Real People, by Alison Lurie
Life & Art
by Alison Lurie.
Random House. 180 pp. $4.95.
The novels of Alison Lurie are almost enough to make one believe in the increasingly dubious notion that reading fiction is fun. Evidently free of tormenting scruples about such matters as point of view and form, they are full of high spirits and comic inventiveness, what E. M. Forster calls “bounce.” In each of them the central character, a sophisticated upper-middle-class Eastern type, takes the tour of a particular scene—a small college campus in Love and Friendship (1962), Los Angeles in The Nowhere City (1965), a small-town spiritualists' group in Imaginary Friends (1967), and an artists' colony in Real People.
Because the title of Alison Lurie's first book is borrowed from Jane Austen, one feels even more than usually compelled to make the inevitable comparison. Like Jane Austen, she is funny, cruel, and clever; unlike Jane Austen, she does not have a perfectly lucid structural sense nor a faultless control of language—the prose takes an occasional perilous swoop down into the regions of the ladies' magazines—and her ironies do not ultimately have moral resonance, but remain largely a matter of surfaces. Like many women writers, she has a malicious sharpness of observation, a fastidious eye for the details of appearance, dress, and manner that identify a type. Unlike most ladies (and most men, too) she does not shift into high gear for sex, but manages to write about it as if it were just like anything else.
Her first novel, Love and Friendship, like all her books, is in the tradition of the English novel of manners, where the comic effects arise from the writer's sense of the excessive and inappropriate, from the violation of conventional norms of good manners and good sense. Emmy Turner, a big, beautiful, giggly ex-debutante, comes to a little New England college town with her husband, a stuffy young man with a passion for teaching an unusually sadistic brand of freshman English. Emmy is a perfect center of vision for a comic novel, so full of upper-class expectations that she is continually being astonished; seen through her eyes, the familiar personnel of the academic novel blossom into grotesques. The irony, however, operates on more than one level: while Emmy is cheerfully putting everyone down because of their funny clothes, dirty nails, and bad manners, she too is being made fun of for her naive snobbishness, and her placement in the center gives the novel a perfectly controlled perspective. The plot, Emmy's love affair with a young composer, involving lots of comic intrigue and sylvan sex, is resolved in a peculiarly sour, disappointing, and lifelike way: Emmy's lover turns out to be a cad, while her husband develops the stodgy pathos of the cuckold; reverting to fundamentally conventional type, Emmy stays with her husband. The irony falls equally on everyone.
The second and third novels use this multifaceted irony in a more schematic and less successful way. In The Nowhere City a young Eastern academic couple, Paul and Katherine Cattleman, go West for a year among the freaks and frauds of Los Angeles. Paul makes the ultimate Hollywood scene with Glory Green, a starlet with silver-pink tresses and dyed-to-match pubic hair, while Katherine, an ethereal type who suffers from frigidity and sinusitis, gets defrosted by Glory's husband. The plot seems both haphazard and predictable, and the characters are familiar Hollywood grotesques out of Waugh and West. But Katherine is a good invention, and her neurasthenic perspective makes what might have been a simple satire into a collision of values from which no one emerges very well.
In Imaginary Friends, the most slickly written and unconvincing of the novels, two sociologists insinuate themselves into a group of religious fanatics who believe they are in contact with an extraterrestrial being, Ro, of the planet Varna, through the person of a schizoid teenager named Verena Roberts. The project ends with Verena cured of her delusions and one of the sociologists in a mental hospital convinced that he is Ro. The people in this novel are not really characterized at all; the novelist's observations of personality are reduced to the sociologist's shorthand: “White Protestant American middle-class middle-aged housewife, in a housedress and flowered apron.” The characters are flattened-out freaks from an animated cartoon, funny but noticeably unreal.
Though Imaginary Friends is billed on the jacket flap as an attack on sociology, it can be read more plausibly as a kind of unconscious parody of Alison Lurie's earlier novels, an attack of bad conscience on the part of the novelist herself. All her protagonists are essentially like the two sociologists: sophisticated Easterners, they go out into the worlds of their novels like spies into enemy territory. Their norms of value, those of upper- or upper-middle-class life style, are used on other people to categorize rather than characterize them, sorting them out relentlessly into U and non-U. The novels are ultimately saved from the snobbery of their central characters by a reversal of the irony—thus Katherine Cattleman ends up bleached and tanned as any starlet, and the sociologists are loonier than their subjects—but this reversal takes place only at the end, after the novelist has done her worst and can afford to pull the rug out from under her character and herself.
The new novel, Real People, deals explicitly with the problems of novel-writing through the adventures of Janet Belle Smith, a genteel lady writer, in an artists' colony called Illyria. At Illyria Janet has an affair with a semi-literate pop artist, a definitely non-U type with muscles and greasy hair, and through him finds out what is wrong with her work and her life: she has been too busy protecting her idea of herself to be a real person. At the end she vows to change. “You can't write well with only the nice parts of your character, and only about nice things. . . . I want to use everything, including hate and envy and lust and fear.”
The texture of the novel is thin, and its comic tone rather flat. Cast in the form of Janet Belle Smith's journal, it gets caught in an insuperable technical difficulty, since the diary must exclude everything but the thoughts of the diarist and inevitably suffers from her vapid, fussy style. The journal contains observations jotted down for future use: “I kept scanning his face while we talked, as if it were a strange landscape . . . regular features of moderate dimensions, given an air of intellectuality by the recession of vegetation on the upper slopes. (SAVE THIS)”; notes for stories: “The plump ghost Seen by woman who is dieting”; and Janet's philosophy of literature: “Fiction is condensed reality; and that's why its flavor is more intense, like bouillon or frozen orange juice.”
The trouble with all this is that it's not bad enough. Janet is not quite dumb enough to be funny; she's merely dull, and so earnest that at times it's hard to tell whether the author has her tongue in her cheek, or whether the subject really brings out a streak of sententiousness in her. Although we know that most of the time Janet is not to be taken seriously, there seems to be no good reason for taking her at all. One way or another, the writer is committed to what's on the page, and in this case what's on the page is boring.
The fictional texture is also weakened by the fact that the setting, Illyria, seems to be a real place—it is very like Yaddo. Mention is made of James Baldwin, Louise Bogan, Philip Roth, Norman Podhoretz, Ned Rorem, “Curt,” “Hortense,” “Candida,” etc. The anecdotes in which they figure are utterly innocuous. For instance: once when Ed Loomis and Jonathan Baumbach were in the dining room at Illyria, a girl wearing a pink ruffled dress walked in. She was so pretty that they nearly fell off their chairs. The reader who is sufficiently up on things to know that these are real people may take some dim pleasure in this proof of his own sophistication, but for those to whom they might just as well be inventions, the story must seem quite pointless. To the author and her friends, the use of the real names is probably a delightful joke. But if its intent was to give Illyria a greater air of authenticity, it has had just the opposite result. Only a very dense fictional reality can absorb this other, literal kind of reality of persons whose existences we believe in because we have seen their pictures or read their books. Paradoxically, the effect of the intrusion of these real toads into the imaginary garden is to make it seem all the more pallid and made up.
Given the lack of perspective on Janet and the rather harsh note on which Alison Lurie's other novels end, it is difficult to know how much faith to put in her transformation. Are a few evenings in bed with a junk sculptor enough to change a lady writer into a writer? The stories Janet plans to write after leaving Illyria are another reason for doubt—they don't sound much better than those of her pre-Illyrian period. At the end, Janet notes in her journal that she has begun writing about Illyria; Real People is evidently the result. A novel about the experiences of Janet Belle Smith could conceivably be amusing, but not, unfortunately, when it is written by Janet Belle Smith.
The quotient of malice is much lower here than in the other novels; while the universally leveling irony of the earlier books may be morally indefensible, it is certainly more fun than this. And in the best of them, Love and Friendship, the irresponsibility and casual cruelty of the characters says more about real life and real people, finally, than the tedious soul-searching of Janet Belle Smith.