By Victoria Lancelotta (Counterpoint, 215 pp.,$24)
The author reads from and signs her book, 6 p.m. Sept. 17 at Davis-Kidd Booksellers
Deftly, economically, in language both taut and poetic, Nashville-based author Victoria Lancelotta lays out virtually every themeand simultaneously establishes the smoky, liquor-drenched atmosphereof her first novel in a single, one-sentence opening paragraph: “Before what it was ended, before I moved away, before he met my sister, her husband and I were ugly together.”
What Martha, the novel’s protagonist, means by ugliness is sexuality unglossed by romanticism, a fruitless physical connection that doesn’t lead toor fromany social bond: “We never went to dinner, or to movies, or for walks along the harbor,” she explains about Edward, the man her younger sister eventually marries. “We never saw each other on Saturday afternoons unless they had bled from Friday nights, blinds low, ashtrays spilling over, wine dried in red granules at the bottom of glasses and our eyes burning with brief sleep and exhaustion. We never ate together, but my sister’s husband scraped me raw.”
Martha is 30, unmarried and uninterested in marriage; she lives on a burned-out street in Baltimore only blocks from the working-class Italian neighborhood she grew up in, but she rejects the lifeas a wife, mother, parish volunteerher childhood trained her for. Martha has taken Edward as a lover precisely because he asks nothing more from her than sexual responsiveness, which is all she wants from him as well. “Do you know what I tell people about you?” he whispers into her neck. “I tell them you’ll do anything I say.” This is apparently true enough in bedthough it’s impossible to know for sure; for all its talk of raw sex, the novel is devoid of sexually explicit language.
Out of bed, Martha is another story. When she begins to suspect that Edward wants to meet her friends, her parents, that he is nudging her toward an actual relationship, she takes a job in a small Southern town two days’ drive away and leaves without saying goodbye.
Martha’s disdain for sacramental coupling isn’t fueled by professional ambition, however; she’s a sales clerk in a jewelry store with no aim to move up or on. And Lancelotta is too good a writer to explain away Martha’s rejection of lifelong companionshipthe ideal of virtually every woman of her generation, and every man as wellmerely by simplistic scenes of suburban inertia and emotional vacuity. Certainly, the marriages Martha observes, her parents’ chief among them, would do nothing to inspire anyone to dash to the altar, but they aren’t all horrible and despairing, either. Martha’s lifelong friend Connie is in a marriage that looks basically OK, even to Martha, but she still finds a visit to Connie’s new house depressing: “We are secrets to one another, I thought, all of us; dark and small in the middle of things, in our houses where our teacups and silver and throw pillows are charms against whatever damage we might do to one another.... If you balance the accounts, the gifts of perfume and cuff links and candles and crystal against the humiliations and silence and lies, the little indignities that eventually bury you, will there be symmetry, or something close enough to call it that?”
Despite a narrative that drifts back and forth in time, if there is a plot here at all, it follows a straightforward coming-of-age trajectory: Martha runs away, realizes some things, then comes back home to make peace with what she left to escape. Most writers of what’s being called women’s fiction would have Martha realize, in her isolation and her loneliness, that the pleasures of commitment are worth the trade-offs. Thankfully, Lancelotta offers no such tidy and simplistic eureka. Nor does she imply that Martha is a visionary, ahead of her time in wanting utter autonomy, not to mention pleasure without obligation, while the rest of the middle-class world is stupidly, stolidly yoked to the hard plow of marriage. Instead, what Martha comes to see is that she was altogether right to run, even while suspecting that others may be right to stay. Martha long ago shook off the good-Catholic-schoolgirl shame of sexual desire for its own sake. It takes much longerthe length of this novelto shake the shame of rejecting a life she was raised to embrace but for which she is ill-fitted.
For all of genuine literature’s ability to universalize experience, human hearts don’t come one-size-fits-all. As Lancelotta proved earlier in her short-story collection, Here in the World (Counterpoint, 2000), it is her particular talent to be completely at ease with seemingly contradictory and inexplicable human impulses. So it is not surprising that Far offers both the universalizing sense of literaturewe are all just like Martha, the quintessential restless questerwhile at the same time Martha seems to us only, irrevocably, herself.
One way that Lancelotta is able to pull off both the ubiquitous and the particular here is through her use of poetic language, though this is not a book in which “poetic” and “gorgeous” are synonyms. The prose style is clean, even spare, but elliptical, uneasy. The story is told in Martha’s own voice, but there’s so much that Martha does not articulate, so much that she herself does not understand, that Lancelotta leaves as much unsaid about her character’s feelings and motivations as she gives voice to. Like the ambiguities of a good poem, the linguistic gaps in Far force us to make that leap ourselves: We struggle to fill in the missing bits, and that fierce engagement completes the story.
Far is not an easy read. It does not make the time pass effortlessly between suppertime and sleep, does not occasion a trumped-up curiosity, does not ratify the zeitgeist of George W. Bush’s Middle America. All of which make it a marvel of a book, wonderful and strange and altogether new.
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