and everything I hold to be true. 'Marriage is a fairytale' Pearlie goes on to opine, 'and, like those stories, it requires a bewitching bargain.' Implicitly it suggests that women give themselves up for love and that, while this may be sad, it is also beautiful, like the suicide of a biblical virgin under threat of rape. Is this what the blurb means when it calls The Story of a Marriage 'a heartbreakingly beautiful love story'? Our hearts are broken by the forfeit of our lives, but remade by the love of a good man? Involuntarily, I shudder. I must come to the conclusion that it is one of the darkest novels I have read, a horror story disguised in the fine clothes of romance.
I try to take heart where I can. I find hope in the possibility that Greer is blind-siding us, that the book is not about his revelations about race and sexuality at all, but about how quickly and willingly we buy into them. So: when he gives us Pearlie and Holland's saccharine happy ending, their decades of devotion and their healthy, successful college-educated son, he is provoking us to explore the compromises we will make to see this happy ending. Will we allow the uproarous swell of normality, the repression of our politics and the possibility of Buzz's painful loneliness, just to see the sunset on the happy couple? I wish it to be so, since this was the question I was left asking myself: which of my beliefs have I jettisoned in order to smile and gulp down The Story of a Marriage? I fear, however, that I am stretching the benefit of the doubt. Mark Thwaite called it mawkish cliche; I agree, but I think it is also far more dangerous than that.