Reviewed by Chris McDermott
Christine Schutt's difficult aesthetic--striving for a sense of unity, symphony, and essence--has never been much in fashion in prose fiction. Nightwork, her first collection of stories, was an amazing achievement soon remaindered, though its qualities were evident to such poets as John Ashbery who called it the best book of 1996. Most readers of fiction have always seemed uncomfortable with anything other than discursive language, a situation described more than fifty years ago by Susanne K. Langer in Feeling and Form. Langer explained that “it is hard not to be deceived into supposing the author intends, by his use of words, just what we intend by ours--to inform, comment, inquire, confess, in short: to talk to people.” The greater alternative, she said, and the real challenge for the prose fiction writer, is to create a “virtual experience,” an “illusion of life entirely lived and felt.” This Schutt does with her first novel, Florida. No memoir, no travel guide, Florida is a masterful symphony of language and life as well as a book that should increase her chances of being recognized in her time as one of the rare artists whose work is not merely the currency of a career, but a contribution to the art.
Just as oral poetry becomes memorable largely through cadence and rhyme, Schutt's sentences are composed to be heard. Once heard, they echo relentlessly, as though the feeling driving them continues to petition the language but cannot be exhausted by it. Schutt thus overcomes one of the greatest challenges to literary composers--the challenge of making the craft appear secondary. When Walter Pater remarked that “All art constantly aspires to the condition of music,” he evoked music's relative freedom from discourse and how difficult it is, by contrast, for literature to achieve form as an end in itself. Part of Schutt's technique consists in distancing her narrator, Alice Fivey, from the reader's likely expectations in reading a book called Florida. Growing up in an unnamed cold state, Florida is a romantic concept to Alice and her parents, who plan to move there together. According to her father, Florida meant “good health all the time. No winter coats in Florida, no boots, no chains, no salt, no plows and shovels. In the balmy state of Florida, fruit fell in the meanest yard. Sweets, nuts, saltwater taffies in seashell colors.” But their Floridas will have to be private, substitute Floridas. They name a foil bed, made for sunbathing, “Florida.” When Alice's father dies underwater, his car breaking through ice, her mother's Florida takes the form of a sanitarium, and Alice's remains akin to Joyce's Araby, but it is a destination already lost.
In one chapter, Alice quotes from the Lyrical Ballads: “Plot abandoned in favor of insight,” and Florida is less concerned with plot than it is with episodic insights into the life of Alice, who moves from relative to relative and tries to make sense of her life and the adults around her--the rich Uncle Billy and Aunt Frances, the family driver/servant Arthur, her mother's abusive boyfriend Walter, her inspiring teacher Mr. Early (“He loved sound, the way a sentence sounded. Mr. Early did not hang his hat on plot.”), her grandmother Nonna. The language of Florida--with such an abundance of liquid “l”s and “r”s and the occasional open vowel coming up for air--feels much like the word “Florida” itself.
Ezra Pound's statement that “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree” and the modernist impulse toward unity and perfection have become devalued largely because of their association with the brutal ways in which a concept of “perfection” can be abused. In Pound's poem “Ité,” he proclaims, “Go, my songs, seek your praise from the young / and from the intolerant, / Move among the lovers of perfection alone. / Seek ever to stand in the hard Sophoclean light / And take your wounds from it gladly.” Figures such as Pound, intolerant in his fascism and in his anti-Semitism, have offered alibis to writers whose deeper problem with his aesthetic ideals may be the difficulty of attaining them. It has never been easy to build a career when the bar is set so high, and when a routine audience simply does not exist. It is worth noting that Joyce's Dubliners sold only thirty copies its first year, after almost as many publishers rejected it. Schutt writes firmly in the tradition of those whose sentences are charged with meaning, as she does in the following passage: “Arthur said, 'When she was unhappy. . . ,' but I knew, I knew, I knew what she did. My mother broke her body against the weather and overused the Florida Arthur had made, the foil-lined box where she lay winter-sunning herself sick.”
Schutt's concerns in writing are a poet's concerns. As with Joyce, if one looks closely enough, sound patterns become evident. It can seem impossible to tell whether or not they occur by design until one realizes that language rarely sounds this beautiful. One of Schutt's riffs most pleasing to the ear involves a sound turning back on itself, as in the way the name “Molly Bloom” does. A passage showing Alice as a teacher discussing the wordiness of Jane Eyre with her students reads as follows: “Make a life in the brisk climes, honest and alone, or travel with your lover undercover in warm places, but in less than forty pages, please! Yes, yes, yes, I agree, and why resist the sea and the comfort of his villa?” Aside from the more obvious consonances and assonances, “villa” turns back on “a life” and “yes” turns back on “sea.” Consecutive sentences late in the novel read “I know about snakes. I take a late-night swim in the lap pool and astonish myself with the color of my skin.” Here, “lap pool” turns back on itself sonically, and “snakes” resonates recursively with “skin.” If one is going to adopt poetic techniques for writing prose fiction, these are the kinds of effects, unlike rhyme, that a reader feels well before knowing how it was done.
While some critics have complained that the novel is short, with many of its 156 pages not filling the page, with the use of line breaks she could break it into several books of poems. When Alice says goodbye to her dying mother at the novel's close, the writing is particularly sublime:
I am not sure she understands what we are looking at: so much water and the line that is the other side. Mother is in the sun; she is in her Florida. Squinting in that tin box of refracted light, she has to frown to see, and what does it mean what she sees? The world is a comfort and then it is a discomfort. Mother is all thin hair and vacancy, tears and starts, a small clutch of bones, and old woman, grown innocent.
Who will forgive me if I do not come again?
“Alice,” she speaks, and she looks at me, and it has been a long time since Mother has used my name, which is also her name, as a good-bye, and I think she knows, as once she knew, what will happen to us. “Alice,” she repeats. It may be no other words will follow or it may be a downpour of speech.
With Florida, Schutt's symphonic downpour of speech places her in the company of the artists who work their lives to get their sentences right as if their lives depended on it.