Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

More on Laurie Colwin

Over the past two days I have read two reviews of Marisha Pessl's "Special Topics in Calamity Physics". Both reviews--one in People (I was in the orthodontist's office. Sue me.), the other here, in the NYT, are accomplanied by photos of the limpid and lovely Ms. Pessl, whose novel is favorably gushed over. The book, which I have not read, is filled with both real and false literary citations and built around a "core curriculum." It also contains drawings courtesy of the author.

I have no doubt the novel is as learned and clever as its reviewers claim. But this sort of book also depresses the hell out of me. Not because it exists--that's fine, I ain't the final arbiter--but I do think this kind of writing is pushing the Laurie Colwins of the world out of the big publishing houses.

(Pause as Barking Kitten waits for a lightning bolt to strike her.)

Colwin's short fiction was published in the New Yorker, Antaeus, Cosmopolitan (!), Redbook, and Mademoiselle. I frankly cannot see any of these periodicals publishing her work today. Yes, tastes change. I am not arguing that we return to the past. Well, maybe a bit, Colwin wrote domestic fiction. Hers was the telling detail--china, an omelet, down quilts. Such objects told of their owners, regular people finding their way through adulthood, meaning, for a great lot of us, a series of embarassing, heartbreaking affairs, a few lousy jobs, a few good ones. Luck, or not, in love. Adultery. Children. Her work, even when covering darker subjects like widowhood or marital difficulty, is relentlessly upbeat. Her work argues for the possibility of happiness.

The possibility of domestic happiness, despite the world's woes. The lack of fancy overlay--no drawings, no blank pages, no visitations from characters named Laurie Colwin. Perfect, elegant sentences, often funny:

"'Very nice!' said Dr. Frechtvogel. "'A Shakette. What is this?"
"It's not the sort of thing you might put on your resume," I said, although I had no resume.
"This is not an office," said Dr. Frechtvogel. "It is a lunatic asylum. You will see. Dancing experience may come in handy."
(Goodbye without Leaving, p 178)

Colwin died in 1992, at forty-eight. Many of us found this proof of a godless existence. Others were simply anguished, and remain so, for the Marisha Pessls and Jonathan Safran Foers of the world will never give us another Family Happiness. They cannot write books like Happy all the Time, where the most important changes are wrought without the benefit of intricately scaffolded plots or footnotes. They are instead immersed in the clever. We marvel at their ability to make constructs, but their characters will never inhabit us. Their books will not comfort. They do not promuglate happiness; it never occurs to them to try.

Colwin, Laurie: Goodbye Without Leaving. New York, Harper Perennial, 1990.


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