Wednesday 25 April 2007

The Housekeeper

Melanie Wallace

‘As Margaret had once said to her, the amazing thing about human beings is that whenever they become conscious they’re oh so liable to create their own existence. Although most humans resist that consciousness.’ (p242)

Most, but not all: The Housekeeper tells the story of waif-like 17-year-old Jamie. Abandoned by her father and orphaned by the death of her mother she runs away into the desolate hinterland of America to become part of a loosely-knit crazed cohort of characters, each secreted away to battle off any awareness of their bleak existence. Jamie’s first action in this bubble-like environment is an essentially moral one: she unties a mad mute boy from a tree he’s been lashed to for days. What follows is her coming to terms with the inevitable consequences of this decision, and her attempt to ‘create her own existence’.

The books’s title refers to Jamie’s job working for outcast artiste and mother figure Margaret. Margaret is the mouthpiece for the theory underlying the book: a hard-nosed humanism that endorses human beings’ need for, and dependence on, each other, that has a thorough-going commitment to the idea that what makes us human is that we make moral (and therefore conscious) decisions and commitments, that we are all and ultimately free. Margaret takes Jamie into her home, teaches her and tells her she could one day be a great equestrian, symbolically a word that Jamie doesn’t understand, and more symbolically still the first word spoken between Jamie and lover-to-be, Galen.

Margaret’s explicitness can work well to tease out what the other characters are only intuitively aware of, it draws out the implications of what’s tacitly going on. She uses a rich and nuanced language that contrasts sharply with the monosyllabic utterances of Galen (a lonesome trapper) and Harlan (an unhinged and embittered poacher) and the self-contained silence of Jamie. As the only person who travels beyond the countryside that frames the tale, she provides a necessary link for the reader into its closed and inward-looking world. But sometimes her theorising is too obvious and academic and comes across as ham-fisted:

You see, Margaret told Jamie, the truth about America is that individualism is barely tolerated, unless it means conformity or except when it masquerades as self-sufficiency. One for all and all for one, but every man for himself. And so Galen chose, no – Margaret corrected herself – thinks he was forced to choose, had only one choice. Though I’d say he knows better…than to go it alone. (p159)

It’s better for Galen’s studied silence to speak for itself; Wallace should trust the reader knows he feels forced into scared solitude: that’s why he works alone, accepts no payment and so has no obligation to others, and why he lives far away. It’s not difficult to work out. The free-flowing prose is most precise when it intimates, very much like the writing of Annie Proulx.

And like Proulx, Wallace seems to relish the brutality of nature and peoples’ easy violence with one another. Beatings, searing open flesh with sizzling bacon fat, yanking semi-sensate babies around in the snow and then kicking them to death are nonchalantly humdrum events. A description of a deer slashing a man from jowl to belly beautifully counterpoints his intention of shooting it between the eyeballs; rape is to be expected and a fat smelly sow sits on a small child. The narrative voice effortlessly twists and turns about, it constantly pulses forward as if pain is dull and obvious, it points to a broader understanding of a wholeness of things.

And just as the narration blurs over the division between life and death, so the distinction between inner and outer worlds gets rehearsed. It’s crass to say the barren landscape is simply representative of the characters’ mental lives, but the pathetic fallacy is a dominant and well-executed device. Jamie’s fever breaks with the spring, for instance, the snow-thaw parallels her opening up emotionally to Galen. Whilst this isn’t as bad as the embarrassing Narnia (snow = depression = impossibility of good Christian values), and is so eloquent it cheapens criticism, it nevertheless creates a stifling tightness of plot.

The characters are more a living part of the landscape, both aware of and part of its changes. Galen knows the terrain intimately to the point of navigating in the dark, the scarred poacher convinced God is punishing his serial womanising tirelessly records ‘meteorological minutiae’ in a diary but omits his own emotions. The relationship between each person and the landscape is both intimate and complex. The way a tree stands or a crest breaks, the lie of land or depth of snow is both an imposition on and an amplification of the characters, it quite literally prevents them from ever doing anything different whilst providing a familiarity and comfort they crave, even if it is, like them, vicious and unforgiving.

Another dichotomy Wallace cuts across is that between animal and human being. People are described with animal terms in a way that works, the boy with no name is ‘feral’, mute, and doesn’t measure distance or understand the passing of time. A girl returns ‘like a dog’ to where she is fed and beaten, and obediently performs demeaning sexual tricks for her masters. These are characters without character; they have no morality, no will, no responsibility. How soon you realise their inability to speak and absence of name signifies lack of participation impacts heavily on how effectively they work. They are minimal people who haven’t graduated to being human in Margaret’s ‘full’ sense. The world they live in isn’t immoral, it’s amoral, which is all the more terrifying. How do you understand and judge their actions? – should you even judge them? The absence of a narrative position is disconcerting, and the characters’ unflinching acceptance of each other makes them strangely convincing.

People respond to each other more as animals than as people and are moved by something less intellectual than an ethic, in a way that is nearly amusing:

When Bobby heard about that he bludgeoned her father almost to death, not only in full view of his hapless daughter but as Harlan lay her belly down over a table and made her mewl. That, Harlan said, probably saved the old man’s life, because Bobby stopped beating him the moment she began to make that weird catlike sound… (p107)

What pulls these events and people together is symbolised by the merry-go-round standing dormant near Galen’s cabin, which is the dominant symbol of the book: it represents a dynamism all the characters are trying to avoid but are inexorably drawn to. When the nameless boy gutturally realises he is about to die his last act is to open his arms wide and spin at the sky. And Harlan, the most destructive character of the book, shoots up the merry-go-round and all it represents in a blind rage. Margaret has already told Jamie she must be an equestrian.

But, just as the boy spins on a single spot, the merry-go-round remains in a fixed location. And it is this straight-jacket sense of immobility, of ultimately never going anywhere but raging nonetheless that provides both the bleakness and the fullness of the story. But again, this works better when it isn’t hammered home as it is in the last pages, in a way which spoils everything. For instance, Galen remembers his former cellmate saying:

we just keep going in circles that just get tighter and tighter. Our lives senselessly repeating themselves within themselves over and over (p222)

Likewise, the sense of necessity that gives events force and coherence treads a fine line between being endearing and being downright icky when described outright. As Jamie first kisses Galen she thinks:

I will let this much happen, because it should happen, was bound to happen, must happen now before it is too late for it to happen at all (p223)

And like in every novel by Hardy, life’s little ironies play a major role, but thankfully coincidences are resolutely ironic rather than annoyingly post-ironic. The ending is wild and predictable (hinging on the zigzag path of a frightened deer), but by then we need what happens to happen. I like this narrative completeness and daring to turn full circle. As in Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, the end situation is very much like the raw beginning. The younger generation ends up in the same position as the one before, and the characters in much the same place as where they began, but with a hard-won and weighty consciousness of their position. The question the book prompts is, was it worth it? – and the answer, yes. But there is a more pertinent question: will we ever stop needing to write about it, will we ever escape (do we want to)? – the plot of The Housekeeper strongly parallels that of many books before, Ethan Frome and Jude the Obscure to name but two. How does Wallace measure up?

The point that life can turn in circles doesn’t mean less the more it’s made, and this sort of story doesn’t diminish in the telling but often grows in momentum. The Housekeeper nevertheless leaves me unsatisfied. It seems wrongly anti-progressive: Jamie does become ‘fully conscious’ and morally autonomous, but doesn’t manage ultimately to ‘escape’ her situation. That she ends bereft, but at least knowing she’s bereft, doesn’t quite cut it. Despite its final bleak humour, the book lacks a certain innovation: I feel like I’ve heard it all before and this isn’t enough. There’s nothing wrong, then, with giving away the ending:

Jamie sat near the reservoir’s edge, with the dog beside her, where she railed and wept, keened and grieved, and did so inconsolably. In the manner of her grandmother, to whom she bore a great resemblance.

The rhythm gives me goosepimples, but I for one would rather have left Jamie sobbing and leaden than have been forced to consider, again, the ironic repetitiveness of existence. That way, the book would have been a devastating love story and not so overtly a formal exercise in plot structure. That way, I would have felt able to sob inconsolably too, rather than being shocked into an unwanted and abstracted appreciation of the repeating nature of things.

 


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