Saturday, March 14, 2009

Real People

Real People
Alison Lurie
146 pages
Random House (1969)

I’m a big fan of the ‘diary novel’ as a genre – i.e. those novels which purport to be the actual journals of fictional characters. I enjoy the unreliability of the narrator, the blend of interiority and external action, and the freedom it gives the narrative to slip into analysis, reflection and anecdote.

Some of the most engaging and enjoyable books I’ve ever read fall into this genre: Saul Bellow’s early novel Dangling Man, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala’s 1975 Booker-winning Heat and Dust, Evan S. Connell’s Diary of a Rapist (don’t let the title deter you, it’s actually an insider’s vision of the classic disintegration of a schizoid personality) and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea which is part-parody of the form and one of the best novels of the twentieth century.

In Diary Fiction: Writing as Action (1984), H. Porter Abbott gives an amusing outline of the genre’s key elements. Though remarkably consistent across the genre, within these apparent "rules" there can be almost infinite variety of stories. In the male version, the diarist is intelligent, sensitive, introverted and self-conscious. He is reasonably alienated with no gift for social life. He is young, in his twenties or early thirties. He is poor and powerless. He is alone. He lives in a room that contains at least two things: a window with a view and a mirror. It is a shabby room in a shabby house. The house is in a city. He walks the city streets. He writes. He paces the room. He gazes out of the window and meditates upon those passing below. At least once in the course of his entries, he looks in the mirror and describes what he sees there. He is either in love or obsessed with that fact that he is not. He is prone to melodrama. He is doomed. There is a good chance he will die. If he dies, there is a good chance he will die by his own hand.

In the female version, the major differences are that the writer is usually married; she is oppressed by the indifference, the insensitivity, or the love of her husband (or lover); she is a victim of the stereotyping imposed on her by virtue of her gender; her powerlessness is a function of her social condition as a woman; her sense of identity is more tenuous; she is less melodramatic.

That all sounds pretty grim, but the diary novel can also be the occasion for great hilarity, as demonstrated by John Updike's A Month of Sundays, Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones novels and Sue Townsend's classic series on the adolescent and adult adventures of Adrian Mole.

One of the most enjoyable examples of the "female version" is Pulitzer-winner Alison Lurie’s 1969 novel, Real People. It was reprinted several times right through to the 1990s, so most good second-hand bookstores will have it – which is precisely where I stumbled across it.

When writers write about writing, the results are usually very interesting. Think of Italo Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler, A. S. Byatt’s Possession, Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer, and J. M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. To my mind, Real People is right up there with them. It’s only 146 pages long, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in elegance and sophistication.

Janet ‘Belle’ Smith - married, early forties, and the author of a well-received collection of short stories - is taking her annual sojourn at Illyria, a New England mansion which has been converted into an invitation-only retreat for artists of all kinds. Craving escape from a deadening home life, Janet is delighted to find her friend Kenneth is on the guest list, but the appearance of the witless waif Anna May and the husky sculptor Nick Donato threaten to disrupt everything. As Janet struggles to construct new stories she is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about herself, her companions, and the potential fraudulence of her art.

Lurie chooses Janet’s diary as the narrative device, and it’s an excellent choice for the kind of novel this is: one which deals with the difference between appearance and reality, between social roles and one’s own sense of identity, and in which the protagonist’s reflection on these differences is vital. Apart from constructing a neat snapshot of American art in the 1960s, Lurie deftly explores the familiar crisis of female artistry: the competing claims of being a wife/mother and having a creative career which family members more or less refuse to take seriously.

But this isn’t just about women. It’s about the relationship between art and reality. What starts out as a comedy of manners escalates in profundity until it becomes, in the final pages, a concise manifesto on the nature and purpose of art – which turns out to be truth: “If nothing survives of life besides what artists report of it, we have no right to report what we know to be lies.”

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