Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Book Notes: Suzanne Berne on Family Values and Morning-in-America Mythology

Suzanne Berne, The Ghost at the Table (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2007):

Poor flabbergasted Lavinia. She must have sat right down on the floor in her apron and skirts, a hand over her mouth. Sat down and stared at those meticulous little pages, each one crammed with cryptic ecstasies and fierce meditations, most at first glance incomprehensible, all of them flauntingly unconcerned with rhyme or the usual pieties or even proper punctuation. Wondering how she could have been so cruelly duped. So that’s what Emily had been doing, those tiresome years when Lavinia had been answering the door and making excuses. Delivering Emily’s little notes and weird nosegays to the neighbors, trying to ignore their baffled expressions. Laundering those infernal white dresses. Haggling with shopkeepers, toting packages to the post office, shooing spying children out of the garden, being the drudge, the grump, surrendering whatever hopes she may have had of marrying and having children of her own, all so that Emily—pale, crepuscular Emily, watching everything with her sherry-colored eyes—could hide in the house, baking bread and growing heliotropes, demanding that most unreasonable of demands, to be left alone. And all this time Emily had been plotting jail breaks. Had been having jail breaks. No wonder Lavinia first considered burning those booklets (p. 113).

Here are some things I like about Suzanne Berne's Ghost at the Table and A Crime in the Neighborhood (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1997):

• They reveal how little we know--how little we ultimately know--about those closest to us.

• Especially when those closest to us are the members of our own family.

• They suggest that, en famille, we inevitably and tragically overlay each other with our own desires, so that we end up never seeing what's right in front of our noses, as we see what we hope and need to see instead.

• They demonstrate that we don't even know ourselves, because we overlay the real character living inside our particular human skin with hopes, needs, and desires that hide that real character from ourselves.

• They show that tragedy ensues as a predictable result of all this: we end up resoundingly disappointing each other. And ourselves.

• In droll, sly, psychologically acute ways, they point out that this tragedy of family member bumping up against family member, distorting, hurting, disappointing, failing to remember, remembering "wrongly" (that is, remembering differently than we ourselves do) has been going on forever. That it's the human story in a nutshell. That it happened in mythic families including those of people like Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, or Emily Dickinson.

So that there's not some golden-tinged period of good old days--morning in America!--when all was right with the American family. And if only we could get back to those good old days, to that morning in America when men were men and women were women and family was what it was meant to be, all would be right with us.

Because Oedipus. Because Cain and Abel. Because our own families. Because ourselves.

The photo of Emily's white dress is by Jerome Liebling, Mt. Holyoke Art Museum, by way of the website of the Emily Dickinson Museum.

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