Narrative In Art

A Cluster of Interesting Thinking

Elizabeth Strout

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American novelist Elizabeth Strout is the author of Olive Kitteridge, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. Her novels, Abide With Me and Amy and Isabelle, were also bestsellers. Strout was born and raised in Maine, a setting she returns to for Olive Kitteridge with a real depth of understanding. She attended Bates College and graduated with a degree in English in 1977. She went on to receive her law degree from Syracuse University. However, she worked only briefly for Legal Services, and instead moved to Manhattan and became an adjunct English professor at Manhattan Community College. She is currently on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte, which is a low-residency MFA program, and divides her time between Maine and New York.

Here are some reviews of Olive Kitteridge, the main book I’d like to look at.

From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. Thirteen linked tales from Strout (Abide with Me, etc.) present a heart-wrenching, penetrating portrait of ordinary coastal Mainers living lives of quiet grief intermingled with flashes of human connection. The opening Pharmacy focuses on terse, dry junior high-school teacher Olive Kitteridge and her gregarious pharmacist husband, Henry, both of whom have survived the loss of a psychologically damaged parent, and both of whom suffer painful attractions to co-workers. Their son, Christopher, takes center stage in A Little Burst, which describes his wedding in humorous, somewhat disturbing detail, and in Security, where Olive, in her 70s, visits Christopher and his family in New York. Strout’s fiction showcases her ability to reveal through familiar details—the mother-of-the-groom’s wedding dress, a grandmother’s disapproving observations of how her grandchildren are raised—the seeds of tragedy. Themes of suicide, depression, bad communication, aging and love, run through these stories, none more vivid or touching than Incoming Tide, where Olive chats with former student Kevin Coulson as they watch waitress Patty Howe by the seashore, all three struggling with their own misgivings about life. Like this story, the collection is easy to read and impossible to forget. Its literary craft and emotional power will surprise readers unfamiliar with Strout.(Apr.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist
*Starred Review* “Hell. We’re always alone. Born alone. Die alone,” says Olive Kitteridge, redoubtable seventh-grade math teacher in Crosby, Maine. Anyone who gets in Olive’s way had better watch out, for she crashes unapologetically through life like an emotional storm trooper. She forces her husband, Henry, the town pharmacist, into tactical retreat; and she drives her beloved son, Christopher, across the country and into therapy. But appalling though Olive can be, Strout manages to make her deeply human and even sympathetic, as are all of the characters in this “novel in stories.” Covering a period of 30-odd years, most of the stories (several of which were previously published in the New Yorker and other magazines) feature Olive as their focus, but in some she is bit player or even a footnote while other characters take center stage to sort through their own fears and insecurities. Though loneliness and loss haunt these pages, Strout also supplies gentle humor and a nourishing dose of hope. People are sustained by the rhythms of ordinary life and the natural wonders of coastal Maine, and even Olive is sometimes caught off guard by life’s baffling beauty. Strout is also the author of the well-received Amy and Isabelle (1999) and Abide with Me (2006). –Mary Ellen Quinn

In this case, the people at E-notes also happened to be particularly insightful. Here’s what they had to say:

Olive Kitteridge is rare in literature in her complexity, the clumsiness of her outsized emotions (which match her ungainly body well), and in Strout’s willingness to make Olive often unlikable without making her a villain. Olive is exceptionally realistic, and presses on the reader’s consciousness long after the book is finished. Olive Kitteridge is also uncommon in that the novel joins the flow of Olive’s life in middle age and follows her into old age.
Olive appears in all thirteen stories in the book in a variety of ways. In stories “Little Burst” and “River,” Olive is the main character— but in “Pharmacy,” which opens the collection, she is more of a foil or secondary character, while in stories like “Winter Concert” Olive is literally a passerby. This gives the collection both structural and thematic complexity, for even in the stories where Olive is present for only a page, the emotions that play out in them resonate with Olive’s life, which will take center stage again in the next story.
As a result, Olive becomes the symbolic heart of her small town Maine community, giving meaning to it even when she is unacknowledged and invisible. The quality of Strout’s prose is essential to Olive Kitteridge’s precise power. Strout deftly sums up complex characters in small details.

The most overarching question here, from a narratological point of view, is: why linked short stories? Why not just a novel? Why so many stories, and not just one big story?

To answer this, we’ve got to look at the effect the smaller stories has on the experience of reading and on the way the reader is interacting with the text. Here’s what I’ve noticed so far:

1. Olive Kitteridge is such a compelling character that we long to be in her POV. We love her. We become attached to her. Consequently, every time the book leaves her and moves into the mind of another minor character, we feel a little pang, a little unwillingness. This unwillingness causes the reader to become more aware of the fact that the author is interrupting their preferred experience, and causes the reader to wonder why. Why are we being forced to meet a new character and a new set of problems? Luckily, because the characters, even the minor ones, are highly engaging, the reader does not simply give up, but accepts the author’s game. And, as quickly becomes apparent, the author’s game is thematic in nature. We are being given these new characters because the struggles in their lives shed light on Olive’s struggles with her life. Thus our understanding of Olive is enriched, even when she is not actively present in a given story, but is merely a passerby. In fact, the reader’s very unwillingness to play the game at first, heightens their understanding that theme is at the root of the issue, and results in a more highly conscious reader who is actively picking up themes instead of passively absorbing them.

2. The issue of the hero. Olive is not always nice. She is not always even sympathetic. This is part of her complexity and part of the achievement of the novel. But I have to ask: could a full length, linear novel bear the weight of such a difficult protagonist? I think the answer is: yes. Afterall, many books have difficult/unsympathetic protagonists. Think of American Psycho. But if Olive were the only protagonist, then the entire weight of the book would begin to rest on Olive’s singular redemption. The meaning of the book would be reduced to: will Olive succeed or fail in being redeemed and working through her emotional issues with her son/husband/dead father? As it is, the book does deal with these questions, and Olive is, at least in some sense, redeemed, but this is allowed to happen in an almost lazy and circuitous way that would not have been possible if Olive’s redemption were the reader’s sole concern. Instead, the multiplicity of protagonists serves to impress upon the reader the universality of Olive’s problems, and allows these problems to be rendered naturalistically: as sticky, as perhaps unsolve-able, as real. Thus, when Olive is redeemed in the end, this redemption somehow feels more authentic because the reader is less aware of how obviously constructed it is by the author.

3. The issue of themes and sub-themes. As mentioned above, the multiple story-lines keep the novel from narrowing, which means the themes do not become architecturally static, as they do in much of E.M. Forster’s work, but are instead allowed to become tangential, such that the themes function more like musical themes in jazz, and less like musical themes in a symphony. This particular function can be seen best in the female characters throughout the book, who are all dealing with similar problems: mainly, an inability to discern when and how they ought to assert themselves in the world. This theme is explored in many different lights by allowing the set of problems to become variously incarnated. There is Olive herself who is so often an elephant, trampling on other people’s emotions, unable to be gentle, yet too unable to really express herself, even though she seems to be doing nothing but. There is an anorexic girl who struggles with control and her ability to assert herself into her own life, a shut-in mother of a murderer who has gone slightly mad in her confinement, and who suggests to Olive that she commit suicide, a young bride recently widowed who struggles to know how to inhabit her own apartment and cannot even figure out what to put in her fridge. Allowing the same thematic material to become manifest in various situations allows the thematics to gain depth and complexity, preferring nuance and variation over sheer Wagnerian drama.

As to how I would use the various thinkers we’ve read this semester? Here’s the breakdown, done by week, and let’s discuss:

1. Aristotle. Is Olive a traditional hero? Does the story have a beginning, middle and end? Does Strout cut out extraneous material?

2. Nabokov. What kind of reader is Strout asking the reader to be? Nabokov is almost sensual in his delight with the author’s pure artifice, and certainly his own fiction is much less “realistic” than Strout’s. So then, is Strout ultimately trying to be more mimetic than Nabokov? Is the purpose of Strout’s fiction to describe this world, or another world? Does she want to meet the reader, “panting on the mountaintop”?

3. Wayne C. Booth. To what extent does Strout intrude upon the text and make her presence as author known? To what extent does she try to disappear? What is her narrator like? How does the reader conceive of the author?

4. Hegel. For Hegel, the world can be read like a novel, only the author is God, and in some sense, the reader is God too, so that the action of reality taking place is actually God meeting himself “panting on the mountaintop.” How is Strout’s vision of life different than Hegel’s? Does every detail add up to a larger meaning? Do the multiple stories serve to create chaos or dispel chaos?

5. Schopenhauer. Does Strout seem to support Schopenhauer’s world view? Does Strout seem to conceptualize the function of art in the same way Schopenhauer does? In what ways does the novel attempt to be “eternal” like a statue made of stone, and what artistic decisions has the author made that prefer perfect naturalism, like the wax statue?

6. Walter Benjamin. Does Strout’s idea of story match up with Benjamin’s idea of an oral story? Does it match up with Benjamin’s conception of the novel? Does Strout offer the reader “counsel”? Does she try to articulate the “meaning of life”? Does she deal with any of the themes Benjamin is worried about as having given rise to the novel, i.e. the mechanization of warfare, the proliferation of “news”? How does this shed light on how Strout might be using the form of the novel to solve the crisis Benjamin foresaw?

7. Joan Didion. Does Elizabeth Strout share Didion’s concern with meaninglessness? If she doesn’t, why the hell not? What’s changed in Strout’s worldview that makes Didion’s concerns so non-present? If Didion is concerned with strangers doing strange terrible things, Strout seems to be concerned with family members doing familiar terrible things. What’s the difference? Is the world still terrible, or what?

8. Brian Boyd. Can you use Olive Kitteridge as evidence for Boyd’s theory? Is there any way that reading Olive might make you better at surviving? If not, does this disprove his thesis or not? If it does make you better at surviving, how so? Is there a way it makes us better, i.e. more evolved, that is not directly linked to actual life and death survival, but might have to do with moral development? In which case, what is the relationship between moral development (in a more Hegelian sense) and biological survival?

That’s all for now, folks. 🙂
Rufi

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Written by narrativeinart

March 31, 2011 at 6:24 pm

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