Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Reading group: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Warning: plot spoil.

We all loved Richard Yates's first novel Revolutionary Road, which we read not long after this American writer, contemporary with Updike, was rescued from obscurity and republished in this country. As a consequence, three members of the group, John, Mark and Trevor, went on to read this, his later novel, the story of the lives of two sisters, the daughters of divorced alcoholic parents, a weak father and a flighty mother. Ever since, whenever Yates has come up in conversation, Mark and Trevor have praised it, suggesting that it's even better than Revolutionary Road, so last month I suggested it for our group discussion. (However Trevor didn't make the meeting, and there were only five of us there to discuss it.)

I did find it a compulsive read. There is something about Yates's prose, elegant yet direct, his way of getting straight to the heart of things and pushing on economically through time, that makes you read quite breathlessly, eager to know how things will turn out. As I said to the group, it's prose to die for, as is Yates's stunning facility of empathy. The only trouble was, ultimately I found it profoundly depressing - at which Ann nodded firm agreement.

The novel begins with this stunning statement: 'Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce.' This is followed by an extremely touching, indeed moving, portrayal of the two little girls on one of their infrequent visits to their father in New York, a headline writer for The Sun newspaper, and being shown by him around his workplace. Afterwards:
As they walked out across City Hall Park in the spring sunshine he held them both by the hand. They both wore light coats over their dresses, with white socks and black patent-leather shoes, and they were nice-looking girls. Sarah was the dark one, with a look of trusting innocence that would never leave her; Emily, a head shorter, was blond and thin and very serious...
 '... the Sun's the best now, right?' Sarah said.
'Oh no, honey; the Sun isn't really much of a paper.'
'It isn't? Why?' Sarah looked worried.
'Oh, it's kind of reactionary.'
'What does that mean?'
'It means it's very conservative; very Republican'
'Aren't we Republicans?'
'I guess your mother is, baby. I'm not.'
He had two drinks before lunch...
The book then traces in linear fashion, from the perspective of the younger Emily, the two very different subsequent lives of the sisters - Sarah's marriage to a man who will turn out to have beaten her, and Emily's own journey through relationships with one man after another, neither life ending well, as the first sentence states.

Mark was astounded that Ann and I, and John who agreed with us, should find the book so depressing. Weren't we uplifted by the wonderful prose, he wanted to know?  Somehow we weren't. This book is less satirical than Revolutionary Road (and therefore has less of the objective humour and tonal bounce), and it also lacks the same dynamic story arc, a point with which John strongly agreed. It seemed simply an extremely linear exposition of that first sentence, with each relationship of Emily's failing in more or less the same way that the previous had. I do agree that the depiction of each relationship was compelling, but I found that they added up to an overall flatness and air of predictability, and I could sense the author's own pessimism and sadness coming off the page like a miasma. (The events and characters are closely connected to those of the author's own life, as Mark acknowledged.)

Jenny said that she really liked the book, and defended it with the argument that many people do indeed have sad lives. I said that that's OK if all you expect of literature is for it to replicate life, but surely you expect it to do more than that, and once again Mark expressed the view that this book does indeed do more through its wonderful prose and empathy. Jenny also said, backed up by Mark, that she didn't see the ending as depressing anyway: that the book ends on a note of hope when Emily is taken in by the caring nephew who seems to be the one strong and positive character to have emerged from a devastatingly dysfunctional family. For me, though, having followed Emily through her aspirations (and brief successes), her need to be rescued in that way was utterly sad (and the rescue didn't, honestly, ring all that true for me).

Everyone agreed with Mark that, as in Revolutionary Road, Yates's ability to empathise with women is stunning, and his depiction of Emily's feelings and sensations during her first sexual encounter is almost miraculous in its truthfulness. I felt reluctant to say what I did next (but did): as a woman writer, I couldn't help wondering, however, whether the admiration in which Yates is held is due to his ability to empathise with women while at the same time keeping something of an objective distance (which as a man, as Mark said, he inevitably would). A woman writer would be more likely to tackle the women's viewpoints with more interiority - ie to make the reader share the experiences more closely (indeed I think I probably would), and would be consequently, I suspect, less admired. John jumped in and compared this book to Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding, which the group discussed recently, in which Cassandra's experience is depicted right from inside her head. Ann had strongly disliked that book, as she had stronly disliked the very interior Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante (which we also discussed), and she said now that she did indeed prefer the more objective empathy of Yates to that of Baker. John commented that in fact it made Yates's book, written in the seventies, more traditional than that of the sixties Baker novel. The book is also more traditional, he said, in the way that it begins at the beginning of the women's lives and follows them through in a straight, linear fashion, with a kind of steady accretion. By comparison the Baker plunges you straight into a crisis moment and you have to pick up retrospectively the history that led to it. Most modern novels operate in this way, and indeed most written in that era. This may, John mused, account for the fact that Yates's career was eclipsed by those of writers like Updike.

Ann now wondered whether The Easter Parade is in fact anachronistic. The sisters are children in the nineteen-thirties and Emily would have been embarking on her serial affairs in the late nineteen-forties and fifties, behaviour which seems more likely in the era during which the book was written, the seventies, when the pill became widely available, than then. We women also felt that there was a huge omission in that after Emily's first sexual encounter, seduction by a soldier who, without having even told her his name, immediately disappears, she does not worry for a moment that she's pregnant, a fate that would have been utterly devastating at that time for a woman about to go to university as Emily is, and a fear that we felt would have been routine at that time.

This led on to a much wider discussion about the past difficulties for women that some members had discovered young people now find hard to believe: the fact, for instance, that before 1999 a woman getting pregnant would have to leave her job since there was no statutary maternity leave (before 1944 a professional woman would have lost her job simply by getting married), and as late as the eighties women couldn't get mortgages without the guarantee of a father or husband. We wondered therefore if, even in the nineteen-seventies, Yates, writing basically autobiographically, had been working to update his material in a way that perhaps doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

We pondered the title, which as we read we found a little puzzling, since the Easter Parade, in which elder sister Sarah takes part with her new beau (later husband), occurs only near the start of the book and is a moment of promise and hope that is very much missing thereafter. However, that moment reappears in the form a newspaper photo of the event that Sarah has saved, a poignant and sad reminder of that lost hope and promise, making the title thus quite bitterly ironic.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here

Monday, June 10, 2019

Writing news.

The writing life is good for me at the moment. My big news is that next year the wonderfully dynamic Salt will publish a new novel, which of course makes me very happy indeed.

Meanwhile, to add to my happiness, two more short stories have been taken by highly respected publications. Not so long ago I read the style guide of a literary magazine (which shall be nameless) and it prompted me to write a story that deliberately subverted some of the writing rules it laid down. The result was 'Consequences and Alternatives',  now the featured story for June in the online Short Fiction Journal. It's an attempt to show how you sometimes need to break away from those old writing rules in order to make connections and to think in more radical ways, ie that more disrupted modes are sometimes necessary to convey life, in particular contemporary life.

There is a something of an environmental theme in that story, but I'm now at the editing stage of a story that will appear in the Mechanics' Institute Review print anthology #16, the theme of which is Climate, and my story for that tackles climate change head-on. The anthology will be published in September.