The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The CWC Reads: Grief, by Andrew Holleran

By Andrew Tibbetts

I am surprised at how much I’m enjoying Andrew Holleran’s “Grief”. It’s just out in paperback. It’s a short novel. It’s also everything I’ve been trying to avoid in my own writing lately. Wasn’t it just last month I was moaning about how movies should be gentler and short stories more aggressive? Wasn’t I begging for a literature of explosions and pirates? And here I am eating up a novel about a man, suddenly released from caring for his elderly mother by her death, who moves to Washington D.C. to spend his time wandering the museums.

This is the quietest book ever- even his landlord’s dog just looks out the window without barking. The loudest sound is a tap on the wall when his polite landlord wishes to ask him something. There are long sentences describing the things he sees in the museums. There are long passages where he sits and reads. And we read with him- the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln. He reflects on death, on AIDS, on aging. He talks about those things with his landlord and his one friend. He worries that he kept his mother ‘going’ long after she’d wanted to die- selfishly, for something to do with his time. He goes to galleries, concerts and museums. At one point, he goes to a bathhouse but it really is just like another museum visit since he just goes to look at the other men. He wanders the quiet halls poking his head into the rooms, taking things in.

So, why is it exhilarating? Well, there is the sublime pleasure of taking in such graceful prose as this:

“The feeling of vacancy always intensified the hour it took to walk the gradual ascent to Ward Circle—in part because the weather was always mild, and flabby, in part because I was almost always alone on that sidewalk; so alone I looked forward to the man, halfway to school, who sometimes stood outside the Vatican embassy holding a sign that said PRIESTS MOLEST CHILDREN WORLDWIDE. (…) Often in my loneliness I would stop and talk to him, listening to his story about the priest who’d suggested something untoward on a ski trip to the Dolomites when he was only fifteen, and then, with one more lamentation added to the world, I’d leave him behind, ringing his bell, like a buoy in a fog warning ships of a rock, a sound that followed me halfway to the National Cathedral, where I sometimes turned onto Cathedral Avenue—and started down the hill past faux Tudor homes with apple trees in their yards, and then, in a ravine, the huge apartment houses people never had to leave if they did not wish to.”

It’s pretty much like that the whole book. Interrupted only by bits of witty repartee he exchanges with his landlord and his friend, tiny scene-lets, like sizzling half-bar fills on the hi-hat between verses of mournful torch song. Indeed, the book is more like a graceful piece of music than a story, a dirge- perhaps like the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, that simple, elegant, quiet, beautiful piece that somehow manages to thrill.

Every sentence in the book is suffused with grief. And grief is a holding pattern. And sometimes we do not want to stop holding. Like Mary Todd Lincoln, unable to recast her life after her husband’s assassination, wandering the country in black, an embarrassment, a national disgrace- losing her money, selling off her clothes, losing her mind. When the rest of the country wanted to move on, she did not, she would not, until eventually her surviving son (and she had a dead son, too) had her committed.

On its way from nowhere in particular to nowhere in particular, the book has some interesting things to share. There is pleasure in grief. A rightness, a grace. Grief is both pain and painkiller. This simple, elegant, quiet, beautiful novel thrills me, not with its insights, but with the emotional experience it creates in me. Beneath the meandering, beneath the rumination, it taps without fuss or bother into a wellspring of feeling. It is honey, it is ambergris, it is autumn, it is fog.

By the standards of any how-to-book on creative writing, this novel is a massive failure. It is apparently devoid of tension. There are long descriptions of apartments and furniture- belongings figure more prominently than the people they belong/belonged to. It concerns itself with weather. Nothing happens: dying animals never actually die, people on the verge of tears or anger never cry or shout, people can't decide what to do with their lives and can't decide and can't decide. It’s all ‘tell’ and no ‘show’. It’s exactly the kind of writing that many in my writers’ workshop complain about. I’d hate to see what they’d do to it. Put the unnamed narrator in a Winnebago, send him across the country meeting lovable kooks in exciting situations until he ‘learns to live again?’ And while we’re at it, let’s put some phat beats under that Beethoven and get Lil’ Wayne to rap over it!

(On the other hand, the narrator is unreliable, and more goes on than he cares to tell us. Beneath the calm book is another quite dramatic book about sex and love and decisions. But you will have to ferret that one out from clues, and it's possible to ignore it completely.)

Bless you, Andrew Holleran, for your rightness and grace, and thank you from the bottom of my heart for this beautiful novel.


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Wonderful review, Andrew. I haven't heard of this book and I probably wouldn't have picked it up before getting your take on it. I like what you say about grief being both pain and painkiller. For some the process is healing. For others, like Lincoln's wife, it is madness.

Wed Sep 19, 08:21:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Great review. I'll have to check this one out.

Thu Sep 20, 03:14:00 pm GMT-4  

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